January 22, 2017

Facing the New Reality of President Trump as a Freethinker

Donald Trump
By Gage Skidmore from Peoria [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I'm not convinced that it matters much whether 3 people or 3 million people attended Donald Trump's inauguration. Who cares? If there is one thing reasonable atheists should be expected to comprehend, it is that the popularity of an idea (or in this case, a person) has little bearing on the value of the idea (or person). Those claiming that Trump is a failure because his inauguration was poorly attended remind me of religious believers claiming that atheism is flawed because there are so few of us.

What matters now is not how many people showed up in Washington D.C. for Trump's inauguration; what matters is that we now have to confront the new reality of President Trump. For those of us who are freethinkers seeking to transcend destructive tribalism, confronting this new reality is going to mean figuring out how best to support Trump's good ideas and policies while figuring out how best to oppose Trump's bad ideas and policies.

How dare I suggest that we support anything Trump tries to do! I complained when Republicans opposed Obama for the sake of opposing him even when he was trying to do things many of them had previously supported. It would be hypocritical of me to now demand that Democrats oppose Trump for trying to do things they would otherwise support. If Trump rolls out positive ideas and policies that are consistent with liberal values, I hope the Democrats will support them (here's one example of what that might look like). And if he rolls out negative ideas and policies that cannot be reconciled with liberal values, I hope the Democrats will oppose them.

How dare I "normalize" our new president! I have no interest in preventing anyone from reminding the world that candidate Trump behaved differently from any presidential candidate we have ever had and that he will almost certainly continue to do so as president. He's about as far from normal as I can imagine. And yet, he won the election and is now our president. Normal or not, we must figure out how we are going to deal with him.

As a freethinker who is trying to be rational and avoid tribalism, I am planning to evaluate our new president based on what he does in office. I am going to make an effort to praise the things I think he gets right and criticize the things I think he gets wrong. I expect that there will be more to criticize than to praise, but we'll see. Again, I cannot reconcile a close-minded approach where I oppose everything he does just because it is him doing it with freethought or reason. I'm not going to call him or his supporters names; I am going to focus on his ideas and the policies he seeks to implement.

I am also going to try to be selective when it comes to outrage. Trump has said and is likely to keep saying some things I find offensive. I'm not going to get particularly worked up about that. He has a right to express himself, and whether he offends me or not is a relatively trivial matter. I am going to focus on the policies he enacts and how they impact us. Part of my rationale for doing this is that I consider policies that affect people far more important than offensive speech. Another part of my rationale involves my suspicion that Trump is skilled at using our outrage against us and that I think we have to make some changes if we are going to be able to oppose any part of his agenda effectively.

You see, I suspect that Trump has realized that the left is fragmented, prone to destructive infighting, and largely unable to effectively triage our moral outrage. When he makes an offensive statement or does something with little real impact on anyone but something which is sure to provoke outrage (e.g., removing LGBT-specific content from the White House website), he sends us into an outrage spiral where we end up divided. Some go right for the bait. And those who do not end up being attacked by those who do for not being sufficiently outraged about their pet issue. As a result, we don't come together in effective opposition on the things that really matter. If we cannot overcome this pattern and learn to prioritize our efforts effectively, we will essentially be allowing President Trump to be the dictator some fear he desires to become.
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