Country, 240, Seeks Leader. Only Responsible Adults Please. Empathy and Some Degree of Selflessness Desirable. Respond in Writing by November 8th.

“Still, you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” ©Bob Dylan Music

 

I have watched Donald Trump’s rise with horror. I’ve thought to myself countless times during the course of the current campaign, “Surely this latest scandal must be the end.  Surely Trump can’t get closer to the Presidency. People can not truly want this unconscionable man to sit at the desk in the Oval Office.”

But month by month, week by week, and day by day, I’ve been proven wrong. Trump is now well within reach of becoming the next President of the United States of America, and it seems to me that those of us who absolutely do not want this to happen are fundamentally misunderstanding how to communicate with those who want very much for Trump to trade his own private jet for Air Force One.  With that in mind, and because the spectre of a Trump presidency is more than I can bear silently, I would like to present a cautionary tale.

***

When my son Christopher was about six and my daughter Louise about four, my husband Markus and I took the children to Centre Court, the American-style shopping mall in Wimbledon.  I can’t honestly remember why we felt we needed to venture that far afield; Centre Court was at least a forty-minute journey from our home in another leafy part of southwest London.  The shopping expedition had not gone smoothly– the kids had been whiny and uncooperative, Markus had been in a foul mood, and we hadn’t been able to purchase whatever it was we had been looking for– so by the time we found ourselves in the slow-moving queue at Costa, the safety on the trigger of my temper was well and truly off.  About halfway through the queue, Markus made some comment that released the trigger, and I lost the plot.  I shouted something like, “Just shut up!  I can’t take anymore!”  I then threw my mobile phone at the floor and stormed out of that Costa with my head held high and my shoulders back, like some sort of mall warrior queen.

For less than five seconds, what I had just done felt really, really good.  Especially the throwing of the phone.  “That showed them,” I thought to myself smugly.  “They’ll think twice before they mess with me again.”  I strode past Whittard’s Coffee and Tea and Next awash in power.  By the time I reached River Island, however, the rush was slipping away, and outside Marks and Spencer the crash came. 

“Oh no,” I thought.  “That was well and truly idiotic.  Not only did I possibly break a phone I can’t afford to replace, but I set a very bad example indeed.  I acted worse than the stroppiest four-year old.”

I turned around in remorse and began to retrace my steps.  Markus would be less than pleased, I was sure, and the thought of his disapproval slowed my  pace.  When I reached the still-crowded Costa, I scanned the tables until I located my husband and our two children. 

“Here we are, Mum!”  Louise, our four-year old, called out, waving merrily.  “Pa bought us both hot chocolates!  With whipped cream and marshmallows!”

“Did he now,” I said, looking sheepishly at Markus, who grinned at me.

“All better?” he asked.

“Yes, thanks.  Sorry about that,” I mumbled, then asked more urgently, “How’s the phone?”

“Phone is fine.  Don’t try your luck again, though,” Markus warned.    

“Great.  Right.  Will try not to.” 

Markus addressed the children.  “Drink up, kids,” he said, “Time to go home.” 

***

Donald Trump is the epitome of phone-thrower.  Take his spat with Megyn Kelley of Fox News; Trump has hurled insults her way since he first came into contact with her, even stooping so low as to imply that Kelley was unable to behave rationally because she had her period.  While I experienced shame and regret after my own childish tantrum, however, Trump appears to never come down— he just carries on attacking, as if for every metaphorical phone he tosses, someone merely pulls from a hidden unlimited supply and hands him a replacement.  Not only do the phones not break, but people stop to watch this phone-throwing maniac, and he commands his enablers to build him golden towers out of the discarded objects, which he then sells at great cost to the phone suppliers but at enormous profit to himself, a profit that he neglects to declare and certainly does not pay taxes on.  And people love it!  Look at this man, so unafraid to “tell it like it is” and leave a path of destruction behind him, yet so confident in his privilege that he can rewrite the rules of engagement and lead his followers to not only make sacrifices for him, but to feel honoured in doing so.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to be like him?  Wouldn’t it be glorious to say what you wish without fear of repercussions?  Wouldn’t it be smashing to host extravagant phone-throwing parties and care not one whit for the cost to the phone suppliers whom you never intend to pay?  Wouldn’t it, most of all, be mind-blowing to rework wealth so that you could act as irresponsibly as you wished, smashing phones willy-nilly, and rather than being sent to prison for reckless endangerment, you could be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America?

***

The interest on my fit of impulsivity, I discovered after the event, was very high indeed.  I paid through the nose for my error of judgment that day at Centre Court, but not with paper money.  Instead I paid with blood money each time Christopher or Louise mimicked my appalling behaviour in the months following.

“Christopher,” I would admonish our son, “Please don’t throw your Lego.  You could have hit Louise.”

“You threw your phone,” Christopher would remind me flatly.   

“I did, but that was a mistake,” I would say, slowly and clearly, for both his benefit and his sister’s.  “Sometimes people make mistakes.  I apologised right afterwards, and I haven’t thrown my phone since, have I?”

Or, “Louise, please don’t use the words ‘shut up.’  If you want Christopher to stop talking, please tell him so nicely.”

“But he tells me to shut up!” Louise protested. “He said it before you came in!”

“Just because you hear someone say something doesn’t mean that you should copy them.  You can do the right thing even if Christopher doesn’t.” 

The urge to act like a toddler did not disappear, but seeing my actions mirrored by my children acted as a powerful deterrent.  When my arm or my tongue wanted very much to lash out, the thought of either child copying me defused me, leaving me able to bring my response to, if not an acceptable, at least a less explosive level.  I still shout, but I don’t shout “shut up,” and I am proud to report that I have thrown nothing in anger since that Sony Ericsson.  Even better, after about a year of as-required redirection, both Christopher and Louise grasped that only toy weapons (such as Nerf guns) could be used as weapons, and the phrase “shut up” was completely eradicated from their vocabularies.  (Full disclosure: now that Louise has reached her tween years “shut up” is making an unwelcome comeback, but we’re working on that).

Changing my behaviour was not easy.  Before I was a phone-thrower, I was a repeat offender door-slammer; the neural pathway of dramatic object maltreatment leading to a brief high was well-established.  I knew, though, that the eventual reward of self-control— children who trusted me, and who would grow up to use phones rather than throw them— was greater than the cost of learning to keep my temper, and I held the promise of that delayed gratification firmly in my sight.  I was like the subset of children in the famous marshmallow study— offered one marshmallow right now or three marshmallows if they can wait for ten minutes— who choose to wait for the higher payout. 

You would think that with his proven history of lies, business failures, and mistreatment of all sorts of people (but especially women), Donald Trump would spend much of his time apologising for his appalling behaviour; in fact, Donald shows remorse only when completely cornered.  Trump’s apology during the second debate for the latest scandal, the live mic recording of his abusive comments towards women, was stunningly insincere, and the speed with which he moved from “I apologized to the American people” to “I will knock the hell out of ISIS” was so jarring it made my mouth hang open (http://europe.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-2016-presidential-debate-read-full-transcript-508163?rm=eu).  The idea that it would be possible to act as he has and not lie awake at night plagued by pangs of conscience is seductive, because let’s face it, guilt is no fun, and the work of attempting to be a good and decent human being is arduous.  Trump has proven over and over that he has no interest in even basic decency, yet he is still (at this writing) the Republican nominee for President; he ignored the rules, but he took all the marshmallows and even turned some of the researchers into lackeys who offer him infinite supplies of marshmallows.  How tempting must it be to support him for those who feel sick of political correctness and tired of the grind of daily life, for the people who have been without for far too long and want their marshmallows now. 

Trump is not trying to be a more upstanding person, and many of his faults are glaringly apparent.  Yet his supporters identify with him, and when asked why he is their choice, often provide answers like, “He’s one of us.  He talks like me.  He isn’t one of those politician types.  He’s not part of the establishment.”  That’s fine— I can imagine, were I to be a white, fit,  right-leaning businessman, that Trump would be a back-slapping, jocular pub companion, prone to grand gestures like picking up the tab for rounds of champagne— but pub buddy and President are two wildly different person specifications.  I want my President to be the sort of person who is striving towards excellence.  I don’t care if she or he would be fun at the pub. 

Trump goes one step further than merely refusing to own up to most of his mistakes; his favourite tactic, when caught red-handed, is to blame others.  It’s Megyn Kelley’s, Miss Universe’s, and Rosie O’Donnell’s fault that Trump says horrible things to and about them, not Trump’s fault.  Trump’s list of what Hillary is responsible for goes on and on.  To go back to the phone-throwing: if I were to have taken a page from Trump’s playbook, I wouldn’t have needed to apologise to either Markus or our children for my inappropriate behaviour, because I would have been forced to throw my phone by extenuating circumstances— tired children, annoyed husband, inefficient or overstretched coffee shop staff— and would thus not be accountable for my actions.

I used to know a man who ran a small business; he put in far more than forty hours a week and did good work; while lovely, his were niche products, and this man’s business balanced continuously on the edge of collapsing.  To my perpetual mystification, this man was a staunch Republican.  Why would someone who hovered, with his family, perilously close to requiring assistance  from the state vote for a party firmly committed to reducing state spending?  What I could not comprehend was that this man still believed that one fine day his business would not only take off, but would also make him rich, and when that happened, he, for one, wanted to pay as little as possible on his future wealth.  Why hadn’t his business achieved fortune and fame yet?  Was that down to him and his decisions about how to run his business?  No, that was because of factors beyond this man’s reach: the Democrats, the market, the economy.  I suspect this man will be voting for Trump in November.

Trump voters seem to think that while their candidate may lie, he would not lie to them specifically.  While he may brag about groping women, he would never grope their wives, mothers, or daughters.  Trump may kick out all the Muslims and the Mexicans, but he would never threaten the voters’ own religions or ethnic backgrounds.  What these voters fail to realise is that Donald Trump cares about one thing, and one thing only:  Donald Trump.  Trump is so deranged that he seems to really, honestly believe that he is the centre of the known universe: that nothing can touch him, that he is invincible, and that the world should serve him.

***

President Barack Obama, the only politician I have ever campaigned for, is not defined by selfishness.  Obama has fought tooth and nail to serve the whole of the American people.  One of President Obama’s most significant achievements has been the implementation of the form of national health insurance known colloquially as Obamacare, for which he has paid dearly in popularity.  Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as it is officially known, remains a divisive policy; many of the Americans I know dislike the changes it has brought to the healthcare system, and the Republicans, Trump included, would love to repeal the ACA.  Of everything I have read this election season, though, one letter has stuck with me— a letter sent to President Obama by a lifelong Republican, Brent Brown, describing how the ACA made it possible for Brent to get the medication he needed to overcome a serious autoimmune disease that threatened to either kill him, bankrupt him, or both.  The entire letter is worth reading (http://letterstopresidentobama.tumblr.com/post/140398509929/meet-brent-brown-from-mosinee-wisconsin-he-never), but these are the lines that matter the most as the nation prepares to vote in November:

Thank you for serving me even when I didn’t vote for you.

Thank you for being my President.

Honored to have lived under your leadership and guidance,

Brent Nathan Brown

Over and over again Donald Trump has lashed out at those who have criticised him, sometimes viciously, sometimes for years.  The likelihood of Donald rising above his ego to work for the greater good is slim to nonexistent.  Under a President Trump (may it never come to pass), Brent would be made to carry on as he did before the passage of the ACA, with catastrophic results.  While Brent and his family suffered, Donald would be busy implementing policies that would benefit Trump directly.

***

I rarely have the luxury of writing quickly.  I started this essay two weeks ago, and during those two weeks, I have given considerable thought to how to explain why it is better to live as a person who strives to do the right thing than as a person who says “to hell with the right thing, I will do what I want.”  Why not just throw your phone if you feel like it?  Why not just say whatever springs to mind?  Why not attempt to crush anyone who gets in your way if people will worship you anyway? 

The least noble motivation for being kind is that the beneficiary— even if you have acted altruistically, with no intentions of tit-for-tat— ends up somewhat in your debt, and you may, at some later juncture, stand to gain from this imbalance.  Perhaps two months after my husband Markus and I had first started living together, in a second-floor one bedroom apartment in Burlington, Vermont in 1987, Markus’s huge friend Joakim took up residence on our sofa.  Joakim had landed a job at the same ski area as Markus, but didn’t have enough money to pay rent on a place of his own, so he curled all 6’4” of himself onto our sofa each night for a few months.  Joakim had a smile as big as his frame and the manner of a crazily overgrown puppy; most days I didn’t mind at all that Joakim shared our space, but sometimes I wished that Markus and I could have the place to ourselves. 

As soon as Joakim could afford it, he moved out.  While Joakim was still in Vermont, we saw him frequently, but as the years went by, we fell out of touch.  Then in 2003, shortly after the birth of our son Christopher, we found ourselves dead broke in Sweden with no job prospects on the horizon for either of us.  Joakim had a flat in Stockholm overlooking the harbour, and he had a spare bedroom.  He offered us a key. 

We lived rent-free with Joakim for at least two months, maybe three.  Had we not let him stay on our couch fifteen years previously, Joakim may have been less open to the thought of sharing his home with not one but two adults and one baby; he may have still offered, but for both him and for us, it would not have been as psychologically manageable.  This sort of arrangement— you do something good for me, I will (maybe someday) do something good for you— is the only one of my reasons for kindness that Donald Trump is likely to be down with.

Climbing up the ladder towards selflessness, we find the idea of the human cost of bad behaviour.  Returning yet again to my phone-throwing: to restrain myself would have “hurt” only me, but to give in to my baser nature scarred my husband, our two children, the onlookers and staff at the coffee shop, and actually me as well, because of the mark it left on my character which I was then forced to confront each time I held my character up to the mirror of self-reflection.  Trump seems unable to accept the human cost of his transgressions.  His apology for the bus tape, for example, was a textbook example of the sort of “sorry not sorry” you would expect from a teen with attitude, not the Republican nominee for President. 

Perhaps Donald could consider history.  I have no plans to run for public office, and I am barely a player on the neighbourhood stage, much less the national stage (thankfully), so no one was there snapping photos of my reprehensible actions that day at Centre Court.  But even individuals have a history, as do families, and although I did my best to sweep the phone-throwing under the carpet, it remained part of the oral tradition of our family for longer than I would have wished.  Christopher and Louise will carry the history of our family with them when they leave our home to make homes of their own— I want that book to be one that they will display proudly, that they will love to pull from their mental shelves and re-read, not one that they will hide in the loft, and that desire provides strong motivation for me to aspire to kindness. 

Trump, for better or (in my view) for much worse, is a player on the world stage, and as such, he may want to consider how he will be remembered.  History has not celebrated certain other charismatic leaders who have been driven primarily by self-interest; on the contrary, such figures, particularly when their actions harm others (as Trump’s do), are held up as cautionary examples.  Obama, meanwhile, has spent the entirety of his time as President as if one entire wall of the Oval Office was hung with a tapestry with the words “Govern for Posterity” stitched in metre-high letters, and history, I believe, will remember him kindly. 

The most compelling argument for aiming to be at least a decent, or at best an exemplary, human being is at once both the most and the least selfless:  there are 7.4 billion of us living on 57 million square miles of land (or, if counting only arable land, 12 million square miles) on the surface of a fragile planet.  For this situation to be tenable, we are all advised to obey the code of conduct developed during the thousands of years of human existence.  When we don’t, life becomes less pleasant, or unbearable, or ends.  When we do, we are able to not just coexist but thrive, and we may even be capable of improbable feats, such as repairing our planet so that she will sustain us for longer than currently predicted. 

Traffic is a good metaphor.  People have codified the rules of traffic over years of trial and error.  Each time we get into a car, or walk across a street, we are assuming that we and all other road users hope to survive our journeys.  In the United Kingdom and the United States, the countries where I have spent most of my life, drivers overwhelmingly follow the rules; traffic, while it can be frustrating, is only rarely lethal.  In the U.K. and the U.S., traffic rules are not left unspoken, but are rather studied and formally agreed upon when we become licensed drivers (go ahead, ask me about The Highway Code).  As drivers, we understand that is in our best interest to follow the rules and, most importantly, we have faith in the traffic system.

Traffic is not like that worldwide.  I was once paid to proofread a twenty-page master’s thesis about traffic systems in India.  By the time I was four pages in, I had made a solemn vow to never operate or indeed ride in any sort of vehicle in that country.  The author had studied one junction in particular, and described a number of collisions and near-misses between cars, lorries, bicycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, and even cows; traffic, at this junction, was a nightmare.  Whether this was due to ignoring the rules, never having learned the rules, or an inadequate number of rules was not clear to me from the thesis, but for whatever reason, road users had lost faith in the system, or perhaps had never had it in the first place.  The lack of a greater-good traffic system is reflected in statistics: in 2015, the World Health Organisation reported that India had a traffic fatality rate of 16.6 road fatalities per 100,00 inhabitants per year, for a total of 238,562 deaths (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate).  For the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the correlating figures were 2.9 and 1827.  Then there’s Sweden, a country that in 1997 passed a law establishing Vision Zero, a campaign to reduce the country’s annual traffic fatalities to zero.  Sweden has not reached zero yet, but in 2015, they achieved a traffic fatality rate of 2.8 road fatalities per 100,00 inhabitants per year, for a total of 272, beaten only by the Federated States of Micronesia (population 106,000) with 1.9 and 2.

If society is like a traffic system, then Trump is like the out-of-control driver of a flashy flame-coloured sports car, proudly flouting the rules and acting like he and he alone owns every road, like the roads were built for him, like the lesser cars he has clipped and side-swiped are all at fault but not his reckless driving.  No, Trump has not killed anyone, but it is not far-fetched to say that his words could indirectly lead to misogynist or racist violence, and that such violence could culminate in death, as it does far too often.  Trump is not driving according to the rules, and his failure to do so is both endangering individuals and eroding much of the public’s faith in the system.

***

It would be a miracle if any Trump supporter had read this far, but in the unlikely event that such a situation might occur, I would like to now appeal directly to you, the probable Trump voter.  If you are still supporting this man, I want you to ask yourself several questions:

  1. Do you really want your children, or your friends’ children, to look up to someone like Donald Trump as a role model?  Would you want your child to call you any of the names Donald has repeatedly called people he doesn’t like?
  2. If you want to vote for Donald because you are “sick of the establishment,” have you looked lately at the state of the United Kingdom?  There was a referendum here recently about whether or not to stay in the European Union; the anti-establishment LEAVE side— led by Nigel Farage, who is now good mates with Trump— won, with the result that the value of the pound has nosedived and the country has been plunged into chaos.  The likely result, should Brexit come to pass (which it almost certainly will), is that the people who voted OUT because they felt hopeless, down-trodden, and angry are the very people who will pay the steepest price when a country already reeling under austerity makes further cuts to government services, all the while promoting itself as a tax haven for the very wealthy.  “Tax haven for the very wealthy”— is that ringing any bells?  Donald, who has avoided paying federal income tax for nearly twenty years, would be likely to support any policies that would lead to more of that… 
  3. Do you think Donald Trump is your personal saviour?  If you do, you are sorely misled.  Donald Trump does not care about you.  Donald Trump doesn’t truly care about anyone except Donald Trump.
  4. If you are a woman and you still support Donald Trump, I am sorry.  Either you are with a partner who does not, or you were raised in a family that did not, value women.  I want you to know that it does not have to be that way.  Please consider starting your journey of healing by condemning this man’s awful words and actions. 
  5. Do you want to vote for Donald because you hate Hillary?  OK.  I can appreciate that.  I myself am a reluctant recent convert to Camp Hillary.  I am guessing that the slightly ill feeling I get when I think of Hillary’s ties to the establishment is nothing compared to the wave of nausea that sweeps over you.  My biggest issue with Hillary, to be honest, has to do with Bill; I would respect and trust Hillary a good deal more if she had walked away from Bill.  But Michelle Obama, who presented the case against Trump far more elegantly and convincingly than I am doing here in her recent speech in New Hampshire (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/14/michelle-obama-speech-transcript-donald-trump), pointed out that it is not in Hillary’s nature to give up on anything; while Michelle didn’t mention Hillary’s marriage specifically as an example of her perseverance, I’m sure that the First Lady guessed that some listeners  would draw that conclusion for themselves.  Hillary, although she has undeniable connections to the 1%, also has a deep and broad understanding of what life in the United States is like for the 99%.  I read the many pages of Hillary’s platform; if Hillary will fight for her objectives with the tenacity she has shown as a lawyer, as Secretary of State, and yes, as a wife, her Presidency may be able to improve the lives of vast numbers of Americans (read it for yourself here: https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/). 

If you are not a Trump supporter yourself, which is far more likely if you have read this far, then I have some advice for you as well:  don’t unfriend the Trump voters in your midst— not on social media, and not in real life.  “See less” on Facebook if you must— if they’re really driving you crazy— but don’t end the dialogue.  Try to understand, or if you just can’t, then agree to disagree.  Be the better person, if you possibly can.  Don’t be the phone-thrower; be the calm adult who forgives when possible, but will walk away if absolutely necessary.  If you opt out, they won’t hear you, and then the odds of them voting for anyone other than Donald will worsen.  And please, let nothing— not rain, not queues, not the suspicion that your vote doesn’t matter— stand between you and the ballot box on November 8th. 

***

I am not only a reformed phone-thrower.  I am also a musician.  I spent six years of my life playing in the band at my secondary school in rural Vermont three mornings a week.  Our band leader, Mr Taylor, was a charismatic drummer; Mr Taylor had a big personality— and a big ego— but an even bigger talent as both a musician and a conductor.  Mr Taylor took no flak; he demanded commitment and ambition from every last member of the band, whether sixth trumpet or first flute, and because of the strength of his leadership, he got it.  Our school band— made up of the daughters and sons of farmers, clergy, traders, professionals, artists, and none of the above— was masterful.  Yes, Mr Taylor adored the spotlight, but he loved the music more, and he would often immerse himself so fully in its service that he ceased to be Mr Taylor as such and became instead a conduit, enabling our motley crew of mixed backgrounds and abilities to rise above our limitations and create something sublime.

The President is at the top of the chain of command for the United States of America, just as Mr Taylor was commander-in-chief for our school band.  The President should have a vision of what she or he wants for America and the American people, just as Mr Taylor had a score and an idea of how he wanted us to sound.  And most importantly, just as Mr Taylor worked for the music, the President should recognise that she or he is serving something far more important than herself or himself.

Hillary could be that sort of President.  Donald could not.

My ballot arrived in the post not long ago, with “Rush— Official Election Mail” emblazoned on the envelope.  Louise, our eleven-year old, has been paying attention this election season; when she saw the ballot, Louise asked, “Mum— can I please fill in the oval for Clinton?  Please?”

I considered the double satisfaction of casting my vote against Trump and letting Louise start as I hoped she would go on— exercising her democratic rights as an informed citizen.  Louise holds an American passport after all. 

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Yay!” Louise shouted.  “Give me a pen!  Quick!”

If all goes well, Louise’s maiden vote in a federal election will be part of a historic result, and a woman will be President of the United States for the first time in America’s history.  Should that not be the case, I believe my hair, which has been greying slowly, may well go white overnight from the shock. 

Even if Trump wins, though, I am done with phone throwing.

 

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2 Responses to Country, 240, Seeks Leader. Only Responsible Adults Please. Empathy and Some Degree of Selflessness Desirable. Respond in Writing by November 8th.

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