Leading a Divided States of America

Donald Trump will be the next president of the Divided States of America.

Rising moon over the Alps
Rising moon over the Alps

Many years ago I facilitated a Tenth grade group discussion about Apocalypse Now, the epic film about the Vietnam war. There was much debate about the methods of Colonel Kurtz, the insane officer who broke away from the army establishment to fight his own war. For Kurtz, there were no humane rules when it came to fighting the enemy. He argued that the only way you could defeat the enemy was to align yourself more purposefully to the brutality of war than your enemy was able to do. ‘Horror has a face…and you must make a friend of horror’. He spoke about the ingenuity of the enemy who had hacked off the arms of children in a village since they had accepted help from the Americans, ‘…these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love…but they had the strength…the strength…to do that’.

Kurtz shared a frightening insight: ‘If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral…and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling…without passion…without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us’.

The world of politics is full of deception, denials and hypocrisy. If we follow Colonel Kurtz’s logic, then Donald Trump played the political game to perfection. He should not be judged for his (a) perverse opinions of women, minorities and/or less fortunate human beings, (b) demeaning personal attacks on his opponents, (c) inflaming emotionality around sensitive issues that do not have simple solutions (such as immigration, terrorism, economic recession) and (d) neglecting and/or refusing to logically debate any issue that he was confronted with by the press, debate moderators or political opponents.

In his presidential campaign Trump said a lot of things. Like most politicians, soon he will forget what he said and/or deny that he said what he said. In time, even his own supporters will forget what was said, as they return to their unchanged lives, having to deal with the same issues that were around for decades. But what if he remembers a little of what he had said? Will he then act on his words? The chances are slim, since the nature of politics is to talk a lot and then to selectively forget what was spoken about. Actions may or may not follow, depending on the reality of the financial constraints that are at play.

In my experience as a therapist, I have come to see that words can belittle or they can uplift. Words are never forgotten if they have caused pain or more positively, given hope and meaning in times of despair. Words have a power that should never be underestimated. Besides the actual words, it is also the intention and energy that underpins what is being said that defines how the words are being received by others.

In his personal quest to become president, Trump may have unleashed a complex divisive process in the country that may prove difficult to manage and/or change. As the president of the Divided States of America, he is now faced with the challenge of uniting and healing a nation, not to mention, bringing together members of his own party that have been alienated in the process. There will be many people who will not forget what he has said. Given this, he will find it near impossible to win over their hearts and gain their respect. Trying to lead a divided nation may be more complex and challenging than dealing with immigration issues, threats of terrorism, and/or international trade relations with other countries that may be skeptical and mistrusting of one’s motives.

Dealing with an aggressive, self-opinionated energy

So the question remains; How best should you deal with someone like Donald Trump in a political debate? This was posed to me after my last blog article.

While this is a difficult question with no easy answers, it is worth mentioning that Donald Trump tends to use two basic tactics to disrupt and distract his opponents. Firstly, he attacks the person. Secondly, he stirs up emotions, in order to reduce or lower the intellectual component (which is his weakness) of the debate. Understanding this, and drawing on ideas about what it means to be mentally tough in the heat of battle in the sporting arena, some guidelines about how to deal with such a forceful, self-opinionated energy in a competitive debating context can be formulated.

In elite competition, the opponent may attempt to unsettle you psychologically, by distracting and disrupting your focus. In rugby, for example, there may be off-the-ball incidents, such as a punch or a jersey pull. In cricket, a batsman may have to deal with sledging (verbal abuse) by the fielding team between every ball that is bowled. The challenge in the heat of the battle is to have an internal focus, to remain clearly focused on what your goals are. On a simple level, you need to keep your eye on the ball and not get distracted by what you cannot control. Any mental energy that you use worrying about what your opponent is planning, saying or doing, will undermine your effectiveness.

Keeping your eye on the ball in a tough competitive moment
Keeping your eye on the ball in a tough competitive moment

In sport, there is an energy flow between competitors as the match unfolds. There are upward and downward spirals of energy flow, resulting in periods of effortless performance or times of intense struggle. It is important not to panic when you are struggling. To do this, it is necessary to connect with your breathing so that you can consciously ensure that your breathing has an even rhythm and is relaxed. Check to see that you are not holding your breath or are breathing in a rapid, shallow way. Being emotionally composed and balanced underpins exceptional performance.

The fundamental tenet of tai chi (a slow moving martial art) is to know how to use and re-direct an opponent’s aggressive energy in such a way as to physically unbalance him/her. In tai chi, you never meet force with force. Instead, you learn how a slight deflection of an opponent’s action can result in you gaining a major advantage. A slight shift in stance or position helps to give you the upper hand on which to base your counter-attack. Learning how to yield to pressure and then to quickly counter-attack is at the heart of tai chi.

George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it’. It is important not to get pulled into activities that strengthen your opponent and weaken your resolve and focus. I remember consulting with a cricket team who had difficulty in dealing with one particular individual in the opposing team. The fundamental issue was that this individual enjoyed talking and would constantly be trying to initiative a verbal exchange with any member of our team, in order to distract you. He was self-opinionated, and at times verbally abusive. He performed best if he could have an audience to listen to him. As a team, we decided to ignore him completely during the match. No player was allowed to acknowledge or speak to him while on the field. A super-inflated ego thrives on being acknowledged and listened to, and the strategy of ignoring him, removed the source of his egotistical self-validation. Without this validation, his performance dropped significantly.

In sport, an athlete should not attach his self-worth to his performance, but instead should work on detaching himself from his performance. In this way, the athlete will be able to focus on the unfolding process and not be obsessed with the final outcome. Being able to separate the sense of self, from the results in performance allows the athlete to perform in a relaxed, uninhibited and creative way. More importantly, the athlete will be able to think quickly and effectively when dealing with stressful moments during competition. Poor performance is not taken personally and instead, failure is considered to be an opportunity to learn and to grow. This type of attitude reduces the fear of failure during performance.

A political debate is full of ‘attacks and defends’ as the participants try to gain the upper hand so as to increase their support and vote of the electorate. In order to beat your opponent on the debating stage, the lessons of competitive sport suggest that you should:

  • have a clear, internal, focused strategy regarding the issue at hand
  • work on not getting distracted and side-tracked by generalized, emotive, contentious statements
  • remain emotionally balanced and composed when conveying your message
  • not try and match force with force in a dominant way, but instead unbalance your opponent by asking intellectually, insightful questions that highlight the absurdity of the emotive opinion being forwarded
  • do not take an attack on your person, personally

In his book, The four agreements, Miguel Ruiz states that ‘you should not take anything in life personally’. Anyone’s actions or comments that are directed at you, has nothing to do with you. Instead these comments are a reflection and projection of who they are. Political debates highlight this point so well.


Trump trumps politicians

There was a violent clash between pro- and anti-Trump supporters after his campaign speech in San Diego. His rigid, inflammatory views on immigration was at the heart of the clash. But it is not only on immigration that Donald Trump has the ability to polarize the diversity of opinion, that is of concern.

According to Dolan, a law professor at the South Pacific School of Law, ‘Trump is a dangerous, unprincipled vulgarian‘. He urges Republicans to have courage and step up and defeat Trump. But this seems impossible now, since the process has gone too far. Trump has done the seemingly impossible and won the Republican nomination for the USA presidency.

But how was this possible, given all the criticism and outrage from the establishment that he has received during his campaign?

Trump is a political outsider, and he has not engaged his opponents according to the ‘political rules’. This has been his most effective strength. Being an outsider, he is not answerable to established patterns and rules. He has been politically incorrect in every way.

His fundamental strategy has been one of belittling, demeaning and degrading his opposition in public. In a sporting context, he has fought dirty. No political opponent has been able to defeat him at his own game. Anyone who has tried to play him at his own game, has lost. Trump is not sensitive to the opinions of others, so outrage and criticism from others that may threaten him, will be the very process that he feeds off, fueling his intense desire and determination to gain control. Trump loves to fight, and he knows how to fight. This fight intensifies when his egotistical survival is threatened. For him, the best form of defence is attack.

By nature, there is always a strategy and power-play to every politician’s statement. In general, politicians say what they think you want to hear. While debating, Trump has highlighted the hypocrisy and deviousness of himself, as well as, of all other politicians. He has exposed and highlighted the ‘darker side’ of the political world.

His ‘rules of engagement’ in any interpersonal encounter (personal, business and political) indicate that he cannot be trusted. He has an egotistical perspective about any situation that he encounters, which he interprets and changes in a manipulative way to benefit his need for power and control. Africa is full of such leaders (Mugabe, is a case in point), and when in power, their every action activates a process of destruction.

So given all of this, why does he have such a following?

On stage, in public, he has voiced in a simplistic, yet emotive way what many of the electorate at grassroots level are thinking and/or experiencing. His rather crude and emotive language helps him join and connect with those who have felt ‘unheard’. It is obvious that there is a great divide between those in political power who purport to serve the people, and the people. The electorate are angry at the politicians and therefore take vicarious delight at how he brutally attacks them on a personal level.

Trump brings to the surface, simmering issues, such as immigration and terrorism. These issues threaten the basic safety needs of people and in a rather bizarre way, he is seen to be the solution to complex global issues. His strong-arm tactics seem to make them feel safe, much like a bouncer at a night club that ensures everyone behaves.

Of particular concern, the USA presidential campaign has cast serious doubts on all of its leadership. As an alternative to Trump, Hilary Clinton offers little confidence. She is also riddled with controversy. So at a critical time in our global evolution, the USA does not seem to have a leader with the necessary qualities of integrity and wisdom to deal with the complexity of global issues that are emerging. It is a sorry state of affairs.

With regard to the immigration issue, many ordinary people are feeling unsafe and fearful. This results in societies building up barriers in order to protect what they have, in the fear that others from the outside may take what they have got. This is not just the case in America. In a small Swiss village, many miles from the US, the inhabitants (many of which are millionaires), have voted to reject 10 asylum seekers into their community and instead pay a £200 000 fine to the government. But paying off a problem, only suspends the problem. The fundamental reason given by a resident was that ‘we have worked hard all our lives and have a lovely village that we do not want spoiled…we are not suited to take in refugees…they would not fit in here’.

Alone on the Zug lake, Switzerland
Alone on the Zug lake, Switzerland

Dealing with any global issue requires integrative and holistic thinking. The political challenge is to find collaborative ways for all concerned to participate in finding solutions to complex problems that are being encountered. This is a creative process, not a power or financial process. The USA presidential campaign has clearly highlighted the ineffectiveness of politicians in this regard.