Don’t get me wrong.
I am fully committed to defeating Donald Trump in his bid to be President of the United States.
Given the terrifying possibility that he might get the nuclear codes, there is probably nothing more important for us to do right now.
Fortunately, the farther he wanders beyond reason and decency, the less likely it is that he’ll win. Even some of his diehard supporters have had enough.
Said one former fan, according to the Guardian, Trump “seems to be insane. I no longer believe it is possible that he could truly represent the people who support him and need what he promised.”
Of course, the crazier Trump appears, the easier it becomes for us to dismiss him as an isolated phenomenon–an extremist, an anomaly, an outlier, a sociopath.
But a demagogue–though be definition self-absorbed and narcissistic–just can’t be a demagogue without help from others. And if we simply dismiss him as an outlier, the risk is that we might not stop what enabled him.
Many different reasons have been suggested for Trump’s success. Perhaps he is tapping into the economic hardship of the white working class, the rage against “political correctness,” or the deep-seated mistrust of the Washington establishment. Perhaps he is mining the covert racism that’s long been simmering in America. Or perhaps he is the death rattle of straight, white, male hegemony. We each have our favorite reason.
But if you put all these theories aside, and look instead at his personality, then something different emerges–not Trump, but Trumpiness.
And from this perspective, I must sadly conclude that this reality television star is reflecting something real about us all.
I fear that Trump is a mirror–albeit distorted–of what we are becoming.
Consider this list of his personality traits, as compiled by columnist David Brooks: Trump exhibits “inflated self-esteem, sleeplessness, impulsivity, aggression and a compulsion to offer advice on subjects he knows nothing about.”
We could add the following behaviors: He is obsessed with getting attention and being the center of attention. He mistakes his own beliefs for facts, says whatever he feels, passes on internet rumors, lacks critical thinking skills, and seems unable or unwilling to engage in constructive dialogue with those who see things differently.
Now consider: Doesn’t this description remind you of many people you see on television each day–people who make the news, who comment on the news, and even those who report the news?
And doesn’t this description remind you, even a little, of someone you know personally? Someone at work, perhaps, or even at home?
And–be honest–haven’t you noticed some of these traits in yourself recently?
Just remember a time you were in a conflict or you felt under threat. Notice what goes on in your mind when you’re stuck in traffic. Consider how you feel when you can’t get your way, or you’re up against someone who sees things very differently.
Notice when you dismiss someone’s ideas out of hand because you’re so sure you’re right. Remember the last time you interrupted someone. Recall your reaction when something offends you. Consider how great it feels to hang out with your tribe (and conclude that everyone else is really a bit inferior).
And when is the last time you forgave someone?
Turn on American television these days: the volume seems to range from loud to shout, as if the whole country has road rage. Meanwhile, there’s not that much difference between the headlines and the ads–they all try to hook us with fear or titillation. And, boy, are we biting that clickbait.
We seem increasingly unable to focus on what we have in common. We rarely give people the chance to explain. We treat opinions as if they’re facts. We react immediately rather than taking time to respond appropriately. Our favorite sport seems to be taking offense. Increasingly, it’s “my way or the highway.”
I’m sure that much of this is exacerbated by our new normal: perpetually distracted, glued to our devices, short of sleep. We crave the next distraction or buzz. We have lost our centers, lost contact with what grounds us.
It’s as if we’re all going around half-cocked. And therefore, hair triggered.
Consider what one of Trump’s own advisors said about him: Trump “watches TV every minute that he isn’t actually on his phone, either talking or tweeting. And then he gets angry at what he sees on TV and reacts.”
It’s that a good description of modern man?
The fact that Trump is an extreme, outrageous example of these qualities shouldn’t let anyone off the hook. Society is heading his way.
These days, I see Trumpiness popping up all over the place, even among people who consider themselves kind, compassionate, and progressive. I see these qualities increasingly in myself.
My conversations are more fraught. I find it harder to invest the time required to really listen. I have important, difficult phone conversations while secretly surfing the internet. I get increasingly frustrated by the hard work required to work things out together.
I see signs of increased reactivity everywhere. We fire off emails in the middle of the night when we should be sleeping, when we should be recovering from our stressful days. We make angry comments in the heat of the moment…and then get even angrier when someone replies defensively to our ill-conceived rants.
The media, of course–both traditional and social–thrives on drama. And drama comes from reactivity, not reflection. Drama comes from extremes. Drama comes from impulsivity. In other words, there is no drama to be found in considering things calmly. No one would want to watch that program.
Remember Barack Obama’s first year in office? His no-drama approach was considered by many people, even those partial to his politics, to be distant and aloof. The time he invested in making decisions–weighing the options, listening to different viewpoints–was derided as indecisive.
Now, I fear, the ability to be careful, deliberate, and reflective is on the wane. Our world seems to be all squawk and all action.
My concern is that we are all becoming Trumpier.
My concern is that even when we succeed in knocking down this particular Donald Trump, another one will pop up.
So, once we’ve succeeded in stopping this Trump, we might want to start building a world that is less Trumpy. Once we’ve succeeded in keeping Trump out of the White House, we might want to clean up our own houses.
How might we start?
By learning to calm the storm inside ourselves before making a judgement.
By investing the time it takes to really listen to someone, making sure that our own reactivity and impulsivity don’t get in the way.
By exploring what lies beneath our outrage–no matter how justified that outrage seems–to befriend that soft underbelly of hurt, fear, or grief.
And by learning how to put our personal feelings aside so we can get down to the hard work of facing facts and finding common ground.
Once we’ve done this, perhaps we’ll be able to speak more softly, with more humility, and from the heart. We’ll be able to listen more carefully to others and discern their real concerns. We’ll be able to have robust debates and difficult conversations in ways that are actually constructive. We might even start solving some problems.
Naturally, as humans, we will always be vulnerable to our fear and anger and selfishness and impulsivity. But, as humans, we also have the ability–and perhaps the responsibility–to get beyond these.
Someday, perhaps, we will look back on Donald Trump and realize that he did us a service, albeit unintentionally. By providing an extreme example–a caricature–of who we might become, he gave us a real wakeup call.
Thanks to his grotesque performance, perhaps we will be inspired to restore some civility, reason, and even caring in our public lives and private lives.
But this won’t happen until we create the conditions for real conversation. It certainly won’t happen until we unplug a bit, go for a walk, get some sleep, and calm down.
And it won’t happen until we are able–even in the heat of the moment–to notice that we’re acting a bit Trumpy, take a deep breath, and choose another way.