A Stoic’s Guide to Surviving Trump
Regardless of your political affiliation, it is difficult to observe the chaos in the White House without grave concern for the presidency and the country. Our smartphones flash and vibrate with each new ejaculated Trump tweet that emanates from the alternate reality he has created, which defies both logic and basis in objective fact. Like all presidencies, the modus operandi of the administration reflects the president’s persona, which in Trump’s case is utterly valueless and prefers deceit and diversion to maximize distraction as a veil for incompetence and avarice. A mayhem maniac who could explode at any moment has succeeded no-drama Obama; Trump’s wick seems always lit. However, like the presidents who preceded him, Trump too shall pass. America and the world will survive as long as those of us with a conscience and reasoned intellectual vigor stand and resist this deviant. And, to survive Trump, ancient philosophers—particularly the Stoics—offer valuable practices founded in the following eight disciplines.
1. See things as they are and question the givens, starting with the realization that—fundamentally—the United States and the world are in the best shape ever. All presidents occasionally lie and all, at one time or another, promote fear to consolidate their power. Trump has, however, excelled among his predecessors in combining deceit with fear, making it the dominant modality of his presidency. The truth, however, is that the world and the country have never been wealthier, healthier, or more safe. As historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in his latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, for the first time in the history of humankind famine, plague, and war are no longer meta-threats in the global system.
More people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola, or an al-Qaeda attack.
Furthermore, to debunk one of Trump’s favorite claims, non-immigrant American citizens are incarcerated at twice the rate of documented immigrants, and three times the rate of undocumented immigrants. In science and engineering, immigrants far excel non-immigrants in educational achievement. If piety is your metric, immigrants claim religion at a rate 18% higher than non-immigrants and start businesses at twice the rate on non-immigrants. Hardly the drug-dealers, rapists, and terrorists Trump continues to warn us about. Do we have problems?, absolutely, but upon close examination we find that we do not have capacity or capability problems today, as we have throughout history, we have distribution problems that can be affected through mustering political will to deploy policies of sustainable redistribution. A stoic always pauses to check and crosscheck claims (especially of politicians) to assure truth is the basis of every interpretation and every decision.
2. Be fatalistic about the past and optimistic about the future. A stoic maintains a vigilant focus on the future, while accepting the past as it is. Stewing about the past, as Trump continues to do over losing the popular vote, the pitiful turnout at his inauguration, and his continuing penchant for blaming all things on Obama, debilitates him and his capacity to succeed in the future. Trump is also addicted to fame and fortune, which stoics view with contempt as they threaten the attainment of tranquility. Stoics do not fall into these traps. Furthermore, stoics maintain that if one pursues a virtuous life, consistent with the constraints of nature, tranquility is assured. I will add to this stoic discipline the aim of transcendence—particularly in politics—that compels one to rise above partisanship and serve the masters of truth and nature above the pettiness of partisan rancor. Transcendence requires a sense of selflessness and the dismissal of popular anxieties promoted by pundits and politicians who are more interested in self-aggrandizement than in improving the welfare of their fellow citizens.
3. Visualize the worst outcomes to allow healthy management of expectations and to understand the circumstances and pathways that enable unwanted outcomes in order to prevent or minimize their realization. Stoics refer to this discipline as negative visualization. Ask the question, what is the worst that can happen? Experience, albeit prospectively, all the consequences—physical, financial, emotional, etc.—of a loss. This discipline allows one to reconsider and recalibrate expectations in a manner that may be more aligned with reality since, as humans, we tend to over-expect our successes and under-estimate weaknesses and threats, not to mention the impact of unknown variables. Proper negative visualization also paints a picture of those pathways that lead to failure or loss, which allows the stoic to identify early warning indicators and disrupt any advance toward undesirable outcomes.
4. Attack your own thinking with an opposable mind to understand your vulnerabilities and to anticipate your opponents’ responses. I am fairly certain this is a discipline that is impossible for Trump to grasp; there is no evidence that he considers his vulnerabilities or looks beyond his first glandular reflex. Further, his bullying nature virtually assures he has no one near him with the confidence to assist him with an opposable mind, let alone question his thinking. This is his (unwitting) recipe for disaster as president. The stoic, on the other hand, can argue all points of view to not only assure her own clear and comprehensive thinking, but to understand the arguments, strategies and tactics that might be waged against her. This is what I also refer to as whole-minded thinking: employing all parts of the brain in all directions and from all perspectives.
5. Expend energy and resources on the few things (less than 20%) that matter—the key result areas—that assure success and contribute to a state of invincibility. Identifying the 20% is accomplished by first identifying those things which qualify as key result areas. Key result areas are those objectives that, once accomplished, also mitigate other concerns or achieve other objectives; the proverbial “two birds with one stone” actions. Once you know the key result areas, you must also ask if those involved (a person, organization, company, etc.) respond to intelligence; that is to say, will it or they behave in a responsible manner? If it/they don’t, you are wasting your time; don’t beat your head against a wall—pursue your objectives through other avenues or organizations. Although empathy is essential to our humanity, one must also have the courage to discard and isolate those with nefarious or misguided aims. In my life, I often credit this stoic discipline as a key element in my own success and well-being. In the Trump era, this means targeting those objectives that are more local and provide measureable impacts on your community (however you define that realm).
6. Practice solitude and meditate to create a sense of tranquility and solemn determination. Quiet time is essential to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. As the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote, “We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.” Solitude allows, among other things, the capacity to process the world in the whole minded fashion (suggested in discipline #4, above), providing the conscience and sub-conscience to reconcile the world (and one’s place in it). The stoic, Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD), viewed meditation and solitude as a daily exercise where one sits quietly and alone to, in effect, de-brief one’s self about one’s day. What was accomplished? What was lost? And, most importantly, what was learned? Whether you meditate in a ritualistic fashion consistent with Eastern religions, or simply take a long walk while thinking deeply about yourself in your world, you must dedicate yourself to some alone-time in order to not only make the best decisions, but to know yourself completely and honestly.
7. Commit to a duty of service based in humility. The ultimate aim of stoics—virtue and tranquility—can only be achieved by those who are engaged in their community with the aim of leaving things better than the way they found them. Mahatma Gandhi is credited (after substantial paraphrasing) with the prescription “Be the change you want to see in the world,” which is a clear call to this form of exemplary service. America’s historical proclamations of self-reliance and self-directed lives provide a fanciful myth, but the reality today is an America (and world) that is much more interdependent than the American frontier romanticized by Frederic Jackson Turner in his The Significance of the Frontier in American History. This binding of one’s self to one’s community is what Marcus Aurelius described as contributing to “the service and harmony of all.” Trump’s “America First” treatise completely ignores this stoic discipline and his behaviors are hardly aligned with any sense of humility. It is, therefore, now more than ever, essential that we each accept our role in service to others, looking for no greater reward than the welfare of our neighbors and the betterment of our communities.
8. Avoid anger at all costs to drain the power of your adversaries. Stoic philosophy’s most closely held commitment is to rationality, which further requires that we remain mindful of “what is and what is not in our power.” What is always in our power—regardless of the causes or effects of any events—is how we react to any particular occurrence or outcome. Angry reactions almost always have the same effect: to empower the offender at the expense of the offended. Trump is experiencing this lesson in the hardest way possible. (I suggest “experiencing” because there is no evidence thus far of learning.) Lashing out, whether via tweet or verbal bullying is draining his credibility and legitimacy as president. Watch as bureaucrats, members of Congress, the media, and foreign leaders increasingly dismiss his angry outbursts. More so than at the beginning of his presidency, he now is ignored and dismissed by his targets both near and far. His anger has made him increasingly irrelevant. In effect, he has transferred his power to the targets of his anger much in the same way we do if we react angrily to those who attempt to degrade us. Dismissing offensive behavior with indifference retains power in the hands of the offended; it takes the weapon out of the offender’s hands reducing them to be strangled by their own insolence. And, it maintains our processing of such events within the realm of the rational and away from disabling discountenance.
Notwithstanding Trump’s very temporary role as an American president, and his behaviors and decisions that defy his duty to serve our great country, the United States and the world are doing very well if one simply observes the facts. Employing stoic disciplines can defeat Trump’s behaviors and practices. We must be diligent, patient, cool-headed, and most of all engaged in our communities, country, and world to assure our triumph over this roguish fool.