It is hard to say which is more mesmerizing about our present cultural moment, the blustering neo-fascism of Donald Trump, or the state of the body politic which seems to be so receptive to it, encouraging him ever closer to the presidency. Like Bernie Sanders, he has charged forward riding upon our collective longing for authenticity, our pervasive fatigue with political double-speak and government by corruption, cronyism, and gridlock.
Trump’s “authenticity” is a two-sided coin: his “solutions” will only lead to further division of race and class domestically and further war internationally—and they invite careful listening as a manifestation of our country’s unadmitted shadow, as Kern Beare writes in his brilliantly concise piece, “Listening to Trump.”
Some—I hope there will be enough who will back up their conviction with a vote—might say that Trump’s authenticity is consummately fake, the ultimate manifestation of reality TV, shallow celebrity culture, being famous for being famous. But he would never have gotten this far without having given authentic voice to a strain of darkness in our past and present that will do us harm unless we keep bringing it into the light of self-reflection and repentance.
Shadow is a simple word that encompasses all that we refuse to consciously address, preferring to drift in a haze of convenient simplifications and half-truths. It is easy, especially in the midst of an intensely polarized political contest, to assert that it is my party alone that will restore the U.S.A. to unalloyed greatness. It is much harder to acknowledge our shadow side as manifested in the three great interrelated whirlpools of darkness charted by Martin Luther King Jr. back in 1967: materialism, racism, and militarism.
If these remain unconscious, we drift. As our black president finishes out two terms, those in congress who have opposed his every initiative drift in a sleep of latent racism. Our materialism has led to an uneven playing field and a drift of wealth and power toward the top. Mr. Trump is a prime example, even while he pretends to be a pal of the working class. As Nick Kristof wrote in the Times, materialist excess and racism are woven into his business history: “A former building superintendent working for the Trumps explained that he was told to code any application by a black person with the letter C, for colored, apparently so the office would know to reject it. A Trump rental agent said the Trumps wanted to rent only to “Jews and executives,” and discouraged renting to blacks.”
But the greatest whirlpool of all in which we drift in semi-conscious unease is our unchecked militarism. Racism and militarism are interwoven whirlpools, as we saw recently in the tragedies in Dallas and in Baton Rouge—African American veterans targeted the police with a military assault rifles and tactics—one of whom was in turn killed by police equipped with a military-style explosive robot.
And in all the presidential debates so far, there has been zero mention of the trillion-dollar proposal to renew all our nuclear weapons systems over the next 30 years—as if nuclear weapons were an authentic answer to the challenges of poverty, food insecurity, disease, climate change, or terrorism. What real human needs could we meet by the reallocation of just a few of those thousand billions poured into all our foreign bases and weapons?
The international community and the U.S. especially lack a vision for concluding both the war on terror and the nuclear balance of terror, relying instead entirely on overwhelming, world-deployed, fight-fire-with-fire military force. If brute strength is not complemented by non-violent processes of reaching out and reconciliation, by adherence to international law, and by generous humanitarian aid, a violent backlash, as we have seen with ISIS, becomes inevitable.
There are people everywhere, not enough, but perhaps more than we may think, who have ceased to drift passively in these whirlpools of our times. People like peace activist David Hartsough, who recently led a group of citizens to Russia to establish friendly connections and overcome hardening stereotypes recalling the obsolete cold war of the last century. People like Len and Libby Traubman, who for 20 years have brought together small groups of American Jews and Palestinians to share a meal, trade stories, and put a human face on a seemingly intractable conflict. People like David Swanson, a one-man dervish who has put together a mega-sized peace conference to take place in Washington in September. Or Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is difficult to understand how anyone can argue that “black lives matter” is a racist statement when unarmed black people are being profiled and then shot by police at much higher rates than whites. Or Al Jubitz, an Oregon philanthropist who works tirelessly on citizen initiatives to prevent war. Or the police in Aarhus, Denmark, who fight terrorism by welcoming back young people who have been sucked into the whirlpool of ISIS. Or Paul Kando, a retired engineer in my small town in Maine who has come up with a comprehensive plan to gradually end our local and state over-reliance on fossil fuels in favor of a citizen-initiated transition to renewable energy sources.
The triple threat of racism, militarism and materialism always divides the world into “us” and “them,” the well-heeled and the needy, the Caucasian and the swarthy, the fully human Western European and the Muslim in whose distant cities death by suicide bombings does not merit the same media coverage as identical carnage in Paris or Orlando.
Michelle Obama’s moving speech at the Democratic Convention was so effective because it focused upon an issue that potentially unites us all, both conservative and liberal: what is best for our children? Children will not flourish without adults in their lives who have come to terms with their own shadow, with the deep truth that we are all human and imperfect. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn provided the precise antidote to Trumpian bromides that perpetuate division and encourage our continued drift: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”