Donald Trump is a powerful phenomenon of our time who is tapping into something deep. This, in turn is giving voice to strong emotions and resulting in behaviors that are divisive and manner. Whether you are for him or against him, you probably have strong feelings about “The Donald”.
But how should you respond to him and to your feelings?
The First Step
The level of belligerence associated with the Trump campaign is quite unusual in American politics. Theories have emerged to explain why this should happen. One advocates that in times of fear, a large portion of the population turns toward an authoritarian figure. Others suggest the rise in populist politics (including Bernie Sanders) is a sign of our national disillusionment with the entire political process and system.
These theories are interesting and, as a long term matter, suggest areas of attention for all with interest in our political process, but they don’t seem to help us with the short term question of how to respond skillfully to the situation in front of us.
The first thing to do is to slow things down and take stock. Take the time to figure out what is really happening, not so much in the world, but rather within yourself. A favorite trope in Eastern traditions is the coiled rope in a dark corner which looks like a snake. If you mistake the rope for a snake, you will panic, but if you slow down and look closely, or shine a light on it, you will see that it is just a rope. Much in the public response to Donald Trump on both sides of the spectrum is of this nature: it is a visceral reaction rather than a measured, thoughtful response to the situation and to what we really want to accomplish.
A Culture of Fear
Our culture and society today is driven by a great deal of fear:
- There is an uptick in terrorism;
- Many are afraid of their economic future: while we hear of improvement in the economy, for many jobs are not readily available, let alone jobs which are fulfilling and allow the worker to provide for a family;
- Technological and demographic changes are occurring rapidly, giving rise to substantial cultural shifts which many find disorienting;
- Events in the Middle East and North Africa are both scary in and of themselves, and are driving a wave of refugees and dislocated people of enormous proportions;
- The surge of anti-immigration rhetoric and legislation is threatening to a large immigrant population…
- …and the incidence of hate crimes and police violence against minorities is driving fear in Muslim and African American communities in particular.
Beyond this climate of fear, our political process itself has given rise to fear:
- Fear of political sclerosis and the apparent inability of our political system to deal with the problems in the world and our society;
- Fear of the possibility of Bernie Sanders’ form of socialism;
- Fear among the many Americans who see Hillary Clinton as a self-centered and amoral crook of what her presidency would mean for the country;
- And fear that a Donald Trump presidency would take us to fascism.
Adrenalin and fear are powerful forces for self-preservation. When we are in immediate danger – facing a lion or a loaded gun – visceral responses driven by adrenalin can save lives. However if we allow the career and parenting decisions to come directly out of our emotions such as fear and anger, they tend to have negative consequences. Shouting at the boss or flaming with email or social media will likely not help you get the business outcome you want; and if you allow yourself to get into the habit of lashing out at your kids – physically or emotionally – you will likely drive them away and undermine your effectiveness and authority as a parent and an influential figure in your life.
Slowing things down enough to recognize how fear is influencing us, and to see how our responses are colored by this fear gives us a chance to look more deeply and try to develop wiser, more thoughtful, and ultimately more productive responses. Stopping for a minute to see if it is a rope or a snake gives us a chance to work towards a desired outcome, rather than just lash out.
The American Political Process
Plato’s views of political system shifted over his life, but he ultimately came down to believing that democracy, while fundamentally flawed, was the least bad form of government. He argued that while it allows the least opportunity to get things done, it offers the least opportunity for tyrannical and/or dictatorial behavior, and he sacrificed his desire for the philosopher king to this compromise.
My American friends regularly remind me that this country is not a democracy, but rather a democratic republic. This is a design, though, which takes Plato to heart. In constructing a three-tier system of legislative, executive and judicial government, and further breaking the legislative system into two separate and very different houses, the founding fathers left us with a system that intentionally slows things down and gives us the greatest opportunity to avoid precipitous, populist, and reckless behavior. And while many bemoan a two year process of staggering cost for the selection and election of a president, it, too, plays into this long view of political process and decision making.
I say this not to minimize the need to take what is happening today seriously, nor to discourage you from responding to it and engaging, but rather to suggest that our political process, for all of its flaws, is designed to reward a slow, thoughtful, and measured response.
Patience and The Long Run
So long as this system stays in place, violent action cannot ultimately win. This was the premise on which the Civil Rights movement was run and won. It was also the bedrock before that of the movement to win the vote for women. Yes, of course there were pockets of violence in both movements, and this country has had violent protests to the Vietnam War and race riots, but ultimately, for an argument to succeed in the US system over time, it must win hearts and minds.
Intolerance on prejudice are not strangers to this land. Much has been said about intolerance and prejudice in the early days of nationhood; more recently the last 100 years had the McCarthy-era witch hunts, the internment of Japanese citizens, and two separate episodes in which millions of people of Latin American descent, many of whom were American citizens, were deported to Mexico. (I wrote about this previously in A Change In Consciousness On Immigration Reform.) But while these incidents were divisive, horribly unpleasant for millions, and show the dark side of this great nation, in their eventual demise they also become examples of the ability of the system to correct itself and to come back to center.
Supporting Donald Trump
So long as our constitution and our basic form of government stand, we will inevitably veer into periods of populist intolerance, but if we truly believe that our nation is great, we must look to what makes it great and keep that in our hearts in everything we do.
Donald Trump’s platform runs counter to much of what informs my life: I find his rhetoric intolerant and his tone divisive and inflammatory. I see him as a populist who is intentionally pandering to base instincts and selfish behaviors. I find it very sad that his particular brand of popularism is finding such a large audience in this country. But for all of this, I keep in mind the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Since I have put my opinion of Trump out there, I want to be open about the entire picture. In this I am not making a recommendation, but speaking my heart and my head in the hope that you, too, will look to your heart to guide your decisions, but your head to govern your actions.
I find much of what Bernie Sanders has to say very attractive, but equally I find many of his economic positions disappointing and naive. I find “The Bern”‘s agenda a more inclusive and tolerant one that is appealing in many ways, but I fear that in its radical divergence from what this country has known, it would be a divisive and dangerous cocktail right now. So while I have come to distrust Hillary Clinton and to find her fickle and spineless; while for me she represents an emerging dynasty model that is becoming one of the banes of American politics; in her very weaknesses she has an innate ability to be influenced and to compromise that might keep the revolution at bay! And while I know less of the other Republican candidates, circumstances might eventually require me to become more informed.
The Model of Mitt Romney
This former candidate for the Republican nomination, after what appears to be a slow and deliberate personal process, appears to have decided that the most important thing for the Republican party right now is that it not convene it’s convention with Trump having a majority of the delegates. Having reached that conclusion, he has spoken strongly and articulately of his beliefs, and has brought his full political power to work redirecting votes against Trump to most effectively accomplish that goal. Whether you like Romney or not, whether you agree with his views or not, I put him forward as a shining example of a role model for behavior. I see Romney acting without prospect of personal gain, but rather from a principled position, , with a clearly defined goal and doing so peacefully within the democratic process. I hold Mitt Romney up as a role model for all of us:
- He has slowed down, thought things through, and allowed the situation to unfold until he sees clear need for action;
- He has moved beyond his raw emotion and is acting from a deliberate, thoughtful and rational place;
- He has developed a plan and is executing on it;
- He recognizes that it is of paramount importance to the legitimacy of his campaign that it operate fully within not just the letter, but also the spirit of non-violence and the American political process;
- And in all of this he is acting from his own heart and conviction and is not swayed by populism and sound bites on either side.
If Donald Trump does take a majority to the Republican Convention, and beyond that secures the nomination, I will watch Mitt Romney with great interest. I feel confident that he will continue to respond strongly as one who has great love for and faith in a political system that has served this country for almost 250 years.
And while we can look to the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to escalate, I also expect them both to continue to urge those who support Trump to express their views at the ballot, and for those who oppose him to do likewise. Perhaps one positive consequence of this current situation will be to increase voter turnout from the 50-60% range!