Whenever someone grabs the media and popular imagination to the extent Donald Trump has, it’s likely something worth examining is going on. Of course the candidates for presidency of the world’s most powerful nation should be examined, but something different is happening here, something worthy of special attention. In the peculiar, populist, and unpredictable turmoil of this current election cycle there are many lessons for us, lessons for which we should be grateful.
Let’s be clear: there’s a lot not to like about Donald Trump. He is boorish, belligerent, and not only offends, but scares a lot of people. He incites prejudice and intolerance. When he “speaks his mind” and “says things other politicians won’t say”, much of the time he goes way beyond many people’s sense of decency and morality and is divisive and offensive. I won’t be voting for him and believe he would be a dreadful president. But I also believe Bernie Sanders would have been a dreadful and unsuccessful president, and there is a great deal about Hillary Clinton that troubles me deeply. Donald Trump is not a great presidential candidate, but in his outspokenness and his bluster there is much for which I think we should be grateful. Here are seven reasons for gratitude:
1. Look At What Trump Is Tapping Into.
Donald Trump is not imaginative enough to be creating a truly new political initiative, but rather is building on something already existent. He is using this energy to stir up a movement – well, perhaps two movements, a one for and one against. But what is it he’s tapping into? And why is this happening at this time in American history? At this time in world history, with obvious analogies elsewhere in the democratic world: Brexit, an emerging Turkish dictator, the nationalistic Indian government, and xenophobic and elitist political parties throughout Europe? We are being challenged not to take the easy course, which is to deny it is happening or to look hatefully at those who think differently than us, but rather to examine what social and cultural phenomena led to Trump winning the Republican nomination and being a real candidate for perhaps the most powerful political office in the world.
2. Trump Is a Mirror.
Whether you love him or hate him (and it appears most people react one way or the other!), Trump stirs up strong emotions. For many these are feelings of righteousness and indignation against the political system and anger towards others who are seen as weakening the nation. For others the feelings are of fear at what he represents, fear that their family safety and livelihood are at risk, fear that they belong to a group (most obviously Muslims, but also Jews, GBLTQ and others) that is being set up as a target for future suppression and current hate crimes. But if we look at the emotions of anger and fear, we can see that they are actually broader than they appear. Both supporters and opponents are angry, though they point their anger at different things; both groups are afraid, though they feel scared of different things. If you look at what Trump is stirring up in the other, you will see it is also being stirred up in you. Once we realize we’re all afraid, we’re all angry, we can start to realize we’re all in this together. We can start to see that our fear and anger have a lot in common – an uncertain future, change, financial insecurity – and if we are willing, maybe we can see in this the seeds of us coming together.
3. Difficult Conversations.
Trump is not particularly adept at difficult conversations: rather he throws out one side of a potential conversation and shouts down his opponent. But his outspoken approach does establish both sides of a position and, as a nation, many are scurrying to one side or the other. And those left, confused and speechless, in the middle, find it easy to drift to one extreme as well.
The issues are difficult ones: race and institutional racism; Islam and Islamist terrorism; the very nature of our democracy. By putting these issues in a stark and radical light, Trump is forcing us to face up to a great challenge for our time, which is to move into and have difficult conversations. Political correctness has an important purpose, but it can suppress, and has perhaps hidden the need for these conversations for too long. While I am not a fan of Trump’s particular flavor of political incorrectness, with it he has exposed whole categories of conversation that we have not really been having. Many of my friends who say they “can’t talk to a Trump supporter” are the same friends who have been unable to have meaningful conversations with those supporting gun ownership and arguing that global warming is not real, the same people who have been playing into the team approach (“I vote for my party whatever they say”) to politics for a long time without even realizing it.
It’s time for all of us to recognize how polarized we’ve already become and how much we’ve been avoiding those conversations. It’s time for the majority in the middle to realize we are in the middle and to start talking, to start having the difficult conversations. There are skills and tools and groups that help, and if you need help seeking them out, let me know. Difficult conversations are not just where you grow through listening and learning and compromising, but where you start to become a member of a society, which necessarily includes people who don’t think the same as you and requires you to live in peace and harmony with them.
4. Self-Made Billionaire or Trust Fund Baby?
It’s hard to know, without seeing his personal financial records and tax returns, how supremely rich Donald Trump is, but it’s pretty clear he has a lot of money. His supporters argue he’s a smart businessman and has made it himself; that he has been successful in his real estate deals. His detractors, on the other hand, argue that it’s all an inheritance and he has simply managed not to lose it all. It seems to me that there has to be truth in both sides…and that this points to a deep truth for each of us. We each tell our own story of how we got where we are. American culture tends to train us in an egocentric version of the story: that it was your decisions and your hard work, building on your innate strengths, that got you where you are. But the debate about Donald Trump also points back at you. Is this really true? To what extent the attributes of your birth and socio-economic conditions, your health, and the early education that was an accident both of geography and of your parents’ decisions contribute to where you are now? What is the real “you” that is at the core of this “self-made” person. And even if there is a real “you” at the core, this “you” did not ask to be here, to be born; this “you” is, in the ultimate sense, powerless and will succumb to death just like everyone else. This particular debate about Donald Trump pushes us to examine the very nature of our existence.
5. Challenging the Political System.
Not so much Donald Trump’s agenda and positions, but Donald Trump as an expression of dissatisfaction with government that was also manifested in Bernie Sanders’ momentum in the race for the Democratic Party leadership, is challenging the sclerosis of our political system. It is not just challenging other politicians, but the very party system itself. Right now this is most deeply affecting the Republican Party, with elected officials assessing both their political best interest and their moral alignment as they decide how to speak about Trump and whether to support him. The Democratic Party is superficially elated at holding back the Sanders movement and at the disarray in their major political opposition, but the party must also be very nervous. Whatever happens over the next six months, the Republican Party will be changed, and whether it emerges cleaner and stronger, or whether it collapses and something else arises to replace it, massive change in the political landscape and the political balance is looming. Donald Trump is a signal – as is Bernie Sanders – that we are living in a time when the American people have had enough of self-serving politics and of a system that does not truly represent the people. Trump’s success is a signal that for all of its flaws, our democracy does provide the tools for self-correction and to effect change.
6. Facts Are Opinions.
On the one hand Donald Trump is in constant trouble with the media because his facts are wrong…but on the other hand, he still enjoys a huge following and a very large number of Americans seem either to not know or not care. This might seem confusing, but a little reflection shows the deeper and sadder truth: that most of what we take as political truth is opinion.
Yes, it’s pretty simple to come up with “factual” statistic-based sound bites, but as Mark Twain said, popularizing a phrase attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Whatever information we choose to use or omit is an editorial choice, and that editorial choice changes the view of truth. Even one committed to not telling a lie has great latitude in shaping the truth by their choice of the statistics and information they use. And our politicians are dreadfully selective in what they say – they have to be in a sound bite world – so that we are surrounded not by political facts, but by political propaganda and deceit. And we have become very poor at reading broadly and researching truth ourselves. How often do you intentionally read something that has an opinion with which you disagree? And on the converse, how often do you put something down because you come across an opinion you don’t like? Are you really rigorous in your relationship with facts, or are you really swayed by opinion and emotion? The casual nature of Donald Trump’s relationship with truth and fiction is not so much a problem in and of itself, but points to the deeper problem of our society’s relationship with the truth.
7. Be The Change You Want in the World.
I’m sure Donald Trump loves his friends and his family and is, like each of us, compassionate within the realms of our own limitations and ignorance, but the face that many see is of a man without compassion. For example many on both sides – supporters and opponents – see a man who believes all Muslims are terrorists or potential terrorists, and that the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim. Not only is this hateful nonsense and demonstrably untrue even within Trump’s world, but it should make us look deeply at the world in which we want to live.
If we allow ourselves to become messengers of division, however we define that division, we will incite polarization, hatred, and violence. And violence naturally begets more violence. I’m confident that you don’t want to live in a world of ongoing civil war, but rather to move towards peace. The First and Second World Wars were brought to an end by overwhelming power, but at massive cost to both sides, but more recently the IRA ended their terrorist campaign in the UK, the anti-Apartheid terrorists in South Africa, and Farc in Columbia all ended their violence not because they were overpowered, but because conversation was engaged. If we want a peaceful world, we must be peace, and must manifest that in our relationships with others. This is not to suggest acceding to radicals or hateful political agendas, or to being weak, but rather to listening to others as human beings, and to finding clear and focused ways of articulating differences. It is to suggest the importance of being governed by principles of justice, and not of fear.
Last week I attended an event at the Commerce Club in Atlanta at which Senator David Purdue spoke. He talked intentionally in a non-partisan way, and I was greatly impressed at his common sense. He pointed out that when around half the US population is unable to withstand a financial blow of $400, we have an unstable system. He talked of the inability of politics in Washington to move itself away from distractions and focus on what matters. He talked of the importance of his mother’s social security check to her livelihood and asked why, in his 18 months in DC, the imminent bankruptcy of that system has not been seriously discussed in politics or the press. Sen. Purdue made it clear that he understands the importance of working for the good of all, of transcending boundaries of race and faith, of moving beyond separation and our own ego and of being the change we want in the world. He made it clear that he understands the importance of an inclusive conversation in which we really listen and we really care about everyone. It’s time for each of us to do the same. Maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump will help us all do that. But he will only do so if we are willing to listen and learn and take responsibility.