Op-Ed: What Donald Trump's political ascension says about us
Politics is a reflection of society. The fact that one of our parties is about to nominate a cantankerous, crass, know-nothing, real estate developer whose defining characteristic is ego underscores that there is more Donald Trump in us than we may be comfortable admitting.
Before there was a “stop Trump” movement, ancient Rome experienced the “stop Caesar movement.” One of the leaders of that movement was the Roman politician Cato the Younger, who did the unthinkable –– he criticized the electorate. Cato observed, “Long ago we lost the real name of things… Giving away other people’s money is called generosity. Flagrant misbehavior is called courage. We’ve reached the tipping point and it’s killing our country.” If the past is really prologue, then Cato the Younger’s observations about Roman society at the nadir of the Roman Republic are the perfect introduction for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump’s strongest alleged attributes include his willingness to “tell it like it is,” his supposed courage in the face of political correctness and his bravado. He substitutes personality for policy, arguing that his very presence will “make America great again.” As Cato observed, these attributes reflect a society that has lost its mooring, that confuses “misbehavior for courage” and no longer understands the “real name of things.” In the end, Donald Trump is a showman and a demagogue playing to the cheers of the crowd.
But, what does this say about who we are?
We are a society defined by ego. In the era of social media, the most important thing is promotion of self. As Trump makes sure that his litany of products are in every photo he takes, we must show the world our greatness by posting a continuous stream of material that catalogues and extolls our every move –– no matter how honest, important, or appropriate. No detail is too trivial when each person is a brand and the number of likes or retweets defines self worth. Brash has become our middle name –– humility and propriety be damned.
We are a society obsessed with visceral reaction. Donald Trump’s Twitter missives have become famous for their vitriol and lack of reflection. Today the speed of the reaction matters more than the substance. In a race to show the rawest, edgiest response possible, thoughtfulness and good manners have become an afterthought. Reason and levelheadedness require reflection.
Recognizing that we are often the authors of our own misfortune, and the personal responsibility that comes along with that, is unacceptable in a world that requires us to continually exclaim our own greatness. In this sense Trump is the perfect figure for our age. When he loses, the system is rigged. When he wins, it is by his own genius.
We are a society consumed with victimization. When we fail, we must show the world our mistakes belong to others. Recognizing that we are often the authors of our own misfortune, and the personal responsibility that comes along with that, is unacceptable in a world that requires us to continually exclaim our own greatness. In this sense Trump is the perfect figure for our age. When he loses, the system is rigged. When he wins, it is by his own genius.
We are a society that has lost the real name of things. We applaud the “courage” of a candidate to rally against political correctness by taunting the arbiters of “P.C.-ness.” However, real courage requires the audacity to show maturity and restraint. Fake courage, the one marked by our reflexive desire to tell it like it is –– is braggadocio. Fake courage also has consequences. Indulging the worst side of our nature always does.
In the shadow of Mr. Trump’s looming Republican nomination, we should consider the attributes of the Republican Party’s second candidate. A candidate humble enough to ask not whether God was on his side, but if he was “on God’s side.” Abraham Lincoln inspired through virtue. In the midst of the Civil War, he did not resort to insolence or demagoguery. When dealing with a political opponent he demonstrated magnanimity, “You have more of that feeling of personal resentment than I. Perhaps I have too little of it; but I never thought it paid. A man has no time to spend half his life in quarrels.” Lincoln, through his words and deeds, appealed to the “better angels of our nature.”
We all could benefit from imitating Lincoln’s example. It may not be brash or self-promotional but behaving otherwise is behaving like Trump.
This opinion article is part of the AL DÍA op-ed writers program.
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