Could WE be the Problem?
The recent series of gaffes, insults and “mis-statements” by President Trump have brought another round of calls for action by Democrats, and muted criticisms coupled with deliberate inaction by embarrassed Republicans. Talk shows from Fox News to MSNBC are having a field day wondering the whats, whys and wherefores of #45’s statements to NATO Allies, the British Prime Minister, and Russian President Putin. And as always, Trump has provided fresh material for the late-night comedy hosts, and lunchroom conversations.
Like many of my politically progressive friends, I often find the statements and actions of the U.S. president to lie somewhere between outrageous and ludicrous. However, lately I have begun to wonder if #45 is not the problem, but rather a symptom of a much deeper sickness at the heart of U.S. society.
In a recent article in the journal Race and Class, historian Jeremy Seabrook (1) makes a compelling observation:
It is, of course, easy to see in the mental disturbance of individual leaders the cause of social breakdown, repression and violence. Indeed, the rise of some of the most disastrous regimes in the world have been attributed to the power of demented leaders – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein – while the rise of such people is usually symptomatic of the mental instability of societies themselves.
He goes on to illustrate at length the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing dynamics between the mental health of individuals in a society and the leaders they follow. He shows how all cultures and societies have underlying unifying beliefs and values that define how they understand themselves as a people or a nation. This underlying ethos is celebrated in formal ceremonies, school assemblies, national anthems, parades, marches and countless other public events designed to reinforce that ethos. However, when those unifying values begin to splinter and fracture, some weird stuff can begin to happen. What we say we do and who we say we are as a people begins to be undermined by what we actually do. Seabrook observes about the U.S.: “The US, despite an almost mystical belief in the timeless truths of its Constitution has, in its dedication to capitalism, institutionalized permanent upheaval and change.”
The Myth of Meritocracy
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (2) illustrates this disconnect. He says we like to think of our society as built on the principle of meritocracy, the idea that the individual succeeds or falls on the basis of his/her own efforts and hard work. But as Brooks indicates that is not how our society actually works. He points out that the educated elite have rigged the meritocracy game, so their children are protected from the hard knocks that impact the rest of society. They live in class and race insulated neighborhoods, go to the best schools, get into the best colleges, go on to the highest paying jobs all without really having to compete with those whose schools, healthcare, neighborhoods and generally life options are far more limited. So, we talk meritocracy, but practice a system of higher and lower tracks to success.
So along comes Donald Trump, who in all his bluster and bravado is hardly subtle or genteel. He regularly challenges the constraints of the Constitutional system, grabs for power, blames the poor, ridicules the disadvantaged, closes his ears and eyes to the cries of the suffering, and doesn’t even blush. His fascination with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin are just two recent examples of his admiration for power hungry dictators. What Trump says and does is nothing new, US imperialism has operated that way for decades. He just says what has been hidden for decades, if not since our earliest history.
Willfully Ignorant of History
We Americans tend to be willfully ignorant of our history, so as to keep ourselves from facing the painful truths of that history: the genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of millions of Africans, the economic manipulation of Latin American economies, the use and abuse of Asian peoples, the denigration of peoples of color, and so much more. With the rise of terrorism and the mass migration of peoples to European and American borders, in a sense the “chickens are coming home to roost,” and #45 to our horror and embarrassment is saying and doing things openly that before had been much subtler and covert. He says he wants America First. He says he prefers immigrants to be white and educated, rather than poor and black or brown. He says we will pump oil out of the ground regardless of the ecological damage. Because global warming is economically inconvenient, he says we will ignore it. None of what he says is new, we are just more comfortable with our myth of American exceptionalism and wish the President wouldn’t boast about our underlying hypocrisies.
One of my detractors recently posted that I must hate the United States. I don’t hate the United States, but I am troubled by us, and embarrassed for us because Donald Trump symbolizes the worst of who we are and have been historically. I find myself at odds with a system in which elections are bought before anyone goes to the polls to vote. I am sickened by political leaders who are more interested in saving their necks than acting rightly and justly (if they even know what that is). I am saddened and horrified by a nation where the color of one’s skin, the land of one’s birth, and the neighborhood in which one lives more often than not sets the course of a person’s life before they are born. I don’t hate America, but I am not willing to wear rose-colored glasses either.
I know the very fact I can write these words is an expression of the freedom I enjoy. Compared to most people in the world and even in this society, I have been greatly privileged. That privilege carries a responsibility, part of which is to say the “emperor has no clothes” and to call the crisis we are in for what I see it to be. I may be wrong in my assessment, but I don’t hate my country.
Trump has illuminated a crisis of faith within the US, for he has articulated its most enduring, fundamentalist aspects against those who prefer the sweeter seductions of progress. As long as these latent contradictions could be contained by a general belief in the beneficent power of the uniquely powerful entity of the US, internal dissent was obscured. With Trump, the unifying system of belief has fractured.
Without meaning to or knowing how he did it, #45 has uncovered our most toxic pathologies as a people and as a nation. When we see him fumble to cover his pernicious tracks, we need to realize in many ways we are looking at ourselves in a societal mirror.
Need for a Deep Spirituality
Now as tragic as this situation is, it does not mean that every citizen, every leader, every community is equally infected. Family Systems founder, Murray Bowen, stressed that the return to health of a family or system begins with an individual in that family or system being willing to self-differentiate, to resist the pressure to be swayed back and forth by the convenient escape and or the comfortable “truth.” Rather, the return to health begins with people who are grounded in community values like care for the neighbor and concern for the hurting. The return to health issues out of a value system based on compassion, integrity and a pursuit of the truth.
While this recovery is necessarily political, economic and social, at its heart it is deeply spiritual. Not a simple “come to Jesus and be saved” spirituality, but a spirituality grounded in deep faith in the moral foundations of the universe and a conviction that we as persons are called to a higher and more noble way of being, than just feathering our own nest and protecting our own comfort. It is a spirituality that seeks a Higher Love, what the Bible calls agape, where every person is potentially my brother or sister regardless of their background or status in life.
As Seabrook shows, #45 has brought to light the crisis of our collective being as a society. Impeaching him or un-electing him will not address what ails us. We must look within and around us, and ask: Is this the best we can do? For me, the answer is most certainly “no,” and so we must get to work in setting ourselves on the path to healing.
- Jeremy Seabrook, “The Mental Health of Societies.” Race and Class 59 (4), 54-64, 2018.
- David Brooks, “The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite” New York Times, May 28, 2018; and “How We Are Ruining America, New York Times, July 11, 2017.