Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The holiday season is about love and generosity of spirit. Beneath the scramble for gifts, it’s a reminder that kindness is the real currency that causes a community to flourish.
But it’s also worth remembering that those virtues have their opposites – namely, fear and greed. They are simple words with clear meanings, warned against as far back as the Bible. And those forces are threatening to disfigure our democracy today.
Fear and greed are hardwired into human nature. They are the cudgels that bullies and other authoritarians have used to enforce conformity in every era.
Fear and greed are self-reinforcing and prompt powerful rationalizations. Fear often sparks the impulse to demonize people we disagree with, creating superficial tribal unity by focusing on a common “enemy.” Greed can drive people away from common decency and common sense just as fast, offering the short-term benefits of tribal approval, money and power.
In every era, there are leaders who wield fear and greed like an instrument to play people. “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear,” President Donald Trump told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Witness his admiration for dictators around the world and you’ll see that fear is the measure of power he most respects.
And of course, Trump has been an unapologetic apostle for greed since the go-go 80s, telling one campaign crowd: “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy,” before saying that now he wants to be greedy on behalf of the US.
These are known qualities when it comes to President Trump. What’s been surprising is how quickly many good people have been cowed into enabling silence.
There are plenty of compelling reasons in the short run to avoid standing up and speaking the truth, but in the end it’s always a form of appeasement – something which Winston Churchill once memorably defined as feeding a crocodile and hoping it eats you last.
In one of the telling jokes of our time, Republican operative Mike Murphy quipped that if an impeachment trial was decided by a secret ballot, there would be at least 30 votes in the Senate to remove Trump from office – to which former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a libertarian who found himself unwelcome in the era of Trump, replied, “That’s not true. There’d be at least 35.”
What’s to account for the stark gap between what so many Republican-elected officials say in private and what they are willing to say in public? I would suggest it is fear and greed.
“The greatest fear any member of Congress has these days is losing a primary,” former Representative Carlos Curbelo told the New York Times in an analysis of how President Trump has taken over the Republican Party. “That’s the foremost motivator.”
Former Republican representative Dave Trott from Michigan offered an even more damning assessment: “Trump is emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unfit for office, and I’m sure a lot of Republicans feel the same way,” Trott said. “But if they say that, the social media barrage will be overwhelming.”
All this can lead to a dark and illogical place. As Flake wrote in a recent Washington Post Op-Ed addressed to his colleagues: “As dogma demands, there are members of our party denying objective reality by repeating the line that ‘the president did nothing wrong.’ My colleagues, the danger of an untruthful president is compounded when the coequal branch follows that president off the cliff, into the abyss of unreality and untruth.”
But fear can provide a powerful mechanism to rationalize group-think. Republican representatives can calm their conscience by sublimating their personal disapproval of Trump and deflecting toward fear of “the other” – pointing to perceived extremes on the left, increasingly strident voices that embrace aspects of socialism and despise them for personal characteristics – like being white, male or wealthy. This allows them to overlook whatever principles they have abandoned in the name of partisan politics.
This fear of “the other” fuels further militancy on either side until America feels, at times, as if it is inexorably descending towards ever greater divides that seem bitter and unbridgeable, especially when even the President of the United States openly muses about the possibility of a second civil war.
This feedback loop of hate and distrust is the opposite of loving thy neighbor as thyself.
Doing the right thing, no matter how difficult, is ultimately liberating to you and to other people who find courage in your example. That’s how we build a better world, not through some utopian scheme but imperfect people working to form a more perfect union, which we never fully arrive at.
It’s the idealism behind the striving that matters, not the cynicism that comes up with all kinds of ornate excuses for apathy or inaction.
The renewal that comes from this holiday season comes from reacquainting ourselves with those transcendentally true emotions of love and appreciation. That also means becoming newly aware of their opposites – fear and greed – and how they seductively insinuate themselves into our daily lives. Because the courage that comes from living in truth, consistent with the spirit of kindness, is the value we should always aim to uphold in our democracy, no matter who is in power.