The Prodigal Son vs. Darth Vader: How Everyone Is Wrong About Trump

I have a feeling this post might make some folks mad.

Because I’ve been seeing two opposing answers to the question on the Left: 

“How do we move forward from here?”

And they are both wrong.  

And through the lenses of the two worlds I straddle -- activism, and leadership development -- I can see how different perspectives produce different answers:

  • My activist friends tend to speak more to fighting back and protecting communities that are coming under attack.
  • My coaching friends tend to speak more to building bridges, including paying more attention to the legitimate concerns of those who voted for Trump.

(But of course these groups are not monolithic. I have coach friends ready to raise hell, and I have activist friends who want to build bridges.)

And a fair number of times, online and in person, I’ve seen these two points of view come into direct contact. And we seem to really get under each other’s skin.

Because of that, it’d be really easy to say, “Let’s agree to disagree. You go do your thing over there, and I’ll do my thing over here. Why argue when there is work to do?”

But that would be a mistake.

Both paths, on their own, contain dangerous pitfalls. And this is an opportunity to face into the conflict, and come out wiser and stronger.

So my intention with this post is to do two things:

  • To unpack this particular debate

  • While illustrating a framework for how to lead at a time of polarizing differences of opinion (which I’m drawing from Polarity Management and Carl Jung’s philosophy of the shadow.)

Given all the overlap and complexity, there’s no good way to shorthand this. But for sake of brevity...

Let’s call this the debate between the Lovers and the Fighters.

The lovers, in a nutshell: We need to wake up to the anger, alienation, and pain of the white, working class Americans who voted for Trump. We can’t go on ignoring them. There are too many of them, they have some valid concerns, and we need to break out of the increasing polarization that during the Obama years made progress near impossible, and will now result in major regression.

The fighters, in a nutshell: Our communities are under fire. Things are going to get bad, fast. Hate crimes are already on the rise. We’ve got to start organizing today, because the water protectors could lose their land, 20 million people could lose health insurance, millions of undocumented immigrants might face deportation, and, and, and. Trump’s supporters are wrong, wrong, they don’t give a crap about us, and we don’t have the bandwidth or the moral imperative to give a crap about them.

I’ve noticed that most people seem to naturally gravitate towards one perspective or the other. For myself, while the news on Trump’s transition has been making me want to punch something, my natural resting state is on the side of the lovers.

The Lover’s Shadow: when bridge-building is a bridge too far

It can be easy to romanticize the notion of peace-making and reform. It reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son, the wayward son who finds his way back home.

Because we love the idea of redemption.

And many folks feel implicated for having been blind to the dire straights of working class Americans, and clueless about the intensity of white working class anger. The prospect of reaching out gives us hope that we can all be redeemed by bridging the divide. And that through the power of empathy and connection, we can create real and lasting change.

But the truth of bridge building is that it’s hard and messy. And if we are too devoted to making peace, we (especially the more privileged among us) risk throwing the people who’ve been most hurt by Trump voters under the bus.

There is a phrase I’ve heard in spiritual circles called spiritual bypass, which is “a common tendency to use spiritual teachings as a means to avoid, rather than engage fully with, our human relationships and experience.”

It’s like that, except instead of bypassing human experiences, we risk glossing over the actual human beings who because of their sexual orientation, race, immigration status or religion, have real reason to fear for their safety.

I’ve seen shades of this coming up in conversations online, and in articles aimed at explaining the Trump voter. We need to be awake to this blind spot.

Because here’s one of my personal fears: That the lesson the Left and the Democratic Party learn from 2016 is not just that we must pay more attention to working class voters, but that we must do it at the expense of marginalized communities.

And based on what some prominent leaders on the Left are saying, that fear is not without foundation.

Here’s what Lovers can learn from Fighters

“...and there can be no peace without justice.” -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Building bridges is meaningless if you don't stand for something. Great fighters have a capacity to make the fight an expression of love for their cause and their people. Anger is an emotion that tells us what’s important to us, and where our boundaries are. Rather than being consumed by anger, they channel it into righteous action.

Lovers can integrate the fighter capacity to enduringly connect with the values we stand for, and not waver, even when our values seem to get in the way of our ability to make peace. Great fighters understand that while some compromise is necessary, it’s important to know what we hold as sacred. And a peace that violates that is built on a shaky foundation.

As Kirsten West Savali says in her forceful rebuttal to empathy for white resentment:

Yes, we must build coalitions of working-class people across the racial and gender spectrum. But if their whiteness comes first, it would behoove us to give less than a damn about coddling their “resentment” and keep moving toward freedom for ourselves.

By bridging this divide, Lovers can hone their skill in connecting across difference, while not glossing over the context of white supremacy that we are operating in.

If this is your blind spot, here are a few things to help bring it more into view:

  • Stay informed. And remember that This is Not Normal.

  • Cultivate relationships with people who are on the “Fighter” end of the spectrum, and engage with them in ways that give them a chance to balance out your perspective. Follow activists you respect on social media.

  • Learn, and keep learning, about how structural racism, patriarchy and privilege work, and about how those systems of oppression are internalized, even inside good people. (Including you and me.)

  • Practice mindfully listening to those you disagree with, and getting to know how you react. Without judgment, notice your response, and your relationship to fear and anger. Do you tend to avoid it? Are you able to let yourself feel it, without rationalizing it away? Do you notice an impulse to ignore or smooth over differences, saying that common ground is more important? None of these reactions would necessarily be wrong. They are just patterns to notice.

The Fighter’s Shadow: Burning bridges

The instinct to fight and protect is justified,  especially given the rise in attacks on marginalized communities since the election.

Many of us feel, viscerally, how our bodies and our lives are on the line. We hear folks who say they voted for Trump not because of his racist rhetoric, but in spite of it. And we see their incredible lack of concern for our safety as privileged and racist.

So it makes sense that folks are in a fighting stance. It makes sense why the collective fury at Trump voters is often hot enough to burn bridges down.

It makes sense, and yet, we need to be awake to the dangers. Because what is our endgame here?

Our politics function like an arms race. We legalize gay marriage, they put an extreme homophobe in the White House. We start seeing more women in positions of power, they back us into conversations about access to birth control. We sign onto the Paris accord for climate change, they appoint a climate denier to head the EPA.

The big issues we face, like climate change, structural racism in criminal justice, and an economy that relies on the exploitation of workers, require sustained movement over many years. It’s not realistic to expect that that kind of change will come about because “our side” finally, at long last, achieves total dominance over the right. We’ve got to start building common cause.  

A popular rejoinder on the left is that all we have to do is wait for the bigoted old white people to die off. I don’t buy it.

For one thing, “the coming extinction of the white race” is the battle hymn of white supremacy. And as we saw from Obama’s time in the White House, racists use images of successful black people as red meat to build their movement.

And secondly, it's not safe to assume that a browner America = a more progressive and inclusive America. The vast diversity and changing nature of experiences among and within groups of color are too complex for us to smugly count on that.

I know I sound dire. And to be clear, I agree that we have to keep fighting. And I know we have made progress. But it’s not been enough, and it’s taking too damn long.

There are no winners in the “us vs. them” paradigm. I used to work in advocacy campaign communications. So I know the utility of a living, fire-breathing enemy to help motivate the grassroots to get involved.

I know the power of drawing from our culture’s deeply ingrained hero mythology. From Luke Skywalker to Luke Cage, and from Darth Vader to Donald Trump, we tell a million stories about the fight for good against evil.

But there is a cost.

Because the other side is telling those stories too. And by feeding that big collective story, we chip away at any opportunity to change the game. We make it harder to see each other as human beings.

I believe a lot of people voted for Trump not because they hate us, but because their mental caricatures of us make it easy for them to dismiss us. (And we have similar caricatures of them in our minds.) In order to break down that alienation, we have to start giving a crap about each other.

These are not new insights. MLK’s final campaign was building common cause between the civil rights movement and labor. He said:

King observed: “Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.” To achieve economic justice, King said, “there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American whether he [or she] is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer,” said King.

Here’s what Fighters can learn from Lovers

“There can be no justice without peace...” -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

“What you resist, persists.” -- Carl Jung

Lovers are great at questioning the way our culture generates us vs. them and good vs. evil binaries. They have a deep reservoir of compassion, they don’t easily give up on people, and they are natural skeptics of the idea that anyone, in any argument, can be all right or all wrong. They get the power of empathy to create space for deep and lasting change. And great Lovers (ahem) can teach us about unconditional respect.

When Fighters integrate that capacity for fundamental respect, their natural inclination for truth-telling turns fierce.

Because respect is about being able to tell hard truths while also communicating that “I believe you are strong enough to hear my truth. I don’t have to sugar-coat it for you. I believe you are capable of hearing me, even if there is resistance. And I believe there is goodness in you that can see the goodness in me.”

And the flip-side is that when we believe in our own essential strength and goodness, our capacity to really listen also grows fierce. Deep love and respect for self and others is the ground for being unafraid of the truth.

If this is your blind spot, here are a view things to help shine a light on it:

  • Exercise your compassion muscle with a metta or lovingkindness meditation.

  • Practice mindfully listening to those you disagree with, and getting to know how you react. Without judgment, notice your response, and your relationship to fear and anger. Do you tend to avoid it? Are you able to let yourself feel it, without rationalizing it away? Do you notice a drive to change the other person’s mind, to shame them for their views, or to just shut them down? None of these reactions would necessarily be wrong. They are just patterns to notice.

  • Seek out information that complicates your view of Trump voters. Muddy those waters. Read things that remind you of their humanity, and makes it harder to give up on them.

I’m not trying to argue that everyone needs to be fully engaged in both ways of making change. We need lovers and we need fighters. But I do believe we’ll be stronger if we really listen to the folks we disagree with.

So what do you think of all of this? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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