President Donald J Trump delivers remarks during a press conference in the East Room at the White House, in Washington, DC on February 16, 2017. Riccardo Savi/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The school teacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four.
― Albert Camus, The Plague.
You may say that you are going to transfer power from the establishment to the people, but saying it does not make it true. Your press secretary may say that your inauguration’s audience was the largest ever, but blowing your own horn doesn’t make it so. Your counselor may say that manufacturing a “massacre” was an honest mistake, but we all know it was a deliberate attempt to scare people into accepting the travel ban on Muslims. You may claim that you lost the popular vote because there were millions of illegal votes, but there is no evidence of electoral fraud whatsoever.
As Carly Simon famously put it in her 1972 No.1 hit song You're So Vain, you probably think this article is about you. We all know how much you care about yourself. How awesome you think you are. How great you think your administration is. And how bad we, the journalists, are. But no, this is not an article about you. It's about us. Because there is a larger picture out there. Civilians are being put in danger worldwide because of what you say. Refugees are fleeing war zones which your friend Putin is bombing flat. The EU is trying to fight back populist and nationalist discourses similar to yours which threaten to end an unprecedented 70 year period of peace in Europe. And American workers are being fooled into believing that automation and economic and financial globalization is a thing of the past. But, you see, the world does not stop for you, no matter how hard you Tweet or how hard you harass journalists. This is why I want to address the rest of us - the people - and promise that I am not going to answer only the easy questions. Can you?
Empathy trumps classism
Wherever you look, you can see it happening: it’s us, it’s them; they are wrong, we are right; they lied, we didn’t; we told the truth, they faked the news. This is leading us nowhere. As understandable as it may be to criticize – I have done it myself - those who have voted for President Trump, the strategy is backfiring. We do not need to convince those who voted for Hillary Clinton and those who would have voted for Bernie Sanders that we are on the right side of history. What we have to do instead is to convince those who voted for Trump that they accidentally are on the wrong one. Trump’s approval ratings on February, 17, were 21 points below the historical average ratings for newly-elected presidents in mid-February. His approval ratings among Democrats stand at a low 8%, while only 35% independents value positively his job performance, according to Gallup. But he has an 87% approval rating among Republicans.
We do not need to convince those who voted for Hillary Clinton and those who would have voted for Bernie Sanders that we are on the right side of history.
Despite his executive orders stopping US refugee admissions for 120 days and banning entry from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, his inner circle’s dubious relationship with Russia – before and after the elections –, and his disregard for reality, Republican voters have not lost faith on him. His approval ratings have fallen only three points among Republicans in the same period. This illustrates the problem perfectly: Democrats and most independents are aware of who Mr. Trump is and the appalling consequences his presidency could have for the United States and the world; but Republicans – at least a majority of them – seem to be pleased with his first month in office. What can be done about it?
We can start by acknowledging that we have failed. That we too, the so called progressives and liberals, may not be so progressive after all. As Ken Wilber brilliantly puts it in Trump and a Post-Truth World, we too are guilty of classism. Our contempt for Mr. Trump´s support base – uneducated, white lower class, rural Americans – is not up for discussion. We regard their values and ideas as something that should be overcome, something that has no longer a place in our world: religious fundamentalism, nationalistic claims and distrust in science are just some examples. Should we really have expected them to vote for a candidate that believed that such ideas have no place in a modern, free world?
We can start by acknowledging that we have failed. That we too, the so called progressives and liberals, may not be so progressive after all.
Of course not. In the end, despite having the facts, the values and the policies on our side, we didn’t win. We lost because we behaved with Mr. Trump’s supporters a little like Mr. Trump does: arrogantly. We assumed we were in control and that, surely, enough people would rally and vote for the candidate that stood for democracy. Surely, voters wouldn’t vote for a candidate willing to do such things as building a wall to stop immigration and enacting a ban to keep Muslims away. But they did.
Hillary Clinton´s comment calling Mr. Trump´s supporters “a basket of deplorables” did not lose her the election. It simply reflected what many Democrats, Liberals and leftists think about Mr. Trump’s support base. As Ken Wilber writes, quoting Jeremy Flood, the author of The Revolution Must Be Felt, the Left failed because the story they were selling wasn’t strong enough to overcome these not at all new resentments”.
The point here is not to acquiesce to a racist, sexist and biased narrative. On the contrary: it is to recognize that we too can be led to believe that we are superior in some way to our fellow citizens, simply because we attended college and they didn’t. And that, by doing so, we lose our edge over autocrats, racists and populists. We lose touch with democracy. The substance of Mr. Trump’s narrative should be fought through every legal and peaceful mechanism we have at our disposal. But the point of having democratic debate, beyond sustaining a peaceful society and lawful policies, is its potential to change those who participate in it. Only by discussing and listening to each other will it be possible to improve our democratic system. And ourselves.
The substance of Mr. Trump’s narrative should be fought through every legal and peaceful mechanism we have at our disposal.
Empathy must play a critical role here. Hillary Clinton’s clever slogan – “Love Trumps Hate” – can only work if “love” is available to every citizen, no matter how backward their ideas may seem to us, and not only to those who agree with us. We should have learned this by now. We gain nothing from speaking from our pedestals, from speaking to audiences who think exactly like us. Understanding Mr. Trump’s supporters is not easy, but putting ourselves in their shoes is absolutely necessary to remove Mr. Trump from office in 2020. Empathy can, and must, trump every kind of -ism, wherever it may come from.
The point of having democratic debate, beyond sustaining a peaceful society and lawful policies, is its potential to change those who participate in it.
The real enemies of the people
Mr. Trump knows nothing about building bridges. But he knows a lot about building walls. And like most autocrats, he fears the press. So, he decided to attack it. The nature and intensity of the attacks grew exponentially, as he sought to distract his supporters – as much as himself - from reality. But on February, 16, Mr. Trump went overboard: in a 77 minutes’ press conference, the President of the United States accused the press of dishonesty, of spreading fake news about his administration’s ties with Russia and of unfairly questioning his preparation to be and act as President of the oldest uninterrupted democracy in the world. Not happy with this display, the next day he decided to go even further. In a tweet – as David Remnick says, his preferred instrument of autocratic pronouncement – Mr. Trump declared the media to be the “enemy of the American people.”
But Mr. Trump got it wrong. The enemies of the American people – and of all the peoples in the world – are not the protesters, the judges, the journalists, the activists and the politicians who choose to sacrifice their careers and personal lives to fulfill what they consider to be their duty to society. The enemies of the American people – and of all the peoples in the world – are the autocrats like Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan. Those who divide their country instead of uniting it. Those who fail to understand what governing a diverse, complex society is all about. Those who, in the end, are at odds with the concept of freedom of the press— and democracy.
The enemies of the American people are not the protesters, the judges, the journalists, the activists and the politicians who choose to sacrifice their careers and personal lives to fulfill what they consider to be their duty to society.
During the press conference on February, 16, Mr. Trump was asked “whether by attacking fake news, he’d be undermining the press”. The answer is difficult to understand, but the final paragraph reads like this:
“Look, I want to see an honest press. When I started off today by saying that it's so important to the public to get an honest press, the press… the public doesn't believe you people anymore. Now, maybe I had something to do with that, I don't know. But they don't believe you. If you were straight and really told it like it is, as Howard Cosell used to say… Right?”
I guess Mr. Trump is right. The public does not believe the media anymore. And that is our fault. We have failed them. Not because we fabricated news or engaged in hateful comments – something on which Mr. Trump, and particularly his chief strategist Steve Bannon could give a master class. But because we underestimated Mr. Trump´s ability to build upon the resentment of those whom we, as progressives, failed to empathize with. And because we overestimated our ability to talk to citizens – especially Mr. Trump’s support base – and to explain to them that democracy, freedom and civil rights are not empty words.
The way forward will not be easy, but the fight is far from over. It is just starting. We may be facing an existential crisis, and the odds may be against us. But we are “not keeping our mouths shut”. With democracy at stake, no one can shy away from this fight. Period.