What Can We Learn from The Presidential Race?
Michael N. Nagler
I have never voted Republican, but I stand with those Republicans today who are aghast at what Donald Trump has done to the level of political discourse in this country and the future of their party. I also stand with the smaller number – but I will have more to say on this in a second – who realize that Mr. Trump did not spring from nowhere but is in fact the logical extension of the direction in which this party has been going for some time. After all, as Rosalyn Carter said astutely of then-Governor Reagan when her husband was running against him, “The trouble with that man is that he makes us feel good about our prejudices.” Is this not exactly what Mr. Trump is doing? The only thing different now is the greater openness of the appeal to egotism and prejudice. And therein lies its value as a teaching moment. A number of people, most recently the President of Mexico (of whom I’m not otherwise an admirer) have compared Mr. Trump to Hitler. Well, to use an important term in the field of peace studies and nonviolence, Hitler inadvertently did one useful thing: he delegitimized racism by carrying it out on such a scale that the world was shocked. To delegitimize is not necessarily to eliminate – that takes a bit more work; but the possibility here, if we would only make use of it, is that this year’s campaign could delegitimize prejudice, vulgarity, and incivility (they’re closely connected). As conservative columnist E.R. Dionne writes (March 7, 2016), “the crudest, most vulgar, and most thoroughly disgusting campaign in our nation’s history.” It has therefore created an opportunity for us to restore some dignity to our political culture.
To do that, however, we have to get deeper into what is driving this race to the bottom that has made this year’s campaign a national disgrace.
Watch any television program, listen to the radio, go to the movies, listen with some detachment to many conversations going on around you: Vulgarity is not the sole purview of the Republican party. It’s become our national culture. If I had fallen asleep when television had just begun and were waking up today, I’m not sure I could withstand the shock, just thinking of the way people speak to each other today, never mind the ubiquity of the violence. Degrading the human image has become something of a cultural obsession. The Republican Party may be relying on this dangerous appeal more – because, in my opinion, their policies are inherently less sustainable – but in so doing they are only resonating with, and enhancing, to that extent a trend that has been developing for decades. It is now nearly forty years since Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism. The book was widely read, but the narcissism, fueled by advertising and the explosion of commercial mass media, marched on, and with it a degradation of the human image.
We should always be aware of the close connection between indignity and violence. Psychiatrist James Gilligan studied extremely violent offenders for twenty-five years. In his landmark study, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic he writes, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.” These are men, he found, who “would rather kill or mutilate others, be killed or mutilated themselves, than live without pride, dignity, and self-respect.” (If this sounds to you like a cause of terrorism, incidentally, you are correct). Again, what we see writ large in the unfortunates who are driven over the edge by lack of self-respect lurks in a less conspicuous way in many and perhaps in a sense in all of us. Violence degrades human dignity just as the loss of dignity seeks expression in violence. A truly vicious cycle.
What can we do to break it? For us as individuals, boycotting the violence and vulgarity of the media would be a good start, in fact, it’s probably essential. Finding out about, practicing, and finding ways to promote nonviolence would be the follow-up. We know much more about the power of nonviolence today than we did when Gandhi launched the idea – about the power, and the infinite ways to use it. We know that when you practice nonviolence, in the words of a Kurdish activist recently interviewed, “you do not lose your humanity in the process,” so it’s the antidote we’re looking for.
This is a wake-up call. To bemoan what Donald Trump – and the shocking appeal he’s been able to mobilize – is doing to the Republican Party, to our national discourse, and to the fair name of democracy, is not enough. We need to understand what made this possible, and reverse it.
Michael N. Nagler is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley and author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future