A contemplation on Trumpism and ourselves
These days, the world is watching an increasingly heated civil war within the Republican Party. Professional political observants pose the question if the Republicans will get rid of Donald Trump, and, with it, Trumpism. Or if the Republican Party cannot put the Djinn of Trumpism back into its bottle, thus unable to return to its allegedly less radical roots.
From an outside perspective, this debate seems riddled with faulty assumptions:
1. The history-distorting idea that the Republican Party was “moderate” before Donald Trump’s presidency.
2. The hypothesis that Trumpism is a coherent ideology that can be neatly distinguished from traditional Republicanism (indeed, that it is somehow not “Republican”, but something else).
3. The idea that Donald Trump, as a person, is the problem that must be tackled and that Trumpism will go away once Donald Trump releases his stronghold of the party.
Behind all these ideas lie further core assumption: that the two-party-system of US democracy is functional at its core and can be restored within its existing parameters. That restauration, not transformation will fix what is broken. That it is possible to go back to a status quo ante in complex systems.
All these assumptions are wrong. Among them, I find one especially worrying. Namely, the deep-lying hope that Trumpism will end with Trump’s success as active politician; that “it” will be over at some point in the near future. The hope that they, somehow, will change.
This text assumes that Trumpism will remain, and be it under a different name, as it is the expression of deeper systemic dynamic. Just like other nationalistic brands of populist politics, it is a specific expression of emotions and energies hyper-present in our world: anger, hate, fear, confusion. A powerful bundle that is, and will remain, something to deal with.
Which brings us to this text’s question: is there a better way to “deal with” the Trumps and the Trumpists of this world than to hope that they, somehow and miraculously, go away?
Five years ago, the day after Donald Trump was elected, I was agonized yet not surprised. His victory, while far from inevitable, seemed like the flipside of Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. Both sides of the coin expressed parts of the USA I had learned to see as integral part of it: fear, hope; hate, love; racism, multi-culturalism; anti-intellectualism, intellectual brilliance; brutal corporatism, vibrant entrepreneurism; anti-etatism, idealistic institutionalism; isolationism, expansionsm; and so on (also see my German op-ed in Der Tagesspiegel written right after Trump’s election).
Around ten years before Donald Trump’s election, I had been a student of history in Michigan. During my studies, I inhaled quite a few books on post-war US history. I learned about how the Republican Party had cultivated the soil of what later would be called Trumpism for decades. In most of the states of the Heartland, the South and the Southwest, anti-etatism, racism, and anti-intellectualism already had been the strategy of choice of those who governed for a long time before 2016. Strategies that enabled the Republicans to gather the support of overwhelming parts of the white electorate while implementing an extremist agenda of economic anarchy and social destitution. The Republican Party thus was riddled by economic, social and ethnic extremism long before Donald Trump’s ascent as a politician.
After moving back to Berlin in 2006, I went back to the US repeatedly and travelled the country quite extensively, from West to East, North to South. I remember the conversations I had when, during my long drives through Ohio’s trailer parks, the remote forests of Tennessee, or the vast deserts of Utah, Arizona, and Western Texas.
Whether at bar counters, in diner booths, or at ice vending machines in highway motels, I heard different version of the same story. Men (mostly) and women who had been hit hard by the years of wage-stagnation and de-industrialisation; people who, while massively privileged from a global perspective, experienced their social and economic status as low and falling. Strangers who, without exception, felt unheard and disrespected by those in power, whether legitimately so or not. People who, four years after my travels, most likely voted Donald Trump into the Oval Office.
The emotion these people showed when talking to me were heart-felt. They were afraid, often angry, full of contempt for a political system that, in their eyes, did not deliver what it should. In parts rightly so, I felt. The obscene wealth of their country had passed these people by, and the promises past presidents, congressmen and senators had made remained nothing but empty words. Which resulted in — and this goes for everyone I talked to in depth — a generalised dislike of politics and politicians, and a deep, burning anger.
Despite the human connection these people and I made during our conversations, these encounters deepened my sense of separateness. I felt that they were different than me. That their anger was rawer than mine. That their fear was different than what I felt.
In retrospective, I must admit that I drew this distinction from an inner position of superiority, as if I had the right to categorize and judge these human beings only because I had, in difference to them, a college degree and a fairly bourgeois upbringing in an educated household.
The way I perceived and categorised these people was a fractal of the inner architectures of separation mainstream discourse constructed after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. After his astounding victory, we over and over again heard the story of how those who are not us voted into power something which expresses who they are, what they want, how they feel. Something we do not stand for, something we are not.
Who is us, you ask? It is our collective blind spot, the collective expression of the individual blind spot I was acting from in the conversations during my travels. We: that is the well-educated, socially and economically privileged (very, in many cases) and, in most cases, whites, who feel they are in a position to categorise and judge; who feel, on a certain level, entitled to be in power and control.
After Donald Trump’s election, this us imprinted its perspective on public discourse very powerfully. Most comments and articles about them merely pretended to analyse and understand. At its core, they did not take perspective but solidified lines of separation between us and the ones we pretended we wanted to understand better.
The image that came together was this: the disillusioned ones, the angry ones, those who feel let down made Donald Trump. He is their creature, the angry, hateful face of those we feel neither seen nor heard. Which, implicitly, also told us, reassuringly: Donald Trump expresses them, not us. His ugly face is theirs, not ours. He is not our responsibility.
But something is wrong with this picture, starting with the facts. Voter statistics, of 2016 as well as 2020, show that the popularised idea regarding who Donald Trump’s voters are (in short: white rednecks) expresses wilful blindness. Yes, the main characteristics of the Trump voter are this: white, masculine. Yet, the image of the frustrated, financially disadvantaged hillibilly is just too incomplete. When you look at income, for instance, people with family incomes between USD 100 and 200k — around 20% of US voters — voted for Trump 48:47 in 2016 and 58:41 in 2020. Voters with a household income of 200k+, around 10% of US voters, were basically tied between Democrats and Republicans in both elections. And then, education. True, whites without a college degree voted overwhelmingly for Trump. But, and this is the thing, so did 51% of college-educated white men, and 45% of college-educated white women.
Sure, less educated white males helped to tip the 2016 election towards Trump. But they are just one part of the overall mosaic. The election had been a close call not because of them, but because dozens of millions of others who were not working-class voters voted for Donald Trump. In other words, many, many of those others we think we talk about when we talk about Trump voters are… very much like us!
So why, I wonder, did we, after reducing the public gaze’s zoom to the archetypical angry, white, working-class man right after the 2016 election, never zoom out again to look at the overall image in all its complexity? Were we afraid of seeing ourselves once we looked at the picture in its entirety?
Indeed, looking back to political discourse from 2016 to 2020, it seems like we invested an awful lot of energy into not acknowledging. Not acknowledging how Donald Trump’s success rested on the shoulders of people who live like us, hold college degrees like us, earn like us. Of how his ugly face, in other words, mirrors ours.
Since 2015, my political focus shifted more and more towards transformative reform as political challenge of our times. The more I learned about today’s meta-crisis, the more I realised how, after decades of innovating within the existing systemic frameworks, this is no longer enough. I understood that we must think about how to reconfigure the human-made systems we live in, and how to rewrite their ground rules to make them fit for the 21st century and beyond (also see my books Liebeserklärung an eine Partei, die es nicht gibt, out in March 2021, and Unlearn. A Compass for Radical Transformation, out in April 2021).
The more I understood about the intentionally created social and ecological crises of the globalised economy, and the existential climate crisis it created as a consequence, the more emotional I got. Various feeling took hold of me: impatience, anger, fear. But also a feeling of connectedness, and meaning.
I realised how, in response to this inner process, my language grew clearer, more direct, more powerful. How I, with every conference, every background conversation with politicians, every paper I wrote, felt the increasing desire to be decisive and clear in my message. The existential discomfort I feel, the intense fear, the tangible, productive anger, all want to be expressed and manifested.
The clearer and more emotionally tangible my position and attitude, the more resonance my work received. I felt that there was something of a pull-effect, as if my (mostly invisible, virtual) audiences nudged me towards being more radical.
At some point, I started to wonder. Why, I asked myself, should my emotions be different from those others who are angry, fearful? Why should my anger, my fear, my impatience count as noble and theirs not? Why are my emotions acceptable, and theirs an undesirable nuisance?
I not only reflected on this double standard. I also started to question the neat categorisation that separated me from them. How can this separation be valid, I wonder, if we share the same human condition of being angry, desperate, fearful?
But then, what follows from this? Does being similar to them invalidate my emotions and my need to manifest them in my actions? Or should this similarity invalidate the mental separation we create between us and them? Yet, what does dissolving the boundary between me and them do to how I see myself?
In my experience, when we relate in a new way, we refocus: from the line that separated one category from the other — me from them, for instance — to ourselves.
Relating shifts our self-perception, as the inner process of repositioning requires us to draw a new inner map. We not only look at ourselves, but at the whole we are part of, to then redefine our place within the system we see. In that precious moment, before we settle for new categories, the systemic whole, and its parts’ interdependent dynamic within it, becomes more interesting than the focus on the whole’s single parts.
By reassessing the whole, we reassess our position within it, and thus our self-perception. This precious moment creates an opening. It is like a crack that, for a precious, short while, enables us to see with fresh eyes: ourselves, but in relation to the wider environment we are part of. This opening has no pre-defined outcome. We can use it to redraw boundaries around us that deepen our sense of separation. We can resettle for the perspective we know. Or we can change perspective, and take into focus the invisible lines that connect the visible, seemingly separate parts. And see how I, us and them are more interconnected than separated from a systemic point of view.
Settling on the latter is not easy. After all, we are raised in cultures where we learn that standing out matters. Identity becomes a result of stories that draw differences by comparing: the categories we identify with (male, female, straight, gay, German, American, black, white…), the education we have, the money we earn, and so on.
When we focus on what connects, these lines of differentiation move to the background. Instead of asking what makes us different from others, we focus on how we relate to them. This moves the gaze from the presentable artifacts of life’s surface (wealth, certificates, titles…) to the implicit yet manifest sense of connection between us and what we are part of.
In his Book Wholeness and the Implicit Order, physicist David Bohm described how the visible, single parts of the explicit order — atoms, grains of sand, individuals — are all interconnected parts of an invisible implicit order. The insights and theories he applies from quantum physics overlap with a spiritual perspective present in human civilisation for millennia: the sense that separate identities are nothing but a cognitive belief system in a web of life where all living beings are interconnected on an existential level. That we are, by holding one atom, connected to — literally — the entire universe, and thus also every other human being.
As human beings, we are distinct expressions of life, unique, just like every stone, tree or animal exists only once. Yet, in our uniqueness, we rely on being acknowledged to develop a sense of identity. Our uniqueness becomes an object of our awareness only once there is an interconnected other that acknowledges it. We thus rely on difference to become aware of our uniqueness — there is no I without the You, so to speak.
Yet, it would be a mistake to equate this act of differentiation with separation only because it creates awareness of the self. We can also sense our unique self by seeing us as integral part of a connected whole: one node, so to speak, that helps to give the connecting web its distinct form. Depending on who we are, and how we position ourselves within this greater web of life, we both express and co-determine the web’s overall systemic properties.
If we take this perspective, we move the gaze, from the microcosm of ourselves to the cosmos we are but one part of. We see how we are life within life, parts of a miraculously complex, interdependent system of intricate beauty. The connection and the dynamic between us and other parts of the web become more interesting than questions of identity, as it shifts how we ourselves to the greater social and ecological context. And yet, we are well aware of the uniqueness we incorporate.
The “I” we learned to perceive as our fortress is just a revolving door. The neat separation between me and other is nothing but an idea that helps us imagine this fortress of identity. From what we know about non-linear dynamics in complex adaptive systems, our state of being is steadily and massively influenced by changes in other parts of the complex system, parts we are usually not even aware of. What we think as the other steadily influences what we call us — just like what we do and that we are permanently influences them.
From this systemic perspective, the interplay of the whole is a lot more relevant and powerful than the action of its single parts. What is relevant about us is not so much that we are, but the dynamic of how we interact with what we are part of. How we relate to that what is not us, so to speak, seeing that the other is nothing but a different expression of the same source we are an expression of.
Which brings us to the question: what happens to our perspective on those alleged others — the Trumps, Le Pens, Orbans, and those who follow them — once we give up the idea that we are separate from them? What happens once we see their condition not as something that they produce — but as a systemic expression of how we relate to each other? A result of a collective, largely unintentional co-creative process.
Can we, possibly, by relating differently to the greater whole, help create systemic dynamics that make them transform how they relate? May the reassessment of our own position within the greater context be the real lever for making them change position?
Considering the dramatic state of the overall societal climate — our social climate crisis, so to speak — I find this an intriguing question. It takes a non-linear approach into focus. And it makes us regain agency: instead of hoping that they, at some point, will change, we change. When we change, the entire system changes, which then forces them to reassess and, arguably, readjust.
Or, from a political perspective: instead of merely trying to manipulate them into becoming who we want them to be — by writing policy, handing out tax money, building infrastructure — we can widen our perspective and include ourselves into the picture we aim to change. By repositioning ourselves, we can create dynamic in the overall web which, ultimately, will lead to a new pattern for every single node.
If we take this idea seriously, we face a double-layered challenge of letting go. First, we must let go of the hubris that makes us believe we are in control of the complex social system we are part of. We can design for efficient interventions, but never for a specific results these interventions propel. Second, we must be willing to let go of our identity if we truly aim to set into motions dynamics that shake the fundament the Trumpists of this world stand on.
The true destruction of Trumpism thus starts with our willingness to destroy our own self-perception, worldviews, beliefs. The stories we tell ourselves about ourself, just like the stories we tell ourselves about them. Starting with the separation and categorisation we discussed earlier.
I believe the first step in doing so is to let go of hope. The hope that, one day, they will change. The hope that, one day, they and the world will be how we want it to be. The hope that we, somehow, can stay the same when we want to see so much else changed.
When we hope, we focus. When we focus, we narrow our gaze and stop seeing things that, potentially, have meaning. Once a certain hope becomes a pillar of our identity, it robs us of the potential to change course, as we wilfully nourish a selective blindness.
With regards to them, the hopes we cultivate today are the main drivers of separating us from them. What would happen if we stopped hoping that they should be different? What, indeed, would happen, if we stopped thinking and talking about them entirely, focusing on the potential emergence only connectedness can create instead?
The monk Thomas Merton wrote: “Do not depend on the hope of results . . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. . . .you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. . . In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
What if we, by being hopeless together, created more profound change than we ever will by further cultivating the narrow lens of our current hope? What if we radically focused on the work we can contribute, and catalysing the dynamics this work creates? What if we, by letting go of what we aim to know about us and them, created a space for a different quality of emergence and human encounter? What if we, by letting go of our hope, created an opening for a kind of human connection that has no space within our current hopes?
The way of love is not
a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and in falling,
they’re given wings.
The paragraphs on Reconnecting were inspired by the great content of the Servicespace Laddership Pod “How would you re-design the world” in February/March 2021.