What cosmic interruption, dark hole, or time warp brought us to this place? In less than a decade we have slipped the bonds of reason and descended into chaos. Up is down, right is wrong, character is caricature, and truth malleable as bluster and buffoonery occupy center stage.
What happened? Where did we go wrong? To suddenly change from Obama to Trump, a remarkable switch from adult to child, serious to inane, and impressive to depressive in one unbelievable election cycle. When did the wheels come off? Did gridlock and the partisanship that paralyzed government create the climate? Or was it self-interest overriding common good? Both were instrumental in taking us to the edge. The Siamese twins, anger and blame, pushed us over.
No matter how much progress we seem to make, there is always something or someone to remind us we are all flawed human beings with most struggling to first recognize, then control, and hopefully master their weaknesses. Some are overwhelmed by them and others are seemingly incapable of acknowledging them. Character requires self-awareness, moral values, humility, and integrity. I fear our president possesses none of these qualities.
His self-awareness is limited to his ego; absent are more important self-critical components including a degree of objectivity that permits an honest assessment of one’s own behavior. His moral values seem to be built around himself. Whatever satisfies his ego is right. Assaults on his ego are wrong or fake. He sees humility as weakness and integrity as anything he can get away with.
But how was he elected? What motivated those who voted for him? Most assume voters support candidates they agree with or who represents their interests. But this assumes that voters are reasonably well informed about issues and policies. Research seems to suggest otherwise, that elections are less cerebral and more likely based on an emotional response. Voters individually and collectively support those who reflect their own feelings be it anger, rejection, pessimism on the one hand ,or hope, optimism, and confidence, on the other.
Many Trump voters shared an anger over immigration, loss of jobs, depressed communities, welfare cheats, crime, drugs, family dysfunction, and political correctness. Other, more affluent supporters were angry at taxes, subsidies to the poor and dispossessed, red tape, cost of living, public safety, the size and ineffectiveness of government. What they had in common was anger and the need to place blame. Despite their differences, they shared a grievance and sobvious targets: a government that was remote, unpopular, ineffective, and the elites that ran it.
Along came Trump, a billionaire marketing genius who saw the frustration, ignited it, fanning the flames of discontent. He personified their anger; and validated their distress by attacking all their perceived instruments of oppression, real or imagined. For him, it was direct, gritty and personal, not a policy debate. He was their champion and he knew that emotion was what they craved. Unfortunately, it was all he had to give. A master of form but lacking in substance, once elected he demonstrated just how ill equipped he is to lead. His election proves just how visceral the process can be.
Those that stress policy and overlook the emotional component in an election are likely to fail. Emotional appeal need not be shallow or misguided. It can be both effective and uplifting as was Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to “the better angels of our being” or John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” However, a darker appeal to anger and blame with all its distortions is dangerous.
This election demonstrated we are not as exceptional as we like to believe. Elemental, tribal instincts lie just below the surface. When frustration becomes anger, it is much easier to look for someone or something to blame. By projecting our own failings, we are able to view ourselves as victims. Introspection is difficult because it requires an honest assessment of our own behavior and limits the ability to lay off responsibility on others.