Indianapolis Raceway Museum, 2014
One of the biggest challenges for the thoughtful in dealing with the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory is to gird oneself for what one might need to do if Donald Trump believes in, and wants to act on much of his hateful rhetoric that he used to effect to defeat Hillary Clinton.
I’m not going to tell you not to worry. Because I don’t know. But here’s the punchline — you don’t know either. And if you’ve read the various other pieces I’ve written on Trump, as well as how reflective personalities work, you can’t know. The only rational approach is to suppress your fear and work with the data at hand — and trust in understanding the v-Memes involved, which really aren’t evolving anywhere.
First, a brief reflection on our political system to start. In the United States, we have a representative democracy, where elected representatives, subject to a variety of interesting rules and preconditions (I’m talking about things like gerrymandering here) get elected to represent a mass of people in typically a bicameral (two house) legislature, along with some form of an executive branch. They’re supposed to listen to the electorate, and then transmit those views, along with various compromising and dealmaking, into legislation that results in governance.
If you ask anyone in the public if their leaders should have ‘integrity’ — usually interpreted as a desire to stick to one’s deeply held, profound beliefs — they’ll almost always say ‘absolutely!’ The problem with this is that the people who cast the votes typically are working on mirroring behavior with their leaders — the lowest form of empathy. That means that leaders who mirror whatever is most deeply ingrained in the heads of their supporters will likely have the most loyal followers, which are what you need to get elected. And as we’ve discussed in this post, the people most successful at mirroring are likely to be narcissists, who have no integrity. That doesn’t mean that the social physics of the situation can’t let individuals with profound integrity in through the gates. But it’s counter to the social gravity created.
Further, the situation in the U.S. is also ‘winner take all’, also known as the ‘spoils system’ — where the winning party in a two party system gets all the political appointments and such, typically in the executive branch. And because the various legislative offices are geographically distributed, instead of vote/party distributed over a larger area (as exists in Germany), there’s simply no way for various third- or fourth-party candidates to get elected. What the social physics says should emerge, DOES emerge — barely differentiated candidates, reaching down into people’s deep brains (abortion anyone? or do you need to see another bloody picture?) to close the gap in the vote totals in potentially contested districts. You add in the current system of ingrained fraud that is campaign finance in the U.S., and the economic policy is set for those that pay for it.
And that’s not even mentioning the various ‘safe’ districts, and positions, where’s there’s no modest social differentiability to capitalize on. When you couple that with the bicameral (two-house) nature of virtually every state, and of course the national government, you’ve built in pass-the-buck irresponsibility into the system (it’s the House/Senate who refused to act, not the Senate/House!) which further reinforces the low-responsibility nature of the legalistic structure. At least the Founding Fathers were smart enough to realize this natural social physical tendency toward authoritarianism of a given party, and put restraints into the Constitution. But even THAT wasn’t natural — and the Bill of Rights had to be added after the fact. I’m not a Constitutional or a historical Constitutional scholar, so I can’t say for sure. But I’d hazard a guess that the Founding Fathers had some reflective notion on all this, and made the whole thing inefficient for a reason. The last thing you want is a Legalistic/Absolutistic system that can trumpet a higher morality for what boils down to lots of Authoritarianism manifested in its structure. Though they were children of the Enlightenment, it was simply the best they could do at the time.
So a system was created that evolutionarily favored narcissism. And that’s not the end of it. While it’s hardly true that lower level offices across the nation are treated with warmth and recognition, there’s still a reasonable cachet that goes with being a national Representative or Senator. And when you get up to the Cabinet level, or President or Vice-President, the forces of narcissism go on overtime. I got to meet (really, just see) Al Gore one time when he was Vice-President. It was at a banquet for the organization American Rivers. I was a young forest activist at the time, and had gone back to lobby on some forest issue. When Gore walked in, everyone in the room stood up, and started cheering and clapping. This went on literally for five minutes. I was astounded. And then the thought flashed — “this happens every day for him.”
Almost all of us live our lives in insignificance. There may be two or three events where a roomful of people stand up and cheer uniquely for us — our first wedding, maybe our retirement party. But for the people at the top of the food chain, this happens every day. If you weren’t a pathological narcissist when you started the journey, odds were high that you’d end up at least partially there by the end.
So, before we start in on what we’re going to do about Trump, let’s review our current system’s v-Memes, and decide whether panic should be an appropriate response.
- The current system dynamics favor low responsibility behavior because of a bicameral legislative system. Either body can blame the other one for inaction.
- Elected officials on average, in order to express the will of the people, considering the current v-Memes of our population, will have a distinct advantage if they have a reflective, narcissistic personality because of the dominance of mirroring behavior.
- The Spoils System favors dichotomous thinking, as it’s winner-take-all.
- Because of the way elections are funded, economic considerations are usually convergent based on who pays. That means that simple majority elections, with vanishingly low potential for third-party candidates, favor the use of deep social triggers for differentiation between major party candidates.
Not pretty, eh?
So what happens, as we discussed in the last post, is an economic cataclysm for the majority of the people. As they get poorer, they have less time to socially form, exchange ideas, and evolve empathetically. The economic model drives a lower energetic level than can support citizen governance. Add into that a combination of corporate persecution of unions, and corruption in the unions themselves, and you have a degenerate Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme counterweight in the society. Performance v-Memes, and awakening Communitarian v-Memes in progressive businesses that require higher performance employees are ascendant, but mostly on the coasts, leaving the Heartland behind. This accelerates a trend started in WWII with the bicoastal/Great Lakes demands of war production, and collapse of the extended family due to migration pressures during that war. That’s one heckuva Big Picture. And, conservatives note — I managed to do all that without ever mentioning capitalism. That’s because it’s simply the wrong way to frame the real dynamics.
And in comes an extreme, pathological narcissist, who, realizing the fundamental impulsive desperation of his primary constituency, saddled with somewhat accurate models of uncaring bicoastal elites (if you don’t believe that, you haven’t been following the CalExit campaign) as long as he stays on message, he’ll get elected. Using classical relational disruption techniques — suspending civility, while picking an out-group for exclusion that is technically outside the national identity — he picks off the deeply flawed, career politician locked in her own echo chamber. Hillary had counted on winning enough that she had a glass ceiling hanging above her in her rented celebration hall the night of the returns. And while I do understand (and have heard from!) many women supporters who transferred many of their larger hopes and dreams to her campaign for the Presidency, after you win, the biggest priority for a nominally sane candidate is to reach out to the losers. Not such a great idea to declare your previous Out-Group the In-Group. At least if you really have expansive empathetic evolution on your mind.
So what will Trump do? I don’t know. And here’s the thing, that I started this piece with — you don’t know either. As an outsized, low-probability, extreme narcissist — like I said, the system may attract them, but only a handful make it to be President — no one really knows. But there are some signs we can read to understand what he will do.
First off, Donald Trump is definitely someone who is highly social, and socialized. He’s not some dark, lurking freak with a highly impulsive, self-destructive manner that one day will open the nuclear suitcase and start sending codes. Regardless of his status, he likes to live the good life, and many articles have talked to a great degree about how the White House isn’t really posh enough for him. He’d prefer to live in his penthouse in New York City, or Mar-a-Lago in Florida. That’s good for us. It means he doesn’t crave excitement so much that starting a war out of boredom is high on his list.
What this status-based persona, coupled with a strong Performance/Goal Based drive — very common in unscrupulous entrepreneurs at the turn of the last century — means is that he’ll do anything short of killing someone to get what he wants. He proved that with his campaign, using his extensive narcissistic radar to tap into the primarily economically disaffected for his majority, and the racists and xenophobes for his minority. In order to get a majority of votes, you’ve got to build something resembling a working coalition. Just because you may find that reprehensible doesn’t distract from the fundamental, goal-based nature of his thinking.
But what it also means is that as he transitions, his goals will change. Authoritarians will rightly give away posts to those most loyal to him in the campaign — witness Steve Bannon’s appointment (another likely disordered narcissist and relational disruptor) to the Senior Counselor position. And Trump’s children will play a part, like it or not. Why it would surprise anyone that Trump might find a way for his daughter’s husband to play a singular role in his administration must also wish for themselves broad-scale historical amnesia. Authoritarians have been doing this kind of shtick for the last 10,000 years.
But after that, it’s anything goes. Once you move out of his tight In-Group, everyone else is a tool. It’s no surprise that Trump is leaning heavily on New York City cronies and plutocrats to fill out many of the executive bureaucrat positions. He knows how they think, he knows they’ll be competent in representing his interests, and they look like him. If they make a mistake, or do something to make Trump look bad, it will be under the bus with them.
There was a great article about Trump here, by Brad Hamilton, a journalist with the New York Post. He covered Trump for a number of years, and he offers insights that may be key in understanding that while Trump may be a narcissist, he can be persuaded to be an egoist — someone interested more in his perception in time, than an egotist —someone interested in using his position to acquire more power/goods/women/etc. The reality is that as the President of the U.S., he can’t really go up much. Any U.S. President, as noted above, already possesses, and is treated as if they possess, the power of a living deity. It’s simply impossible to play the ‘egotism’ card. So we as a larger populace have to play the cards to get Trump to want the former.
And in order to do that, we really have to double down on empathetic evolution.
How do we do that?
My friend and collaborator Ryan Martens had a great catchphrase, that I’ll use here. “Leave no out-group behind. Out-groups left in eddies have unknown consequences for organizations.” That’s kinda paraphrased. But it means that if we want to hack Donald Trump, we have to be aware of the v-Memes of his supporting constituencies, and make sure that they are not isolated from those who don’t support Trump.
The one thing obvious to readers of this blog, but also turns out to be a researched notion, is that Trump’s followers are dyed-in-the-wool Authoritarians. (Thanks for the link, Kshitij!) That means they’re typically pretty low empathy, and functioning mostly in the mirroring behavior space. What that means is that if you attack their boss (Trump, or maybe even Pence!) you’re attacking them. That didn’t work to change their minds during the election, and it’s not going to work now. One of the big drums that the Left has been beating both during and after the election is that Trump is Hitler. Trump is not Hitler, and we are not in the aftermath of the Weimar Republic. There’s so many levels that one can show this on from basic personality (Hitler immersed himself in details, Trump barely wants to govern!) to the culture of Germany (who can imagine such identity-based homogeneity in the U.S.?) to the mass transportation systems necessary to host the Nuremberg rallies. If Trump is any historic figure, it’s Silvio Berlusconi. But I digress.
And while I think it’s fine to discuss ‘Trump as a moral dilemma’ — folks are going to do that in spades — it’s also important to remember that this is a low-empathy, dichotomous thinking mode as well. It’s not going to be convergent with the Out-group that put him in, and lets the Left’s own disruptors continue the process of division.
I’m all in favor of any modification of personalities we can get in Trump’s cabinet, even if those people have modestly suspicious backgrounds themselves. Given a choice between Romney and Giuliani, I’d take the slick, dog-neglecting narcissist any time over a fire-starter like Rudy. Remember that Trump is likely, once an appointment is made, to reflect back the behavior of his delegates. In international affairs, it’s definitely better to have a damping personality than an excitation-based one.
Mama always said ‘attack issues, not people’, but I’d go one step beyond that. I’d say ‘establish shared trajectories’ with the Heartland out-group, such as economic recovery, and work both a positive and negative strategy around Trump surrogates who are either succeeding or not succeeding in these goals. Over time, people wise up.
And regarding immigration, which is a tough one, I’d back off with the chronic calls of racism. Most people in this country are not in line with the Left’s definition of racism including anyone who opposes immigration reform, or enforcement. You run into the Legalistic v-Meme conundrum of appearing to support lawlessness, which brings you directly into conflict with the Authoritarian Out-group’s need for power and control. Save your lower v-Meme salvos for when real crisis breaks out in protecting our Muslim citizens’ and lawful immigrants’ rights.
But the most important thing has to be to find new narratives, and run campaigns based on those new narratives. There’s a lot of hue and cry right now on the Left for, essentially, ‘safety statements’ — safety pins, pronouncements from leaders saying we’re not going to discriminate, and so on. I think that some of this is OK, if nothing else, because it reinforces the core ideas of what the country is. But outside the toxic Right, you’re not going to find many people to disagree with you. The Left, under Hillary Clinton, just got done running a disastrous campaign based mostly on messages from 50 years ago. Like it or not, it failed.
And while there is some pulse in vote recounts and such (I may yet be proven wrong!) if you look at the margins, even if we win, we simply can’t leave behind almost 50% of the population. The establishment of economic/energetic differentials will continue to divide us a nation if we can’t face up to them. If you need a simple example, imagine the logistical hurdles for a 45 year old person losing their job to move to Silicon Valley from someplace like Dayton, Ohio. How do you sell a house for $50K and move to someplace with house prices in the millions?
Progressives need to realize that they are responsible, because they have the capacity to be responsible and more largely empathetic. You don’t get to sign up for this job — sometimes the job finds you. And I’m sure there are people that will not be happy with the message of ‘stay calm, focus on issues, and be persistent.’ But we’re now dealing with a classic High Conflict System. And all that stuff I’ve written about self-similar behavior hasn’t stopped being true. The more emotional juice you put in the system, the worse it’s going to get. Rational empathy has to be the order of the day — and promoting it, and learning from it. The Other Side has a Side. And yeah, it’s counter-intuitive. But maybe a better way to describe it is ‘counter-limbic’. Being rational and a real warrior always involves suppressing impulsive actions and focusing on developing a calm, rational mind.
Performance-based v-Meme Goals and Campaigns are going to be where it’s at for those who read this blog. This is a fantastic piece by George Lakey I can’t recommend highly enough. And if you’re worried about there not being enough screamers on the progressive side, somehow I think that’s not going to be an issue.
I also realize that many of my progressive friends believe that they are down in the Survival v-Meme right now. I get that — but Trump hasn’t even taken office yet. I know things can get worse, but under Obama, we already have the crisis at Standing Rock, lots of extrajudicial drone killings, and an aloofness (think the Flint water crisis, for example) that is just killing us in the face of lots of real suffering in this country. If you really think Hillary alone was going to save us, I’m not so sure. I just read about Chelsea Clinton’s $3M wedding, as well as her and her husband’s net worth (her husband is a Goldman Sachs investment banker!) of $30M. More cake-eaters, and not exactly the people’s champion. Survival v-Memes and the trauma they can create can be terrible places to live. But they also dramatically increase neuroplasticity, and the potential for more profound empathetic evolution. It’s re-grounding that’s key. And every crisis offers the opportunity for transcendence. I recommend we take it.
But no progress is ever free. So let’s get out there and get campaigning, folks. All of our futures are at stake.
This is a great video to watch concerning all of this. Michael Moore just nails it.