People who cause strong emotions in us are, in fact, our teachers; since they force us to confront our own reactions and those parts of ourselves which we fear or, at best, do not like to acknowledge.
This is why I must acknowledge Donald Trump as a very powerful teacher.
Observing Trump give voice to his inner child, which cries and rages when things don’t go his way, has spoken to that part of me which was raised believing that I, too, as an American, deserve to have it all. He has shown me that, after years of learning to accept the reality of my less-than-perfect life, it’s OK to rail against the people and systems which have denied me my due. My adhering to the notion that the public good is at least as important as my personal gratification is now seen as simply a pretense of moral superiority.
And, “Ask what you can do for your country” has been replaced by “If I can’t get mine, let it all go to hell” as the new cultural zeitgeist.
There is nothing unusual about self-interest; it’s core to who we are in our consumer culture. However, until recently, there has been a clear difference between desiring self-gratification and feeling entitled to it.
There was an incident a few months ago where a woman in a park with her dog illegally off-leash was told by a birdwatcher to leash her dog. She proceeded to call the police and tell them that a scary black man was threatening her. There was, appropriately, an immediate and powerful reaction denouncing the woman for her racism.
I would posit that as significant as her racism was her narcissistic and unassailable belief that she was entitled to do and say whatever she pleased and never be criticized. How dare anyone tell her that she can’t unleash her dog? Incapable of admitting any fault, she had to lash out with whatever she had. She weaponized her enemy’s race because it was the most easily available tool for stopping what, to her, was an attack on her very being.
This behavior, in the past, was considered abhorrent and anti-social. Now, defending one’s entitlement and attacking those who interfere, with no regard for the effects of those attacks, is OK. Unleashing one’s previously suppressed rage, biases and resentments is now seen as refreshingly honest and, when tweeted by the president, highly entertaining.
As Americans, we have been taught that hard work and a can-do attitude will lead to financial stability. We’re all destined to be winners and have been told that we deserve a break – not just after a hard day, but every day.
Now, many of us have managed to maintain a sense of proportion about this. We understand the cultural messages for what they are: a concerted effort to keep us working and earning and spending money in order to sustain the economy. And we accept that we can’t always get what we want.
However, over time, some have internalized these messages and taken them as gospel. Among them have emerged two distinct and significant groups: those who have done well because they were entitled to and those who haven’t gotten theirs and now feel betrayed.
And who better to lead these groups than a reality-TV host who rose to fame by rewarding those whom he declared winners while gleefully firing the so-called losers. Trump’s appeal is understandable: He promised even better benefits to his “winners” and revenge to his “losers”. A textbook narcissist, he understood the power to be gained by playing off people’s entitlement and rage.
We have seen the delight in the faces of Trump’s followers. “He tells it like it is” was never a truer statement, with “it” being the unbridled, immature part of our brains which cares only about what we want, feel, love and hate at any given moment. He won the hearts of the disaffected by openly humiliating anyone who, unlike him, has actually earned respect rather than just expecting it.
While his foes protest Trumps unerring focus on himself, his fans applaud his self-interest. When Trump denied the danger of the coronavirus so he wouldn’t be blamed and thus lose votes, supporters remembered when they had to cover their butts after a screw-up at work. When Trump empowered white supremacist militias, his apologists identified with his desire to have people he could trust watching his back.
What brought about Trump’s defeat was not what his foes cited as his misogyny, his racism, his lack of interest in learning the job, his unfounded faith that he could just “wing it”, his manipulation of media, or his contempt for knowledge or experience. To his fans, in fact, those things gave him authenticity.
It was his fundamental inability, even with the threat of a catastrophic global pandemic, to put aside his fear of losing votes in November and come up with a plan to minimize the suffering and death of millions of Americans. It was his decision to politicize a public health crisis and to encourage his fan-base to ignore the threat of a deadly virus which finally swayed enough Republicans and moderates to vote against him.
Now, we see him, enraged that he didn’t win, screaming about a stolen election and willfully and publicly destroying all remaining faith in our democratic institutions in order to stay relevant enough to merit donations, most of which can go for his personal use.
I have looked inside myself and seen my own narcissism and cynicism and the frustration and anger which they cause. And, though I’ve got a pretty good handle on what I’ve earned and what I haven’t, I’m no longer sure how to feel part of a country which has abandoned its former humanistic values – that people of very different beliefs and cultures can live and work together, that fairness and decency will ultimately win out, and that, for the good of us all, we must put country above our party and ourselves.
So, as Trump and his enablers continue to eradicate what little civility remains and sabotage any chance of success for the new president, I struggle to believe that it’s possible that my country not succumb to the unleashed national narcissism.
And, finally, I have learned that, while anyone in this country can grow up to be president, that doesn’t mean that just anyone should. How about we amend that to anyone who can set aside for four years his or her sense of entitlement and at least try to put the job first.
In short, not a “me” person.