This past year, the Human Venture Institute has been exploring the rise of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. There have been a variety of opinions and there are many resources out there that attempt to explain how and why he became President. Few resources dig deep enough to understand the causal architectures, or the reasons that led to his presidency. In fact, if you dig deep enough, go back far enough in American history, it becomes apparent that Donald Trump as president shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
Donald Trump’s mental health has also been in question throughout the year and is escalating. The National Coalition of Concerned Mental Health Experts have met with the United States Congress “to express their concerns about Trump’s fitness for office.” [i]
The following books were required reading in the Human Venture Leadership programs in 2017 because they ask important questions about why some Americans voted for Trump. The book list below includes a summary of the key learnings, drawing on Human Learning Ecology, to understand the causal reasons and possible paths forward.
Matt Taibbi recounts his own coverage of the election cycle and admits that he missed the signs that pointed to a Trump win. He points to failure of both the Democrats and Republicans, but is especially critical of the Democrats. Both parties have their own beliefs and governing philosophies they use to understand and interpret reality. The Democrats have historically positioned themselves as ‘the party of the people’ but their actions champion corporate rights, free market and neoliberal economics. These beliefs squeezed Bernie Saunders out and, Hilary Clinton was bound by them, making her unable to question her understanding of the challenges facing Americans or her loyalties to Corporate America (and it sounds like she’s still bound by these beliefs based on her recent book, What Happened).
The Republicans, on the other hand, have positioned themselves as social conservatives. They campaigned for smaller government, less regulation, and lower taxes.
Both parties have invited the bankers and corporations into the White House. Neither of them is serving the people, and neither of them can see this because they are blinded by their own beliefs and governing philosophies. Americans had two bad choices for President and they were angry and wanted a change. So, in walks Trump.
Trump’s assertive behavior, celebrity culture and ability to manipulate the media for his own benefit convinced many people he was the right change for America. He said, ‘I’m going to fix it!’ and, ‘I’m going to get your jobs back.’ The public listened because he was the only alternative to the status quo and he was from ‘outside the establishment’. Taibbi sums this up in an interview[ii],: “That’s what makes this a comedy, or a tragedy. It’s both, right? On the one hand, it’s this incredible story of an iconoclastic triumph. It’s this person who charges into this fake system and wrecks it. He’s spouting truths in all directions and the people are suddenly immune to all of the evil spells that these oligarchical powers have been casting on them for years and years and years. And that’s all great. It’s all positive that people are finally seeing through all of this crap. But, the perfect anti-ending is that when we have this moment of clarity, we pick exactly the wrong person to replace it all!”
Taibbi’s book points out how important it is for us to be aware of our own beliefs and governing philosophies. He was tricked by his own, unable to see the patterns emerging that pointed to a Trump win. From a Human Learning Ecology perspective, it’s important for us to understand that we have beliefs and they filter how we interpret reality. If we recognize that our beliefs influence our thinking, we can question them and reconstruct them in ways that enable us to interpret reality as accurately as possible.
“Any study of Trump’s rise to the presidency is therefore unavoidably a study of Bannon, too. It’s a story Trump won’t like, because he isn’t always the central character. And because, contrary to his blustery assertions, his victory wasn’t a landslide, didn’t owe solely to the force of his personality or his business savvy, and happened only due to a remarkable confluence of circumstances. This confluence occurred in large part because Bannon had built a trap that snapped shut on Clinton, and the success of this, too, was an incredible long shot.”
Joshua Green’s book Devil’s Bargain is an excellent example of the kind of investigative journalism required to understand a person’s beliefs and governing philosophies that influence how they interact with and interpret reality - or, in Steve Bannon’s case, manipulate it. Green takes a good hard look at Steve Bannon and his network, the force behind Trump’s win, and how Bannon’s thinking is constructed. In Bannon’s case, his ultra-conservative and nationalist beliefs promoted fear and hatred for Clinton and others that threated his world-view and vision for America.
Understanding how our individual and societal thinking is constructed is critical to diagnosing the challenges we’re facing as a species and how to design promising solutions. As Human Learning Ecologists, we refer to this thinking as our thoughtscapes.
Thoughtscape is defined as: The dynamic field of inquiry, thinking, caring, striving and learning behind how individuals and groups take stock of themselves and their situation, identify adaptive challenges [problems or opportunities], decide what to do about them, and control how they make it happen. Everything we’ve learned and experienced -our emotions, instincts and biosocial programming (our innate behaviours) - are a part of our thoughtscapes. How we’ve been conditioned to experience and interpret life, and how we decide to face life’s challenges and opportunities are all a part of our thoughtscape.
Critical to understanding thoughtscapes is understanding that they are limited representations of reality, and therefore always incomplete and fallible. Each of us has our own interpretation of life and reality – based on how we’ve constructed our thoughtscapes. Our thoughtscapes are shaped by our experiences, the social and cultural influences we’re embedded in, our identity group, world views, habits and beliefs, perceived threats and opportunities, and individual / group needs or interests.
Also, we can only interact and ‘see’ some of reality, consciously or unconsciously. There is always more going on in life than what we can pay attention to. No one person can understand all of reality at one time. However, to be adaptive as a species, we must collectively understand reality as accurately as we can. We need better diagnostic and design capacities for understanding how ignorance gets built into thoughtscape structures – especially ignorance that promotes fear and hatred, harm and injustice – and what we can do about it.
Ignorance is the most significant threat to our global community. Devil’s Bargain provides a clear example of how ignorance can be intentionally perpetuated, and how specific individuals and organizations are deliberately manipulating public opinion, policy and even a President.
- Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump, Allen Frances, MD
The Goldwater rule, the informal name given to Section 7 of the American Psychiatric Association’s Principle of Medical Ethics states[iii]: It is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement. However, psychiatrists have been stating their concerns publically about the mental health of Donald Trump[iv]. In his book, Twilight of American Sanity: A psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump, Dr. Frances takes a different approach and examines America’s mental health. He interprets the rise of Trump as “absolutely predictable and a mirror on our soul”.
“Trump’s boorish manners, vulgar speech, and abusive actions make him a national embarrassment and the worst of all possible role models (perhaps there should be a PG-13 rating on all Trump appearances to protect our children from his bad influence). He diminishes America, reducing its greatness. But none of this makes him mentally ill”.
Sanity is defined as the quality or state of being sane; especially soundness or health of mind. The word sanity is rooted in the word for sanitation, or health. From a Human Venture perspective, to be sane is to have a healthy orientation to life. A healthy orientation to life is one that aims to understand reality as accurately and comprehensively as possible. The opposite, insane, is to have an inaccurate and inadequate understanding of reality leading to and perpetuating waste, suffering and injustice.
“You can’t begin to treat a patient’s delusion until you understand why he must believe it so strongly – the realities expressed in the delusion and his psychological reactions to them. Similarly, we will never cure societal delusions unless we understand the underlying problems promoting them and provide realistic solutions to replace wishful thinking.”
It’s easy to blame “those Americans” for voting Trump in. What’s needed is to understand the underlying issues and what moved Americans to vote for Trump. As Matt Taibbi points out, Trump seemed to be the only option for so many disenfranchised and frustrated Americans. However, look deeper and Trump reflects the collective American mind, or thoughtscape. Dr. Frances points out that the American thoughtscape has been shaped and influenced by magical thinking, cognitive bias and dissonance, an inability to learn from experience and a strongly held belief about America’s role in the world and their exceptional nature. Trump’s narrow view of the world and unwavering nationalist beliefs resonated with like-minded American’s.
Dr. Frances points to numerous indicators of widespread societal delusion in the US, including: believing that depleting the environment is their right; believing that the rich get richer, and this wealth trickles down to the rest of the population even though the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow; and believing the American health care system is superior when insurance companies’ profits often come at the expense of the health – and sometimes lives – of Americans.
So, what can be done? Frances offers examples of how we have overcome harmful social norms in the past (e.g., smoking and fighting acid rain), and how to widen our horizons of caring beyond America, to that of all of life and humanity. Frances points out that to be less insane, we must first recognize that we ARE insane – not at the individual but at the societal level. We need to develop the capacities to diagnose and reconstruct our collective thoughtscapes – which in turn will reconstruct the systems we are embedded in.
- Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History, Kurt Anderson
So how did America get here? Well that’s explored thoroughly in this last book. Kurt Anderson covers 500 years of American thoughtscape construction. Anderson shows how religion, magical thinking, conspiracy theories, celebrity culture and fantasy has resulted in a fantasyland of dangerous relativism and a post-truth world in America.
“As we let a hundred dogmatic iterations of reality bloom, the eventual result was an anything-goes relativism that extends beyond religion to almost every kind of passionate belief: If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise. That’s the real-life reduction ad absurdum of American individualism. And it would become a credo of Fantasyland.”
Religion has served us well in our human history. It has been an important part of our socio-cultural evolution, establishing community, cooperation and security with each other as we advanced from hunter-gatherers to the organized societies we live in today. These beliefs have been very influential in shaping our thoughtscapes which in turn influence how we interpret reality and engage with life.
What we need now is a religion or belief system that not only serves our individual communities but extends our horizons of caring to the communities of life and humanity – true equality for and among all people. Many religions of the world say they do this, but how can they if we are still persecuting each other? Why is this? Because we don’t have the disciplines and processes that test our beliefs and point out ignorance and error in our thinking. This requires a ‘meta’ level of thinking. A way to ‘think about our thinking’. Unless we check our belief systems and governing philosophies for ignorance and error we won’t know when we are losing touch with reality. Until we are willing to question our belief systems they will continue to blind us to reality – perpetuating waste, suffering and injustice.
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So, are we in Canada or other countries immune to this fantasyland and societal insanity? To a Trump as President? Are we impervious to the development of harmful and destructive thoughtscapes? Unfortunately, the answer is no. We are all vulnerable to the same influences in our thinking, caring and acting. Our species is already on a path of seemingly unstoppable climate change, oligarchic authorities, tribal war and genocide, human migration and conflict, cyber warfare and the struggle for net neutrality. For these reasons and more, understanding how we’ve come to think, care and act is critical to our survival as a species.
If our thoughtscapes go unchecked and we don’t develop the capacities to reconstruct them, to accurately understand reality, then our ability to react and prevent threats like climate change and war effectively will be constrained, contributing to ongoing waste, suffering and injustice.
This is the value that the Human Venture meta-framework provides: a way to assess our own thinking, understand how our thinking has been constructed, and develop ways to reconstruct our thinking so that we are better able to meet the greatest threats and opportunities of our time.
The Human Venture Institute and Human Learning Ecology, is committed to learning from life and humanity so that we can help shape our collective thinking, caring and acting in more adaptive ways. Stay connected with us to find out more about Human Learning Ecology and our programs.
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[i] Psychiatrist’s new warning that Trump’s mental state ‘is a national and international security risk’, CBC Quirks and Quarks interview with Dr. Brandy Lee
[ii] Los Angeles Review of Books, interview with Matt Taibbi
[iii] Wikipedia, The Goldwater Rule
[iv] New York Times article, Psychiatrists Warn About Trump’s Mental State