I’m back in the USA after 30 years to figure out why our country is going insane—and what we can do about it

When emotions trump facts, our precious brains won’t save us. If we want to preserve this imperfect union, our only way forward is through the heart.

I thought I’d seen everything, my friends.

I lived for 25 years in Budapest, where I watched in slack-jawed horror as a radical right-wing demagogue captured a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament, rewrote the constitution, and castrated the opposition media.

Thirty years ago, I arrived in Skopje, Macedonia as a university exchange student and hung around to witness the breakup of Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing and the NATO bombing of my then-girlfriend’s family home.

Yeah. My life choices don’t make much sense to me either, but in case you think I’m making this up, here’s an embarrassing photo from 30 years ago.

(Back in the days when I still had a full head of hair.)

1986 — Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje — full head of hair

Why am I telling you my story?

It breaks my heart to watch this happening in this country—our country.

I always understood we had a crazy streak, but never in my wildest, most paranoid liberal ravings did I imagine we would elect a full-blown narcissistic demagogue for President of the United States of America.

Nor did I expect that my experiences living under totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe might one day prove useful to my family and friends back home in the good old US of A.

But here we are. That happened. (It is happening.)

In my 53 years on this planet, I have watched dictators come and go. For what it’s worth, I’ve studied history and I earned a degree in International Relations. I believe I know a political con artist when I see one.

I will assume you’re intelligent and educated, which means you’re screwed. People like us expect reason to prevail, and that’s our fatal weakness.

To find a way forward, we need to understand how we got here.

The demagogue appeals to our basest emotions

Smart people think the world’s problems can be solved with brainpower. We always expect the most reasonable argument to win.

That’s usually the case, until one day it isn’t.

We get hung up on words. We analyze the public statements of the leader. We forward news articles on Facebook to our friends. We write blog posts.

None of that makes a difference to the demagogue and his followers.

You and I argue about the rules, while the leader breaks every one, and his followers cheer him on. They actually enjoy watching liberals freak out.

The leader speaks to his crowd in emotional code which strikes so-called intelligent people as madness. We never take him seriously, until it’s too late.

How do you spot a demagogue? You start by asking yourself this question: What quality of emotions does the leader inspire in his followers?

A leader who obtains power by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace.

The demagogue speaks to the worst fears of his crowd, their most grotesque fantasies. He conjures up a nightmare world, and promises to fix it.

He channels the frustrations of simple people, stokes them into a glowing rage and directs that righteous anger at an Other, who they can blame.

The demagogue has a simple answer, which is of course himself. He is the best at everything. He will solve our problems. It’s all going to be terrific.

The demagogue speaks to his followers on the level of raw emotion. Forget logic or reason. It doesn’t matter what he says — but how he says it.

The demagogue can contradict himself from one day to the next and nobody even cares. If you don’t believe me, take a few minutes to watch this clip.

“Politicians aren’t supposed to be honest about their lying”

The demagogue uses our emotions against us

A sure sign of a demagogue is that he inspires negative emotions in his followers. You know the ones: fear, anger, hate, greed, lust, envy, etc.

Our negative emotions short-circuit the rational brain, and cloud our judgement. This is how the demagogue gains power.

Fearful people are easy to manipulate. An angry mob can be incited to violence. A greedy mark falls victim to the con. Each and every time.

With a moment’s reflection, you know this to be true. When was the last time you made a wise decision in anger?

Yup. Me neither.

An angry person is not convinced by logic; We cannot debate a mob.

When emotions trump facts, the only way forward is through the heart.

United we stand, divided we fall

In every unhappy marriage there comes a point when the warring couple can no longer exchange two sentences without an argument.

I fear that as a country we are reaching a point of no return, whatever that means. I recently heard someone call this a Cold Civil War.

It’s easy to be cynical. It’s tempting to numb out and ignore the everyday horrors in the media. It feels natural to hate those morons who voted for a megalomaniac. But that doesn’t get us anywhere.

The demagogue wants to divide us. That’s his way.

The demagogue provokes us to meet anger with anger, and hate with hate. If he can keep us afraid and divided, he can claim our power.

I don’t know about you, but I refuse to live in that world.

I refuse to surrender my power to the dictator and his twisted reality.

We don’t have to buy into the nightmare

I can’t guess what will happen if or when the leader takes power. I don’t know whether he can be stopped. These things are out of my control.

I can’t solve the problems of the world, but I can share my light with those around me who are ready to receive it and pass it on. And so can you.

I don’t give a damn if I sound silly or sappy or kumbaya, but I believe in the power of love. I declare myself ready to listen and embrace and forgive. I won’t give up, no matter what. My heart is open.

Did you hear that?

Those were the cynical grunts of 10,000 readers who think those sentiments I just expressed are pathetic and useless. I can accept that.

I believe there are enough people like you and me to make a difference.

Color me naive, but I believe the power of love trumps hate.

I cannot promise this work will be easy. I do not have all the answers. I am counting on you and many others to figure out the answers with me.

I don’t see any alternative, but to reach out to others with my heart.

Working from the heart begins with compassion

If the demagogue is working to divide us as a country, we can only reclaim our power by joining hands in unity. We must seek common ground, especially with those who disagree with our views.

Clever arguments will not bridge our differences. If our very survival is at stake, then it no longer matters who is right or wrong.

Working from the heart means we must cultivate compassion.

sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

Many a concerned journalist has traveled to Flyover Country to investigate the causes of the rural conservative voter’s discontent. That’s a good start.

The best explanation I see is 30 years of right-wing rage media.

Media plays a major role in how we create our perception of the world.

Fox News likes to criticize the so-called mainstream media, but in 2016, Fox itself is now the largest cable news network in the United States with 11.3 million viewers, according to Nielson.

It breaks my heart to consider how many millions of people watch this nightmare world of horrors in their daily media and believe it to be real.

To believe in that nightmare world means to suffer terribly. Once we see that suffering clearly, it is impossible to hate these people. That is compassion.

Watch this video and see for yourself.

“Trust no one, say no to everything, shut down the government if you have to”