The Real Moral Breakdown of Donald Trump, and the Rest of Us Too
While it is easy to focus on the salacious and clearly ‘immoral’ stories of this president’s many affairs, or the long list of his countless lies, or the shocking divisive rhetoric, these acts can be seen as symptoms of a deeper disease. To better understand the apparent moral ‘pass’ Trump has received, we might take the opportunity for deeper transformation through exploring the underlying moral disease at hand. I believe the immorality in the presidency of Donald Trump is rooted in his life and worldview, and is an old story seeded in all of us in one way or another.
Behind the demeaning, dismissive, and exploitative treatment of women (including his wives, mistresses, and chance encounters), his rhetoric around the poor and hurting, his language about immigrants, refugees, and people from other countries is a basic lack of value for people who aren’t him. Growing up in a wealthy family and treated as though he was special- more special- than anyone else, and reinforced in a career where money and power provided a license to “do whatever he wanted” planted a feeling of self-superiority in him that shapes everything he sees, and guides the way he treats people, speaks about people, and the policies he promotes. Throughout his life he has used and thrown away people. This view of his own superior ‘basic human worth and value’ and his diminishment of the ‘basic human worth and value’ of others shapes the way he lives and leads.
This is a story as old as time. Something we have struggled with as humanity since we started trying to live together, understand ourselves and others, and jockeying for power and resources. The basic act of seeing ourselves as more human, more valuable, more worthy is personal and political and has shaped our lived reality. Our sacred texts and religious traditions wrestle with this reality. Who is chosen, who is human, who is of the Brahmin cast and who is Dalit, who is ‘saved’ and who is ‘heathen’, who is us and who is them? Greek philosophers named those who were thinking and acting in the public realm as having higher human worth and capacity than those who were focused on the private realm. Caring for bodily needs and raising children relegated people to slaves and involved seeing people in these roles as inherently less human and therefor less valuable. The Catholic Church sanctified the doctrine of discovery which deemed people living in lands being explored and conquered as more animal than human, justifying slavery and exploitation. This ‘less than human, less valuable’ doctrine rooted itself to allow colonialism, exploitation of people and resources, murder, and countless crimes— all because these humans weren’t human. Reckless and immoral stealing of resources and power was made ‘moral’, and was grounded in an internalized sense of self-worth and a diminished worth of others.
This is obviously the same disease that brought the authors of the U.S. Constitution to deem women invisible and Black people as 3/5 of a human being, not to mention the ‘less than human’ native people who were being systematically eliminated from the ‘new world’. This is the disease that allowed people to see themselves as moral while enslaving, lynching, segregating, raping, criminalizing, and privatizing jails to further dehumanize human beings. This is the disease that makes necessary the movement ‘Black Lives Matter’, because the lived reality is that black lives are not seen to matter in our systemic and personal lives. The list could go on. We have deeply internalized these assumptions of who’s life is more valuable and whose life is less valuable. Too often we treat each other as more or less valuable. Our laws and policies create hierarchies determining whose voice, body, and life is more or less worthy. Our American tradition and culture is seeped in these assumptions, conscious or unconscious, about who is more ‘human’ and who deserves rights, freedom, equality, opportunity. These human hierarchies big and small are created based on race, class, gender, religion, ability, career, citizenship, language spoken, education, neighborhood, and every other detail of our lives.
This deep disease is used to pit people against each other. Those in power exploit these imagined hierarchies to keep those perceived to be ‘below them’ trapped in a battle on the ladder-of-human-worth (ie. “the immigrants are coming for your jobs”) while they accumulate power and resources. What seems like clear violations of ‘moral standards’ in sex, marriage, lying, stealing, name-calling, are given a ‘pass’ because victims of these actions are perceived as ‘less human’, ‘less deserving’, lower on the ladder-of-human-worth, and therefor justified in being harmed. Immigrants who have lived their lives here for decades are allowed to be jailed and kicked out of the country. Refugee families seeking safety are separated, dehumanized and deported. Resources for those who are struggling to make ends meet are cut leaving children hungry and millions without adequate health care, nutrition, or housing. None of this is seen as ‘immoral’ because those in need of this support are seen as less human, less valuable, less worthy, and easily dismissed.
While many of us can clearly see, and feel deep disdain for the actions and dehumanizing ways of our current president, there is opportunity in this moment to see his actions and the seemingly absurd violations of decency as reflections of that which is deeply embedded in our American culture, and within each of us in one way or another. While we might not want to admit it, and we might even work to overcome it, notions of hierarchy of human worth and value are in each of us. This is especially important for those of us in more ‘progressive movements’ who might see ourselves on ‘the right side of history’, but who continue to propagate hierarchies of human worth in our daily actions, in the way we lead, and in the policies we create or support.
This is clearly a dangerous and life threatening disease. Dehumanizing people has led to violence and genocide. Standing by while people are dehumanized because we are jockeying for a higher spot on the ladder-of-human-worth dehumanizes us all.
And. I believe that in every great crisis is a great opportunity. We are in the midst of a moral crisis. A challenge to human decency, love, compassion, and vision. This is not a new story- it is as old as time. In this moment a giant mirror is being held to show us the absurdity and widespread epidemic we face in continuing to dehumanize and rank people as we jockey for a higher position on the ladder-of-human-worth.
This is not how it has to be. In each of our great traditions are stories of people working to overcome hierarchies of human worth, and calls to honor the dignity of each person. From the opening words of the Hebrew Bible/ Old testament/ Torah is the teaching that we are each created in the imago dei, or the image of God, to be loved and cared for with grace and compassion. The Quran teaches a central belief in human dignity. Hinduism, grounded in principles of duty, calls people to treat one another with love and compassion to uphold the wellness of the whole community. Our country was founded on the unrealized idea that ‘all people were created equal with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. The resources to build ways of being, laws, policies, and culture that actually honor inherent human worth and dignity are available to us- we need only put in the life-long work to actualize this reality. Another way is possible- and it is grounded in seeing each person as fully human, valuable, and deserving of life, survival, freedom, creative work, connection, love and flourishing.
Maybe… just maybe.. the silver lining in this presidency is the mirror it is holding up to that piece of ourselves that dehumanizes others. Maybe this is an opportunity to see fully the horrific results of seeing ones self as superior, above the laws that let us live together well, that dismiss and discard people so freely. Maybe this is an opportunity to do some self-reflecting and some real imaginative work to explore policies and ways of being that actually honor and respect the full humanity of every single person. Maybe this is a call to action to stand together and speak out, to place our bodies in positions that honor the inherent worth and value of every person.
And then… might we VOTE, and cultivate leaders who honor the full humanity and dignity of every person.
Next we can explore some of the underlying questions:
What does it mean to be human?
What does it mean to be supported in our full humanity?
How might we live in ways that honor other people’s ability to be human- to survive, create, connect with one another?
What is the role of the government, the individual, faith communities in supporting human worth and dignity?
How is our humanity strengthened by pluralism?
How do we build a healthy eco-system of shared humanity together?
What does it actually mean to be ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ in our daily life?