Opponents have groaned at what they see as the elevation of Trump and the potential debasement of the award. The presidential historian Douglas Brinkley compared Trumpists’ “NO-bel” enthusiasm to “a big-time wrestling rally or a kind of mob chant.” The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen called it an “idiotic” discussion.
And yet, awarding Trump the Nobel Prize might prove quite fitting. Despite the popular association of the Nobel with great thinkers, diplomats and statesmen, the prize has also routinely rewarded the undeserving, the frauds and the criminals. By its very nature, the dogged determination to reward “great men” of their time has led to a list of recipients that is a mixture of the laudable and the lamented. Indeed, “mistaken” awards are routine in the prize process. A Nobel’d Trump would surprisingly find himself in some bad company.
The current president would seem one of the most unlikely of Nobel prospects. He is a proud nationalist, at times a nativist, with a chaotic, go-it-alone ethos and a coarse, pugilistic style — all on display this week in his handling of America’s allies during and after the Group of Seven summit. By contrast, the Nobel Foundation has remained, for more than a century, an institution with a reputation for championing liberal and multinational causes, a consortium of Scandinavians whose members shy from the spotlight. Since they were first awarded in 1901, the Nobel Prizes have aimed to award annually, as its founder Alfred Nobel laid down in his will, those who “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”
And, yet, the foundation has remained a rather stodgy institution. It is regularly dinged for its insularity, its unabashed reliance on lobbying, its unaccountable secretiveness and oligarchic operations.
As Christopher Hitchens once quipped, the “extinguishing features” of such awards are that all such “prizes contain some original or inherent foolishness or anomaly, and then go from there.” For the Nobel, the “extinguishing feature” is its distorted understanding of historical change. It encourages a “great-man theory of history,” one that historians have long critiqued. Instead of social, economic, intellectual or cultural explanations for historical change, the foundation continues to profess that it is a single person’s (or a few people’s) achievements that account for human development and ingenuity. Most often, the committee prizes the accomplishment of an individual over the collective industriousness of a group, class, movement or generation.
More specifically, the Nobel fosters a cult of genius and a veneration of the immense power an individual can wield. It is not the achievements but the achievers who are exalted. This is not only ahistorical but has paved the way for mistakes — confusing “great” deeds and big stages for transformative steps toward peace and the betterment of society. They have honored not only the undeserving but also the criminal. The foundation compounds these mistakes by making the awards permanent.
But it is the unalloyed arrogance of an award that crowns someone a singular and superior person of their time that makes the Nobel truly foolish. For the awards accord adulation not to a man of his times (and, up to recently, most often a man) but to a near-mythical man who purportedly stands outside and above, quite inhumanly overcoming the limits in which he lives. This Übermensch mission — stuck in the late-19th-century mentality in which the award was first conceived — has produced a steady string of ignominious awardees.
From day one, the Nobel has handed its award to undeserving candidates. The first prize in literature, for example, was awarded to the now-forgotten Sully Prudhomme rather than the man considered, even at the time, to be the “world’s greatest living writer,” Leo Tolstoy. Nobel endowed the literature award for the promotion of the “idealistic tendency.” And Prudhomme won for just such “lofty idealism” and “artistic perfection.” Tolstoy, according to the first chair of the Nobel Committee, disqualified himself for his “animosity toward culture,” “ghastly naturalistic descriptions” and unconscionable “criticism of the state and the Bible.”
In subsequent years, the Nobel committee feted a run of writers with fascist leanings, if not sympathies: W.B. Yeats (1923), Luigi Pirandello (1934) and T.S. Eliot (1948). So committed was Pirandello that he melted down his medal in support of Benito Mussolini’s mission.
The Nobel has also venerated frauds, including Johannes Fibiger, who took home the 1926 award for medicine for discovering how a parasitic worm caused stomach cancer. The problem? The worm did not cause cancer. The following year, Julius Wagner-Jauregg was celebrated “for his discovery of the therapeutic value of malaria inoculation” for the treatment of syphilitic dementia, a method that, it turned out, more than doubled a patient’s problems. And, notoriously, in 1949, António Egas Moniz won for his invention of the lobotomy.
The Nobel has likewise honored criminals. In 1918, Fritz Haber, perhaps the greatest contributor to the development of chemical weapons, took home the prize for chemistry. Three years before his Nobel victory, Haber oversaw the disbursement of weaponized chlorine over Belgium on the Western Front. There was the more recent case of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, awarded in 1976 for his research in infectious disease — and convicted 20 years later of molesting a boy (and accused of molesting dozens more).
The judges have also had a tendency to award prizes too early, not anticipating the turn recipients might take. In 1991, while under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was lauded with the Nobel Peace Prize for pressing the world’s attention on those numerously “oppressed and isolated in Burma” (also known as Myanmar). She campaigned for a “free, secure and just society.”
Yet, since being elected in 2015, Suu Kyi has stood by as uncounted thousands of her people have been killed. The military cracked down on the Rohingya Muslim minority, whom Suu Kyi has held up as “non-indigenous,” noncitizens in the majority-Buddhist Burma. The international community has labeled the crimes “ethnic cleansing.” The Nobel laureate denied the reported war crimes, calling out “Fake Rape” on Facebook. Her office called it “fake news.”
Such “mistaken” awards are inherent to the giving of a grand prize to purportedly “great men” of consequence. The Nobels idealize the notion of surpassing ingenuity. But this kind of norm-breaking and audacity can both characterize a Nelson Mandela’s goodness and a Trump’s grotesqueness. As George Bernard Shaw, named a Nobel laureate in 1925, professed, “I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”