The “Great Man Theory of History” and Why Trump Should be Removed from the Ballot

by | Jan 2, 2024 | Opinions & Commentary

Image: The Hartmann Report

The “Great Man Theory of History” and Why Trump Should be Removed from the Ballot

by | Jan 2, 2024 | Opinions & Commentary

Image: The Hartmann Report

There’s no “Trump 2.0” waiting in the wings. So let’s get about the business of kicking him off the ballot and restore some normalcy to American political discourse.

Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann

“No great man lives in vain. The history of the world
is but the biography of great men.”
—Thomas Carlyle

When Donald Trump fails or falls, are there other standing-in-the-wings fascist Republicans capable of taking his place?

This is a subject of considerable debate these days. Some argue that if Trump can just be sidelined—say, by being kept off the ballot because he promoted an insurrection—then the GOP, lacking a charismatic leader, will revert to a Mitt Romney normalcy. It’s a cogitable argument.

Others claim that Trump is a product of the times, and the ground was first plowed by rightwing billionaires who’ve spent decades (and billions) to convince Americans we shouldn’t trust our government. Because of this, they argue, any of the GOP wannabees could easily step into Trump’s shoes when he falls.

So, which is it?

To a substantial degree, this debate is really meta to a larger debate western civilization has been having since the days of Plato: are leaders “made” through experience and circumstance, or “born” to greatness?

Some people, after all, are simply and truly talented.

Social media is peppered with videos of six-year-old piano prodigies and pictures of Michelangelo’s first sculpture, Pieta, finished when he was a young man of 23. William Shakespeare has been unmatched for 400 years.

Watching Taylor Swift or Barbara Streisand sing, or Leonardo DiCaprio or Denzel Washington act, clarify the hard work that goes into their art, but also highlight the very real talent that, as far as anybody can tell, is as much “born” as “made.”

Is the same true of leadership? Or, more to the point of life after Trump, is it true of toxic fascist leadership?

Is there some thing—or some collection of characteristics—that turns one soldier into Napoleon and another into an ordinary Second Lieutenant?

That makes one politician a tyrannical leader and another a back-bencher?

Is leadership ability most dependent on traits (temperament, intellect, personality) or skills (experience, training, knowledge)? And why do truly transformational leaders (for better or worse) like Gandhi, Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Trump so rarely rise into such positions of power that they can remake an entire society or nation?

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish essayist and historian, is generally credited with defining and promoting the “great man theory of history,” although the idea that some people are either blessed or born with leadership qualities has existed throughout history.

From Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar, Buddha to Mohammed and Jesus, George Washington to Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., we tell the stories of countries and societies as much through the biographies of “great men” (and, occasionally in these sexist eras, “great women”) as through the events that shaped their times.

Carlyle had been raised a Calvinist, so it makes sense that he would have embraced—at least in part—the Calvinist notion that God shows us who He favors by showering them with either riches, power, or both. That theory had rationalized kings and kingdoms for thousands of years, and still purports to explain why so many people would essentially join a cult of personality around “great” leaders like Hitler, Trump, or Putin.

Carlyle also came of age during a period when “scientific racism” was having a big moment, leading directly to the eugenics movement in the US and Europe in the early 20th century. He summarized his theory in his 1841 book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.

Competing with the great man theory of history is the idea that great leaders are always with us but are only compelled or drawn to step forward by circumstances and events.

Some go so far as to argue that “greatness” is purely a consequence of opportunity and environment, and that almost anybody has the potential to step into positions of leadership and change the world.

The truth is almost certainly somewhere in between, and inclusive of, these two different concepts. History provides opportunities for great leaders to step forward, and those people who have the proper mixture of the “big five” personality characteristics of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and willingness to take risks can then comfortably move into or seize those positions.

Which brings us to Donald Trump and the issue of fascist leadership in the United States.

When we look at history’s most evil “great men,” we find a sixth characteristic that is absolutely necessary for them to become tyrants and dictators: psychopathy.

Mussolini and Hitler were clearly psychopaths: people with little or no conscience, incapable of feeling empathy or the pain of others, neurotics who believed themselves to be the only “real” people in the world, misunderstood by all the “little people” they had to conquer in order to rule.

Everybody else is an actor of some sort, a prop, in the grand play of the psychopath’s life. Everybody else is here to make him happy and meet his needs, and he doesn’t have to worry about hurting them or not meeting their needs because they are not “real people” like he is.

Psychologists tell us that psychopaths make up as much as 1.2 percent of the American population, although in some areas those numbers go way up. An estimated 15 to 25 percent of prisoners are psychopaths, for example, as are one in five corporate CEOs.

Years ago, I hypothesized that psychopathy was the one single variable that accounted for why American CEOs are paid so much more than CEOs in most other countries and why—in the years since the “greed is good” Reagan Revolution essentially legalized psychopathic/destructive behavior in the corporate boardroom—we’ve seen CEO compensation explode in the US.

After all, there are literally thousands of men and women who have the requisite business training, skills, and experience to be the CEO of a large corporation.

In a normal marketplace, that would mean there’s such competition for the job that it would drive the wage scale down.

But instead, our CEOs make millions of dollars a week, some over a million dollars a day. What personal quality could possibly be in such short supply, be so rare among people trained in business, to justify such high pay in such a competitive job market?


When President Reagan ordered his DOJ, SEC, and FTC to stop most enforcement of our nation’s anti-trust laws in 1983, American business changed in ways we hadn’t seen since the Gilded Age.

Workers and the neighborhoods they live in once again became disposable. Killing people to make a buck again became acceptable and is even celebrated in some quarters like the GOP.

For example, refinery operations across the Deep South’s “Cancer Alley” that have killed so many poor and mostly Black people over the years were going to clean themselves up this year, until the fossil fuel industry’s CEOs got into the act and began paying off politicians willing to take their support in exchange for Cancer Alley’s residents’ lives.

Psychopathic CEOs lied about tobacco and asbestos for decades, killing my father with mesothelioma. Fossil fuel CEOs continue to lie to all of us about climate change, even as it destroys the lives of thousands of Americans every month, with promises of far more to come.

This explains why some CEOs make so much money.

While there is no shortage of people who understand how to run a big business, there is an absolute dearth of people who are so deeply psychopathic that they can fire thousands of employees, poison entire communities, or order PR campaigns lying about climate change and still sleep at night or even face with a smile the very public whose lives they’re destroying.

It also explains why psychopathic leaders like Hitler and Trump come along so rarely.

Leaders like Roosevelt and Gandhi stepped into moments of cultural and political opportunity and (generally) did everything they could to make the world a better place. The world is literally filled with people—small in absolute numbers, but many in any case—who have the leadership talents and skills to rise to opportunities to positively reshape the world.

The Republican Great Depression, for example, gave FDR the mandate he needed to reinvent American capitalism and kick off a new era of democratic socialism. Similarly, Reagan’s gutting the American middle class with his neoliberal free trade, tax-cut, and anti-union policies gave Trump the opening he needed to blame the plight of formerly middle-class white men on Blacks and Hispanics.

The difference is Trump’s psychopathy, combined with his inborn and learned talent to charm and convince people of whatever it is that he happens to be selling on any particular day. Like with Hitler, Mussolini, and Putin, it’s a deadly but rare combination.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any other Trump-types queuing up in the GOP. DeSantis and Ramaswamy have Trump’s psychopathy but lack his charm and salesmanship. Haley has Trump’s charm but lacks his psychopathy. Christie has neither.

The other usual suspects (Cruz, Scott, Hawley, Tillis, Abbott, etc.) lack Trump’s charm and salesmanship, even if many share his psychopathy.

In other words, Trump, like his role model Hitler, is almost certainly a singular threat.

If you think of it as a cult, it all makes sense. None of the major cults in modern days have survived the deaths of their leaders with the level of strength and vibrancy they had when the leader was alive or before the leader was discredited.

The last cults that survived the death of their leaders were probably the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists.

But after the loss of their leaders, both had to substantially reinvent themselves and become less dangerous and toxic in order to make the transition into a modern day religion.

The Hare Krishna movement, the Transcendental Meditation movement, and smaller cults that once populated the American landscape are all now ghosts of themselves because of the loss of their leaders. When they died or were discredited, their movements died.

Psychopathic political leaders are almost always also cult leaders, and Trump is no exception. Nazism didn’t survive the death of its leader, and Trumpism won’t survive the disability or removal of Trump from the political stage.

Which is why we can safely do everything possible to end Trump’s political career and encourage our courts to throw his ass in prison for his many crimes.

Thus, there’s no “Trump 2.0” waiting in the wings, and if history is any guide it’ll be years before another one comes along. So let’s get about the business of kicking him off the ballot and restore some normalcy to American political discourse.

Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and the country’s #1 progressive talk show host, writes fresh content six days a week. The Monday-Friday “Daily Take” articles are free to all, while paid subscribers receive a Saturday summary of the week’s news and, on Sunday, a chapter excerpt from one of his books.

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