What Have We (Really) Learned From Trump?

I’ll Give You Three Guesses

I hear it a thousand times a day. Trump bad! Rarrrr!! Sure, yawn, not the point. Trump is a reflection, just like any leader. So the real question is: what have Americans really learned from the disaster of electing Trump? If you ask me…nothing yet. Let’s do a quick reality check, with a few simple precepts for human organization.

Bigotry is a waste of human life. I know. You think you know. You think you’re not. And yet. I was reading recent research that shows even on social media, white dudes disproportionately win. We have rebuilt exactly the same bigoted society online, too. Our actions speak louder than our words. Those actions just go on reproducing the same old inequities…even in virtuality. And that’s leaving aside the dire state of real America, where minorities are excluded in every conceivable way, resulting in a stratified society with little cohesion and massive wealth gaps. Bigotry is bad, folks. Really. It stops societies from being societies, organizations from growing, economies from prospering, people — both bigot and victim — from living. Have we learned this yet? We say we have. But let’s be real: we haven’t.

Outrage minus vision equals nothing. Every reasonable person knows Trump’s a bad leader. So what? The question is: where are better ones? As far as I can see…nowhere. Nowhere accessible, that is. Bernie got destroyed by the machine, Hillary got destroyed by the next machine. Meanwhile, instead of trying to fix those broken machines, the daily outrage cycle keeps us entertained…titillated…amused…terrified. The result is that we’ve gone nowhere, fast. We need to fix those broken organizations — from political parties to lobbies to thinktanks to media — to ever have a working society again. So far, we’re not. We let them vent our outrage for us and think that’s good enough. It isn’t. We let the Ross Douthats of the world write the same old column over and over forever, and read it every week, nodding sagely, as if it said something worth reading. It doesn’t. Our social, intellectual, and cultural machines don’t work anymore, and the vivid evidence is the total lack of even the scarcest shred of a vision of any kind to fix, heal, renew, a profoundly broken society.

Broken systems don’t get fixed by the problems they made. The Democrats plan to “take down” Trump appears to be “get him on a legal technicality, somehow”. Look. Trumps don’t happen unless institutions — the rule of law, political parties on both left and right, Congress — are broken. So relying on those very same institutions to take down Trumps probably isn’t going to work. It’s like hoping that your junked out jalopy is one day going to help you escape climate change’s tsunami. More than likely, it’s not gonna start. And yet, we place our faith in the very failed institutions that let demagoguery arise…to stop demagoguery. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

So forgive me. I don’t think we’ve learned anything at all from Trump’s rise, yet. Can we?

In the end, a demagogue is a kind of karma for a society. The rise of a tinpot dictator tells us that a society has grown too proud, too foolish, and probably too patriotic — too attached to dead heroes and idealized ancestors — for its own good. That it is blind to its flaws and unable to see its possibilities. That kind of karma is hard to stomach. But it’s necessary for a society, an organization, even a person, to grow.

We often think: we make mistakes, and then maybe we learn things. But it’s truer to say: mistakes happen when we need to learn things. Wisdom is understanding the difference. So far, we don’t.

July 2017