By Dr. Denise R. Ames
Throughout American history, there have often been debates about whether the president shapes the times or the times shape the president. In the case of the presidency of Donald Trump, I make the case that the times are shaping his presidency and vice versa—he is shaping the times.
The business world loves to shout out the benefits of disruption. Every new tech invention is proudly claimed as a disrupter of the status quo. Uber disrupted the taxi industry and “freed” thousands of blossoming entrepreneurs to become their own bosses and shape their own destiny. Facebook disrupted traditional face-to-face social interactions, replacing them with virtual connections. The list goes on and on.
But the phenomenon of disruption is unlikely to be contained in just the business world. Applying a holistic approach, meaning that all the cultural traits of a society interact with and influence each other, we see that disruption was bound to spill out to other areas of society. The political world is just one.
The political world is not a remote enclave from the rest of society. It too feels the wrath of disruption. Many people want to disrupt politics, to “shake things up” or have a “political revolution.” By doing so, they would magically dislodge entrenched party divisions. Somehow, those shaken up would miraculously be more responsive to the other side, and things would get done. But disruption has a downside, and we are witnessing it in every corner of our society.
Donald Trump ran as a disrupter candidate and is governing as a disrupter president. He is the ideal personality type for this disruptive-leader position. He is spontaneous and vengeful, and he has a weak moral compass with which to rein in his excesses. To me, his main goal is to shred the long-established traditions and customs holding together American society and government. I don’t think he has a clue about what is going to replace these traditions, other than chaos and more disruption. Many people cited his business expertise as a reason for voting for him, and indeed, he has brought the business practices of disruption all the way to the White House.
However, too much disruption does not bode well for American society. (The same can be said for events going on in Europe, for instance, with the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen leading up to the 2017 French presidential election.) The disruption to the American family, for example, has resulted, among many, in family breakdown, a sense of individual anomie and alienation, and a population ripe for drug addiction and other destructive behaviors.
When too much disruption permeates a society, the general population often turns to authoritarian leaders to give them guidance and a sense of security and order. Forgotten is that authoritarian leaders do just the opposite. They sow more chaos and disorder, creating a need among the people for more authoritarian acts—a vicious and destructive cycle. Although not a fascist, Donald Trump has authoritarian characteristics, and his mode of governance is very troubling.
Can our long-standing institutions survive the assault and neglect of the Donald Trump administration? It seems unclear at this point. The American presidency has accrued immense discretionary power over the twentieth century, and a person like Trump is not shy about trampling on the delicate boundaries separating appropriate and inappropriate presidential behaviors and actions.
I am concerned that these disruptions to our institutions and traditions may be permanent. It has taken centuries to forge the US government, and, although that government is not perfect, the people have been able to hammer out mechanisms to pave the way for progress, bettering the lives of many. But destruction is always faster than creation. Disruptions may start as tiny cracks in prevailing institutions, but they give way to deeper fissures—leading to utter collapse.
I think we as a society need to rethink our fixation on constant disruption. Signs that Americans are feeling the disquieting effects of disruption are everywhere: a deep political divide, the flinging of derogatory slurs instead of rational analysis, the shutting down of speakers deemed unacceptable by a vocal minority on college campuses, gun violence and mass shootings, and a mass exodus of police and teachers from professions demeaned by the oppositions. The list is long. Even Mother Nature is feeling the effects of climate change, pounding our shores with destruction and misery.
How can we counter the widespread effects of disruption? I think we need a time of settling, grounding, and assessing the way forward, which appears uncertain at this point. Hurtling toward mayhem is a sure way to cause irreparable harm. As a historian, I have read about the effects of revolution and collapse, and they aren’t pretty.
I am an advocate of gradual change at this point in time. That does not mean that no change occurs, but that it is not so disrupting as to create anxiety, alienation, and anger among the vast majority of people. Out of this opened space, we can redirect our thoughts from anger and negativity to actually creating new institutions and ways of life that are positive and affirming.
It is much more difficult to create than to destroy, but it is to creation that we must now turn. Creating means conversing with both like-minded people and those who are different than us, to find common ground and forge a shared path. It won’t be an easy task, especially in our hostile climate, but it is one that must occur for the sake of the generations yet to come.
Questions to Consider
1. What disruptions have you experienced in your life?
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Awareness. The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials with a holistic, global focus for adult learners and educators. In January 2018, the CGA will launch the Global Awareness Adult Conversation and Study Program, or Gather. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to launch conversations about pressing global issues, seeing different perspectives, transcending deep political and cultural divides, and engaging with others to create positive change. Please email email@example.com or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.