Striking a Positive Balance: Political Self-Help in the Age of Trump

UPDATE: The Daily Beast published this essay here → http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/04/02/striking-a-positive-balance-political-self-help-in-the-age-of-trump.html

Americans are divided and fighting about politics like never before. This negative confrontation style of politics has been building for years, and it’s getting worse under our new president.

The new modern political fight seemed to begin simmering back in the early 2000's when Cindy Sheehan and others on the left were protesting the Iraq War, then it reached a boil with the rise of the Tea Party movement on the right in 2009. My friend, the late Andrew Breitbart, was the voice and the political guru for an army of Tea Party activists dedicated to upending politics as we knew it. His confrontational style, with a hashtag #WAR, made winning the “us versus them” fight the priority above all else. Andrew’s successor at his Breitbart News Network, now White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, led that army of activists to new heights in helping to elect a president, Donald Trump.

President Trump feeds off of the fighting and he’s leading the country to deeper depths of political division. Confrontation politics is the new normal. Now it seems that the entire country, left and right, fueled by the mass media and social media, is caught up in the never-ending political fight. It has become presidential led fighting for fighting’s sake!

What is all of this fighting and negativity doing to our country? What’s it doing to each of us individually? Whether you call it karma, The Law of Attraction, “what goes around, comes around,” however you label it, there are real, detrimental effects that being consumed with the negativity of the political fight have on us all. I know, first hand.

I spent much of my career as an openly gay conservative activist, working in the political trenches. I am very proud of the important work I have done and all that I’ve helped to accomplish, but I would have done some things differently if I had the chance to go back and do it all over again. I wish I would have been more mindful in the way I lived my life during most of my time in politics. And I wish I had done more positive things to help people outside of politics, because my political victories and successes came at a big personal price that I didn’t have to pay.

Before I diversified my activities, both professionally and personally, I spent almost all of my time fending off political and personal attacks from both the right and the left, and I did a lot of attacking back, too. The height of my professional activism was during the time of the rise of the Tea Party movement and I was in the thick of it. I guess you could say, as a co-founder of an organization for gay conservatives, GOProud, I was a leader in the gay battalion of Breitbart’s army! During that time, my life was completely consumed by the negativity of the political fight. It was all I did. I was addicted to the fight, and to the mass media and social media that power it. I was engaged 24/7. I would even sleep with my laptop so that I wouldn’t miss a breaking news story or a Twitter battle I could join.

Here I am with Donald Trump at the Conservative Poltiical Action Conference back in March 2011.

Eventually, all the negativity of the fighting took its toll and made me generally a negative person. I was angry all the time, walking around Washington, DC mad, with a scowl on my face! The consequences of my exposure to all that negativity were very real, and they are enough to scare the hell out of anyone who hears about what happened to me. As a result of decisions I made while living a negative life, I ended up out of work, broke, alone, living with my parents, and suffering from a chronic skin condition. My life basically collapsed, and I found myself wallowing in a pool of misery. You see, negativity, no matter what the source, feeds on itself, bringing more and more negativity into all areas of your life.

I’m sharing this about what happened to me because I see it starting to happen to many Americans now. Too many are getting consumed by the political fight. It’s spreading like an epidemic, and everyone knows it. It seems like everyone is talking about it. Recently, New York Times political correspondent Maggie Haberman posted on her Facebook page, “Everyone I know only wants to talk about current events/politics. It is all I do at work. It is not all I want to do in my life. Not really sure how to modulate this.” Clearly, Maggie knows it’s important to find balance. I learned that the hard way, after suffering negative consequences.

Maggie Haberman’s Facebook post.

Much like an addict of substances, I had to hit rock bottom before I realized what had happened to me. And like addictive substances, my constant participation in the negative political fighting was like a drug to me. I needed more and more and more, until I realized that my compulsion had ruined my life. It wasn’t easy, but working everyday to find a positive balance in my life has saved my life. I had to make deliberate decisions to change my thinking and the way I live my life to get out of that negative mind-set and find a positive balance.

One of the biggest realizations I had to come to was to accept that I had devolved, along with the rest of the political culture, into fighting for fighting’s sake. Scoring points against political enemies became almost as important as the causes I was fighting for. It got to the point sometimes when I nearly forgot why I entered the political arena in the first place. My basic motivation in politics was always to help people and make our country better. I nearly lost sight of that. The problem was that I put one hundred percent of my efforts into working in the political arena, even though politics isn’t the only way to work for positive change. There was no balance in how I directed my passion.

I’m still motivated to help people and change the world, but my efforts are more diversified now. Yes, I still care about and speak out on political issues because that’s important for all of us to do, but I have also found other ways make a difference, too. I’ve been doing some consulting for a small non-profit clinic providing critical HIV/AIDS care and services in rural western Kentucky, and I recently signed up to be a Red Cross volunteer. No other organization in the country does more to help people who need it than the American Red Cross! It’s important to find those other types of civic engagement to make a positive difference, in addition to being involved politically.

Diversifying other areas of my life has been important too. First, I had to dramatically reduce my time on social media and limit my consumption of news-talk programming on television and radio. A lot of people are doing this these days because the atmosphere has become so toxic. My friend Josh Gatlin, who worked in the Bush Administration, recently posted on Facebook, “Since Tracy and I moved abroad almost 3 years ago, Facebook has been a lifeline for us to stay connected with friends and family. But what was once a source of joy, has become a source of pain. I have been hurt, and I have hurt others. As such, I will be deactivating my account….

Josh Gatlin’s Facebook post.

I haven’t totally quit Facebook or other social media, like Josh has, but it’s different for me now. Now, I make sure that I am an informed citizen by reading news sites and watching television in the mornings, and I sometimes post things and comment on social media, but I try to refrain from maintaining a constant connection to it all throughout the day. I also try not to stew on it and think about it all day, like I used to. Back when I was deep in the fight, I couldn’t even take a yoga class without thinking about politics while doing the yoga postures. Sometimes I’d leave a class more stressed out than when I got there! Now, I make sure to take in the information, then try to leave it behind as I go about my day. I’ve had to learn some tricks to help switch my thinking to something positive when the negativity of the news starts to creep in.

My healthy balance includes working in the garden. Here I am getting the ground ready for planting a new strawberry patch! (Photo by Tommy Stewart)

I have also had to find other ways of getting satisfaction from my endeavors, other than scoring political points against opponents. Helping other people, of course, provides satisfaction, but some things I do now are just for me and my enjoyment. Growing a vegetable garden for the first time has provided me with a positive activity that brings real rewards and a sense of accomplishment. And those rewards are tasty!

I’ve also recently gotten into beekeeping as a way to have a personal sense of accomplishment and to help the greater good, too. Bees and other pollinators do so much good in performing their critical role in maintaining in our food supply by pollenating over a third of the food we eat.

I know others who have made similar decisions to diversify their activities, in addition to their direct political involvement. I recently read an essay by prominent Democratic funder, Cheryl Saban, Ph.D. After the 2016 election, she has recommitted herself to her art and writing as her way to make a positive impact in the world and diversify her civic engagement, while reaping the rewards of personal satisfaction in her work too.

The moral of the story is simple. Striking a positive balance in your political activism, your other civic engagement, and in your life in general in these turbulent times is important, because the compulsion to be in the fight about politics can pull you into a downward spiral of negativity that may be hard to recover from. Take it from me. Don’t let what happened to me happen to you. Diversify your life and find that positive balance, while still working to make a difference.