I have been frustrated for four years. Not because of policies of the Trump administration. Not because of the anger, resentment and discourse that marked the last four years. And not because thoughtful people disagree. What has troubled me has been the lack of predictable values, virtues and mores.
I was raised to believe in “if, then.” If you worked hard and played by the rules, then you could access the American dream. Despite perpetual challenges to racial justice, equity and inclusion in our country, I still believed that once you learned the rules of the game, you could play some position in the game of life. And, because I believed good people would help even the most disadvantaged, in my mind the American playbook seemed achievable.
I also learned that if you treat others with kindness, then you will get kindness back. And if you treat others with meanness, then you will get meanness back. I believed that if you wrongly insulted someone, then you will be dismissed by society. I believed in the Golden Rule.
However, under Trump, all of my normative assumptions about “if, then” were turned on end:
• If I went out on Fifth Avenue and shot someone – I could still get elected
• If I called people “Lyin’ Ted” and “Low-energy Jeb” and “Sleepy Joe,” and referred to women as “pigs,” I could still be validated
• If I coerced a foreign leader to interfere in an election, I could still be legitimate
• If I insulted war heroes and Gold Star families – I could still be popular
• If I debased discourse on Twitter – I could still have people applauding
• If I called White supremacists and Proud Boys “very fine people” – I could still be embraced
• If I was mean and vindictive – I could still have people cheer for me
• If I spread lies about winning the election by a landslide – I could still have officials preach it like truth
• If I tried to overturn the election by pressuring officials and the U.S. Justice Department – I could still have leaders’ support.
• If I promote “stop the steal,” I could still get good people to believe me
• If I stir-up a mob, leading them to attack, threaten and intimidate legislators – I could still be held up as a role model
Under the Trump era, the “if, then” virtues went topsy-turvy. Many faith-based people turned a blind eye in the interest of political and economic agendas, and morality was thrown aside.
I believe in Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: I am doing ____ to someone and I don’t mind living in a world where someone is doing ____ to me and to everyone. What becomes normative behavior travels around and ultimately becomes the culture that defines society’s actions. What we do – especially actions coming from people in leadership – eventually shapes all our behaviors.
Over the past four years, damage has been inflicted upon society and our country. Behaviors once considered anathema have become accepted and normal. We have become blind to mean discourse and tolerant of lies. We have approved ridiculing others, and become dismissive of the opinions of our neighbors. In the process, anger and resentment have continued to build, and explosions were and are bound to happen: Charlottesville; increased racism and anti-Semitism; the violence of some racial justice protesters during the summer; the planned attack on the Capitol Building.
We can expect more anger, negativity and violence unless we change the paradigm. I still believe that shards of goodness and kindness – and the Golden Rule – are within us, to be restored within society. With practice, patience and goodness, we can turn things around:
• If we ask for help, then people will help us
• If we treat others kindly, then kindness will come back to us
• If we speak with truth and righteousness, then people will embrace and believe us
• If we work hard, know and play by the rules, then opportunities will come our way
• If we do the above and denounce untruth, cruelty and demagogy, then we will have a country based on truth, justice and the American way.”
Then we will become an “if, then” nation.
Stuart Muszynski is the CEO and president of Values-in-Action Foundation in Mayfield.
Publisher’s note: The Cleveland Jewish News is a partner of Kindland.