Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a Victorian writer of fiery contradictions and angry satire, is known for hero worship. In his Lecture on Heroes, he describes ideal political leaders as
The Commander over Men; he to whose will our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find their welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of Great Men.
Along with Machiavelli’s The Prince, this sounds like the handbook behind Donald Trump’s strong man rhetoric. Try a search of his Twitter account with the keyword “weakness.”
He is presenting himself as the strong alternative, the “great man” in Carlyle’s terms that we “surrender” ourselves to for the sake of our welfare. Politico recently ran an article on Mathew MacWilliams’ research that the defining characteristic of Trump supporters is a tendency toward authoritarianism. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Carlyle defined democracy as the “despair of finding any Heroes to govern you, and contented putting up with the want of them.”
However, there is a deeper level to Carlyle’s political theory than the thoughtless tweets of a reality TV star. In Past and Present, Carlyle looks to the medieval period to understand the political and economic problems of England in 1842. He directs us to the restoration of a particular monastery (now in ruins) as a model counter to what Richard Altick describes in his introduction as the fragmentation of “the brotherhood of men into millions of atoms” with each person’s “value reckoned solely by the contribution he could make to the nation’s material wealth.”
Yes, Carlyle does propose hero worship, but in Past and Present we see a further development. For Carlyle, heroic leadership requires heroic citizens with each becoming “a faithful discerning soul.” The underlying basis of hero worship is not so much the individual Hero-king, but “first of all, by being ourselves of heroic mind. A whole world of Heroes.”
This may help explain why the poet of American democracy, Walt Whitman, wrote of Carlyle as “a Democrat in that enlarged sense which we would fain see [in] more men Democrats” (see Containing Multitudes). Of course, Whitman did struggle with Carlyle’s “reactionary doctrines, fears, [and] scornful analysis of democracy,” but Whitman’s open-armed epic, “Song of Myself,” works to heal the same fragmentation of “the brotherhood of men into millions of atoms:”
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
And if we really want to make America great, then that is the same stance we need to adopt. Not walls or subservient attachment to a strong man, but the heroic-minded celebration of the goodness of others.