It is hard to know how to react in the age of President Donald Trump. But if social media is any indication, and its stranglehold on American life is not insignificant, the answer appears to be rage. Rage on all sides. Rage because of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” whether accurate or spurious. Rage over immigration, education, and public lands. Rage over insurance premiums and healthcare. Rage over the denigration of religious groups, refugees, allies, neighbors, and friends.
Maybe Trump said it best in an interview with ABC News’ David Muir, “The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets. What, you think this is going to cause a little more anger? The world is an angry place.” At the time, Trump was discussing potential consequences of his now-signed executive order temporarily banning refugees and immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries. However, his statement implicates a broader meaning. That, all things being equal, what’s a little more anger? What harm can a little more rage do in such an angry world?
But this article is not about what I believe to be Trump’s harmful world view, although his election is a symptom of our addiction to anger and indignation. Neither is it intended as an attack on either end of the political spectrum, although I acknowledge my own bias and its influence. It is, I hope, an alternative to the political and social rage that appears to have captured our country.
I am not immune to rage. I’ve felt it, not least over the course of the last few polarizing weeks, months, and years. I have grimaced while reading the opinions of those with whom I disagree. I have struggled to reconcile the respect and affection I have for some with the fact that we are at odds on so many meaningful issues. And being unable to align wholesale with any political affiliation, I’ve found myself disappointed and angered by politicians of all stripes and proponents of every party.
But my own anger over conflicting opinions is dwarfed by the grief and frustration I’ve felt over the devaluation of decency, empathy, and compromise. Donald Trump himself — brash, taunting, and often cruel — is the embodiment of our country’s neglect toward our better natures. He won the presidency not in spite of being an impetuous bully, but because of it. America, at least in part, wanted a bully. Someone who could get the job done, politics and decorum be damned. But as the aforementioned virtues have diminished, it has become all but impossible to find common ground. And however tempting it might be to designate primary offenders, Donald Trump didn’t start this. Neither did Congress or the media. We all did.
Gridlock in Washington is not caused by rogue, contrarian legislators digging in. It is the result of constituents expressing disapproval for compromise and voting accordingly. We did this. Until working across the aisle doesn’t carry a considerable risk of political suicide, we may as well admit that we prefer gridlock to compromise.
The routine headline depictions of pundits and politicians “destroying” and “slamming” one another is not the product of an irate and out-of-touch media, it is supply and demand for a public addicted to feeling validated in a squabble. It is the base satisfaction of watching an adversary kicked when down. It is the shameful, but tempting, pleasure taken in watching a one-time rival fail in other pursuits. It is well within our power to make rage unprofitable, but we have done the opposite. We are hooked on watching and disseminating the sensational “American carnage,” to borrow a phrase.
Our increasing inability to accept one another, though different, as earnest and well-meaning has made our social and political landscape toxic. And it has become increasingly difficult to accept one another as well-meaning because, sometimes, we simply aren’t. Our dedication to self-validation has overcome our commitment to decency, understanding, and good faith.
There is, perhaps, no better example than the debate over abortion, where morality and policy have become inextricably linked. Pro-life proponents routinely vilify their detractors as vile baby-murderers without conscience. Pro-choice proponents just-as-routinely demonize their detractors as tyrannical zealots without compassion. So often missing is the acknowledgment that both sides are generally earnest in concerns over a meaningful problem. So often missing is the empathy required to accept that good and reasonable people can reach vastly different conclusions on divisive subjects, informed by unique personal experience. We have stopped sincerely wondering “why” people feel the way they do because the exercise is not always politically expedient. Instead our energies are spent on effective ways to assassinate a rival’s character.
There are certainly lines in the sand that should not be crossed. The resurgence of white nationalism, to name one example, is concerning. No room should be made for racial or religious intolerance and hatred. I am likewise concerned when public servants lie, boldly and demonstrably, in furtherance of a political agenda. The truth should be broadcast in response. Similarly, ambivalence or contempt for separation of powers or a free press need not be quietly tolerated by anyone who values democracy. But anger can’t defeat these negative trends. Even something as vile as racism is ultimately just a symptom of the absence of empathy, understanding, and reason. Racism, like any social vice, cannot be defeated by endless, reactionary rage. It can only be treated socially over time, if not eliminated, by effort toward understanding between reasonable people.
And, yes, even Donald Trump cannot be defeated by unleashing reactionary rage, equal and opposite, upon his supporters. Even if possible, it would be a fleeting victory. Take a stand, by all means. But the most durable legs to stand on are decency, reason, empathy, and reliable data.
I am not suggesting that we cannot disagree, even spiritedly. I am proposing that we can disagree differently. I am proposing that we can debate without succumbing to anger. I believe reasonable people of all persuasions can fight the urge to act out of petty indignation or spite. I am suggesting that we choose to assume good faith and move forward with empathy, even if that assumption is not always accurate or returned. I am hopeful that we can choose to inject confidence in trustworthy institutions to help guide policy and resist the guilty pleasure of confirmation bias. In so doing, we can replace rage with verifiable data and information. I am a proponent of a country where unity is an abject possibility by incentivizing acceptable compromise and reason through the representatives we elect.
My fear is that the response to Trump’s presidency will be a chain of perpetual rage. That the opposition will ride on the same anger and toxicity that gave him rise only to be returned in kind. But the enemy is not conservatism or liberalism, it is the disintegration of reason, understanding, objective truth, and decency. Instead of generating more anger, which Trump would agree we are in plentiful supply, we must install reason, empathy, and good faith between the differences that define our unique place in the world and in history.