As the race towards the presidential nomination builds momentum, the rhetoric between candidates is becoming increasingly vitriolic. In the case of Donald Trump, months of hurling insults at racial minorities, Muslims and his fellow republican candidates has lead to fits of violence between protestors and supporters at his rallies. Now it looks as if one —if not both— party conventions will be contested, increasing the likelihood of future conflict.
The tone of our current political climate scares me. It’s not funny, or entertaining, or even oddly unsettling anymore; it’s scary. And as bad as the politicians are, what scares me the most is Trump’s popularity among average Americans.
In the past few months, Trump has called Mexicans rapists, argued for a ban on all Muslims seeking entry into the United States, and talked about the size of his penis during a presidential debate — to name just a few outrageous statements— and still thousands of people are lining up to vote for this guy.
If you are not a Donald Trump fan, you’ve likely had the experience of reading the latest headline about Trump supporters and thinking, “Who are these people?” And you are not the only one: I find myself asking this same question all the time.
Voicing my intolerance for Trump supporters usually gives me a little jolt of self-righteous glee, but the other day I realized my question may say more about me than it does about Trump’s people. And I’m not sure I like what it says…
I mean really, who are these people? Right now I can’t name even one person I am in relationship with that supports Trump, or for that matter, Ted Cruz. Maybe the fact that none of my friends or family agree (at least openly) with the bigoted agenda of the current Republican candidates is a good thing — but what if it’s not? What if my isolation from ultraconservative Republicans is exactly the kind of alienation that separates people into the camps of “us” vs. “them”? The same divisions guys like Trump and Cruz are trying to capitalize on.
If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that Jesus came to abolish the categories we divide ourselves by — rich/poor, educated/ignorant, beautiful/ugly, in/out. In spite of how radically opposed Trump’s positions are to the way of Jesus, I think when Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God he was talking about a realm where everyone is welcome at the table. So what would Christ, the one who overcomes every form of alienation, have us do about this grand-canyon-sized gap between us?
One possible answer can be found in Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth. The Corinthian Church is known for being divided along lines of every kind, including but not limited to: class, race, gender, and ethnicity. In the opening to 1st Corinthians we see find out the Corinthians argue over everything from leadership, to the Lord’s Supper, to sleeping with one’s mother-in-law. They make Congress look like a well-oiled machine. Well, when Paul hears about all this infighting he sends the church a letter (or two, or three…) to set them straight about what it mean’s to follow in the way of the resurrected Jesus:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
– 2 Corinthians 2:16-21, NRSV
According to Paul, our fundamental calling as Christ followers is to the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is the act of reuniting and restoring relationship. Paul’s point seems to be that if Christ can reconcile us to himself, then maybe we can try building relationships with Trump supporters. Or at least that’s what he might say if he was speaking to us.
If you are like me, when I hear religious buzzwords like “reconciliation” the first thing I want to know is: what does this look like in real life? Well, that’s where my line of reasoning gets a little strange. You see I recently got a puppy and the puppy books give you A LOT of advice about how to raise a healthy, well-adjusted dog. And as I worked through how you or I might begin to reconcile with Trump supporters, I found the suggestions oddly reminiscent of the “How To’s” of raising a puppy, hence:
Leigh’s Tips For Bridging the Political Chasm
and/or Training Your New Puppy!
Experts agree that exposing puppies to new experiences on a regular basis will reduce fear reactions later in life. Similarly, if your Facebook feed consists entirely of articles about Bernie Sanders, you are simply reinforcing your own worldview. Through reading opinions we disagree with and opening ourselves up to other people’s experiences, we become more knowledgeable and empathetic people. We lose our fear of the “other” because we know where they are coming from, what they are afraid of, what biases they are operating under. Trump supporters might be malevolent evil beings bent on world destruction, or they might be average Americans with profound fears, and thus susceptible to over simplified solutions.
Reward good habits. Changing behavior requires positive reinforcement and repetition.
Speaker and Podcaster Mike McHargue, also known as Science Mike, says all human beings share the need to believe that they are fundamentally good people. Which means, when we are told something to the contrary we will immediately seek to deny or dismiss it. Therefore, if we want to change hearts and minds we have to find a way to express the essential goodness of every person and reward them for even the littlest victories.
Treat attention-seeking behavior by ignoring it.
Whenever we try to correct our puppies behavior by telling her “NO!,” our trainer likes to remind us that dogs don’t speak English. (She has a very straightforward sense of humor.) As it turns out, any response to behavior —be it positive or negative— is understood as good attention in the eyes of your puppy. The best way to get them to stop biting, jumping, or barking is to ignore it; walk away; refuse to engage. (This approach will not work right away; in fact it may get worse before it eventually disappears.) Eventually, misbehaving loses its appeal and the habit goes away. On the other hand, rewarding and repeating good habits reinforces good behavior.
This month the New York Times put out an article claiming that Trump has accumulated over $2 billion worth of free media over the course of the campaign. This vast advantage not only marginalizes the voices of other candidates, it also incentives Trump to make increasingly outrageous statements.
Why, you may ask, are the media outlets giving Trump so much airtime? Simple: money. The more we watch the car wreck that is Donald Trump’s campaign, the more money they make off of advertising. Don’t believe me? This week Leslie Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, commenting on Trump’s popularity said publicly: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
What can we do to ignore Trump? Well…
• Stop re-posting articles on Facebook.
• Refuse to engage in comment wars.
• Put down the Twitter!
• Boycott free Trump publicity on news networks and other media outlets.
• Refuse to bring him up in conversation.
If ignoring Trump’s bad behavior sounds counter intuitive, it’s because it is. But cutting off his supply of attention might just be what he fears most.
Finally, be patientLearning new skills takes time.
Other hard-learned advice…. Always separate the issue from the person and they will never become your enemy.
These days I’m trying hard to remember that we are agents of reconciliation and relationship building takes time, but it is perhaps the only work worth doing.