Trump the Symptom

Two recent columns in the Times echoed each other on a key aspect of our condition and Trump’s role in it. “The Devil in Steve Bannon” by Frank Bruni features an interview with Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris about his new movie, “American Dharma.” Bruni describes the film as “essentially one long, transfixing interview with Bannon.” Morris tells Bruni:

The question is: How resilient is our democracy? Was de Tocqueville right that we would just disappear into silos of self-congratulation and self-interest, or can we hope for something better?

The second column is “How Far America Has Fallen” by Roger Cohen. It concludes:

Trump was a symptom, not a cause. The problem is way deeper than him.

For William Steding, a diplomatic historian living in Colorado, American individualism has morphed into narcissism, perfectibility into entitlement, and exceptionalism into hubris. Out of that, and more, came the insidious malignancy of Trump. It will not be extirpated overnight.

In August 2016, before Hillary’s infamous statement about Trump supporters being “deplorable” and “irredeemable,” I made a similar argument in “I Love Donald Trump,”  in which I argued:

Jesus was right: Love your enemies. We can hate what people do without hating their soul, their essential humanity, who they are down deep as a person. With nonviolent communication, we can make judgments without being judgmental.... I hold sympathy for Trump. His abusive father pushed his sons to “get ahead” (which apparently is the primary message Trump taught his own children). That extreme pressure damaged his brother, but Trump flourished. True to the American spirit, he became hyper-competitive. “Winning is everything.” He’s the ultimate American individualist. He’s a victim of the American myth that you can be anything you want to be.

Teaching children to “get ahead” is widely embraced. Both Michelle Obama and Melania Trump affirmed that message at their 2016 conventions. On Crooked Media’s most recent “The Wilderness” podcast, “The Filter,” their Chief Content Officer, Tanya Somanader, made the same point. While arguing that the Democratic Party needs to bring together the various components of its diverse coalition, she summarized her proposed unifying message: “We matter. We want to get ahead. We want the same economic opportunities as everyone else. We want fairness.”

Myself, I don’t find that inspiring. The idiom “get ahead” has different connotations, but the primary meaning is: “To move ahead of someone or something. Get ahead of this guy, he's driving too slow…. To best or outshine someone or something. I've been working really hard to get ahead of my competition for valedictorian.”

As I see it, that hyper-competitive, upward-mobility urge is at the heart of our primary problem. Our global social system, the System, encourages everyone to climb social ladders -- gain more wealth, power, fame, or status -- and look down on and dominate those below. That domination-centered System consists of our institutions (government, economy, media, entertainment, schools, churches, etc.), our culture, our ecology, and ourselves as individuals, who reinforce the System with our daily actions. “What’s in it for me and my family” is the driving force.

Win-win is an alternative. We can love ourselves as we love others. We can avoid both self-sacrifice and selfishness. We can transform the System into a partnership-centered global community dedicated to the common good of all humanity, the environment, and life itself. Somehow we need to find language that inspires one another to seek “positive sum” solutions. My success need not rely on your failure.

But self-centeredness and trying to get ahead prevail. “Me First” becomes “America First,” as more Americans fall into silos -- individual silos, issue silos, media silos -- aided and abetted by a fragmented media landscape that reinforces bubble-based tribalism. And the Trump Tribe, guided by its own propagandistic “news,” is so highly submissive it constitutes a real danger.

Until recently, I was fairly confident America’s democratic institutions and traditions would eventually stop Trumpism. But now I’m getting evermore worried. If the Republicans hold on to Congress, take over the judiciary, gerrymander districts, and get away with voter suppression, they could very well further erode democracy as we know it. And the pollsters say the Democrats have only a 70% chance of taking back the House. Remember the last time they had a 70% chance of winning?

A narrow victory by any means necessary, however, will not cut the mustard. When they go low, we can go high, avoid scapegoating and demonizing, and make every effort to understand why others disagree. We can inspire with a positive vision that’s open to all and aims to reconcile into the Beloved Community.