Observing the dynamics of President Trump, I have had that “déjà vu” feeling that we all occasionally experience. For days, I racked my brain until finally I remembered.
Back in 1970-1971, I was a graduate student, team-teaching a first-year course at Fordham University called Introduction to Philosophy. At the end of the semester, my fellow teacher (Father Tom) and I arranged to treat the class to a home-cooked meal at Father Tom’s Jesuit’s residence in Manhattan. At the class gathering, after consuming a meal that we had prepared, the students joined us in the living room of the residence to discuss the importance of the study of philosophy in a challenging world.
I had noticed earlier that another Jesuit (Father Joe) had entered the apartment and joined us in the living room. Tom had warned me that Joe was “difficult,” but I didn’t fully understand what he meant. To begin our discussion, we decided to go around the room. We asked what each student had taken away from the course and how it might be incorporated into their real-life experiences. The students responded openly and insightfully; however, when they had finished, Father Joe stood up to speak.
Joe was a large man with an imposing personality. He spoke in a commanding voice that demanded attention both in its tone and magnified volume. He addressed the students, one by one. In each case, he insightfully identified each person’s vulnerabilities and tore into him or her savagely.
Father Joe’s barrage of personal attacks on my students was as startling as it was upsetting. He presented himself as an unabashedly dominant, overpowering and self-serving egotist with a splash of unbridled megalomania. He revealed no trace of remorse for the pain he happily inflicted. I asked him to leave and he did so without incident. Father Tom and I then spent the next few hours trying to repair the damage he had done.
Later Father Tom explained to me that this was Joe’s modus operandi. According to him, Joe was feared by most and admired by some. Everyone, however, became anxious in his presence. I wondered at the time whether there was a hidden benevolent intention. Was he trying to provoke, prod, motivate and ultimately challenge my students trying to bring them to some type of profound emotional breakthrough? Or, was he simply mentally and emotionally imbalanced?
Like Father Joe, President Trump uses incendiary language and actions to belittle, humiliate and ultimately defeat his enemies. Are his actions the product of a carefully thought out strategy of a skillful negotiator or the ranting of a self-absorbed narcissist? As I asked in last week’s column, is there a method to his madness?
To find the answer, I looked at the writings of Boston College history professor Heather Richardson. She sees presidential advisor Stephen Bannon as the “man behind the curtain” in most of Mr. Trump’s recent decisions. Like Father Joe, Bannon and Trump are choreographing what she calls “shock events”: “Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event; usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order. When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies.”
This leads me to my next question: When we are confronted by a policy initiative that we strongly oppose, how are we supposed to respond? Professor Richardson says, “Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot… it is in no one’s interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won’t like.”
Even though we are only days into the Trump administration, there have already been so many controversial “shock events” that I am re-experiencing the same feeling I had in 1971; fear and dread. What is a concerned citizen supposed to do? Once again, I turned to Professor Richardson for advice: “Because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event. A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines…If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings.”
If I understand Professor Richardson correctly, it’s high time we abandoned the “us versus them” mentality and come together as a people united in our heritage as Americans. As Father Tom and I taught our wonderful students back in 1971, we must approach our problems fearlessly, always keeping in mind our timeless values of reason, civility, compassion and inclusion.
This is as true today as it was then.