Towards a healthy response to Donald Trump

How the Tibetan Buddhist concept of “shenpa” can be useful to those fighting for economic and social justice

Donald Trump at a rally in New Hampshire in early 2016.

It certainly feels like the volume on the U.S. presidential election has been dialed up yet again. Last Friday night, protesters in Chicago, many of them local students of color, shut down a rally for GOP front-runner and billionaire Donald Trump. The arena fell into chaos. Fortunately, despite thousands of people inside and outside, only three people were injured.

For most of Saturday morning I poured over videos, hot takes, and Twitter to better understand what happened. A scene from a Trump rally that morning crystallizes the growing fear and anxiety swirling around the race. A woman screamed and the billionaire turned and ducked into the arms of a Secret Service agent. The protester who had jumped on stage didn’t make it past security.

Spooked, Trump told the crowd, “I was ready for him, but it’s much easier if the cops do it.”

I felt afraid as I looked for an authority to explain the chaos. It was the same fear in his supporters that Trump was pandering to when he mentioned the cops. And it was a textbook example of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of shenpa, which can be translated as “attachment,” or as Pema Chödrön says, “hooked.”

“Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief.”

Shenpa appears as a feeling of tightness and defensiveness when we feel threatened. My most acute shenpa comes from slipping into familiar arguments with my parents, a former lover, or an old friend. I lose myself for a bit trying to really, truly, finally convince them that I’m right and they’re wrong. There’s no play in the conversation — I’m hooked.

On Saturday I was reaching for more and more information, more context. More videos, more tweets, more GIFs — really, more chaos. The billionaire ducked again and again, and I laughed but felt nervous. An hour passed before I noticed the shenpa. The impulse to share the videos and stories came up, but I chose not to feed the spectacle.

Now, sharing information with our networks is important work. The protest emerged out of ongoing struggles against Chicago’s Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, particularly his neoliberal politics and refusal to truly respond to the city’s racial injustice. The organizations involved appear to be diverse — one protester called the protest a “loose amalgam of labor, women, immigration, students, and Black Lives Matter activists.” There’s no doubt they’d put in the hard work of organizing together before Friday night, which is why they stopped the rally not with violence but with a different sort of power. This story must be told.

But how do we show solidarity with struggles for justice without being hooked?

We should support those organizations as much as we are able to online and through friends of friends, and we should support those in our own community doing similar work. Black Lives Matter DMV and Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) are two of the many ways to get involved in DC, for example. And we should organize against neoliberalism in our own communities, i.e., against the privatization of public services and austerity. For example, in DC, we should support — or at least repeatedly tell the story of — the drivers of the new streetcars that just voted to join a local union.

To our friends, families, and neighbors, we must actively push back if anyone conflates the diverse struggle for liberation with the racist, reactionary politics that Trump is stoking. He’s providing answers — albeit the wrong ones — to the already racist sections of the white working class that have been crushed themselves by almost four decades of austerity, “free trade,” and warfare on unions. Bernie Sanders isn’t the mirror image of Donald Trump, and the protesters aren’t mirror images of Trump’s mad supporters.

And we should remember that presidential politics is mostly spectacle and directs our attention away from the everyday work that provides the foundation for politics in the first place. Aside from the occasional vote, elections are roller-coasters of polls, debates, speeches, Twitter fights, hot takes, protests, and whatever establishment media considers “breaking” news. This roller-coaster, despite the ride, sits miles above the struggle to build community and solidarity.

Yet not getting hung up in it, not being tossed away by the ups and downs, is yet another struggle.

Being tossed away means that we’ve been convinced by the delusion, that those other people are our enemies, and our only options are to either give up or strike back. But there is a middle way: solidarity with those on the front lines — especially people of color for which the racism Trump is pandering to is and has been a real, physical threat.

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