“Thank God for Donald Trump” was a sentiment that derived from a most unlikely source.
I was teaching a conflict resolution workshop to a group of Rotaracts (high school aged pre-Rotarians) at the Rotary International Peace Conference, and — since Rotarians are world renowned do-gooders who put “service before self” — I felt like I had a hall pass to take these young peace advocates deeper than your average high school class. We were moving through a section on emotional intelligence, empathic listening, and exploring what you can learn about someone’s needs if you aren’t preoccupied with being hurt by their language. After an impassioned discussion about cyber bullying and disparaging remarks made about Islam, a young Muslim girl in the front row looked up at me and asked in an inquisitive, challenging tone, “So what you are saying is…thank God for Donald Trump?”
I stood awkwardly in front of the room filled with high schoolers –a firing squad of eyeballs waiting to see if I actually believed what I preached. I took a deep breath, swallowed hard and said, “Yes.” The class giggled acceptingly in response and leaned in closer.
It is, after all, a logical fallacy to think that if Donald Trump were to disappear, so too would racism, bigotry, misogyny and distrust of a centralized government. That all of a sudden, “Poof!”, people would cease to feel marginalized, disenfranchised and dehumanized. After all, the man isn’t saying anything not already growled over dinner tables or joked about in bars. He is simply saying it openly and bombastically over the airwaves, and it echoes unavoidably through every form of media — social or otherwise.
Trump’s fiery rhetoric and his movement expose a deep wound in our country that has existed nearly since its inception. The Civil War was the first manifestation of this divide. Fittingly, that war didn’t end with an actual peace treaty at the Appomattox — merely a forced promise to surrender. For many, the resistance never ended. And, despite the best of intentions, Reconstruction was not reconciliation. The process did little to unite our country in more than words and titles. This chasm is further evidenced in Hollywood film productions; what is the easiest way to make a person sound stupid and low class? Give him a Southern accent.
It is impossible to know if Donald Trump actually believes what is coming out of his own mouth. What he has mastered, however, is the ability to give a voice to his following and to those who have never before felt heard. It has never been okay to speak these concerns out loud; rather, political correctness has banished these sentiments to silence in the public arena. Donald Trump says to hell with those shackles and speaks whatever comes to mind or is channeled from his audience. AND IT FEELS GOOD TO BE HEARD. If you need proof, you need only look at footage of his rallies. Thousands upon thousands of frenzied supporters are ready to go to war for a man because he gives voice to their anger and frustration.
But is anyone outside of the melee truly listening? The befuddled Republican establishment scrabbles to redirect that anger toward Obama, Hillary and the Liberals. The shocked Democrats do their best to marginalize and dismiss the movement with all-encompassing words like “hate speech”, “bigotry”, “racism”, and placing them in a “basket of deplorables.” The shunned and lambasted media fight back by fact-checking and making futile attempts to chip away at his integrity and business dealings — as if his personal character make his words less true to his followers. Again I ask, is anyone truly listening?
One thing I know as a mediator is that no one who feels listened to needs to raise their voice. And no one bothers to raise their voice if they are not passionate about their words. It is clear from the television set that Trump’s followers exemplify BOTH these truths. What we also know about the human brain is that when we feel threatened, our cognitive thought process shuts down and impairs our ability to fully listen. Donald Trump’s words are undeniably offensive to many people. In his proven calculation, unscripted, raw, offensive language is guaranteed to be heard and repeated. The greater the perceived impact, the greater the cheers at the rallies and retweets on his Twitter account. Ironically, the opposite is occurring with respect to others’ ability to truly hear him or his followers. This latter fact may not be Trump’s concern, but it definitely should be ours.
One thing we would hear in the anger (if we could listen) would be fear. REAL FEAR. Fear that we are living in a changing world where our neighbors, employers and leaders no longer look or speak like we do. There is, after all, a black president of the United States and a woman running to succeed him; both would have been inconceivable a generation ago. There are people permanently losing their jobs to foreigners who speak, eat, and act differently than we do, and technology is replacing us through automation. These fears are not unfounded or immaterial — they are real, they are concrete, and they are happening now.
If we had the ability to acknowledge this fear, what we might be able to see beneath that fear is care — care for our families, our way of life, our values, our religious beliefs, our identity. It is true, we will not be able to raise our children in the same world, in the same way or in the same environment in which our parents raised us. That fact is terrifying to some people. Moreover, if all I know is how to build cars, how will I feed my family and maintain my sense of purpose when I can be replaced by someone able to work for less or a robot that is twice as efficient? Where can I find hope if I can’t even provide for my family?
How would you respond if instead of hate, anger or even fear, you heard care in their words?
Yes, it can be said that Trump’s words are bigoted, hateful and racist. But why those labels are not helpful — and even naively dangerous — is because they let us off the hook from asking the more important question: what lies behind them? If we label someone a bigot, it gives us a pass from having to ask the deeper, more dangerous questions of how they got there and what is fueling their passion. More importantly and more conveniently, it enables us to excuse ourselves from trying to relate to them. Ironically, we become guilty of the same accusation of exclusion when we make Trump supporters “The Others.” To look at someone who is angry and slinging hurtful, shallow language, and then to take a look at ourselves and recognize our own fears is a risky and challenging proposal. But it is perhaps the only productive solution to start healing the divide that this election season has brought to light in our country and around the word.
We cannot solve a problem if we are unwilling or unable to talk about in a public forum. Pretending that there isn’t a problem isn’t a solution. So yes, thank God for Donald Trump. Thank him for having the unique ability, bravado and fortitude to be the mouth piece for millions of Americans who are living in fear of losing their identity and way of life. I am not advocating that you must like him or his politics, but can we set aside our hurt and outrage long enough to listen with compassion, empathy and an open heart?
I admit empathy does not feel like a trustworthy weapon against hateful slurs, ignorant sounding rants and death threats. Indeed, the path to healing our nation will not be linear, nor will it come quickly. Peace, however, starts in our own hearts and overflows incrementally into our local community before it can happen nationally. If enough of us have the courage to ask authentic questions in the face of anger along with the compassion to truly hear the answer, we might just have a chance.