The Arrow seeks to explore politics in a broad sense of the word—societal issues, challenges, and questions that are political by nature. We have avoided the trappings of US electoral politics because our audience stretches beyond the US and because the teachings of Buddhism and other contemplative wisdom traditions transcend the narrow spectrum of political showmanship and stale ideologies that characterize this country’s electoral politics. However, in the context of the 2016 US presidential election, we feel that silence would be a form of complicity with harmful social and political systems.
The sad fact of this election cycle is that anyone who wants a more compassionate, egalitarian society will find a mixed champion in Hillary Clinton, and an absolute enemy of those values in Donald Trump. That Trump embodies egomania, delusion, greed, and violence in their purest forms is obvious. And yet there is a risk in uncritically validating the Clintonian worldview just because the alternative is unquestionably worse.
In liberal circles, including contemplative communities, we’ve noticed a certain tribalism—qualitatively different than Trump’s racist xenophobia—that views Trump supporters as insane or ignorant rednecks and middle class liberals as compassionate and rational. Easy vilification of others—particularly working class Trump supporters or young third party supporters—obscures the real issues of our time, just as Trump’s rhetoric does. Beneath the “us-versus-them” narrative lies the structural inequality that encompasses all of society: lack of educational opportunities, dim prospects for meaningful work, and cultural values that perpetuate injustice and oppression against particular groups. It is within this skewed political climate that pressing emergencies like climate change, poverty, and mass incarceration receive little to no airtime beyond the occasional convenient sound bite exploited by both major political parties.
However, let us be clear: the politics of Donald Trump must be utterly and thoroughly destroyed. Wisely and compassionately destroyed with conviction in the basic goodness of Donald Trump and his supporters—but destroyed nonetheless. (As James Rowe puts it, “Racists are not white supremacy.” While the former “are deluded and often vicious” but still possess an “aching human heart,” the latter “should be ruthlessly expunged from the earth.”)
Trump’s outrageous statements about women, immigrants, and people of color during his campaign and in the past are horrific and dangerous, particularly because they have legitimated for some the public and vehement expression of racist, xenophobic, and sexist ideologies. But Trump’s statements, comments, and behaviors are not at all uncommon; in many ways they are ubiquitous.
Take, for instance, the most recent scandal that sent members of Trump’s party fleeing—his deplorable remarks that condone the objectification and sexual assault of women. We cringe because we hear these words on television and because they come from the mouth of a presidential candidate. But men say the same things—and worse—all the time. Men constantly refer to women in ways that normalize rape—online, on college campuses, in the military, as but a few examples. This is rape culture, one among many expressions of the violence of patriarchy. And as Kelly Oxford’s Twitter conversation so painfully demonstrates, sexual assault itself is equally ubiquitous, despite downward trends in recent decades.
Or consider Trump’s repeated interrupting of Secretary Clinton throughout the presidential debates. This behavior is jarring to watch because we expect more dignified discourse in a debate forum and from a presidential candidate. But this too happens all the time to women in meetings and conversations, at home and at work. Even the most well-intentioned men are likely guilty from time to time of (unintentionally) exercising their patriarchal privilege to interrupt women unchallenged.
And all this is to speak nothing of the racism and xenophobia of Trump and his most hardcore supporters.
What makes Trump so dangerous is that his public platform allows others to feel justified in the aggressive public expression of sexist, racist, and xenophobic ideologies. That is dangerous because it increases the possibility of overt acts of violence. But we can’t forget that many of these ideas are expressed more quietly, half-jokingly even, in smaller groups and less public settings and institutions. These more pervasive expressions out of the public eye—and therefore its scrutiny—form the bedrock of structural and cultural violence.
Buddhism speaks of the four karmas: pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying—skillful actions for working with neurosis or difficult situations, and best applied in the order listed. Teachers warn against resorting to the destroying karma because it is so easy to misinterpret and use with aggression rather than with compassion. But maybe it is actually time to destroy the politics of Trump. Chögyam Trungpa advises that destroying should be used specifically when there is “a strong pseudo-logic or a pseudo-philosophical attitude or conceptualization. It is necessary… when one is using logic and ways of justifying oneself so that situations become very heavy and very solid.”1
How do we engage in the destroying karma in a wise, skillful, and wrathfully compassionate manner? A first step is to recognize expressions of racism, sexism, or xenophobia—however subtle—when they arise in ourselves or when we witness them in conversations—the racist or sexist joke that is a joke until it’s not. Until it’s a political platform.
We destroy the politics of Trump when we interrogate our own participation in racist, sexist, neocolonial systems. We destroy the politics of Trump when we create spaces for working through our own subconscious biases. We destroy the politics of Trump when we do not leave unchallenged the racist and sexist comments or ‘jokes’ of friends, colleagues, or acquaintances—when we are not afraid to ‘ruin the moment’ or ‘not take a joke’ for the sake of justice.
We also destroy the politics of Trump when we examine the interdependent conditions that bring about far-right politics and a center-left establishment that fails to offer a meaningful alternative to inequality and perpetual war. Contemplating interdependence means coming to terms with an American culture so deeply disempowered and alienated that an authoritarian like Trump can gain as much power and support as he has, and that people turn to racism, cowardice, and violence to hide their vulnerability and hopelessness. Contemplating interdependence also means coming to terms with the lack of enthusiasm and cynicism of young people who are alienated, indebted, and losing out within the capitalist consensus.
In Buddhism, one does not achieve an end to suffering by ignoring the causes and conditions that bring it about. Similarly, we will not create a more uplifted, kind, flourishing human society by ignoring history. We actually have to “start where we are,” as Pema Chödrön says. Through this lens, the confusion of US electoral politics becomes remarkably clear: Consumed by narratives of hope and fear, our public discourse fails to acknowledge the present (beyond convenient sound bites), and the past that has brought us here. To “make America great again,” for example, is to construct a dangerous fantasy, an image of the past idealized for some but ignorant of the pain and abuse of others. Yet the failure to “start where we are”—to fully acknowledge the present and the historical conditions of violence and injustice that produced our current reality—stretches across the political spectrum. Indeed, we are all trapped in some way within the confines of systems that have been normalized, unable to see beyond the seemingly natural organization of a political economy that wreaks havoc on our world.
How can a political awareness emerge out of a combination of contemplative practice and critical thinking, not out of the narrow political narratives that surround us? Through meditation practice we might catch glimpses of a fuller picture of the world, including the socially constructed nature of the political and economic systems that we take for granted. Meditation practice might also help us wake up to how we perpetuate suffering through these systems while the narrow rhetorical dualities of electoral politics blind us to these systems’ existence. This acknowledgment—examining how our life conditions form our outlook on politics, fairness, justness—is a small but key first step in destroying the politics of Trump and creating a sane and compassionate society.
- Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation, in The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa Volume III, ed. Carolyn Rose Gimian (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2003), 237. ↩