Donald Trump is not the problem - Part II19 July 2019
II. REFLECTING ON AND IN AMERICA
Hillary Clinton used the word “deplorables” to dismiss those people who supported her opponent in the last presidential election. This claim was itself deplorable, a callous disregard for the understandable concerns of at least some Americans. Who is more deplorable: these who voted for Donald Trump, or those who drove so many of them to do so? Count people like many of us among the latter, the fortunate 10% or so--lawyers, consultants, accountants, academics, managers and analysts—who live the good life off the fortunes of the 1%, while taking Uber to drive more working people toward the minimum wage. If we wish to see a deplorable, we might try looking in the mirror.
Fake Facts from and for all Fake facts are deplorable too, no question. But they have been inundating society long before Donald Trump came along—even if he does take political theater to a new level. Recall the fake facts of past elections; count the advertisements today that lie by omission if not commission, including those that sell politicians the way they sell detergents; consider what Fox News and the tabloids have been doing for years, now joined by more brazen blogs.
Who these days doesn’t play loose and easy with the facts, from celebrities who endorse products they don’t use and physicians who dismiss “alternate” forms of treatment they don’t understand, to economists who claim to have won a Nobel Prize that doesn’t exist? (Economists at the National Bank of Sweden created that prize for other economists. Check out “Not a Nobel Prize” buried in nobelprize.org.) The American economy is doing well, we are told—just look at the rate of employment. How about looking at the state of employment: stagnating incomes, shameful minimum wages, the elimination of benefits, the proliferation of contract work, and all that “downsizing”—21st century bloodletting—at the drop of a share price. And don’t forget the “leaders” who give us 30-year plans to fix the environment, just before they leave office. This has to be the ultimate joke—except nobody laughs.
The real winner of the fake facts sweepstakes has to be, not Donald Trump, but Vladimir Putin. He saw a huge opening in the fragmentation of American society and used the country’s own social media to ram fake facts straight through it. This is telling: united America could have stood; rampantly individualistic, it stumbles.
Reflecting in America America is the land of action more than reflection. This is its great strength as well as its debilitating weakness. I was once at a party in rural Virginia in which a group of retired military guys went on and on about government and taxes without ever realizing where all their income and pensions come from.
“Individualism” can mean acting for oneself or thinking for oneself. Rampant in the country is the former. “The Americans will always do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the alternatives” (attributed to Winston Churchill, among others). America is running out of alternatives.
I get the International New York Times regularly. These days it reads like the New York Rant: article after article, comment after comment about Donald Trump’s latest transgression, with rarely an insightful probe into what is truly troubling America. Much the same can be said about CNN, in panel after panel, ad nauseum.
In his Times column of 8 February 2018, Thomas Friedman described the United States as “the world’s strongest guardian of truth, science and democratic norms.” Friedman is hardly alone, even among liberal commentators (such as, Madeleine Albright and George Soros), in promoting this image of noble America, as if there has never also been a nasty America. No Vietnam, no Bay of Pigs, no Iraq, no Pinochet’s Chile, no incursions into the countries of Latin America and elsewhere, never an agenda on behalf of the monied corporations. Just selective memory. Friedman again, on 15 November 2018: “…we always stood for universal values of freedom and human rights…” How can smart people be so dumb?
What has been dumbing down so much of America? This is a serious question. I have American friends who are among the most thoughtful people I know. Theirs have become voices in the country’s wilderness.
Can the answer lie in the sheer pace and pressure of American life, intensified by the relentless distractions of the new electronic technologies? Or has being on top globally obscured sight of the ground locally? Who knows, maybe it’s all those chemicals in the food, fertilizers in the crops. What I do know is that somebody had better find out what is driving America crazy.
The 19th century comment attributed to P.T. Barnum, that “There’s a sucker born every minute”, suggests that this dumbing down is not new, and while hardly just American, takes on a special character in America. (Recall snake oil remedies and the like.) Perhaps, then, the answer does lie in this pace and pressure: the relentlessness of change in a mass and mobile society, exacerbated by economic forces that foster anxiety. Will the United States be the first country in peacetime history to succumb to incessant change?
In such a society, fitting in can be the safest course: go with the flow, impress. Don’t stand out, except to lead the flow, by taking it to some new extreme. If greed is good, be the greediest (maybe you can become president). If you have something to sell, outshout the competitors. If it’s stardom you crave, be the brashest. Just don’t buck the prevailing worldview, no matter how questionable it has become, unless you can find identity in some club with its own worldview—Saunders, Trump, anti-globalization, pro-choice, pro-life, whatever. And once you are there, don’t work it out, let alone think it through. Fight it out.
David Brooks wrote in his New York Times column (17 October 2018) about the “cult conformity” that has displaced “individual thought” in America. This reluctance to reflect can be found from “Make America great again” for the excluded, and “Fix capitalism to fix society” for the entitled, to “If freedom is to prevail…American leadership is urgently required” for the established (Madeleine Albright in the New York Times, 6 April 2018). All this while America, capitalism, and leadership spin out of control. This is not the wisdom of crowds; this is groupthink.
I have reflected on America in the hope that there can be more reflection in America. We need noble America, not to save us, but to join all other noble peoples in saving ourselves.
© Henry Mintzberg 2019. No rights reserved: this blog may be reproduced in whole or in part, without alterations, for non-commercial purposes, so long as the original © and posting are acknowledged. See Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center for the forerunner to this series. (Order at Berrett-Koehler, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or Download as PDF)