Thus far, the principal thing we know about the new president is that he is a very gifted performer. He has successfully kept everyone’s attention on himself, while leaving his opponents off balance. Since he is only just now at the point where he has to do more than hold the center of attention, we are just beginning to have something more concrete to hold hold him accountable for. Much of it appears to be personal vengeance, particularly against his immediate predecessor and any government agency, such as the EPA, which may have offended him in the past.
Mr. Trump’s great goal is still, I think, to keep public attention focused on himself. Even hostile attention is still attention. In fact, it generates renewed enthusiasm on the part of his supporters. After all, the last thing an ardent partisan of either side wants is to have to admit that your critics were right after all and that you have been played for a fool.
Meanwhile, the sound and fury emanating from the liberal side may serve to renew our own sense of solidarity and commitment—a worthwhile beginning to the coming years out of power. But this hardly troubles him at all. In fact, It just enhances his status as the most talked about person on the face of the Earth. Not even the Kardashian family can elbow him out of the spotlight.
Mr. Trump is clearly a genius at manipulating his public. He can evoke adulation where he wishes. He can evoke apoplexy where he likes. Neither is a very sound state of soul, mind, or spirit for people who want to see the US well governed. And apoplexy may even be the less productive of the two. It’s difficult for many of us to do more than utter shrill cries of disbelief that such a person could ever have been elected to a position so critical to the future not only of the US but of the world at large. (See? I’m falling into it myself even as I warn you against it.)
But there’s another aspect to all this that is worthy of reflection and more promising as a guide to further action. Liberals need to rediscover the importance of emotion. It isn’t foreign to our history. President Obama won election largely through evoking hope—the quality of positive expectation in difficult times, a quality compounded of reason and emotion. Reason by itself can’t provide it. It may be good at identifying problems or even thinking up solutions. But, to get us past an impasse we have to find a new source of energy and will that can enable us to bring something good out of the mess we find ourselves in. Hope provides the positive stimulus to let us reach out to one another and work together And hope is never rationally vindicated in advance. It produces its own justification by its deeds.
I have great respect for Hilary Clinton. I voted for her. I believe she would have been an excellent president. For many people, she herself stood as a symbol of hope—the hope that the US was ready to surrender its sexist presuppositions. But she did not manage to become a voice of hope for people facing a different set of challenges in economically distressed and increasingly hopeless parts of the country. I am convinced that she felt compassion for these people, too, but it was not very visible.
Liberals who want to push back against the Trump presidency will have to learn that sound policy is not enough, no matter how rationally convincing. What is necessary is to show people, even those you may not much like, that you have compassion for their troubles, too. And, beyond that, that you have a hope that will enable people to join together to find a way to a better future.
Liberals, please don’t waste too much energy playing Mr. Trump’s game. He is better at it than you are. Play a different game that is not a game at all. Be open about the things that have gone wrong with our world. The globalization of recent years has brought great wealth and prosperity to some people and places, but it has also produced the kind of economic inequality that has pushed many people out onto the streets because they have no place to live or out onto the sea in decrepit boats because they have no way to survive in their own country. Acknowledge it and offer plans to cure it. But also be open and persuasive about your hope that people can join together to make things better. Ideas are likely to remain lifeless until they stir our spirits as well as our minds.