Last Wednesday, January 6, 2021 (Three Kings’ Day for the record) saw an unprecedented attack on the US Capitol by a mob of right-wing supporters of President Trump. This heinous act followed months of deplorable behavior as Trump refused to concede the election he lost (abetted by many in the Republican Party) and whipped up his base with delusions of a stolen victory. I wish I could say this was the capstone of a tumultuous path for the United States, but I fear it is not. The fraying of our social fabric did not begin with Trump nor, frankly, will it simply go away if he definitively leaves the political scene. I worry that the future holds a pattern of careening from one crisis to another without us being able to learn from them.
The current US crisis is that it is swamped with anger and hate.
I am a psychologist who, among other things, studies the way in which psychology intersects with history. I recently wrote a book How Madness Shapes History that, among other things, covered the Trump administration (at least until I’d finished writing it in 2019) and the reaction to it on the left. Frankly, I’ve been struggling to think of what to say about the Capitol incident that will actually help. And what I mean by this is, when I go on social media most of what I see is anger. There are some voices calling for calm, unity, and togetherness, but that doesn’t seem to be where the social capital is. This is not to say that anger isn’t justified or understandable…my question is whether it is helping or making things worse. Thus, I have two lines of thought I wish to share.
First, let me talk a bit about Trump. Part of the thesis of my book is that individuals (Great Persons or, perhaps, Lousy Persons) do matter to the course of history. Nations and societies and cultures can find themselves at crisis points. Into such crisis points specific individuals may step and the decisions of those individuals can have tremendous impact on that society moving forward. When a culture is fortunate (as we were with, say, our nation’s founders or Abraham Lincoln) the crisis can be resolved, and we move forward more positively as a nation. But when the wrong person steps into this moment, the crisis worsens and the society, nation or culture becomes weaker.
Trump, clearly, was the wrong person for our current moment. As I note in my book, Trump in his public behavior, appears to have the qualities of a vulnerable or fragile narcissist. I don’t believe Trump’s worldview is guided by any coherent ideology, whether we seek to call that fascism or anything else. Trump simply exists for Trump and, like water, his decisions are simply calculated to move himself downstream toward more money, fame, and adoration. Exactly what it takes to get there is irrelevant. When he is criticized, he lashes out as vulnerable narcissists do, seeking to destroy, in the crudest possible ways, the source of that which offends him. Unable to accept defeat, willing to obliterate the values of our nation to avoid personal humiliation, he is dangerously destructive to our country. If there is a way to legally prevent him from engaging in presidential politics again, it should be taken.
Our anger is not helping
I sometimes think of who are the worst US presidents. These last four years, I generally estimated Trump would likely be judged by future historians among the worst five or ten (there were some serious lemons in the early-20th and mid-19th century.) Now I struggle to think of a president who has so endangered our civic norms.
But here I wish to stop and say to my conservative readers: my critique of Trump is not aimed at you. I understand that you voted for him out of good-faith concerns regarding the direction our country has taken. Do I agree with you on all or most of these? No. But I do not hate you. I am not angry at you. I do not think you are a bad person, even if I think you were wrong in this instant. I hope you will offer me the same courtesy: perhaps you feel my analysis has overlooked important points and, perhaps I have. But I hope you will see me as a human being, trying to understand this crisis in good faith. We may disagree, but I am not your enemy.
This brings me to my next point: Trump has undoubtedly made our crisis seriously, exponentially worse. But he was not the origin of it, nor as he leaves the scene, will our crisis miraculously go away. At the core, our society has become filled with anger. No longer do we fear the Soviets or the Nazis or the fundamentalist terrorists. Now we look on each other with hatred and revulsion, splitting into tribes, with anger and righteous moral grandstanding the coin of the day.
Consider the main narratives that increasingly have purchase. On the right, huge swaths of Republicans endorsed the conspiracy theory that Trump had somehow won the election, only to have it stolen from him, despite not a single court or other independent source (including many Republican election officials) substantiating such claims. Perhaps less prevalent is the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory involving some kind of widespread pedophile ring among politicians and celebrities (pedophile conspiracy theories are hardly new, of course). Many people on the right believe the US has become a corrupt, evil, deep-state regime that needs overthrow, hence the riot at the US Capital.
But, does the Left have a positive worldview to offer as an alternative? Increasingly, no. Over decades, the Left has increasingly engaged in what I refer to as “reversed American exceptionalism,” portraying the US and its history as nihilistically negative, permanently stained by racism and sexism, with leftist worldviews themselves leaning toward authoritarianism, censorship and moral puritanism.
politicians put party above nation.
Are these equivalent? Is one “more bad” than the other? Maybe. But that’s the wrong discussion in my view. These worldviews are both cancerous for our nation’s health. We need to be honest about our shortcomings, absolutely, but we must not be blind either to our victories, advances and successes.
Increasingly, we are left to choose between these two destructive (and empirically and historically false) worldviews. If we pick one, we become a member of that “tribe,” should never question its tenets and, as a rule, must hate those in the other tribe. If we don’t pick one, it can seem we’re left out of power and social influence altogether.
Put simply, the current US crisis is that it is swamped with anger and hate. To be clear, it is not my position that the US has no practical problems that need to be addressed. On the contrary, I believe issues of climate change, criminal justice reform, free speech, the influence of big tech, educational disparities, spiraling college costs, health care, etc., are all important issues. But our anger is not helping and, I think, demonstrably making things worse. We need to be open to data, even when that is complex and nuanced, and put into place practical solutions to our problems.
We can hope that a Great Person or Persons will finally step up and lead us forward. Is Joe Biden that person? I sincerely hope so but, frankly, only time will tell. We should encourage people with good ideas, courage, and love for all our citizens to step into the political process. We need a different class of politician, not just those who pander to our most extreme vices. If I were to offer a radical idea it would be to ditch political parties altogether, though I’m aware what a pipe dream that is. Too often, politicians put party above nation.
What can we do as individuals? Every day we make small decisions. Every day we (and I’m no exception) put anger out into the world. On social media, in our workplaces, in our conversations. But every day we can decide not to do this. Maybe we shouldn’t get right on social media to show our tribe how virtuous we are that we’re on the “right” side of history. Right now, none of us are on the right side of history. Instead…when we want to express hate, find a way to express love instead. Let us apologize to someone we’ve hurt. Let someone know we appreciate them. Lend someone a hand when there’s nothing in it for us. Little decisions by individuals add up. And they can make America great again. Let’s not let the devil on our shoulder get the better of us but, instead, show those around us the better angels of our nature.