Trump: The American Shadow Concretized
Two weeks into the wild ride of having Donald Trump as our president, and a lot of us are worried.
I have talked with friends, family, fellow clergy—people feel helpless and afraid.
The Muslim ban, “alternative facts,” a litany of cabinet appointments of people who have vowed to destroy the very departments they now head, demonizing and threatening the free press—it seems as though all our fears are being confirmed.
And yet I hear from people who voted for Mr. Trump how glad they are to see him fulfilling his campaign promises. We are divided indeed.
Even with all the positive energy generated by the Women’s March and the upcoming Scientists’ March, there is still a thread of fear running through the optimism—will it make any difference?
President Trump with the heft of a Republican government behind him has a lot of very legal power to do a lot of terrible things.
I would say, “May I be proved wrong!”, but thus far the campaign and the administration are chapter and verse the same poisonous rhetoric of exclusion, division, falsehood and fear.
I think we have a deeper problem.
As countless others have pointed out, President Trump is not a normal politician or a normal President. He is not a simple hard right Republican.
He is something different, but no one seems to be able to put a finger on what that something different is.
I think this explains the undercurrent of hopelessness that has subtly invaded our determined sharing of facts online, our marches, our calling of our congresspersons.
What he is—that “something different”–really matters because it determines how we as an American people deal with him.
He is our president, and deal with him we must. Deal with his actions and policies we must. Deal with the pain and suffering his actions and policies generate we must.
So we must understand who he is.
I have a theory, and my theory is this: Donald Trump is the American shadow concretized.
It is a basic tenet of modern psychological and spiritual thought that we all have a “shadow side.”
This shadow is made up of all the things we deny in ourselves and project onto other people.
Think about the people in your life who really push your buttons.
There is a high degree of probability that the quality of that person that drives you nuts the most—rudeness, laziness, being unethical or overly critical, etc.—is precisely a quality you cannot admit to having yourself.
The fact both scientifically and spiritually is that I can display any quality of the myriad available in the human psyche if put in the right circumstances.
Create the right environment, and any one of us could be a murderer.
But we can’t bear that truth.
We attach shame to so many qualities of human character, and so we shove them away onto other people.
We’ll do anything to avoid admitting that from time to time we ourselves might have been judgmental, uncaring, cruel, thoughtless, or shallow, or we could be if the right situation pushed us there.
This is denial, and it traps us in our current level of spiritual and psychological growth if we do not have the courage and the humility to see it, confront it—and this is critical—tend it with compassion rather than self-hatred.
This is the tyranny of the false self.
The U.S. body politic, the collective that we are by virtue of living in this country and calling ourselves Americans, has now voluntarily subjected itself to a literal “tyranny of the false self” in the person of Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump is the full weight of American shadow focused through one individual person.
Think about the things you (if you do not support him) hate and fear the most in him: racism, xenophobia, lying, manipulation, misogyny, strongarm tactics, anti-intellectualism.
Now picture hearing someone call you those names.
You’re a liar. You’re a manipulator. You hate people of color and think women are stupid, useable objects valuable only for their appearance.
You’re afraid of anyone different from you and try to push them away, exclude them, deny their reality.
We clutch our pearls and exclaim, “Not me! I’m a good person! I’m not a racist or a homophobe or an Islamophobe!”
Here’s the awful truth, folks: if you’re an American, you are a part of the system that is so loudly displaying these qualities, which means you don’t get to say they’re not a part of you.
You don’t get to choose only the best parts of America to claim as your own—the toxic side is your legacy as well.
Furthermore, you are a human being, full of glory and full of sin, which means that if you were put in a certain set of circumstances, you would or at least could let yourself be ruled by hatred and fear in exactly the same way as Mr. Trump and some of his supporters.
But we have so vehemently denied the sin and moral bankruptcy that runs as deep as our much-vaunted love of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, that we have elevated our hidden shame all the way to the White House.
The problem with denying the shadow in ourselves is that it gives the shadow even freer reign with our lives and our actions.
We can’t change it if we don’t and won’t see it.
I see this happening in myself and people around me. It’s a predictable series of events.
Mr. Trump or someone in his circle does or says something driven by hatred and fear. I recoil against it.
But then I respond in exactly the same way, driving all my hatred and fear right back onto President Trump.
Where are the fruits of the Spirit in this vicious cycle?
Where is the light that should stand against the darkness?
Where are the spiritual gifts of joy, peace and patience that I strive for?
Nowhere to be found. I am afraid and out of touch with my own darkness, and so I frantically externalize it, driving both myself and the person I fear and hate ever deeper into fear and hatred.
My concern is that this is a cycle happening on a macro scale between Mr. Trump and the slightly over half of this country who did not vote for him.
I have a feeling that this moment is critically important to our nation because it is time, finally, truly time to deal with the at times literal whitewashing of our history and identity.
We (and when I say we, here, I mean the privileged, white, economically stable and largely complacent majority) have never paid any kind of price for slavery, for genocide of native peoples, for domestic violence, for war and violence against people and planet and growth and difference of any and every kind.
We have gotten off scot-free and been rich enough to continue in our blissful myth of eternal progress, perfectibility, and American exceptionalism.
We even got to pat ourselves on the back for eight consecutive years for having elected our first black president.
But the shadow will not be denied forever, and Mr. Trump in his very extremism has called the question.
“The wages of sin is death,” to quote St. Paul, but that’s not actually a threat.
What we need here is a necessary death, a death that we need not fear.
We need to die to ideas like American exceptionalism and the capitalist commodification of human souls that now passes for the American dream.
We liberals especially need to die to the idea of our own moral superiority over Mr. Trump and his supporters.
Unless and until we can see and live into the reality that we as individuals and we as a collective are in need of redemption, we will remain trapped, and I fear we will be shoving wide the door to fascism that is now only cracked open.
If you are a spiritual person, you have at some time at least put a toe in the water of your own weakness and fallibility—you may have dealt with it extensively.
But if you are on a spiritual path, you have been told by the masters that the valley of the shadow of death is as real a part of your walk as the mountain of transfiguration.
Stop for a moment, set aside our politics, and look within yourself at your places of woundedness. You know what they are.
You know the areas in your life where you try, and try, and try again to make meaningful, healing change, and fail and fail and keep failing.
You know the griefs that still strike with painful freshness at the right reminder.
You know the grating injustices done to you or yours that you could not fix or erase if you were president yourself.
You know the secret, most scared corners of your soul where you fear that maybe none of it means anything, maybe you only make others’ lives worse instead of better, maybe there is nothing beyond life and death but a howling cold nothingness.
Now look back at Mr. Trump.
I see his face on TV, I hear his voice, and I hear and see a gaping black hole of pain.
He is a walking definition of insecurity.
This man, at least from the qualities he displays in public and the actions he is driven to take, is in complete internal freefall.
He has no groundedness.
He has no identity within himself.
He does not know who he is if he cannot generate external affirmation.
It hurts to look at him.
I cannot imagine how pain-filled, lonely, and trapped in praise and power addiction this man is.
Or rather, I can.
I know that this lostness, this hurt, this animalistic lashing out lie within me.
I’ve lived it out myself, albeit on a much smaller stage.
But praise God, I do know what my ground is: I am a beloved child of God.
And so even though I am in freefall from time to time, I know that I will land in a place of safety and goodness and love.
Mr. Trump does not know that, and it shows through with utter transparency in his every word, action, and gesture.
And he will never know that he is a beloved child of God if my response to him is only more of what consumes him already: hatred and fear.
And the point I really want to make is that as true and important as it is for us to come to grips as individuals with the woundedness we hold in common with Mr. Trump, it is equally important for us to do so as a collective.
The American people as a whole must see and embrace our shadow.
We must admit that we are trapped in a fundamental insecurity about who we are, as much as our president is.
We must see how we as a nation are addicted to praise, can only see our value in external validation, and use power, wealth, violence and our self-generated prestige to shove that shadow deep inside of us where we can no longer hear its need and pain.
In that sense, Mr. Trump is the ultimate American.
And access to the “better angels of our nature,” will remain utterly cut off for all of us if we insist that the demons in our basement are not real.
As long as we continue to deny our shadow, the shadow’s hunger and lonely pain will continue to act out in the sins of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and the otherization of everything that is not identical to our own limited idea of who we are.
One thing I want to make clear here is that I am not preaching a gospel of letting Mr. Trump and his government off the hook because they are just poor flawed people for whom we should have sympathy.
That does not respect the dignity of anyone in this conversation.
President Trump, however trapped he is within his stunted soul, has moral agency.
He has had countless opportunities over his lifetime to confront his own darkness and find a productive way to deal with it, and every single time, he has chosen the easy and blind and selfish way out.
He bears responsibility for his destructive actions, and that responsibility does not go away with an awareness of the pain and fear that may drive his hatred.
What Mr. Trump, his supporters, his opponents, and those who don’t much care one way or another—in others words, all of us as Americans—need, is two very old fashioned gospel values: repentance and healing.
The way to deal with the shadow is not to deny and repress it, nor to shine a light harsh with self-hatred on it and beat it into submission.
The way to deal with the shadow is to bring it into the Divine presence and say, “Loving God, I am sorry. I repent of the evil I have done and the evil done on my behalf. Help me to see the parts of myself I cannot find, the parts of myself I hate and ignore and flee from. Help me to see them, and then help me entrust them to you. I ask for your healing and your wholeness and your love to fill and surround and penetrate me to my depths.”
This is our prayer as individuals, and we must seek ways to make it our prayer as a nation.
We must pursue the spiritual discipline of restorative justice—righting our shadow-driven wrongs—with the spiritual grace of compassion and forgiveness and hope for growth into something better.
I’m not here to rain on the parade of any political actions that people are pursuing.
In the realm of civic engagement, I ask to be directed by the community organizers and social activists whose expertise we need more than ever.
Political solutions are not my area. But spiritual solutions are my area, and what I can contribute is my conviction that how and where we seek change is as important as what change we seek.
Insisting that the evil is “out there” in someone else, namely Mr. Trump, is caving to the unholy seduction of the game in which he is trapped.
Here we take the words of Jesus to ourselves: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world if they lose their own souls?”
Admitting that our own internal poverty is as real is his is where we must start, and we need this soul-searching on a national, corporate level as well as in the uncharted depths of our own hearts.
This is the hard internal work that will fuel the resistance so many of us have committed ourselves to.
I’ve been on retreat for the last week, and I have felt led for some time to pray about my own internal poverty.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says.
The paradox of America is a paradox I carry within my own soul: a drastic and disorienting contrast of wealth and poverty, where only the wealth is valued.
We deny, hide and hate poverty in America.
We cringe from confronting the literal poverty of hungry, unemployed and underemployed people, people experiencing homelessness, people whose lives are ravaged by addiction and violence and racism.
And we cannot admit the poverty of our American soul, the fear and shame that we hastily smear over with a thinly gilded patriotism.
But what Jesus led me to in the course of this retreat was how much he cherishes me in my poverty, how present and real and available he is to me in the very places I insist he must know nothing about.
In my sin, my cruelty, my fear and judgment and self-hatred, in my failure to do anything constructive to address the literal poverty and oppression of my fellow children of God—here, I am liberated from the song and dance of my false self.
There is nothing left to hide, and nothing left to hide from.
I look into my internal abyss, and there I find Christ crucified, shining with love and redemption and the suffering he freely takes on for me and with me and in me for the world.
If we walk into the shadow, we find it already inhabited.
If we search our emptiness, we find planted in its center the Cross.
And once we have entered the liberation of the Cross, the healing of the Resurrection is just around the corner.
And that is perhaps the best news of all as we wrestle with our trainwreck of a national discourse and the moral and political future of this country: there is nowhere we can go that Jesus has not gone before us, there is no destruction we can wreak that he cannot transform and heal, and there is no poverty within us that he does not cherish with all the fierceness of his radiant love.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.”
Never has that verse felt more true than it does in America today.
But at the intersection of the light and the darkness is the sacred and secret shadowland of the soul, the place where the richness of God’s love meets the poverty of our wounded selves.
This unity of love and need can be our future as individuals and as a body, if we have the courage to say yes to it.
America, you’ve seen your shadow.
Will it be eight more years of winter?
You make the choice.
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