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by D. Patrick Miller
When I wrote an essay about understanding Donald Trump's self-hatred during the 2016 election campaign season, I never imagined that I’d soon be writing this followup.
Like at least 65 million other Americans, I'm stunned that our nation now faces the prospect of an openly racist, vulgarly misogynist, and emotionally unbalanced narcissist taking over the most powerful office in the world. He will also bring with him a Cabinet and Congressional Republican majority that seem bent on undoing decades of social progress.
I’m not a political journalist so it’s not my goal to offer suggestions for organizing protests and resistance in the usual sense. But a potential silver lining of America’s looming crisis is that we may well be on the verge of a broad-based, multi-issue protest movement that will make the 1960s look like a garden party. And that will be all to the good, serving the purpose of slowing, stopping, and eventually reversing the perverse and chaotic regression that Trump’s administration threatens.
As a journalist with a spiritual perspective, I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fundamental problem of consciousness that is driving this sudden lurch backward in American politics.
That problem is hatred — turning both inward and outward in a vicious alternation — which can be seen as a common and potentially deadly virus of the human psyche. That virus certainly didn’t originate in Donald Trump. But by his words and actions he is rapidly accelerating its spread. Like an arsonist manically setting wildfires, he is driven by an inner disturbance that he can neither recognize nor take responsibility for.
The condition we all share with Trump
To anyone with a modicum of psychological awareness, it’s easy to see that Donald Trump is an habitually unhappy individual. In his outward behaviors he reveals his inward struggle with a near-total lack of positive self-regard. That profoundly self-hating misery is evidenced by all his dramatic compensating behaviors, from the constant bragging about his popularity and superiority, to his bottomless need for the adulation of crowds, to the kneejerk need to tweet defensive responses to even the mildest criticisms.
None of this ever actually works to build contentment or self-esteem, of course, but that’s the nature of compensations: they are inappropriate and ineffective means to solve a problem by facing away from it.
In loathing himself, Trump is neither alone nor even uncommon. Without going into existential explanations here, it’s safe to say that self-loathing is endemic to the human condition. (For more comment on its origins, see the previous essay.) Everyone deals with it to some extent, often for a prolonged period, or even for a lifetime. Those who consciously struggle with depression, addiction, or chronic relationship problems at least have an awareness that they are struggling against themselves, and that healing lies largely in attaining a healthy degree of self-acceptance.
But when you are mostly sheltered for an entire lifetime from confronting yourself — for instance, by the acquisition of wealth and power that many people envy and applaud — the growing acidity of self-hatred increasingly seeks for outside targets that can be blamed for the rage within. It's no wonder that Trump’s outwardly successful career in business has been characterized by thousands of lawsuits. As a neophyte politician, he has threatened to sue or persecute everyone from opposition candidates to the press, simply for challenging or differing with him. He cannot fathom, much less participate in fairly, the democratic process of debate because he sees it only as another power struggle that he cannot afford to lose.
Win or lose, endlessly choosing targets for blame will never save you from yourself. There can be no victory in court or on the battlefield that ends a war of self-hate. But it will always seem that the cause of one’s inward suffering is someone else, and that they must be silenced or eliminated in order to find peace. The search for more conflicts by which to prove one's worth is as endless as it is fruitless.
The blinders of self-loathing
The inner war of self-hatred has other effects that may not be readily appreciated. First, because it focuses so much intellectual and emotional energy on one agonizing inner wound, it creates perceptual blinders that cripple the self-hater's intelligence.
For instance: When you secretly believe that you are much less valuable than anyone else, then you will compensate by pretending that no one is as important as you are — and thus you need not listen to anyone. This particular compensation has been publicly observed in Trump many times, as he has refused to listen to everyone from campaign managers to policy advisors to national security experts. This is why he seldom deviates from his well-known style of bluster, boasting, and intimidation; he is too emotionally isolated to learn constructively from others.
Of course, there is a profound potential for needless mistakes, malignant mischief, and outright catastrophe resulting from the statements and actions of a sitting President who is so acutely isolated from informed counsel and personal advice. And whatever missteps, minor or major, that such a President makes will immediately be blamed on others, with an awesome power to persecute at his disposal.
Chronic self-loathing also tends to make one blind to the attitudes and behaviors of hatred itself. Habitual unhappiness, corrosive hostility, and the wearying suspicion of one's own worthlessness become so normalized within oneself that they are taken as common-sense attitudes in others. That may explain why 62 million voters — somewhat less than a fourth of the eligible electorate, nearly half of which did not vote — failed to see through Trump, or recognize the multitude of dangers he represents. Despite the fact that his public record clearly shows that he has seldom spoken or acted for any interests but his own, there was nonetheless a significant audience of voters who felt that he was speaking for them.
But for all those who responded enthusiastically to Trump's strident messages of fear, blame, and intolerance, he was only sounding like them — which is an entirely different kind of representation. It is the appeal of the most destructive demagogues throughout history.
The effects of a hateful loudspeaker
In fact, those who are inwardly besieging themselves with enmity will likely see a hero in someone who is unafraid to be a loudspeaker for his own self-destructive emotions, as they are turned loose upon the world. As he confirms for his followers that all their struggles must be someone else's fault, they are reinforced in looking for all the enemies who must be endangering their well-being.
The results of such pernicious loudspeaking are not just deplorable, but plainly dangerous. In December 2016 the Washington Post reported the story of Lauren Batchelder, a college student who openly questioned Trump's treatment of women at a public event in October of 2015, saying that she did not feel he was "a friend to women." Trump, who had a Twitter following of five million at the time, tweeted the next morning that "The arrogant young woman who questioned me in such a nasty fashion yesterday was a Jeb staffer!" (Batchelder was in fact volunteering for Republican candidate Jeb Bush at the time, and eventually voted for Hillary Clinton.) In typical form, rather than addressing the substance of Batchelder's challenge, Trump insulted her and then implied that she was deliberately planted by an enemy (which was not the case).
The outcome for Batchelder, as reported by the Post: "Her phone began ringing with callers leaving threatening messages that were often sexual in nature. Her Facebook and email inboxes filled with similar messages. As her addresses circulated on social media and her photo flashed on the news, she fled home to hide."
That was only a mild precursor of worse things to come. In the month following Trump's election victory, the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Hatewatch" recorded over 1000 incidents of "bias-related harassment and intimidation" nationwide, many of which directly referenced Donald Trump for justification.
For instance, a voicemail left at an immigrant-friendly church in Grand Rapids, Michigan said the following:
“I think this is the gay church, that help gays that get kicked out of the country along with all the fricken Mexicans that are illegal that you guys are hiding illegally. I hope Trump gets ya. Trump Trump Trump. Trump Trump Trump. Trump’s gonna get your asses out of here and throw you over the wall. You dirty rotten scumbags. Hillary is a scumbag bitch. too bad waaa waaa. Hillary lost. Hillary lost. Trump’s gonna getcha and throw you over the wall.”
Trump, who continues to issue contentious tweets on a daily basis, now has a Twitter following of 17 million, and will soon inherit the Presidential account reaching another 12.5 million. His 2017 New Year’s greeting as a President-elect echoed, once more, his savage inner conflict:
“Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”
This is the voice of a troubled twelve-year-old. It is sobering, to say the least, to contemplate the likely words and actions of an overgrown, deeply hurt, self-hating adolescent issuing from the Oval Office.
Why hatred has no solutions
Another way that self-loathing induces stupidity is that it convinces the sufferer that there are broad, simple solutions to complex problems. All such solutions are related to the subjugation of perceived enemies: Build walls. Deport millions. Ban enemies. However banal and unworkable such solutions may appear, that doesn’t mean they cannot be attempted. Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” was a genocidal approach to dealing with his own self-hatred, and it ultimately ‘worked’ in the sense that it led to his destruction… along with the slaughter of millions of innocents and a cataclysmic world war.
History thus teaches us not to underestimate the vicious reach of viral self-loathing, and the importance of being alert to its spread.
The isolating effect of self-loathing further depresses the potential for workable solutions because, as noted earlier, the intense self-hater tends to ignore almost everyone’s counsel but his own. For a normal citizen or even an affluent businessman, the inability to work well with others may be expressed only as an unpleasant personality quirk or a combative professional demeanor.
For a world leader, it portends raucous political battles, both domestically and internationally, conducted on a basis of unilateral threats, dares, and throw-downs rather than patient diplomacy or strategic compromise. And in this process there can be no winners. Even when the chronic battler seems to achieve a victory, there will be no succor or satisfaction in it for him, and he will set about seeking the next bitter conflict. Whenever he loses, he will seek revenge — a strategy that will ultimately reinforce his own sense of deep inner worthlessness.
In a spiritual sense, “sweet revenge” is nothing more than junk food for the soul — momentarily gratifying, but ultimately poisonous to one’s well-being.
Resisting the urge to hate the hater
My frequent references to Donald Trump’s inner misery, and his self-destructive means of dealing with it, are not meant to induce a gentle sympathy for the “poor little Donald” who surely suffers within the chronologically adult Trump. Nor am I suggesting in any way that he should be treated with political kid gloves in the feeble hope that he will take a long look in the White House mirror, suddenly recognize his dark inner life, and magically self-reform.
For when you have a violent husband who’s berating the kids, the immediate sensible strategy is not to pat the perpetrator on the head and say, “Poor dear, you must have suffered awfully as a child.” Instead, you immediately intervene to stop the abuse, calling upon any help that’s required, and then do what’s necessary to protect yourself and your vulnerable children from further harm. Then and only then can you firmly advise the perpetrator that his behavior is unacceptable, and that things have to change.
And then, just as important, you need to advise your violent partner that you will not fall prey to the reflexive instinct to hate him, however powerful that instinct may feel at the moment. That’s because a central, unconscious element of the self-loather’s agenda is to enlist others in a paradoxical communion of hatred. For if they cannot relate normally and achieve healthy connections of friendship and intimacy, they will deal with their crushing loneliness by trying to get others to act and sound like them. Since they do not know how to cure the feverish virus of hatred within themselves, they will settle for seeing others infected with it. This makes their state of mind seem momentarily justified. That's a brief and poor nurturance, but better than nothing.
Resisting the infectious appeal of enmity is not always easy or automatic, and requires some degree of self-awareness and emotional discipline. Self-loathing is known to all of us, and it can be turned out and amplified into an attack on others before we know what’s happening. But there is a way to consciously counteract it.
Towards a political tonglen
Tonglen is a core practice of Tibetan Buddhism that involves the meditative transformation of destructive mental and emotional energies into healing energies. In its simplest form, one “breathes in” suffering, or a specific destructive energy like fear or anger, and “breathes out” an appropriate healing response, such as calm or compassion. In doing so, one remembers that both negative and positive energies are experienced by everyone, and that the first step in converting one energetic state to another is consciously making a choice for the benefit of all.
There are many styles and approaches to tonglen, and from a psychological perspective it can be seen simply as sound cognitive therapy. Because emotions like fear, anger, and hatred are seldom consciously chosen — instead arising as kneejerk reactions to undesired events and circumstances — the cognitive therapy of tonglen reminds us that we can consciously choose more productive states of mind.
My own spiritual discipline, A Course in Miracles, often teaches the fundamental principle of tonglen, particularly in such Workbook meditations as “I could see peace instead of this” and “Let miracles replace all grievances.” The fact that the Course generally requires a lifetime commitment to understand and practice – as does any serious meditative discipline – is an indication that the practice of tonglen is not just a momentary exercise in sentimentality or wishful thinking. It is literally a training in turning the mind toward compassion on a consistent basis.
In the current political atmosphere, tonglen can serve as a powerful, do-it-yourself inoculation against the viral spread of self-loathing and projected hatred. In that sense, the hugely unfortunate election of Donald Trump presents an opportunity for maximizing the growth of compassion within ourselves, and then sharing its effects for everyone’s benefit.
While we might understandably find ourselves breathing in dread right now, we can still choose to breathe out hope.
When we witness the projection of anyone’s self-hatred, we can take it in and release it as a tender compassion.
When we hear attempts to spread and intensify blame, we can witness this destructive energy and inwardly shift it to a celebration of shared responsibility for the well-being of all.
The extension of inner work
A common failing of superficial spirituality these days is a disengagement from certain social processes that are commonly called “political” — from voting to supporting candidates to taking an interest in governmental or legislative activities. But if one says, “I’m spiritual, so I don’t do politics,” consistency would demand saying: “I’m spiritual, so I don’t make food choices in the grocery store, and I don’t select my friends based on personal preferences, and I don’t look for good schools for my children.”
In fact, every act that involves relating to others to any degree is political. What we tend to section off mentally as “political” is, put simply, the relationships of groups to groups, and we are all part of many groups whether we like it or not.
The “breathing out” stage of tonglen is inherently political, as it always includes manifesting some form of healing energy for the good of all — a universal group.
However, no inner practice should be regarded as a substitute for effective political action. Instead, it is the first step in wisely choosing which activities we want to be involved in, and which activist groups we may choose to represent our own best (and shared) interests. These choices may well shift over time, and our political choices may sometimes end in disappointment or disillusionment. But so do some of our strictly personal choices.
Whenever we are focused on “winning” or “losing” in the personal or political realm, we make the mistake of the painfully self-absorbed. That is, we see life as an ongoing battle to preserve the lonely, isolated self against an unending array of hostile forces. What the times call for now is a dedication to altruism and heroism, two forms of transcending the isolated self in service to the common good.
Fundamentals of selflessness
In her book What Makes a Hero: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, science writer Elizabeth Svoboda surveys the recent research on altruism and heroism, and echoes the importance of both group identifications and a meditative discipline in developing these advanced capacities:
"Another way to encourage your altruistic and heroic impulses is to change the way you think about yourself in relation to the rest of the world. According to the UCLA School of Medicine psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, coauthor of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, developing your altruistic capabilities may have a lot to do with how good you are at taking a third-person perspective on your own life. Think about something bad that happened to you recently: maybe your car was stolen, someone close to you died, or your professional reputation took a hit. Now think about a similar bad thing happening to someone else. The more closely your response in the second situation matches your response in the first, the more of a third-person perspective you're able to attain.... That means you might make a more effective altruist or hero, because you'll view others' needs the same way you view your own.
"One way to attain such a third-person perspective, Schwartz believes, is to start a regimen of mindfulness meditation.... As a result of meditation, he says, 'you get moral courage. You're just so grounded in your inner awareness and convictions. You're not going to be swayed from doing the right thing.'"
A new age of protest and resistance
It's entirely right and necessary that the incoming Trump administration and Republican majorities in Congress be greeted with an historic wave of thoughtful protest and peaceful resistance. And that resistance should build until a more heroic and altruistic mindset is instilled in America's leadership by the example of its most caring groups of people.
At the present moment, it may seem impossible to reverse the racing viral infection of self-loathing and projected hatred that Trump represents. But such pessimism is itself a symptom of misery that should be left to the ownership of the self-hating. We can and must transform this negative energy into a positive, constructive force of altruistic optimism that goes beyond merely a "good feeling" into becoming a new blueprint for politics itself.
There are hopeful signs in that regard, such as the founding of the DreamCorps "LoveArmy" spearheaded by CNN commentator and former Obama policy advisor Van Jones, focusing on the improvement of communications between politically disparate groups nationwide. The "Indivisible Guide" initiative focuses on Congressional activism at the local level. And there is growing evidence of a staunch, broad-based resistance to the projection of hatred onto immigrants, women, gays, and minorities. We can all participate in that resistance, as much by looking out for each other as by working through conventional political channels to resist policies that enforce or encourage persecution or discrimination.
Anticipating his own death in 1953, the famed founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Paramahansa Yogananda, advised his followers to "be outwardly grave and inwardly cheerful." There could be no better guidance for the attitude that will be required in the troubling times that America now faces. We will feel grave because we recognize that something has gone badly wrong with the still-young democratic experiment that is the United States, and it will take dedicated attention and resolve to set it right again.
But we can also be cheerful because we know that the key to lasting and positive change is within each of us. That key is the capacity to recognize and transform destructive energies within our own minds, not just for our own benefit but for the good of all humankind. We are not fighting an enemy named Donald Trump, who sees enemies everywhere he looks. Instead, we are working to heal the sickness of self-loathing that has deeply infected him, and that he spreads unthinkingly in a desperate, misdirected attempt to find solace and communion. We can show him and his followers a much better way.
Like Trump, we all face a multitude of daily challenges that may cause us to breathe in fear, sometimes before we know what's happening. But each of us has the opportunity to breathe out love, and through practice, to spread its healing effects with increasing power.
D. PATRICK MILLER is the author of a dozen books, including THE FORGIVENESS BOOK released by Hampton Roads Publishing in March 2017. Two other titles are currently distributed by Penguin Random House, and the rest under the Fearless Books imprint. As a collaborator, principal editor, or literary agent, Miller has helped other authors prepare manuscripts for such major publishers as Simon & Schuster, Tarcher Perigee, Hay House, New World Library, Hampton Roads, and John Wiley & Sons. He provides manuscript consultations and editing to literary agents and publishers, as well as published and unpublished authors working in fiction and nonfiction.
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