What if Trump is not the real problem?
Melville once praised the kind of character in fiction who functions as a Drummond light, a bright beam that illuminates others. Suppose Trump’s gift to the country is holding up a mirror to our gravest faults, faults that evolved before he ran for President and will remain after he leaves office.
Certainly, Trump has illuminated people’s anger and resentment that are rooted in their own pains and disappointments. He has both fanned those flames and exploited them. But beyond those sentiments there lies a kind of thinking that makes those feelings possible and that fails to check them when they arise.
In Search for a Method, Sartre criticizes certain Marxists for losing touch with reality “by violating experience, by overlooking embarrassing details, by grossly simplifying the data, and above all, by conceptualizing the event before having studied it.”
Conceptualizing before studying (if studying at all) — that indeed characterizes much of our political and social thinking in America today. We know before we look, and if we look at all, we see only what confirms our view. What is complex, we see as simple. What challenges our views, we dismiss. What is a mosaic of grays, we see as black and white. What is morally ambiguous, we see as absolute.
One of the most compelling speakers I heard in the past few years was Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He emphasized proximity, the necessity of our getting close to those who suffer in order to understand as best we can what is it like to be them. We must get proximate to the undocumented families who live in anxiety at being deported as well as former steelworkers seeking work in a fast food joint for a third their former wage. We have to get proximate to the young gang member and to the privileged student contemplating suicide. Those of us who oppose Trump need to get proximate to those who support him.
What I find so dispiriting about political discourse these days is that as soon as a news story breaks, whether it is the incident involving high school boys from Covington Catholic, the reported attack on Jussie Smollett, or a shooting of a civilian by a police officer, the sides are chosen before the facts are fully known and the complex situation adequately analyzed. When facts do emerge, each side seems willing, as Sartre said, to oversimplify, ignore, or twist any facts that challenge their position. This phenomenon seems to be feeding off of itself and becoming worse. Every inquiry becomes a battle, and in every battle the sides are constituted before the inquiry takes place. We are becoming a nation of jurors who decide the verdict before the trial begins. Concluding before we think not only prevents our reaching truthful, intelligent conclusions about complex issues, but it prevents what could be heartfelt, challenging discussions among people. Instead, we march into battle, denouncing our opponents, calling them names, and basking in our own sense of righteousness. The social fabric continues to fray.
What Sartre called a priorism is a virus infecting American thought today. It abounds among Trump supporters and Fox news, but there are abundant examples on the left as well. It is seen among the regular folk as well as among the intelligentsia. I do not know how we slid into this mode of thinking, and I do not know how we can overcome it. But for starters, we need to recognize it and we need to vow to do better. We need to investigate reality for the real, true stories — complex, messy, and often unexpected.
So when Trump speaks — and apparently thinks — without proximity, without sustained analysis, and without even basic facts, he is carrying to an extreme what has become widespread in our society. Those are the habits of mind he has illuminated, and those are the habits of mind we must change. It is not just particular policies that are at stake; it is the future of our democracy.