Trump and Scapegoats

This is a meta-blog post. It is a section of my notes on a blog post by Blake Master’s which was his notes on Peter Thiel’s course at Stanford. You should absolutely read Blake / Peter’s essay in full. All images are from Blake. 

In Peter Thiel’s lecture Founder as Victim, Founder as God he focuses on scapegoating as it relates to startup founders. He extends the work of Rene Girard into company culture. Thiel only touches on politics briefly, but I found it a fascinating framework with the outrage and hero worship around Trump.

The Role of The Scapegoat

Historically scapegoats have served as a release valve for societies.

“Where warring civilizations didn’t just collapse entirely, the most common resolution involved polarizing and channeling all the hostility into one particular person. Depending on the culture, witches were burned or people had their hearts cut out. The details differed,. But the dynamic —a crazed community rallying around the sacrificial scapegoat— was the same.”

The process works like this: society projects responsibility onto a scapegoat. All the ails of society can be falsely blamed on this one person or small group. Then the sacrifice of the scapegoat (which meant killing until very recently) allows society to temporarily feel like their problems are solved. A short period of peace would come about until problems begin to accumulate and a new scapegoat is identified.

From Blake Master’s Essay

The cultures that were able to last for a while we the ones that ritualized this process. They developed a system for it so that the random chaos didn’t take the whole society down.

Photo from: Blake Master’s Essay

Since the ideal scapegoat is often an extreme insider, they need to necessarily rise to great heights before suffering a great fall. When you look at their timeline you see a period on intense worship before the fall.

Photo from Blake Master’s Essay

The clearest example of this worship before fall in our society is the building up and tearing down of celebrities. There is a rise to extreme status, wealth, fame and then a massive downfall. Think Brittney Spears.

You can seem a similar dynamic of scapegoating when it comes to the President, but from a different angle.

Ignore the president’s impact on policy and think of him only as a figure who serves a role as the “scapegoat.” People project massive responsibility onto him (everything the government does) and then every four or eight years remove him from office and insert someone else in his place.

The US presidents are an interesting scapegoat because they are worshiped and hated at the same time. They are a hero to one group and a villain/scapegoat to the other. From a system perspective, the president as scapegoat ideally swings back and forth, with one side undergoing the catharsis of “sacrifice” of the scapegoat and election of their “hero”. One side going for too long without a presidential scapegoat causes instability.

The most recent US election is a perfect example of the scapegoating pendulum shift. To the Trump Right you have the sacrifice of the scapegoat Obama and the arrival of the Hero, Trump.

To the Left, you have the departure of the Hero, Obama and the arrival of the scapegoat, Trump.

To the Trump supporters on the right, all the problems of government were scapegoated on Obama. And now that he is gone they feel a sense of relief.

On the left, all the problems of government are now very apparent and projected onto Trump.

American democracy “works” (for those who aren’t social outsiders) so long as enough people are “playing the game” That is they have either a hero or a scapegoat in play. The pendulum bounces to their sides.

A two party scapegoating ritual only works as long as most members of society identify with a party and accept the scapegoat.

The game collapses into chaos when a large enough group withdraw from the ritual as a way to identify and sacrifice their scapegoat.

The two growing political movements for young people are examples of groups without electoral (ritual) hope for a sacrificial scapegoat. For Libertarians the scapegoat is the state (and cronies around it), to the Bernie left the scapegoat seems to be Wall Street. For both of these groups, there has been no metaphorical sacrifice of a scapegoat for a long time.

Trump is in many ways makes an ideal candidate:

“The perfect scapegoat is someone at both extremes. He must be both an extreme outsider and an extreme insider. It can’t be a completely random person drawn from a homogeneous lot. It must be some sort of outsider, lest the people in the crowd get introspective and realize that the sacrificed was essentially just like them (and, next time, may well be them). But neither can the scapegoat be entirely different from the crowd; he must be an insider since the pretext behind the ritual is that he is responsible for the internal community strife.”

The left see’s Trump as an insider villain scapegoat. To the Right, he is an outsider crusader hero. Both sides project a massive amount of responsibility onto him for things that he is not responsible for. He is both an extreme insider and an extreme outsider.

The presidential ritual is just one level of the scapegoating game. All around you, there are different scapegoating narratives competing. The question is if the societal rituals continue to function, or if they break down into a more chaotic process.

It adds an interesting layer to reading the essay and knowing that Peter Thiel created the content and that Peter Thiel was one of the most visible supporters of Trump. It makes you wonder if what he sees in Trump is not a valuable president, but a viable scapegoat.

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