February 14, 2016

The Lessons of Trump

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I've suggested in previous posts that Donald Trump is doing us all a favor by running for president. I believe that his approach and his popularity among voters can teach us some important lessons about our political process, our society, and ourselves. But just what are these lessons? Since we still don't know how the story of Trump will end and what else will happen before it does, it would be premature to offer a definitive summary of what we can or should be learning. Having said that, here are a few tentative suggestions:
  1. Many voters feel detached from the political process in the sense that it holds little interest to them, and they feel powerless to affect the sort of change they desire. My guess is that these people are an important part of Trump's base. Some haven't paid much attention to politics, but they are paying attention now.
  2. A number of Americans are tired of political correctness and the outrage culture which has sprung up around it. Perhaps some of them are drawn to a politically incorrect candidate who seems free to speak his mind in a way they are not.
  3. Anti-intellectualism is probably something to which we should be paying far more attention, as it appears to have an important role in our political discourse just as it has in our social media discourse (e.g., incivility, demonization of others, name-calling).
  4. A number of Americans are angry. They are angry at how their lives turned out, that nobody is listening to them, at the creeping suspicion that it is only going to get worse, and probably at all sorts of other things we don't fully understand. This may make them more susceptible to the influence of someone able to tap into that current of anger (and fear).
  5. Racist and xenophobic attitudes are still present in the U.S. Even if Trump himself is not particularly racist and/or xenophobic and even if many of his supporters are not particularly racist and/or xenophobic, his campaign reminds us that these attitudes persist and may be more common than some would like to acknowledge.
  6. Populist messages are very appealing right now, and we are seeing this with the popularity of both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Obviously, their messages are very different, but populism seems to be one point of overlap.
We might ask ourselves why so many voters have given up on the political process and consider options for increasing political investment and participation that do not involve demagoguery. Perhaps genuine populism is an option. We might begin to ask what political correctness has accomplished and what sort of price we might have paid for whatever benefits we believe we have gained. Anti-intellectualism, extremism, racism, and xenophobia are certainly not new and have been present in our political system from the start. What might be at least somewhat new is the manner in which we are seeing how people behave on social media blur with how political candidates behave while campaigning. In some respects, social media is acting like an amplifier for anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and other troubling attitudes.

Perhaps most difficult of all, we can and should be asking ourselves why so many people are so angry and fearful. What they are angry and fearful about? We need to make an effort to understand the nature and sources of these sentiments and those who hold them. I know this is not a popular idea. It is much easier to mock them, call them names, or ignore them; however, this merely deepens the divide and fuels their feelings of alienation and resentment. Maybe it is time to start giving a shit about our neighbors, including those who have different political orientations from our own. If large numbers of our neighbors feel alienated, isn't that bound to become our problem at some point?

When I listen to Trump and his supporters, I can't help but think that he is the candidate we deserve. We have embraced political correctness and allowed it to stifle the free expression of ideas in exchange for protecting people from hurt feelings. When social critics have protested our heavy-handed efforts, we have called them bigots and dismissed them without listening. We have willingly participated in outrage culture, regularly taking to social media to call people names for the offense of expressing viewpoints contrary to our own. In short, we have driven the reasonable voices out of the public forum. We have made celebrities out of morons and elevated them to demigod status. We have traded the difficult task of critical inquiry for the easy assurances of ideology. We have turned our backs on our neighbors the moment we discover that they do not share our ideologically-driven values.

It is easy to blame others for the rise of Trump. There are plenty of others we could single out for blame. But if we really want to understand the Trump phenomenon and the lessons it may hold for us, I think we had better start by looking in the mirror.
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