Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series focuses on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
The consequences of the Trump presidency could end up being great for one ideology in the short term, another in the long term
We are becoming more engaged and informed about politics, law, policy, civic duty and even the role of journalism
Whether or not you support the policies and leadership style of Donald J. Trump, there are reasons to remain optimistic about America’s trajectory right now.
Those who voted for him or people who are pleased with his initiatives can be satisfied. Those who didn’t vote for Trump, or are increasingly troubled by the early weeks of his presidency, also have reasons to be hopeful.
The paradox is just two sides of the same coin. Trump is good and bad – whether your political beliefs are progressive, conservative, reactionary, moderate or radical. Everyone has cause to celebrate right now, though the reasons, and perhaps level of clarity, differ.
We can all be hopeful because the consequences of the Trump presidency are so unknown they could end up being great for one ideology in the short term, another in the long term, and yet another in the very long term.
Good and bad, from an Eastern philosophical perspective, can easily be one and the same. To see how this can play out, you need to think far enough ahead, to a future in which Trump’s legacy will be known, and that could take months, years or decades.
If you support Trump, you may already be seeing the good in the political agenda he is espousing. And if you oppose him, you are also seeing evidence of the good being sparked by that same agenda. How could that be?
For starters, since the election, many Americans are significantly less apathetic or complacent about politics. Fewer people are taking democracy for granted these days. We are quickly becoming more engaged and informed about politics, law, policy, civic duty and even the role of journalism than we have been in a long time – maybe our entire lives.
That engagement, if organized and funded, has the ability to influence the future in a much bigger way than Trump himself could.
“If you’re excited about Trump, great. He’s president. Let’s hope he does a great job,” asserted Aziz Ansari in his opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live” the day after the inauguration, and the same day as the Million Women’s March. “If you’re scared about Trump and you’re very worried, you’re going to be OK, too. Because if you look at our country’s history, change doesn’t come from presidents. Change comes from large groups of angry people. And if Day One is any indication, you are part of the largest group of angry people I have ever seen.”
History is counter-intuitive
Trump is a pebble that nearly 63 million voters threw in the waters of history. But the reaction and backlash to his actions as president are the ever-widening ripples. And those waves can cover a much greater distance than the pebble itself.
One person, or event, or movement can have a profound effect on the history of the world. But it’s not always the outcome intended by its creator. Good intentions can lead to unfortunate outcomes and vice versa.
There’s no denying that “bad” is still bad. Yet the lowest moments of human behavior (war, fascism, genocide, terrorism, rape, torture) may be hard roads that eventually lead to unexpected wisdom, empathy, democracy, love, art and freedom. That does not justify them, nor does it erase the pain and death already suffered.
But consider the historical pebble of South African apartheid. Many in the world found that state-enforced racism deplorable and its eventual demise came about after a global campaign of civic engagement and boycotts in the early 1990s.
The policy reflected the lesser angels of our nature, but 100 years earlier, the same seeds of racial discrimination in South Africa had a profound impact on a young lawyer who practiced there for 21 years. That lawyer later channeled the outrage from his experience into a successful nonviolent revolution to remove an occupying army from his home country of India.
The lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, inspired and taught effective nonviolent resistance to millions of people, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who used those lessons to lead the American civil rights movement.
The ripples did not end there. King’s fight for freedom and basic human rights has gone on to influence countless more movements. In fact, a comic book published in 1956 about King’s organized boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus had an unexpected revival when it was translated into Arabic and Farsi and read by many Egyptians leading up to the Arab Spring’s nonviolent revolution that ushered out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Most would agree that Apartheid was objectively deplorable but many would also agree that its existence played a profoundly important role in the history of nonviolent change that followed.
“Good” pebbles can lead to “bad” ripples, too. For example, there is a good deal of evidence that welfare reform policy and subsidized housing projects from the 1980s and ’90s, as well intentioned as they may have been, likely exacerbated the problems they addressed, according many economic analysts.
The parental paradox
There are even good and bad parents. Some impact their children’s development by setting a good example. Other parents are terrible role models, but that doesn’t mean they raise terrible people. Children of smokers, for example, are statistically likelier to smoke, but some are completely put off even trying because they grew up with smoke in the house.
Many children of irresponsible parents vow not to repeat the behavior they have witnessed. Employees with terrible bosses learn what not to do when they become managers. Victims of attackers seek ways to reduce violence and help other victims. We learn from experiencing the good and the bad – both teach.
Many believe Trump is sowing the seeds for white supremacist hate crimes, xenophobia and other strange fruit. And still others may believe that such rhetoric and policy will make America great again. But that same patch of soil Trump is cultivating will also likely give root to a new and invigorated generation of civil rights activists and lawyers, feminists and environmentalists.
Today’s post-Millennial youth may become one of the most engaged and progressive generations since the 1960s. And the cause could be Donald Trump.
Who knows what’s good or bad
But even without attempting to forecast the possible effects of a Trump administration, the facts are that that we don’t know what will happen. And that allows hope for all concerned.
There’s a Taoist story about the seemingly “good” and “bad” consequences that ensue after a farmer loses his prized horse. It illustrates the meaningless of labeling outcomes good or bad, because they change – “good” turns out to be “bad” and then the “bad” turns into “good” and so on. Eastern philosophy has a lot more tolerance of contradiction, seeing good and bad as contained in one another.
Trump could be the shot in the arm to energize and grow a right-wing base. But also, even if a liberal’s worst nightmares are realized (shy of nuclear war) over the next four to eight years, the next move in this chess match we call representative democracy could be a course corrective. If there is one thing American voters love more than ideology, it seems, it’s change – maybe it’s in our revolutionary DNA.
We’ll find out in the next election, and possibly sooner, but Trump winning the presidency could be the most Pyrrhic victory for the GOP since the re-election of Richard Nixon.
Falling into place, or falling apart
For some historical perspective, I asked my father-in-law soon after the election his opinion about the coming Trump presidency. I was eager not only for political context but also an insider’s view, as he had a long career in the State Department.
His reply was, “It will be bad,” but he added that it won’t be as bad as the Vietnam war and the other mass casualties of his lifetime such as World War II and Korea.
Vietnam, many would agree, was a particularly low mark in modern American history, a period in which more than 58,000 Americans and 533,000 Vietnamese were killed under a faulty premise of containing Communism. And our government, not just a single president, led us there.
But Vietnam is not without its unintended beneficial consequences. It spurred an anti-war movement that got us out of the war, avoided escalation into others and sparked the political and artistic ambitions of anti-war veterans such as Secretary of State, senator and presidential candidate John Kerry, senator and presidential candidate Mike Gravel, California governor Gray Davis, author Tim O’Brien and director Oliver Stone. Of course, the war also impacted the more conservative careers of senator and presidential candidate John McCain, Secretary of State Colin Powell and governor and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.
So as the days (1,331 until the next election night, if you’re counting), weeks and years pass by and Trump signs more executive orders, shuts down more government services, and continues his Twitter vitriol — rejoice, because things are falling apart exactly as you hoped.
Or, as the years pass under President Trump and we are slowly freed from the shackles of political correctness, bloated government, underfunded military and porous national borders – rejoice, because things are coming together exactly as you hoped.
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We have the president we wanted. And we also have the president we didn’t want but who will ensure we have a strong rival presidential contender in 2020, a more engaged citizenry, and the groundswell that will ensure this sort of thing never happens again.
Until we all forget, and it does.