Compassion for Trump

Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. — Rainer Maria Rilke

It’s going to take decades to wade through everything everyone has to say about Donald Trump, and I can’t believe I’ve somehow decided to throw a hat in the ring that goes beyond a throwaway tweet. Not only are there hundreds of pieces breaking down the Donald Trump phenomenon, but by this point I’m probably also adding to the pile of pieces that go meta from the outset and acknowledge this fact. But I wanted to write something because I think there’s an angle to the whole story that hasn’t been adequately represented: the idea that we should have compassion for Donald Trump.

Depending on who you are that might be easier said than done. It’s hard enough to fathom feeling compassion for this man as a simple Canadian bystander, horrified by what his nomination represents and what kind of impact his possible election could have on the world. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who is part of a group that he has attacked, or who has been personally hurt, wronged or abused by him in one way or another over the years. (And by all accounts there are scores of these people; maybe you’re one of them.) Yet it’s this more direct, human angle that I feel compelled to address.

The profiles of Trump all say the same things, partly because he’s such a caricature and offers so many textbook examples of neurotic, frustrated, immature behaviour. Back in March Bill Maher said that “what Donald Trump really reminds me of is a spoiled 5-year-old throwing a tantrum. He is the grown-up version of every pain-in-the-ass kid who ever sat behind you on a plane kicking the back of your seat.” I think it’s absolutely true, that Trump is like a child, but it’s a point that I think needs to be explored beyond the surface.

We’ve all been children, and we all grow up whether we like it or not. But that doesn’t mean we always learn how to be mature adults, and it doesn’t mean we figure out what to do with our suffering and our anger and our need for love. I don’t believe that people come into this world predestined for malevolence or pettiness. I don’t believe that the world is some kind of benign, kind place either, but I do believe that humans are inherently good, and that Donald Trump was once a little kid who needed someone’s calm, accepting love, and probably didn’t get it.

I don’t think I’d face much resistance making that case, except from all the so-called ‘supporters’ who might argue that Trump is a happy, well-adjusted human. But I think too many people are content with the idea that ‘sure, there might be reasons why Trump has become this monster, but a monster he is, nonetheless.’ I don’t think that goes far enough, because I don’t believe monsters can be slain with aggression, loathing, or violence. (Voting, maybe.)

Trump is dangerous, people say, because of what he enables in the darker, more confused corners of our already disembodied and disenfranchised civilization. Who are these people? That’s another one of those pieces that already has dozens of incarnations: ‘Who is the Trump supporter?’ Who are these people that scare us so, that we mock. Oddly enough I’m reminded of an incident last year during the Canadian election that seems quaint now by comparison (in a way only Canadian issues can, sometimes). An elderly, bumbling supporter of Canada’s then sitting Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, lost his cool while being interviewed by a CBC journalist and ended up calling her a ‘lying piece of shit.’ The video made the rounds on Facebook, at least in Canada, and the poor old confused man was mostly ridiculed. I’m sure I was one of the people who engaged in that self-righteous mockery. I recall a friend of mine making a comment on the video somewhere though, that said simply, ‘Someone’s grandpa.’ And that kind of hit home. These are real people who for one reason or another are angry, afraid, and sad. And it doesn’t take much to feel that way — we all do at one point or another. Some of us might be able to control our emotions to the point where we don’t end up calling a reporter a lying piece of shit in front of a camera, but that doesn’t mean we can’t relate. It doesn’t mean we can’t identify with their suffering, and suffer with them—which is what the word compassion means (from the latin “com-”, meaning “together,” and “pati-” meaning “suffering”).

The fact is, if we want to ‘do something’ about Donald Trump, then we have to do something about the people who empower him, and the people who empower those people. We have to trace that line, as remote as its origins may seem, until it reaches someone we’re actually close to. Those are the people who need our help, not our scorn.

If it seems like I’m projecting a sunny, naive perspective on the predicament we find ourselves in, I think it’s important to point out the practicality of what I’m suggesting. And that is that vitriol and ridicule and anger don’t work. I adore Jon Stewart, and I loved watching him come out of ‘retirement,’ and skewer Trump recently. But I wonder what kind of effect that really had, other than making a whole bunch of people who are already on his side feel good about themselves, and maybe laugh a little. These things do need to be said, the wrongs do need to be pointed out, and the hypocrisy revealed. But there’s a time (and an audience) for that, and there’s a time when you find yourself with a frightened child that can’t be reached with reason and logic, much less with anger.

And we are flush with that kind of predicament right now. Donald Trump might be a cartoonish embodiment of it, but the more we portray him as a some kind of unrelatable monster, the more we feed that beast. If you want to ‘do something’ about Trump, the next time someone close to you does something that reminds you of him, instead of mocking or rejecting or reflecting anger back at them, try and see if you can see their suffering under the surface, and bear it with them. It might just burn itself up, instead of spreading like wildfire.