Human Being 101

Nuremberg Rally, 1934

You might reasonably wonder why Neil Steinberg recently wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that he found a frightening comparison of sociopath and mass murderer John Wayne Gacy and sociopath and democracy murderer* Donald Trump (my descriptor).

Trump has gotten away with so much because he has appealed to long simmering American anger and because he is in reality an autocrat – a dictator. He removes those still clinging to a shred of integrity and replaces them with sycophants. He issues threats and intimidation to everyone else, all of this to the cheers of the angry mob. It’s just what autocrats do. Think: the Nuremberg rallies.

As Steinberg writes, “In a totalitarian state, the leader is the king and his word is truth. His word is law. Period.” He rules “unhindered by any pang of conscience or shred of humanity” with “an unshakable sense of superiority.” That’s how fascist leaders roll and that is what the GOP is threatening to unleash full throttle upon all of us. Indeed, as Steinberg writes,

“A vote for most Republicans is a vote to end voting.”

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Gacy wasn’t too different from that narcissism and at least 33 people died in agony by his hand. Now consider the potential headcount of a sociopathic narcissist with the nuclear secrets in boxes in his basement.

My day job is to deliver keynotes and workshops, mostly to C-level people. These sessions are focused on how they can be better leaders producing more engaged, happier and more productive followers. The foundation for that is a basic human behavior thing – call it a priciple of Human Being 101: “See leader, emulate leader.” The way the leader shows up, how s/he behaves, is how followers will behave. The intensity of emulation varies, but the principle holds.

So, if the leader lies, followers will lie. If the leader is cruel, followers will be cruel. If the leader denies easily observable facts and reality, so, too, will followers. And that is exactly what we’ve seen in Trump followers since we heard the hate-filled 2015 carnage claims and finger pointing brayed from an escalator. Nothing is quite as satisfying and exculpatory as blaming others for our own shortcomings and failings, so autocratic leaders do that and their followers follow. See leader, emulate leader.

The leaders of the Confederacy (not a democracy, but an “oligarchic police state”, per Thom Hartmann) called on the indignation and rage of those who would have to renounce their mastery over an entire race of people if the abolitionists were to get their way. The calls to their rage by their leaders led to over 600,000 dead Americans. It was as though John Wayne Gacy had been the leader of the slave states. See leader, emulate leader.

Steve Bannon announced from the start that he wants to “tear it all down,” and he made it clear that by “all” he meant American institutions, our democracy, our values and more.

From Rep. Jamie Raskin’s book, Unthinkable:

“But Trump and his operatives [including Bannon] had worked to destroy every well-established constitutional rule, legal and ethical norm, and customary tradition that might have been an obstacle to imposing his will on everyone else.”

Stop the Steal “rally”, January 6, 2021

Bannon and Trump are smart and clever with their explanations and their furious attacks and they have led millions to want to do their will, to tear it all down. It’s all cloaked in red, white and blue, a liberty and justice for all mantle, a “USA!” chant and a demand for election integrity, but they are about none of that. Those who emulate them aren’t about that either, although they appear to have deluded themselves sufficiently to believe that they are patriotic, even as they call for the destruction of it all. Ref: January 6.

The crowd of MAGA extremists hears, “Stop the steal!” There is no evidence that anything was stolen. There are no facts. Only baseless claims and indignant, angry chants that amplify grievances. Yet they chant, “Stop the steal!” every time they’re told to do so. No thought. Just Pavlovian fury.

The message of this writing is simple:

If we are to have a better America, we must have better leaders, not the autocrat wannabees.

I don’t mean leaders who are better liars or who are more cruel or who are more deft at reality denial. I specifically mean leaders who, rather than drawing out our most base, most selfish and cruel instincts, instead those who call on us to be what Lincoln prayed for in his first inaugural address, that we be led “by the better angels of our nature.”

Fort Sumter

We are at a great and critical crossroads in our national history and, dangerously, we will be here for a while. It is a crossroads as perilous as that of April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

There are many hundreds of elected leaders and self-certain, self-promoting pundits firing on America right now, calling for violence, insurrection, even a new civil war, and invoking what Lincoln called a “mobocratic spirit.”** And there are millions of wildly engaged followers of these would-be autocrats thumping chests and repeating lies fed to them over and over, emulating these leaders.

Neil Steinberg is right: “A vote for most Republicans is a vote to end voting.”

If we are to have a better America, we must have better leaders, not the autocrat wannabees.


* Trump, the MAGAs, the conspiracy propeller hats, the militias – these people are a threat to democracy and you understand that threat. I know you do because you keep yourself informed – you wouldn’t be reading this unless you wanted to be informed. But most Americans are not well informed. Their concerns are their kids and the price of gas and food and housing and what’s on cable and perhaps finding a better job. With all their concerns, they just don’t have the bandwidth to think about democracy. Besides, it’s already here, secured, they believe, by prior generations. Yet it is so very fragile.

** From The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838.


Our governance and electoral corruption and dysfunction and our ongoing mass murders are all of a piece, all the same problem with the same solution:
Fire the bastards!
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