A longer view
In my very first Guest Commentary, just prior to the 2016 presidential election (“A better way to greatness” Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Oct. 10), I predicted that then-candidate Donald Trump would be unable to fulfill his promise to “make America great again” because he lacked the qualities that make for greatness, whether personal or national. More specifically, I noted that he exhibited to a remarkable degree the toxic triad of arrogance, dogma, and ignorance that J. Bronowski saw as lying at the root of the Holocaust.
Over the last three years, all this has proven true as the nation has descended into a maelstrom of lies and scandals, attacks on the press and longstanding allies, draconian rollbacks of protections for the environment and the most vulnerable, a rising tide of violence, a string of government shutdowns, “national emergencies,” abandoned treaties, an out-of-control national debt, a kleptocratic wealth gap accelerating our implosion into fascism, and a general erosion of U.S. prestige and leadership worldwide. Trying to identify “accomplishments” to offset all this is like trying to spot Waldo on a crowded beach.
With another election season gearing up, it is imperative that we revisit this topic and ask again the questions that were implicit in my 2016 commentary: What, in fact, are the qualities that make for greatness, and why do we continue to find them so elusive? To arrive at an answer, we need to step back from the frenzied kaleidoscope of Facebook, Twitter and the daily news cycle and take a longer view based in spiritual tradition and history.
One of the central themes over the centuries in all the world’s religions is the quest for the True Self. Though you probably won’t hear this from Jerry Falwell Jr., a longstanding concern with this quest is to be found in Christianity’s contemplative tradition, going back over 1,700 years to the desert fathers and mothers of the early church. Their fierce and solitary wrestling with their inner demons made them expert psychologists centuries before Freud and Jung, and their insights into the nature of the False Self and the ways to dismantle it have been preserved for 1,500 years in Benedictine and other monastic communities throughout the world down to the present day.
“There is no way,” wrote the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, “to tell people that they are going around shining like the sun.” This True Self, this divine spark in everyone, is obscured, according to monastic teaching, by three specific “power centers” that constitute a False Self we all create in childhood: power/control, security and affection/esteem. Authentic religious practice, said the late Trappist abbot Thomas Keating, is devoted to neutralizing these centers so that our True Self may shine through in the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This is not some abstract or vaguely mystical theory. I have myself struggled for 40 years to deconstruct the False Self I unwittingly deployed as a child. I aspire to become luminous like Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier, who embody the True Self’s beautiful qualities. The battle between False and True Selves is fundamental to the human condition, as St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” for example, illustrates.
President Trump, as a human being, is not exempt from our common lot, and it is easy to see that he has built up his own False Self to extreme proportions. He feeds his power center with lies, blaming, name calling and abrupt policy shifts in order to control his narrative and keep his “enemies” off balance. Similarly, his security rests in his willful ignorance, while his hunger for affection can be seen in his surrounding himself with a cult made up only of adoring loyalists. Underneath his raging tough-guy exterior, though, he is, like everyone, a frightened, insecure little kid desperately working the controls inside his menacing Iron Man suit, oblivious to his inner light in a prison of his own making.
As a private citizen, an aging man in this condition, emotionally immature, deficient in self-awareness and projecting his inner darkness onto everyone else (those shadowy “bad people” we so often hear about) would elicit only pity. When that same man is the president of the United States, however, it becomes a cause for serious alarm. This is not mere “liberal” sniping. Forty-three years ago (in 1976!), the theologian/historian Langdon Gilkey, in his book “Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History,” made a prediction that describes our present situation with pinpoint accuracy. Reflecting on the decline of Western power and influence evident even then, he wrote, “only by embodying the classical human and social virtues: humility, serenity, wisdom, self-understanding, self-control, courage, and very great forbearance in the use of our remaining power can we in this potentially anxious situation retain our humanity and the real values of our culture. Certainly if we use our waning preponderance of power in a fit of anxiety, pride, and the lust to remain dominant and secure, we shall only bring down ourselves, our world and the noble house of our traditional cultural life the more quickly.” (p. 23).
President Trump’s boastful False Self exhibits not a single one of these human and social virtues. Unable, therefore, to retain his humanity, he (and much of the country cheering him on) has succumbed to the anxiety, pride and lust for dominance/security (“America First!” “MAGA!”) that paradoxically are destroying us even as we embrace them, exactly as Gilkey said. Emerging under his “leadership” is a dark new National False Self like his own — polarized, uncivil, violent and heartless — that seems bent on collective suicide. Its power center was visible on the militarized Mall last July 4; its mania for security drives the immigration crisis; its idea of affection is the fanatical adulation seen at Trump’s rallies.
Gilkey’s list of virtues maps out the path to the restored authentic greatness of America’s True Self. Intentionally cultivating those virtues in our individual lives could be a first step toward the essential personal and national healing we require.
John Radigan lives in Saranac Lake.