Trump is the outcome of an unexamined life in an unexamined culture.

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“Man is the cruelest animal.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Sitting crossed-legged on a meditation cushion, I conjure up three distinctly different people. The point of the practice is to extend compassion to others, and the challenge, quite frankly, is to see how I resist such efforts to certain others. It’s a three-part process where you first focus on a loved one that you care about, then a neutral other, and wraps up with a difficult person.

For each of these folks that enter my mind, the practice instructed me to connect with their wish to be happy and contemplate their capacity to experience suffering. It is usually easier to offer someone you care about compassion than offer it so freely to someone you find difficult.

The point of the practice is to settle into a place where you can appreciate the common humanity of these three people with which we have different relationships. Then you extend your vision to the whole world and offer compassion to all people. It’s quite a powerful practice.

Compassion for Trump?…yikes

When attempting this meditation, my mind wanted to fixate on Trump as a difficult person. It makes a great deal of sense to me. First, I’m not too fond of Trump. My mind puts him into a category perhaps more intensely defined than “difficult” most of the time! Before he was president, I found him to be a tacky, desperate man. As president, I see him as shallow, cruel, and predatory.

But Trump is still a human being.

Trump, like all of us, wants to be happy. Trump, like all of us, knows pain.

Trump’s cruelty, selfishness, and hunger for fame did not happen by accident. His complete disregard of other people and his obsession with being adored did not occur in a vacuum. It happened to a human raised in a particular culture that, at worst, admires people with delusions of grandeur and, at best, tolerates such traits.

Sitting on a meditation cushion, contemplating a person I would rather not have in such a mental space, did afford me some newfound perspective. Trump has become, in many respects, a parable for which we all collectively need to learn the lessons, lest we continue to wreck cruelty upon the world.

Trump is the outcome of an unexamined life in an unexamined culture.

The Temptations of Power

The object of power is power.
— George Orwell

Trump craves power. He believes that power will afford him respect, admiration, and connection. In other words, it is through power that he seeks worthiness. And he isn’t crazy for believing this. American society propagates a message that to be worthwhile and valuable you have to be powerful and competitive.

The hyper-competitive social mentality of the United States offers some glimpses into why Trump divides the world into winners and losers. American’s love the images of power, perhaps more than power itself. It’s not so much that you are powerful, but you look powerful. These images are all around us.

We are sold images of power in advertisements, in the media, and consumer products all the time. We are sold products to feel more in control. We consume products to make us feel and appear more ‘successful’.

One of the central mechanisms of power in American culture is material wealth. And here we see that a supposedly rich Trump is entrenched in the same damning economic picture as so many Americans who are over-extended into debts oftentimes in an effort to display material success. Keeping up with Jones’ apparently becomes Keeping up with the Gates’, Bezos’, and Buffet’s.

It is through images of power, usually demonstrated through images of material wealth, that one signals to one’s society that they have made it. But the obsession with both actual power and images of power tends to come at an awful cost, primarily fear and insecurity.

Trump is not a strong person. It is evident to anyone paying attention. His ego is soft and easily provoked. He desperately pleas for others to see him as strong, dominant, and in control. And if reverence is not provided, then he retreats into faux victimhood. This reaction is not the central feature of secure person. But his insecurities, unlike most of us, get played out in a theater that consumes American society.

As humans, we all want (and need) power to some degree. We want to have some influence in our world, even if that’s only within close relational spaces.

But Trump teaches us that the unfettered pursuit of power for power’s sake is destructive and dangerous. Worst yet, Trump teaches us that external power cannot fill the insecurities of our own internal self.

Human beings genuinely struggle with power in society. Poetry, literature, and art as old as time and the libraries of human history presents a cornucopia of terrible outcomes as a result of the corrupting facilities of social, economic, and political power. In the United States, the inequitable and oppressive distribution of political and economic power creates and maintains a great deal of the social ills of our society.

The elimination of power, however, is not the answer. Instead, it is taking a compassionate and honest look at our relationship to power. Social justice work must be planted in the same soil that power grows. To make the world more equitable and just, we will need a healthy and humble relationship to social power. This requires us to take a sober look at our motivations and uses of power — realizing that we can all too easily displace the power of others in our own efforts to accomplish our goals. Collaborative power is complex but also more sustainable.

The goal, then, is not to deny the need for power but rather to look at our motivations for it’s use.

The Search for Worthiness

“There are no prerequisites for worthiness.”
— Brené Brown

In American culture, it seems, power is simply a vessel toward validation and worthiness. There are many ways in which our culture tells its citizens to prove their worth and value — your economic output, status, social influence, fame and popularity, attractiveness, etc.

Like mice in a maze, we are socialized to believe that we have no worth until we earn it. So we scurrying about trying to find the cheese at the end of all this hustle. This, in turn, breeds a climate where anxiety, insecurity, and stress become the bedrock of daily life.

Recognizing our common humanity, I can appreciate the need for all people to appreciate their sense of worthiness. Closely related, we also want to be seen and validated by others. Trump has both of these needs just as I do; he just goes about getting these needs met in a way that is quite troubled and destructive.

Trump is a living caricature of a man who hopelessly longs to be loved but can’t because he does not know how to love in return. Smothered by delusions of grandiosity, he pursues a path of worthiness and validation paved by our capitalistic structure. And still, after all the money gained and lost, he continues searching and prodding for acceptance and validation. And he has grown increasingly desperate over time.

It is clear that Trump has an affinity for totalitarian dictators. It makes sense. For Trump, compulsory admiration is still admiration — which is an approximation to a sense of worthiness and validation from others. As a psychologist, I have understood an essential truth about abusive people, they are not powerful, and they are not secure — but they are clever at convincing people they are powerful and steady.

But a truly powerful person would have no need to control others. The insecure person, however, attempts to approximate personal power by dominating others. Compulsory love, for them, is good enough and that, in turn, gives them temporary relief. But deep down the whole structure is styrofoam and compulsory connection still leaves in question one’s worthiness. Thus, many abusive people tend to implode, eventually, under their own insecurity.

Trump teaches us that our need for a felt sense of worthiness and validation is valuable and noteworthy. However, we are all worthy of love and affection, independent of our deeds and credentials. Our worthiness is not an achievement — it is always present. Furthermore, our need for validation cannot replace our sense of worthiness of love and connections. All the fame, riches, and outward successes in the world do not and will not provoke a secure, centered person.

Trump instructs us on the lessons of humility and relational responding — that our actions have an impact on others. He only cares about himself, his image. The destruction this has provoked to the country is alarmingly apparent. Charged with being a leader of an entire nation, he would be consumed only by those forces that impinge on his image, not those needing help.

Trump also teaches us that American culture plants in our minds false ideas of success, stability, and worthiness. A discontented populace is financially profitable for those with economic power; thus, it is worthwhile to have a public who buys products to fill voids. We ought not ‘buy’ into these ideas and the people who idolize such messages.

Instead, we should center ourselves into a space of compassion and worthiness. We can then spread this to the world.

The Denial of Reality

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.”
― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The world has immeasurable challenges.

If you’ve been paying attention to the events in the last decade (or longer), it is clear to see that humanity’s future hangs in the balance. What is often striking, then, is the sheer willpower it must take to be like an ostrich and bury one’s head in the sand.

Sometimes we want to be told a lie, so we don’t have to face the truth. Trump counts on this unfortunate aspect of our humanity to exploit others. He has this poor salesperson tick. He tends to repeat lies frequently. Over and over and over, he’ll say the same thing even when people call him out for it. He’s under the impression that if you say something enough times, people will eventually believe it.

He’s right.

Erich Fromm states in the book Escape from Freedom:

“Most people are convinced that as long as they are not overtly forced to do something by an outside power, their decisions are theirs, and that if they want something, it is they who want it. But this is one of the great illusions we have about ourselves. A great number of our decisions are not really our own but are suggested to us from the outside; we have succeeded in persuading ourselves that it is we who have made the decision, whereas we have actually conformed with expectations of others, driven by the fear of isolation and by more direct threats to our life, freedom, and comfort.”

Fromm outlined in 1941 that the Western world is not in love with freedom as much as is purported, but most people fear unbridled freedom. Accepting the GOP nomination in 2016, Trump touted that he alone can fix the problems of society. Funny words coming out of a supposedly conservative politician’s mouth.

But like many things, Trump said the quiet part out loud. People struggle with freedom, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation from mischievous businesspersons turned politicians who will take control, so the public doesn’t have to take responsibility.

Furthermore, we want to hear what conforms to our worldview. And frequently, we want the easy path of being told what to believe instead of going through the arduous path of finding the ground of reality. We can especially be in denial of information or facts that would radically disrupt our reality. When a cancer patient is told the facts of their condition, it is not uncommon for people to not fully be able to comprehend the reality they were just given. But eventually, we have to come to grips with the truth of our situation.

The desire to make a reality untrue (i.e., denial) is commonplace for humans. As T.S. Elliot once wrote in Burnt Norton:

“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.”

Our personal work and our cultural work is to bring into sharper focus the reality of our present circumstances — to see those things that are uncomfortable and displeasing to see. We need to accept the context of our current situation.

American Exceptionalism has propagated a myth of a culture that has arrived at some kind of zenith point in human civilization rather than see that our aspirations have outpaced actual outcomes. As a result, Americans often cloud ourselves in a collective delusion instead of taking a compassionately clear look in the mirror.

An unwillingness to face the truth has resulted in some truly astounding figures. The United States has an incredibly high percentage of climate science deniers compared to many other countries. About a quarter of Americans believe a conspiracy theory alluding that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned. Quackery conspiracy theories about a satanic political ring that is orchestrating a child sex trafficking ring is being spread by the leader of the United States.

We need to be able to access a shared reality. We have to be able to resist the temptations of denial or exaggeration. Our society has many issues, most of which are chronic in nature. Our global health is on the verge of collapse. Our economy is largely built on profiteering and greed. If we are not able to come to some clearheaded agreement on some of these facts, then we are collectively vulnerable to the exploitation of those who would use our naïveté against our interests.

Compassion is What We Need

Compassion is not a relationship between healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognized our shared humanity.
— Pema Chödrön

My efforts to try to curiously understand Trump is in no way an attempt to condone his behavior. Instead, it is to learn from this moment in history to avoid such things in the future. Life is always the teacher, seldom are we a good student.

In fact, Trump is a clear example of someone who has not taken the pains and suffering of his life and attempted to transform them for the better of those around him. Instead, our society is subject to his own personal demons and he has enacted a great deal of harm out of incompetence or malice.

I also think that it’s crucial not to dehumanize Trump in this process. When he is treated as an anomaly or some kind of monster instead of a human being, we miss an opportunity to see how his humanity is exactly what lead him to be the way he is.

Our common humanity is buried deep down beneath the layers of our personalities, histories, and identities. And we are all vulnerable to enacting so much cruelty if we do not understand the shadow elements of our common humanity.

The truth is, Trump and I are both vulnerable to so many things. Compassion encourages us to see that our common humanity includes all the trappings of our existential reality: Life is hard; the future is uncertain; we are not in control of most things that have happened, are happening, and will happen; life is confusing. In the depth of this somber place, however, we also find that our desire for joy and vitality also resides. Out of the darkness, the light of our passion, values, and connection to life shines brightly.

Compassion teaches us that strength is not a rigid place where we muscle our way to the top. No, that is the work of scared individuals who are off-balance with life — and their fear is made understandable through the practice of compassion. We have all been off-balance. The goal, however, is not to live from that space much of the time.

Compassion shows us that nature is strong because she connects with the reality we are all given — she leans into the fact that all things change, that nothing is certain, and finding a dynamic balance in the sea of chaos is strength.

Our struggle is real. And these battles come in a kaleidoscope of flavors and cultural trappings that stretches clear back beyond the caves of our ancestors. We have a choice to lean into our context, make a connection to our suffering, or to flee into the faux trappings of ‘strength and power.’

Trump shows us a path of destruction, a way forged from a lack of genuine examination of life. And I get that. Life is hard. But, an unexamined life causes harm and suffering not to just the unaware but to everyone around you. Our work, then, is to forge a different path — where integrity, compassion, respect, empathy, and honesty are nurtured.

We can forge a more resilient path, as individuals and as communities, if we center community, compassion, and curiosity in our society.

Written by

Dr. Justin D. Henderson is a counseling psychologist, counselor educator, meditation teacher, clinic director, and assistant professor.

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