Dr. Joseph Chuman, Leader
The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County
As Ethical Culturists, we are attuned to the wider world. And today, to be so attuned is head-spinning. I am referring to the current presidential campaign, which is unprecedented in American history; unprecedented and almost surreal.
We go to bed at night and arise the next morning with the security that the United States, unlike many other nations, is a stable democracy. It is that security that enables us to go about our lives unburdened by apprehension that our government will collapse and that we need to double check that our passport is up to date.
But the realities of the current election cycle confront us with a whisper, and more than a whisper, of doubt about the solidity of our body politic. Perhaps the Republic is not as stable as we have long assumed, and perhaps we have taken too much for granted. What I am referring to is the rise of Donald Trump and what we can call the Donald Trump phenomenon.
Powerful consequences in every word
We expect that the personalities that rise to the pinnacle of presidential contender fit a specific profile. We assume that they emerge out of long experience with government and political life. We assume that they abide by the conventions of political decorum and comport themselves with appropriate probity and seriousness and that their every word comes loaded with powerful consequences. When your words have power, you speak with a certain sense of diplomacy and caution. Anything less is reckless. This is true if you are Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy or Barack Obama. There is dignity to the office.
With Donald Trump, we have entered new, strange and bewildering territory. The press has taken far too long in exposing Trump for the dangerous demagogue that he is. For those with any political sensibility or psychological acumen, it has long been clear that Trump has a character reflective of limitless narcissism. He suffers from problems with impulse control, arrested development, an inability to focus, and a lack of curiosity, and he is woefully ignorant of the requirements of what may be the world’s most demanding job. He is so arrogant and grandiose that he falls to recognize that he is totally unqualified for the position he seeks.
But more disturbing than Trump is that he has been able to captivate a frighteningly large swath of the American populace. The dislocations of the sector of the electorate that is drawn to him, primarily older white males who are economically left behind, has been often noted, and correctly so. But even taking economics into account, it is still bewildering that so many are unable to recognize when they are being conned.
Economic fracturing and seething anger
The Trump phenomenon has revealed the economic fracturing of American society and the seething anger that accompanies it. But beyond economics, Trump has stoked and exacerbated racial hatred through scapegoating and fear mongering. Even if he fails to win the presidency, the damage has been done. Trump has given the haters and bigots permission to spew their hatred publicly and to feel justified in doing so. A decade ago it looked as if American society was at long last turning a corner and making sincere efforts to overcome our ignoble legacy of racism. With Trump, we have incalculably lost a lot of ground.
Several tropes have captured the minds of many Americans: “We are in decline. America’s standing in the world is growing weaker. We are being invaded by immigrants who are not only taking our jobs but sowing violence. Crime is out of control. Terrorism poses an existential threat.” None of these things is true, but when people are anxious, the mind clings to simplistic reductionisms. And the media, which are more wedded to sound bites than complex analyses, help to exacerbate an edgy public mood.
“When they go low, we go high”
The task we face is to retain our equilibrium and composure in the midst of crises, real and imagined. As society appears adrift, we need anchors and safe harbors. Not anchors composed of hate and fear, but of better stuff. If one is traditionally religious, she or he would feel compelled to turn for security to the sturdy deliverances of an absolute deity – “a mighty fortress is our god.” But in the absence of such a deity, the best we can do is turn to each other, to what is best in us, and to our humanist philosophy that commends to us more lasting and uplifting things.
Recently, a wise lady said, “When they go low, we go high.” I like that. At the moment, it seems as if our society is taking a low turn. We need to respond by seeking out the highest – for the sake of others and our own sakes.