A humane society would have treated him early on, not displayed him as an amusing one-man freak show

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Image credit: The Tatler

I’ve never been a big enthusiast when it comes to the US holiday Thanksgiving. It’s based on a total fabrication (“the first Thanksgiving was when the Pilgrims sat down with the Indians for a feast…”) and it is all about over-eating and high-fructose corn syrup.

Nevertheless, in a spirit of irony and a desire to spend time with some of the people I’ve met since living here in Lausanne, I held a quasi-Thanksgiving dinner. It was heavily modified so as to avoid giving everyone indigestion, but the general concept was to sit around the table and, with the majestic Alps visible through the windows, be truly thankful for the ability to live in one of the few countries that hasn’t fallen prey to the tsunami of mindless populism that’s swamped the world over the last few years.

It’s difficult for educated intelligent people to understand why the Age of Morons has arrived so swiftly and so completely. Although US citizens know little of the world because the US media is totally US-centric, the reality is that creatures like Trump are prancing and blustering all across the world stage. In the Philippines we have the repellent Duterte; in Brazil the cretinous Bolsonaro. In Germany the Alternative für Deutschland and in Poland PiS peddles their own toxic brands of right-wing isolationist nonsense. In the Czech Republic there’s Andrej Babiš who came to power by following the Trump playbook to the letter and of course the UK is busy tearing itself apart due to the stupidity that is Brexit.

In Italy Matteo Salvini is trying to become a latter-day Mussolini and in France Marine le Pen may possibly become Presidente of France the next time around. India has Narendra Modi using the Trump playbook to stir up racial and religious hatred in the world’s largest pseudo-democracy while like Trump simultaneously undermining the economy. Orban and Putin and Erdogan have been around longer but are increasingly more repressive as they sense the world is eager for their brand of state-sanctioned violence and lawbreaking.

Looking out at the world from the safety and sanity of Switzerland, my friends are puzzled and afraid. The next fifty years could easily see a much worse version of the two Great Wars that tore the world apart during the first half of the last century. All our modern technologies appear to do is amplify stupidity and incompetence.

Inevitably the conversation turned to Trump. One person observed that he’s one of the very few people in history to have only negative characteristics and not a single redeeming feature. We spent a while looking back over the centuries to see if there were other examples. Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and Ivan the Terrible seemed on a par with Trump: stupid repellent individuals who sacrificed everyone and everything in order to promote themselves, without having any other real goals (though, of course, while claiming quite the opposite).

There have been weak leaders and venal leaders and a great many stupid leaders. But creatures like Trump are true outliers: they embody all the worst characteristics of our species without possessing a single mitigating trait.

“One could say,” one of my female guests ventured, “that he is subhuman because he lacks the mental components necessary to be fully human. He has no intelligence, no empathy, no kindness, no humor, no love. All he has is emptiness, self-obsession, inadequacy, hatred, and fear.”

Another guest noted that the word subhuman has dangerous connotations because of its use by both the Nazis and the Soviets, who employed it to dehumanize those they classified as their enemies. But after several more minutes of discussion, no one around the table could find a plausible reason not to apply it to Trump.

“If a person has no legs, we don’t go around pretending they are full-bodied,” my female guest remarked. “We accept they have this disability. In Europe we’d help them. But we wouldn’t pretend they could drive an unmodified car or play soccer. Trump is mentally disabled but everyone is pretending he can be President.”

“The problem is,” another of my guests suggested, “today we don’t help people with mental inadequacies; we put them on display. Because this amuses a certain type of person. A freak show is always popular with less intelligent and less educated people. You remember in the Netherlands this year, the paramedics had to push through all those who were taking selfies of themselves in front of the man who was dying of a heart attack?”

I interjected that Plato pointed out more than 2,500 years ago how democracy must always end in tyranny precisely because there’s always a sufficient number of people who are desperate for simplistic solutions to complex problems and thus are easy prey for cynical demagogues.

This was, perhaps, not the most optimistic nor upbeat conversation for a Thanksgiving meal. It did however make us even more thankful to be living in a country that, for now at least, seems to be resisting the mindlessness of global populism.

Perhaps it’s because the Swiss educational system isn’t profoundly deficient; perhaps it’s because the Swiss are aware of the importance of all getting along together. After all, their twenty-six Cantons have French speakers, German(ish…) speakers, Italian speakers, and Romansh speakers. Each is proud of its unique cultural identity but equally proud of its place in the Helvetican collective. The Swiss see combining as a source of strength rather than of imposition. They see thoughtful discourse as essential rather than the vapid shouty mindlessness of so-called reality television.

Sadly, the number of countries to which the epithet civilized can be applied has rapidly shrunk. Aside from Switzerland there’s only New Zealand and perhaps Uruguay remaining, with Canada currently tottering in the “undecided” category.

“At least,” another guest remarked as we were clearing the table at the end of the evening, “we Swiss will know what to do when the European Union dissolves into a frenzy of mutual blame and then aggression. We will build a wall.”

Everyone laughed. Hollow laughter.

Because it’s very likely the horrors really are on their way back once more.

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