Politicians once lied to hide facts that made them look bad. They knew it was wrong but they played the odds against getting caught. Reagan said his administration had not traded weapons to Iran to secure the safe release of hostages. They probably did a cost-benefit analysis on this lie. What are the chances of getting caught? What was the penalty? The gamble was that while the moralizing elite might care, the voting public would be glad American lives were saved. So they lied. It was a calculated risk in the linear thinking world. When they lied at least we could understand it.
The lies of many contemporary politicians, which Donald Trump excels at, are a different animal. Today’s lies are designed to manipulate emotions. The lie may be outrageous but the sentiment it excites is valid to some. The lie reveals and supports a personal truth of the marginalized. People believe the lie because it provides a rationale for what they are feeling. It feels good to have someone validate their feelings. Truth in the conventional sense of the word is “trumped” by the need to have their feelings legitimized – their personal truth. This restores the feeling of belonging many Americans have lost. This is a very different kind of lie, driven not by twisting the facts but by triggering feelings.
Who’s to say a factual truth is more important than a personal truth? In actuality they are not related. And they are both important. In the US election, paying attention to the personal truth might be the secret to sapping Trump’s power.
When journalists and anti-Trump forces push back against the lies, demanding measurable evidence, it comes across as denying the feelings of voters attracted to Trump’s message. If they had any doubt that their feelings didn’t matter before, it is strongly confirmed every time the facts are denied.
Why are we focusing on the details while overlooking the underlying meaning?! (Does this sound familiar? Every relationship I have been in has eventually hit this moment where rational thinking feels like a block to the emotion I am trying to explain.) The more journalists and anti-Trump forces push for rationale thought (a linear staple), the more the disenfranchised voter wants to have someone on their side to push back even harder.
Most of the mainstream analysis I have seen describes the Trump supporters as uneducated white males who welcome the opportunity to push back against the power elites. The media often portrays them as irrational and gullible. This is not a recipe for winning people over.
Trump is building a specific kind of power – the ability to assert his will even against the will of others – by being the voice of an unhappy segment of the population. He is opportunistically using a group’s unhappiness as a pawn. The answer is not to focus on the factual errors in what Trump is saying. People will push back with their vote, just to prove that their feelings matter.
The answer is to take a real interest in the people that currently Trump is speaking for. Let’s stop responding to Trump supporters with objective analysis and start caring about them as people. What lies at the root of their discontent? Trump is fuelling a group of voters’ sense of being marginalized by fabricating supporting facts. The best counter-move would be to address the problems of the people feeling marginalized. This happens by being really good listeners and addressing the underlying emotions, even if the solutions being presented right now are hard to hear. This very simple act creates a shift in the whole definition of power. Power becomes rooted in being all that you can be and from there wanting others to be all that they can.
This is the power of Oprah. Rather than having a bunch of experts talk she would create space where people experiencing the issue could feel safe and appreciated. Under these condition people share what is meaningful to them. Oprah would really listen to understand what each person was saying. In one show there were stories from bullies and the bullied. It was heart wrenching to hear the experience of being bullied. The thing I hadn’t understood was that people who were bullied usually moved on – the impact ended with high school. Some used the bad experience as inspiration to do great things. Meanwhile, many bullies suffered a lifetime of self-loathing. Creating the space for good dialogue brought understanding to the issue and compassion for all the people involved. The key to solving bulling was to redefine their understanding of power.
The fact that Trump is lying is not the most important thing that is going on here. The big deal is that Trump is the voice for a lot of people who obviously have something to say. I want to know what it is and why they feel that way.
Let’s stop fighting about Trump’s misrepresentation of the facts. Creating venues for real people to talk and explore the meaning behind the fear and unhappiness that is being tapped into will shift the power dynamics. Let’s stop seeing people as obstacles to overcome and start finding ways to understand what’s driving the sentiments, and grow. There’s still time to shift this US election from what looks on the outside like a circus to an opportunity to understand some real social issues.