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Stepping Back to See Trump from a “Wave” Perspective

24/7 news has given us tunnel vision. Inevitably, since fall 2016, we are seeing the world through the lens, I should say prism, of Donald J. Trump: He is a very prismatic character, shooting across the spectrum in all directions. Never focused. We are obsessed with how to explain Trump and what he is up to rather than trying to explain how we got here, and what the world—what history—is up to. When I catch myself at this (not nearly enough!), I step back and say, “Wait a minute! Something big is going on here.” Like a volcano that erupts, and Trump is clearly an erupter, forces have been building up over time that culminate in this moment.

Now what has been building up in the collective body over time? 24/7 news does not observe waves, it observes particles: minutes, hours, days—not years and decades. It is also (I have noticed in the daily newsfeed) more interested in how people have died than in how they have lived. So I step back to take in the wave view.

My grandfather was born in Wales into a world without electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, television, radio, automobiles, or airplanes. I’m talking about a man I knew, not a man of the distant past. It was the way people had been living for thousands of years.

My father was born into a world still mostly without electricity or indoor plumbing, where women were not allowed to vote. He was born in 1918 into a world devastated by the Great War when gas weapons were used for the first time, planes first bombed cities, and 37 million people perished. In the year he was born, a worldwide influenza epidemic incapacitated 1 billion and killed 20 million people, all within the space of eight weeks. Not only was there no CNN to report this, there were no networked radios to report this either. (RCA set up the first system in 1926.)

Now before I go on, just sit back and try to imagine his time. How different was the world in which my father began his life. He came of age in the Depression. He served in the army in World War II, with its concentration camps and explosions of atomic bombs that wiped out two entire cities. He lived through the Korean War and the Viet Nam War. While growing up, his family experienced the first electric light, the first indoor plumbing, the first radio, the first telephone, the first record player, the first automobile, the first television, the first movies, and the first trains and airplanes. My father told me he had read that more changes had taken place in his time than in all the years since Socrates. He repeated that often.

The world that I was born into had no refrigerators (only ice boxes), no television, and above all, no computers or internet. Certainly no one gave a thought to space travel. Few people could afford to fly on an airplane. Then Yuri Gagarin took off in Sputnik in 1957, and a little over ten years later, a man was walking on the Moon!  In the same period, the computer industry exploded, reaching a milestone in personal computing in 1984 with the introductions of Mac OS and Microsoft Windows. By the end of the 1980s, nearly 53 million households subscribed to cable, and cable program networks had increased from 28 in 1980 to 79 by 1989. And then the World Wide Web, wireless networks, smartphones, IPod, IPad, cloud computing, Skype . . . and more.

In 1918, the year my father was born, the world population was 1.8 billion. In 2016, the number of smartphone users in the world was 2.1 billion. At the end of 1918, H.G. Wells wrote an article that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in January of 2019 on “The Idea of a League of Nations.” The author of The Time Machine was doing a bit of time traveling himself:

The whole of history could, indeed, be written as a drama of human nature reacting to invention . . . . And we live to-day in a time of accelerated inventiveness and innovation, when a decade modifies the material of inter-communication far more extensively than did any century before, in range, swiftness, and intensity alike. Within the present century, since 1900, there have been far more extensive changes in these things than occurred in the ten centuries before Christ. Instead of regarding Around the World in Eighty Days as an amazing feat of hurry, we can now regard a flight about the globe in fifteen or sixteen days as a reasonable and moderate performance. The teaching of history compels us to recognize in these new facilities factors which will necessarily work out into equally revolutionary social and political consequences. It is the most obvious wisdom to set ourselves to anticipate as far as we can, so as to mitigate and control, the inevitable collisions and repercussions of mankind that are coming upon us. . . .

In education and in the agencies of journalism and propaganda, there has been an increase of power at present incalculable, owing to vast strides in the printing of pictures, and to the cinematograph, the grammaphone, and similar means of intense world-wide information and suggestion.

It is certainly a volcanic social eruption when more people in the world today are walking around with smartphones than were alive on the planet one century ago.

So the real question, I remind myself, is how are humans responding to these changes—to the forces that have erupted as Donald Trump?

I was reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent book, The Sixth Extinction, when I came upon her description of an event that took place in 1949 when two Harvard psychologists undertook an experiment in perception with two dozen undergraduates. The students were shown playing cards and asked to identify them as they flipped by. A few of the cards had been subtly altered; for example, a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. When the cards went by rapidly, the alterations were unnoticed. The students would assert that the red six of spades was a six of hearts and that the black four of hearts a four of spades. When the cards went by more slowly, the students had difficulty making sense of what they were seeing. Confronted with a red spade, some said it looked “purple” or “brown” or “rusty black.” Others were completely flummoxed.

The symbols “look reversed or something,” one observed.

“I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is,” another exclaimed. “I don’t know what color it is now or whether it’s a spade or heart. I’m not even sure now what a spade looks like! My God!”

Does this sound familiar in our upside-down world?

The results of the experiments were published in a paper titled “On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm.” This became an inspiration for Thomas Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

[Kolbert:] To Kuhn, the twentieth century’s most influential historian of science, the experiment was indeed paradigmatic. It revealed how people process disruptive information. Their first impulse is to force it into a familiar framework: hearts, spades, clubs. Signs of mismatch are disregarded for as long as possible—the red spade looks “brown” or “rusty.” At the point that the anomaly becomes simply too glaring, a crisis ensues—what the psychologists dubbed the “‘My God!’ reaction.” This pattern, Kuhn argued, . . . was so basic that it shaped not only individual perceptions but entire fields of inquiry. Data that did not fit the commonly accepted assumptions of a discipline would either be discounted or explained away for as long as possible. The more contradictions accumulated, the more convoluted the rationalizations became. . . .  But then, finally, someone came along who was willing to call a red spade a red spade. Crisis led to insight, and the old framework gave way to a new one. This is how great scientific discoveries or, to use the term Kuhn made so popular, “paradigm shifts” took place.

Kolbert and Kuhn were writing about the evolution of science. H.G. Wells was writing about human nature reacting to inventions. But I think we can see a similarity in the fact that, in 2018, contradictions are accumulating at a rapid pace and the old paradigms of Republicans, Democrats, presidents and political/social norms are being turned upside down. This entire phenomenon is caricatured in Donald Trump. What surprises and reassures me is that people on all sides, including even the media, are turning inward to examine their own moral compass. When there is such confusion and degeneracy on the larger stage, we have to reconsider our own inner integrity. Who would ever imagine that such prominent heads would fall so fast with the sudden uprising of the #metoo movement? That was moral outrage breaking out into the collective. These were mini-eruptions from the inner world of individuals into the outer world of the collective.

No species has ever evolved as rapidly as ours and that pace is accelerating.  How do we adapt when the rate of change is so fast? The key point is that no creature before us was able to choose the form that their adaptation would take.

Thomas Berry was also born into a world without plumbing, electricity, or refrigerators (1914), not so different from my Grandfather’s world. He lived with integrity and wisdom right through the smartphone invention. Like H.G Wells, he understood from an early age what the world would be facing: “We are being changed. We are being transformed to see everything in its true proportion. We are being driven down to the heart with its radical interior tendencies.”

Carolyn Toben, to whom these words were spoken (in her lovely book Recovering a Sense of the Sacred), adds a comment that expresses for me the essential shift that must be made away from my own reaction to the demoralizing political scene, conditioned by our 24/7 newsbytes: “Thomas was leading us to a shift from seeing with our conditioned mind to seeing with the heart and spirit. He was leading us down to our intuitive awareness connected ‘like a tendril to the heart of the universe’ that allows transformation to occur.”

I find it essential now to listen to these other voices and not be driven addictively by the political dramas that keep us on a roller coaster of reactions to “breaking news” and tweets. I am not suggesting that we turn our back on these events, but that we respond (instead of react) from a deeper awareness that informs the actions we take. For me, this requires brief periods of unplugging from the media to see who I am when the noise stops. Spending time in nature always returns me to the center, to the still point in beauty. It can be done through meditation and mindfulness.

So on a larger scale, we should thank Trump, who is playing the role of trickster or heyókȟa—the sacred clown of the Lakota Sioux—who turns things inside out and upside down. “The heyókȟa functions both as a mirror and a teacher, using extreme behaviors to mirror others, and forcing them to examine their own doubts, fears, hatreds, and weaknesses.”[1]

Ultimately, it is not about Trump. It is about us.


[1] Nelson, Elizabeth Hoffman (1998). “The Heyókȟa of the Sioux,” Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), 246-48.