DEMOCRATS: Offer Real Community to Challenge Trump’s Imaginary Community

"Make America Great Again" red hat

Image courtesy of R. Nial Bradshaw , Flickr

Editor's Note: Peter Gabel has been one of the most important voices shaping Tikkun for most of the past 33 years of our existence. We developed together an approach to politics that is characteristic of Tikkun--asking about what needs lead people to act in the ways that they do, and what we could do to satisfy those needs in a more humane and generous way than they are satisfied by reactionary nationalists, racists, sexists, homophobes, antiSemites, Islamophobes and other xenophobic movements. As an editor at Tikkun, Gabel has continually helped us deepen the level of discourse. Please read this article, since its "tikkunish" approach can be applied to so many other areas of social, cultural and psychological analysis. --Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor Tikkun,

Although many people are turned off by Donald Trump’s careening presidency, he does give isolated people a feeling that they belong to a community—the imaginary community of “America”. To those who do not feel that they are connected to others in a caring and compassionate way, Trump provides an imaginary substitute—the chance to feel part of a “We” that will be rescued from its fallen state and will be puffed up again in a way that all loyal to him can be a part of.

This is the psychology behind “Make America Great Again.” And this is also the psychology behind Trump’s demonization of immigrants—the supposed “rapists” and “murderers” who will undermine our perfect union. By constantly focusing on “them” and their imaginary attack on “us,” Trump identifies a real absence that people experience in their actual lives and displaces it onto something that “they” are doing to “us”, an imaginary substitute for true community that he is promising to resurrect. This is why no player can “take a knee” during the national anthem--that would risk deflation of the sense of patriotic unity that appeals so much to those who feel isolated, alone, not connected up to a true community of meaning and purpose.

For the Democrats to effectively challenge this aspect of Trump’s appeal, it will not work to repeatedly call him a racist or a liar, because that appears to gratingly negate community, to make it impossible for the listener longing for connection to others to even imagine that he or she is part of something larger than the isolated self. When former Vice-President Spiro Agnew effectively defended Richard Nixon against the “nattering nabobs of negativism” who were constantly attacking “America” in 1970, he was appealing to this same yearning for belonging to a positive community, however unreal the community he was offering may have been to the scattered and isolated “silent majority” of that time. It is worth remembering that Nixon-Agnew won the 1972 presidential election in a landslide, capturing 49 states in spite of the powerful social justice movements animating that era and supporting Nixon’s opponent George McGovern.

Instead of shouting “racist” and “liar” at every opportunity (and Trump offers one on virtually a daily basis because he knows this appeals to his supporters while providing bait that will, if taken, weaken his opponents), Democrats should offer listeners an opportunity to be part of a true community, based on true caring and human connection. And they can do this by framing their worthy policy proposals in authentic communitarian terms. Instead of simply repeating calls for universal health care or free college tuition or a $15 minimum wage—policy proposal that without more sound like mere spending proposals however worthwhile—Democrats should link all of these programs to the promise of creating a compassionate world in which people will have the opportunity to live in a society where we are in it together, where we care for the well-being of each other and each others’ families and are part of building a better world based on this elevating principle. And this is also is a way to argue for a humane immigration policy that treats migrants at the border as fellow human beings each of whom are one of us, and each of whom we should treat in a rational, caring and respectful manner, just as we would ourselves expect to be treated if we were in their position.

If the Democrats would engage in this kind of positive and visionary communitarian politics, their worthwhile and important social programs would be conveyed in a way that would link these programs to the creation of an authentic community that every listener could feel a part of. And this shift in both substance and voice would allow the Democrats to offer a real vision of community that could compete favorably with Trump’s evocation of the imaginary community—the MAGA community—that is his main calling card.

The need for such a communitarian vision is not only important for appealing to the potential Trump voter, to the independent voter in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Ohio who may have voted for Trump in 2016 and who will play an important role in the outcome of the 2020 election. The capacity to speak to people’s hope by addressing their longing to be part of a true community of meaning and purpose is just as important to the Democrats’ ability to motivate their own voters to come out to the polls and vote for a world that will make their lives more purposive and meaningful.

Donald Trump will almost certainly appeal to a minority of the electorate, but his turnout of that minority is virtually assured. The Democrats have the opposite problem—an almost certain majority who without the hope of belonging to a more caring, compassionate, socially connected world may just decide to stay home because the longing they feel inside themselves is not being spoken to. Fortunately, the Democratic candidates—whether they identify as moderates or progressives--can solve their problem by motivating listeners to help bring into being the kind of world that the candidates themselves believe in, if only they can find their community-evoking voice to speak to that same longing in the majority of the population that is silently rooting for them to do so.

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