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Here’s what two famous philosophers can tell us about the popularity of Donald Trump

- September 22, 2015
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In the run-up to the Republican primaries, analysts have been asking, “Why is Trump so popular?” Theories abound. Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic has what might be the definitive compendium of possible reasons for Trump’s appeal – 22 in all, ranging from moderates who want to “hire” someone can run a successful organization to anarchists who seek to destroy the political system.

We’d like to identify two other, perhaps deeper, reasons. Much of Trump’s success so far can be illuminated by deeper principles of moral psychology that go back to two great Enlightenment thinkers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith.

While they differed in many ways, both Rousseau and Smith were acutely interested in the relationship between rich and poor that was emerging in 18th century commercial society. Both argued that growing inequality threatened to undermine social harmony. And their respective analyses diverge in ways that are useful in understanding Trump’s appeal.

Adam Smith is best known today as the godfather of the modern free-market system, as outlined in his “Wealth of Nations.” But Smith built his academic reputation on his 1759 treatise, “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which aimed to understand what motivates individual behavior, known as the study of moral psychology. In a fascinating passage, he notes a reverence for the rich that borders on obsequiousness. He claims that it is the inclination of many common people “to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful.” Elsewhere in the same treatise, he writes that the material benefits of the upper class “can extend but to a few; but their fortunes interest almost everybody.”

Smith reasons that most people assume that the wealthy and powerful have great talent and efforts–and that we imagine that with a little more effort on our part, we could be just like them.

To be sure, there have been plenty of other wealthy presidential candidates. But few, if any, have made their wealth so central to their candidacy, citing personal fortune as a primary qualification. Trump repeatedly sells himself as being worthy specifically because he is worth, he claims, “more than $10 billion.” Smith argues that this kind of wealth, especially in ostentatious display, garners wide admiration. In this view, Trump’s populist statements are mere window-dressing for his greatest asset: his assets.

Smith did not consider this admiration for the rich to be a virtue. Indeed, he worried that an instinctive love of the wealthy was “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” He argued that it fuels the already substantial vanity of the rich and the unmerited shame of the poor. This vanity would persuade the rich that they were above the laws, which could inspire the poor to abandon their admiration for the rich and take up arms against them.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was never under the impression that the poor would adore the rich. For him, rich and poor reside rather uncomfortably next to one another. Society is itself born in divisions between rich and poor. The rich only invent government to escape from a world of violence and instability, as he writes in his celebrated, “Discourse on the Foundation and Origin of Inequality Among Men,” and to forever fix “the Law of property and inequality” – that is, to ensure that they keep their wealth and privilege while the poor acquire nothing.

As such, Rousseau would see Trump “adoration” as yet another sordid chapter in a long history of the wealthy tricking the poor into handing them political power. Commercial society, he believed, would invariably be run by a few titans who take what they please while the poor are forced to find some way to scrape out a living. Rousseau’s poor fundamentally despise the rich, because the success of the wealthy is a direct reminder of their own failures.

Rousseau’s view would suggest that Trump would repel voters. So what could explain Trump’s support from those who reside well below his tax bracket? We might turn to his concept of amour-propre, which literally translated means self-love but mostly has to do with feelings of self-worth.

For Rousseau, amour-propre results in part from social class divisions, with those on the lower end of the class structure experiencing alienating feelings of shame, envy, and spite for those above while those near or at the top feel arrogance and contempt for those below them.

Rousseau’s lower classes are helpless and unable to lash out at those who demean them. They suffer silently. Rousseau might argue that Trump’s bullying of the other candidates, especially Jeb Bush, might be interpreted by his supporters as a means to alleviate the frustrations associated with amour-propre—that he does for them what they cannot do for themselves.

After all, Trump has a voice that can be heard whereas they do not. And in denigrating those of wealth and power, he makes many others of comparatively less status feel better about themselves. (For example, “At least I’m not low-energy, like Jeb!” or “At least I don’t have a face like Carly Fiorina.”)

What of Trump’s populist celebration of the middle class and apparently egalitarian proposals to tax hedge fund managers and other Wall Street types? Rousseau’s answer would be very simple: Don’t trust someone like this. He will say what he needs to gain power and once he does, you can be sure he will look out for one set of interests: his own. Sure enough, there is some evidence that Trump’s populism is something of a Trojan horse; his tax plan contains numerous giveaways to the upper classes.

Of course, Smith and Rousseau don’t explain everything about Trumpism, but these two Enlightenment philosophers foresaw at least the appeal of his boastful wealth and his denigration of others with privilege.

Can Trump sustain the Smithian benefits of being admired for his wealth, or will that admiration revert to Rousseauean disdain? That’s something we’re not enlightened enough to answer.

David Lay Williams is professor of political science at DePaul University and the author of “Rousseau’s Platonic Enlightenment” and “Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction.” Michael Locke McLendon is professor of political science at California State University, Los Angeles and the author of numerous essays on 18th century political philosophy and moral psychology.