The most important lessons I’ve learned about the real world came from fiction. As a child, shows like “X-Men” and “Star Trek” taught me that the bigots were the villains. It hurt to realize that many of my own people were just like those villains — that contrary to what many are saying, “this” is America, or at least a real part of America we should not minimize when we look at ourselves.
If you do not see evidence of violence, systemic inequality, and the rich abusing the poor in our country, then you are not listening to your fellow Americans with an open heart. Trump may have exacerbated those problems, but they apply not just to both political parties but to America as a whole. Systemic discrimination in America did not start with Trump, it has been here since day one through slavery and genocide.
It is, however, a false equivalence to say Trump’s particular brand of terrible is the same as others. Trump is a bully, and in the words of Chris Evans’ Captain America, “I don’t like bullies.” I researched the traits commonly associated with them. Bullies often demonstrate the “dark triad traits” of narcissism (excessive self-love), psychopathy (a lack of concern for morality), and Machiavellianism (manipulativeness), which have been the focus of my own research. Like many in my field, I think Trump can be described as a fragile narcissist: He lashes out against anything that makes him feel insecure, often making himself look weaker in the process.
He is also Machiavellian. He manipulated his base into supporting him through the “Make America Great Again” slogan, which always included the subtext of white supremacy. For many of his supporters, it was a clear message from Trump that he was going to take this country back from people of color, members of the LGBTQA+ community, religious minorities, and anyone who did not fit into the “earlier” ideal of what America was. Trump shows psychopathy in his total disregard for the people he hurts with his self-serving agenda, including his own supporters.
In addition to inspiring and encouraging the white supremacists, banning transgender soldiers from the military, and keeping children in cages, he totally mishandled the pandemic. His focus on whether the rich and powerful lost money and his reliance on conspiracies led to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. He was enabled by a polarized culture, such that even the Republicans who are not actively a part of his “gang” do not speak out against the conspiracies. While they are responsible for enabling him, the problem does not stop with them. We are all responsible for our current political climate.
Returning to the stories that inspired me as I got older taught me a less comfortable lesson than “bad people do bad things.” Disagreeing with the villains is not enough to make me a hero: I am also complicit in evil as I benefit passively from an evil system.
Most of us do not know what to do to be part of the solution. Calls for unity are too vague: We need specific behaviors that will help us achieve common goals. The pandemic should have been the common problem that united us; the whole purpose of building societies is to accomplish more by working together.
As a social psychologist, I look to situational forces for an answer. Research suggests that telling people what they ought to do (injunctive norms) is rarely as effective at changing behavior as the impression that everyone else is doing the desired behavior (descriptive norms). We should therefore create a political climate in which the behaviors we want to see are commonplace.
To move in that direction, we could try a graduated and reciprocated reduction in tension, according to Charles Osgood. This would call for small compromises that both sides publicly match, building up mutual trust over time. The strength of this approach is that through small, incremental compromise, you do not lose much if the other side does not reciprocate. An obvious start would be conservatives publicly embracing basic objective scientific truths and rejecting bizarre conspiracies, which really does not seem like much to ask. The world is round, wearing a mask reduces the spread of COVID-19, and white supremacists are terrorists. Just say it!
Sometimes the villains become so powerful that unlikely allies unite against them. Liz Cheney and the other nine Republican Congress members who voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment are a perfect example of the behavior we need to see. If we hope to see more of it, we need to reinforce it, which brings me to a compromise I think liberals should make.
We cannot ignore injustice; we must hold bullies of all kinds accountable, especially those in positions of power. However, we should focus more energy on celebrating good deeds than on criticizing bad ones. This isn’t about cancel-culture, coming together, or high-minded ideas about being the better person. Forget comparisons to good and evil, this is about behaviorism.
People will find ways to ignore, reflect, and get revenge for criticism but will stay consistent with their previous behavior for more praise. Frankly, I think we need to be less righteous and more pragmatic. Real-life heroes like Stacey Abrams show us that we can achieve structural change by getting more people to be part of the process. This is made more difficult when political participation feels socially risky. I believe we will accomplish more through rewarding the specific behaviors we want to see. Of course, this is only one possible solution, and it may be too much to hope that we can change what we have become. I think you’ll agree, though, that “we’re all desperate for a little hope.”