Life-affirming engagement with the Trump phenomenon

Donald Trump surpasses all other U.S. candidates in raising negative responses – a dynamic which both helps and harms his campaign. His presence in the electoral process provides an object lesson for those of us who want to learn from difficult experiences and move our political cultures in more healthy directions. Several recent articles offer out-of-the-box views about the Trump phenomenon that could help us and our politics become more co-intelligent.

Much is being written and said about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, about him personally, about his supporters, and about the hot energies he and his campaign represent and feed. Some of this material is quite shallow – pure “us versus them” battle cries or scapegoating with little nuance or real insight. Some of it – still operating within the polarized, polarizing frame – raises red flags about demagoguery which stimulate valuable discussion about where the U.S. is heading. Some of it, in addition to being critical – offers some useful insight for navigating and contextualizing this year’s unorthodox manifestation of our traditional adversarial politics. And although the comments below speak to the situation in the U.S., we all know there are analogous situations in many other countries.

For me, the debate about Trump (and other candidates) raises questions about what a more holistic, co-intelligent political culture would and should look like. For one thing, I’d like to experience a spirit of co-creative learning and collaborative engagement with the Trump-aligned political world. That may seem like a weird thing to want, but I’m happily not alone in this. Its importance goes way beyond who Trump is.

From two different sources I recently received links to articles that lean in that direction. I offer excerpts from the first and a summary of the second, and then a few further thoughts of my own. See what you think…


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Excerpts from
Listen: How to Trump Trump and Make America Greater Than Ever
MARCH 15, 2016
by Kai Degner

“The solution to uncivil discourse is not civil discourse.”

“[We hear that] uncivil dialogue must stop, i.e. we must commit to a more civil discourse. There are calls almost hourly for civil discourse, and tamping down the rhetoric, for fear it will boil over.… Civil discourse, for many, means, ‘Speak politely.’…

Another term that is very close to ‘civil discourse,’ [is] ‘political correctness.’ [But for Trump supporters] political correctness, i.e. speaking politely, is not perceived as a solution to anything.  It’s experienced as the very essence of the problem in America…. [It] is in the way of getting real, getting down to business, getting to solutions, getting things done, and, of course, making America great again….

Speaking is an attempt by people to be relevant, to contribute, to participate. People aren’t just speaking words and simple opinions, they’re attempting to manifest who they believe themselves to be at that moment. Speech is how people show they are alive. Speech is self-identify, speech is Self. Freedom of speech is freedom, period.  Thus, when someone’s speech is frustrated, offensive, rough, demeaning, angry, or fearful, it’s also something else: it’s honest and authentic….

[Asking] frustrated Trump supporters … to chose different words, lower their volume, or be less emotional is really asking them to restrict who they are….

[Many of us fear] the Melting Pot of America feels like it’s getting ready to boil over, or maybe worse. [But here’s] the problem: calling for civil discourse to stop the threat of uncivil discourse is like putting a lid on top of the pot to stop it from boiling. Every call for civil discourse is more pressure applied to the lid. Every person calling for civil discourse is increasing the pressure on the lid. The Melting Pot is full of millions of Trump supporters who need to let off steam and there are millions of Trump opponents standing on the lid. The lid is not helping – it’s making it worse.

Not only are Trump opponents increasing the pressure with calls for civil discourse, many are stoking the fire under the pot itself. These people, whether calling for civility or not, are (however politely) blaming, persuading, arguing with, and proving wrong Trump and his supporters. Some explain Trump supporters are stupid, uneducated, racist, scared, and not really Christians. Justified or not, this language is denying Trump supporters their self-identity, even their dignity…. The blaming and judging is adding heat under the melting pot, while the calls for civil discourse are pushing down on the lid.  The result is predictable, isn’t it?  And the result is ironically and tragically counter-productive: the Melting Pot of America violently explodes – exactly what Trump opponents want to avoid….

What is the action we can take that relieves the pressure and heat? In short, how do we, as Trump opponents, lift the lid of the Melting Pot of America before it explodes? If talking isn’t the solution, what do we do?

We listen….

Listening to someone can make them feel alive and valued. Trump’s rhetoric is effective… [because he makes] people feel heard, understood, and empathized with. In short, Trump’s words demonstrate he listens and understands and respects his supporters. His listening is literally giving them life. He’s making it easy, with his simple language, for people to articulate themselves with the cumbersome tool of speech….*

Freedom of speech requires listeners…. People who want to empower fellow citizens and make America great don’t need to think of the right thing to say, they need to think about the right way to listen.  People only have three options when they are not listened to and get sick of trying polite speaking: shut down and disengage, get louder and more dramatic, or get violent….

Perhaps the pressure and heat in the Melting Pot of America is built up because know-it-all, smug, self-righteous liberals are too smart, too uncomfortable, and too arrogant to sit down with a Trump supporter, crack open a Budweiser, and shut the fuck up for 15 minutes….

I define listening as what it takes to make the speaker feel understood and respected.  This sounds simple, but it is actually incredibly complicated.  Think listening is easy? Check out this list of traits for an effective listener:
• Listener is receptive to the speaker and has an (unbiased) open mind…
• Listener asks questions to clarify…
• Listener indicates to the speaker that the listener understands and is listening
• Listener has an unlimited (sufficiently large) amount of time and is available to listen
• Listener is patient and/or provides a comfortable, open, and encouraging atmosphere…
• Listener concentrates and/or pays attention while listening…
• Listener understands speaker’s feelings or emotions
• Listener summarizes, restates and/or paraphrases the speaker
• Listener is not distracted while listening….
• Listener does not interrupt….
• Listener is not tired while listening….
• Listener is free from internal distractions such as wandering thoughts
• Listener encourages speaker to speak freely
• Listener is relaxed and comfortable while listening
• Listener understands and takes into account the speakers perspective (personal or cultural) or point of view….

[Note from Tom: I edited this list down to about half its original length to make it more digestible. See the original article to read the whole original list.]

This is the kind of deep listening I mean when I say listening can lift the lid off the overheating melting pot. This is the listening that can create new possibilities. This type of listening has the potential to leave people respected, understood, whole, and alive. Literally, because this type of listening can let a person more fully express their Self, this deep listening can acknowledge them in a way which polite talk and censorship never will be able to….

Trump opponents should sit down and listen to Trump supporters…  We should listen as long as it takes.  We should listen as much as it takes.  We should work through our justified sense of violated dignity, and practice listening anyway. We must get over ourselves and show the respect we want. We must be the change we want to see – or hear. By “we”, I may give a pass to people whose dignity has so been violated by Trump’s rhetoric that they cannot yet stand to listen to a Trump supporter.  I don’t blame them. By “we”, I mean individuals who have the capacity and ability to get over the violation of their dignity. I mean people, and also mean organizations….

BECAUSE I do not agree with Trump and don’t want to see him elected, I’m going to do my best to do something that might actually work: practice listening anyway, and invite, motivate, and support as many others as I can to do the same.**

* [Note from Tom: There’s another aspect of this I recently realized. When a candidate “speaks our language” we think that they see the world the way we see the world, and that what they’ll do when we elect them is what we would do if we were chosen and were really able to do the job. That makes it a good idea to vote for them.]

** [Note from Tom: Some people will say, “But that won’t stop these people from voting for Trump!” That may or may not be true, but when was the last time you convinced someone to not vote for Trump by arguing with them? The way you beat opposing candidate(s) is to do better organizing for the candidate(s) you favor. The purpose of listening is different: It detoxifies the political environment and drains the energies that threaten violence and feed demagogues in the first place.]

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A summary of
What to do if Donald Trump joins your Transition group
by Claire Milne and Rob Hopkins

Transition Towns is a movement to help communities become more resilient and move beyond the age of carbon fuels. In this essay two Transition Town organizers examine our responses to irritating differences and disruptions, using Trump as a example.

They first note that Trump exemplifies the nine official characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder – and that these character traits make it very hard to work with someone in collaborations for a better world. But then they note that we all have our own variations of these traits – which make US hard to work with – and so it behooves us to notice these things and to try to change ourselves.

This doesn’t, of course, get the really disruptive people off the hook: Milne and Hopkins stress that groups need to be able to set and maintain boundaries in order to function. Therefore, it is wise to exclude problematic people when the group doesn’t have the capacity to handle them well.

However (oh how this article seems to love making us think twice about everything it says!!), the authors suggest that most problematic people also have skills and qualities that would help the group achieve its purposes. So it isn’t a matter of just kicking out anyone we have a hard time with. We need to be very mindful about the ways we include and exclude people.

To navigate this successfully we need empathy, discernment, tolerance for uncertainty, and group cultures that encourage the giving and receiving of productive feedback.

In a way, Milne and Hopkins’ essay reflects the essential spirit of the Transition movement: We can use problems and disruptions to learn, to grow wiser, and to make our lives even better than they were before these disturbances came barging into our lives.

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You may enjoy seeing a Donald Trump supporter offering “free hugs” at a Bernie Sanders rally
and a Bernie Sanders supporter offering “free hugs” at a Donald Trump Rally — with mixed results in both instances….

This is one of the latest iterations of the global Free Hugs campaign that started with a viral video that I think of as an excellent example of imagineering, an approach offering tremendous social change potential.

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Part of what makes the U.S. 2016 election season so fascinating is how vividly BOTH of the two major parties have divided into such different camps around different candidates, accenting the diverse perspectives that usually get buried within the facade of “party unity”. This differentiation is a natural phenomenon that is suppressed by the polarizing dynamics of winner-take-all majoritarianism: It is MUCH easier to get 51% of the vote if there are only two options. Having three or more options makes it much more difficult. Thus we find ourselves with endless political dichotomies like “us versus them”, “for and against”, Republican or Democrat, pro-choice versus pro-life – when in fact all these fake dichotomies obscure (and actively suppress!) a LOT of existing diversity with partisan efforts to conjure up a coherent US able to dominate the resulting THEM.

I learned about this dynamic first from the Public Conversation Project’s pioneering work with pro-life and pro-choice activists in which those activists discovered they embodied a whole spectrum of views on abortion instead of just two. My second lesson occurred at the pioneering Left/Right transpartisan conversation held in 2004 at the Fetzer Institute where I encountered a number of right-wing leaders whose thinking was far more complex than I’d anticipated and with whom I shared far more political positions than I’d ever imagined possible. It became clear to me what a dis-empowering polarizing frame-up this whole partisan way of thinking is.

So I’m grateful for the work of the transpartisan movement to promote creative dialogue among a wide variety of partisan positions in search of greater understanding and common ground. I’m even more thankful for the work of people who convene randomly selected citizens for dialogue and deliberation on public issues because with that approach we move beyond partisanship altogether. The citizens who talk together in these forums are viewed simply as diverse citizens, not representatives of Left and Right or various partisan views. They are given problems to solve together for the benefit of their communities. A very different dynamic shows up when this is the challenge people face; they rise to the occasion and become teammates in making progress. The perspectives they end up bringing to the table are more diverse and the results are more naturally co-creative.

But even those results tend to show up most where the process nurtures authentic speaking and listening and the kind of common ground and discernment discussed in the Transition Towns essay. We are blessed with many processes and practitioners able to support that dynamic. If we use them well, demagoguery will have as hard a time taking over our societies as diseases have taking over healthy bodies living in healthy environments.

Perhaps we can use this election season – as crazy as it is – to shift at least some of the public’s attention and energy away from this year’s crop of candidates up to the shifts in our political culture and institutions that we so desperately need.


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole


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