What produced all the anger that has propelled the Trump campaign? I believe it has much less to do with trade or income gaps and much more to do with culture and a lost sense of “home.”
I think it’s appropriate that the last words on this campaign and the first words for our new president go to an immigrant. They’re from my friend Lesley Goldwasser, who came from Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Surveying our political scene a few years ago, Lesley remarked to me: “You Americans kick around your country like it’s a football. But it’s not a football. It’s a Fabergé egg. You can break it.”
I’ve thought of Lesley’s remark often in recent weeks, because for the last decades we’ve seen people deliberately trashing our institutions and eroding the foundations of trust that are the bedrock of American democracy. They did so with the seeming assumption that the American system is indeed a football we can kick around endlessly to advance one’s political career or, worse, make money, and it will always bounce back.
Well, none of us knows exactly where the breaking point lies, but I’d posit that the last eight years of our politics, culminating in this campaign, have stressed America to the limit. It’s indeed a Fabergé egg, not a football. We can break it. We can debase our most cherished institutions that were the envy of the world. We can irredeemably shred the bonds of trust that are the sine qua non of any democracy.
In short, if we don’t pull back from the madness that has become American politics — if we have another eight years like the last eight — we’re going to break this place.
I lived in the middle of a civil war in Lebanon. I saw what happens when people stop trusting one another. Your country goes backward — fast. And once the bonds of trust are lost, they are so hard to rebuild.
We are becoming like Sunnis and Shiites now — not rival parties anymore but rival tribes. Republican leaders have been speaking like Middle Eastern tribal chiefs: If we’re not in power, we just won’t allow anything to get done. That is exactly the stance the Shiite Hezbollah — “the Party of God” — has used to dominate Lebanon.
What produced all the anger that has propelled the Trump campaign? I believe it has much less to do with trade or income gaps and much more to do with culture and a lost sense of “home.” America’s becoming a minority-majority country has threatened the sense of community of many middle-class whites, and the dizzying whirlwind of technological change has threatened their economic status as well and left many people feeling unanchored.
Women’s empowerment, which Hillary Clinton embodies, also threatens many less-educated white men. Donald Trump, presenting himself as The Strongman, promised he could build walls to contain all of these changes. A shocking number of Americans fell for it. But Trump had help.
In recent years, making people angry, sowing mistrust among Americans and delegitimizing our national institutions in Washington, D.C., became good business — and good politics — on the right. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and other radio and TV fearmongers have been deliberately making people angry and mistrustful, and gotten rich doing so.
The anger business is now one of America’s growth industries.
And social media, which is becoming the primary news source for many people, amplifies it all.
Ezra Klein put it well in an essay on Vox: “The lesson of this unnerving year is that less can be taken for granted than we thought — the American people are not immune to demagogues, and the American political system is too weakened to reliably stop them.”
Our next president has to lead us in much healing to restore the sinews of trust essential to democracy. “It’s a truism to say that we face a crisis of leadership,” said Gautam Mukunda, a Harvard Business School assistant professor and the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.”
“But just as important, we face a crisis of ‘followership.’ ” Because after years of this anger industry, “too many Americans will not believe the truth when they hear it. We will not have effective leadership until we once again have followers who can be lead. And all of that starts with trust.”
That’s why job one for our next president — before any economic or foreign initiative — has to be to try to fix the “deficits of trust among ourselves and the deficits of trust in authority” that now plague America, argued Ronald Heifetz, an expert on leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” “It’s the central challenge revealed by this election.”
It is impossible to predict Trump’s impulses as president, because he would have to become, in so many ways, everything he has not been: a healer; a truth teller; someone who studies the issues; and a leader who tells people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
There is so much at stake for America that you have to hope for the best. But if Trump can’t be such a healer, he needs to know he’ll be remembered for breaking history’s most valuable Fabergé egg.