The age of Trump can arouse feelings of anger, fear and flat-out existential dread, and the thought that many people agree with him only makes it worse. But all this angst is futile so how can it be turned into something useful?
Lately, in New York, it seems as if every conversation in a bar, over dinner, on the subway eventually grows suffused with one highly specific emotion: a blend of fear, despair and disbelief brought on by the continuing rise of Donald Trump. (We need a name for this. Trumpancholy? Trumpidation? Theres probably a long word in German.) There are some moments of respite, such as Trumps defeat in Iowa this week, and the resulting squabble, in which he accused his rival Ted Cruz of fraud. But these are short-lived: Trump still seems likeliest to win in New Hampshire next week not that an election season dominated by Cruz would be much less appalling anyway.
I just cant even believe its real, people say, over craft beers in Brooklyn or flat whites in Chelsea, no longer referring jovially to Trumps funny hair, but to the unfunny chance of his winning the nomination, or even But here the speculation usually turns to brooding silence.
The biggest problem with this Trump-induced angst is that its so futile: indulging it neither changes anything politically nor makes the feeling go away. Yes, its briefly cathartic to rant on Facebook, or laugh scornfully along with a columnists anti-Trump tirade. But surely nobody believes this changes anyones mind. Angry liberals are preaching to the converted and even if Trump supporters stumbled upon such opinions by accident, theyd only grow more passionately attached to their own.
So it was with some desperation that I started looking elsewhere for a cure for my malaise. Was there some other way to think and feel about this absurd and terrifying man that might actually make a difference or, failing that, make it slightly less distressing to see his face pop up on TV?
The key to overcoming political polarisation, were often told, is to develop empathy and compassion for people youd otherwise dismiss as crazy or evil. So I began by asking Gregg Henriques, a professor of psychotherapy at James Madison University in Virginia, to explain whats going on inside Trumps head.
Classic narcissist, he said, barely giving me time to finish the question. He has this unquenchable drive to demonstrate success, a bottomless pit of need for evidence that hes the one, the saviour. (Henriques also suspects that Trump is obsessive-compulsive, with a fixation on cleanliness and disgust. That figures: Trump famously hates shaking hands, and there was something odd about the vehemence with which he described Hillary Clintons visit to the bathroom, during a recent debate, as too disgusting to discuss while choosing, quite unnecessarily, to discuss it.)
From this perspective, Trumps endless insistence that he is a winner isnt a sign that he is convinced of his greatness, or how widely hes adored. Rather, it shows that he isnt yet sufficiently convinced, and perhaps never could be. It sounds an exhausting way to live: one imagines his inner world as an exhausting high-wire walk, in which every defeat or insult must be swiftly counterbalanced by seeking a new victory. His semi-gracious response to defeat in Iowa lasted all of 24 hours before he figured out a way to try to persuade us and himself that really hed won, because of false claims in a Cruz campaign flyer: Ted Cruz didnt win in Iowa, he stole it Bad!
Thinking about Trump in this way might not be sufficient to render him sympathetic, but it does make him a little harder to hate. And if its possible to take that view of the candidate himself, its surely easier with his supporters. In Henriquess view, the traditional Christian white males who comprise Trumps core support dont necessarily believe, in a rational way, that his ideas would help them. Instead, they are using him to live out a vicarious experience of power as they sense their own slipping away.
This is how politics works, Henriques and many other psychologists argue: were attracted to certain candidates and parties for intuitive, emotional reasons that barely register in conscious awareness. Then, we use our rational minds to construct convincing-seeming arguments for views we already hold. The tricky part is that you cant condescendingly think about Trump supporters this way for very long before realising that it must be true for you, too. If you look at life like a psychologist, Henriques said, one of your first principles is: were all full of shit. We see ourselves as having the facts, while others cant see through their emotions to get to the facts. But the truth is were all in this boat.
I have one problem with this, though: while Trumps political opinions are wrong, mine are correct. (Of course they are! I wouldnt hold them if they werent.) A primary cause of Trump-related despair is disbelief that anyone could be so malevolent as to sign up to his sinister and preposterous policies: his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, a 2,000-mile wall along the Mexican border, and so on. Clearly, it wasnt going to be enough simply to understand the emotional motivations of Trump and his sympathisers; it was time to up the ante. So I called Sharon Salzberg, one of the USs most prominent meditation teachers, to see if she could help me learn to love them.
Salzberg is a proponent of metta or loving-kindness meditation, a practice designed to cultivate compassion for all living beings. The most basic version involves holding someones image in your mind, while wishing them happiness and safety. But all living beings really? Surely the Buddha reckoned without the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz? And anyway, if I became capable of compassion towards all, smiling beatifically upon even the most infuriating wearer of a Make America Great Again baseball cap, wouldnt I lose my motivation to stand up for whats right?
Compassion training isnt what it appears to be on the surface, Salzberg told me. It sounds like youre just going to give in and be sweet, not take a stand on things. But its actually a really daring kind of political vision: that this is a completely interdependent universe, and everybody counts even the people who dont themselves believe that everybody counts. That doesnt mean you dont take strong action against people.
From a Buddhist perspective, theres no such thing as evil, only pronounced ignorance: even a terrorist, never mind a demagogic presidential candidate, is acting from deep confusion about how to feel happy and secure, not a deliberate desire to make things worse. Adopting that viewpoint neednt mean minimising the horrors that result from such confusion. But it subtly shifts your own motives in trying to combat them. The idea is to look to your intention, Salzberg said. Do you want a resolution, or do you want to grind someone else into dust, and be seen as correct and righteous?
A first practical step, says another teacher of meditation, Susan Piver, is to stop trying to get rid of feelings of anger or despair, and focus instead on the physical sensations associated with them. Whatever you feel, just feel it, and when you do, it will metabolise. This isnt oh, just feel your feelings and the world will be beautiful. This isnt about being New Age flower children. To learn to sit with the discomfort of your own rage and hatred is to master it.
Inspired by these words, I have developed a new practice Im calling Fox News meditation: turn on Fox News, wait for coverage of the Republican presidential race you wont be waiting long then, after a few minutes of getting wound up by Trump, Cruz, or their rivals, focus on sensations in the body. The result is a sense of decompression, expansion, and increased energy. The sense of foreboding really does subside, replaced by a calmer sense of agency. (Its not quite as exhilarating as simply not watching Fox News at all but then, what is?)
But for there to be any hope of moving past deadlocked partisanship, well need one more critical ingredient, according to Prof Andrew Samuels, a Jungian psychoanalyst who writes about politics. It isnt enough to explain the beliefs of your opponents with reference to their irrational emotions, or their sense of disenfranchisement. In addition, you have to grasp that they see their positions as morally right, no less certainly than you think the same of yours. This is an extraordinarily hard thing to pull off.
Whether you like it or not, Trump believes and his followers believe that he has a moral standpoint that is worth fighting for, worth voting for, and superior to the moral standpoint of every other player in the election, Samuels said. Just understanding that this is how your opponents view themselves is a huge step; we are far likelier to look for any other explanation. When I do consultations with politicians, I say: try to understand what the moral theory is behind your opponents politics, figure out what it consists of then attack it.
Its not necessary to grant the other sides views any merit but you do need to understand that theyre as firmly held, and with as much of a sense of virtue, as your own. Otherwise, youre just expressing righteous indignation, thereby helping solidify the very barriers between partisan camps that you were presumably hoping to breach.
I wont pretend Ive managed this switch in perspectives anywhere near completely yet. But I can feel the panicky despair beginning to subside. If Trump wins in New Hampshire, hell gain serious momentum for the next few primaries, in southern states where his support is strong. In such an eventuality, I plan to find a quiet room, close the door, take a few deep breaths, feel my bodily sensations, and try to imagine what it might be like to be one of the millions of people for whom that result would be great news. Then Ill head back out into the world, hopeful that the exercise may subtly have altered the character of my subsequent actions. Although the first one will still definitely be to pour myself a stiff drink.
Read more: www.theguardian.com