Defeating a Demagogue: Donald Trump, Stephen Colbert, and some Buddhist thought on Politics

Defeating a Demagogue: Donald Trump, Stephen Colbert, and some Buddhist thought on Politics October 8, 2016

Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern has an excellent article over at Lion’s Roar, a handy “guide” to the current US election. It is a guide indeed, as it gives more than a simple single command or opinion. It takes readers through six options, taking into consideration that swing state voters have different roles and obligations in the election. These options, in brief, are:

  1. Vote for Hillary Clinton
  2. Vote for Donald Trump by staying home (in a swing state)
  3. Vote for Donald Trump by voting for Gary Johnson (in a swing state)
  4. Vote for Donald Trump by voting for Jill Stein (in a swing state)
  5.  – and this is where it gets particularly interesting: Vote for THE NEXT Donald Trump via any of the three above in a non-swing state
  6. Vote for Donald Trump

While the conclusion is a definite “choose option 1 above,” the argumentation is aimed at those voters who are either planning to stay home on election day or vote for a 3rd party. The reasoning around option #5 is that this election can be seen as an opportunity to not only elect Hillary Clinton, but also to defeat a racist, nationalist, Islamophobic, misogynist demagogue. And the goal here is not just to defeat him by a small margin, but to defeat him so soundly that it prevents future Donald Trumps from even trying to rise to power. As Nichtern writes: “The closer the popular vote gets in this election, the more emboldened fascism will become. In 2020, or 2024, with the media’s current business model, we are in huge trouble, unless we give fascism a decisive defeat right now.”

While many Buddhists may be skeptical of Clinton, noting her ties to spreading fracking, violence in the Muslim world, and Wall Street, informal surveys here (the latest will be reported on Oct 12) suggest a steady move toward supporting her and national polls show very slow but steady move in her direction as well. Nichtern also points out the misogyny inherent in many of our judgments of Hillary Clinton. This is something all voters should keep in mind.

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Last May, Zen Buddhist teacher Brad Warner also shared his views on Buddhism and politics, writing:

I am definitely not a “conservative Buddhist.”

But I am concerned whenever I see any mixing of religion and politics. When I was a youngster I was aghast at seeing Christianity mixed with conservative politics, with the implication that Jesus himself wanted you to vote Republican. If we respond to that with the equivalent of, “No! Buddha wants you to vote Democrat!” I don’t see how that’s any better.

I understand when Buddhists are concerned with issues like militarism and global climate change. These are urgent matters that affect all of us. It’s just that it rankles me to see people representing themselves as the “leaders” of Buddhism and presenting their views as if they are the consensus views of all Buddhists.

What bugs me is when it appears that liberal, left-leaning Buddhists are trying to mix Buddhism with their political agenda in precisely the same way people like Pat Robertson mix Christianity with their conservative political agenda. This just makes us all look bad to everyone except lefty types who already agree with whatever cause is being espoused. Nobody is going to be convinced to change their views on militarism or global warming because they saw a photo of a bunch of weirdos in costumes they associate with cult members holding a banner outside of the White House. It’s an exercise in vanity, which can only serve to help entrench people’s previously established views.

On this issue I side with Nichtern, who wrote that, “I don’t buy the strange premise that spiritual thinkers should stay silent during elections. In fact, I believe the opposite. Living in democracy requires us to participate in shared decisions of leadership.”

This necessarily means some mixing of religion and politics is necessary, but in a very particular way. Religion – in the form of religious people – can and should be involved in politics – the work of governing our democracy. This requires discussion, the art of pondering, exchanging, and challenging reasons.

However, religious argumentation (e.g. Buddha said… therefore we should…) can be fairly ineffective insofar as it presupposes a particular orientation (e.g. willingness to follow whatever the Buddha said). However, religious thinkers and leaders do no service by spending years or decades cultivating moral sensitivity and then simply bottling it up when it comes to issues beyond their own sense of well-being. While the Pat Robertsons out there garner political power, there are also the Jimmy Carters, Fr. Daniel Berrigans, Fr. John F. Kavanaughs, Stephen Colberts (who is a Sunday School teacher among other things), Cornel Wests, Gene Robinsons, and others who have little problem mixing their faith and their liberal “political agendas” to borrow Warner’s words (look up “Christian Left” – or see a handly list of leaders here). The comparison is imperfect, of course, as Robertson is a preacher first and a political activist second, while many of those I name have other primary positions; but all are people “of faith” on the liberal end of the political spectrum.

It’s true that the Christian Right has a brighter spotlight and has for years, but does this mean that the Christian Left (and lefties in other religions) should hide in the shadows?

As an educator and lover of wisdom, I hope Nichtern’s points spur debate and draw out some conservative Buddhists to share their views. I’d rather have them and others put forth their ideas for scrutiny, where they can possibly change our minds or in turn be changed by better arguments, than to likewise hide in shadows.

Speaking of one of those mentioned above, ordained minister Stephen Colbert reacts to the latest Trump video (warning, some very un-Sunday School teacher language):

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