politics

Of Men and Ideas

Listen to the people in your world that vigorously disagree with you. Don’t try to change their mind. Don’t argue with them. Not yet. Not until you’ve listened. Just listen and seek to understand.

It’s a rare and difficult principle to maintain. I do try to get outside the echo chambers that agree with me as much as I can. But sometimes, I don’t know I’m in one until it’s too late. Recently, around October 8th maybe, I realized that I’d been in one for quite a while. It was one that told me that Donald Trump was personally too despicable to be president of the United States of America. Clearly I was wrong. Because I didn’t do that thing I just said to do. I didn’t seek to understand. I saw the man. And I dismissed him, with good cause to be fair. But I never dug down deep into understanding Trump-ism. I fought the man, never the idea. And that’s a problem.

So what is Trump-ism?

You can find the answer wedged somewhere between Scott Baio and Jerry Fallwell Jr. telling Yo Mama jokes at the Republican National Convention this year. A man named Peter Thiel spoke. Thiel is a billionaire Silicon Valley businessman who is one of the few men in the world who have founded multiple billion dollar corporations. He sits on the board of directors for Facebook. He counts people like Elon Musk as his partners and peers. And if there’s a Mount Rushmore of the modern “dot com” business ecosystem, Thiel is on it. You could write ten thousand words on what’s right and wrong with Thiel and still not be done. You could write another ten thousand on why he doesn’t fit any molds that we like to put people in. I’m not going to do that here. But I’m familiar with him. And as someone who works in the tech world and moves in the Silicon Valley circles, I can get you pretty far with a few sentences.

Peter Thiel has had success listening to what everyone is saying and doing, and going and finding something else, building it before anyone else does and winning before there is competition. He asks aloud in his books and speeches, and urges us to ask ourselves, what truth do you believe, that almost no one else does? It’s a hell of a question, especially in business. He is, after all, Silicon Valley’s contrarian. If you want to know more about him, Google him. There’s loads of stuff, much of it ugly and negative. But as far as this discussion goes, that stuff, is noise. Because it’s fighting the man again, not the idea. His ideas, though, are at the emotional center of Trump-ism, whether or not he ever intended them to be. They can be summed up in two Peter Thiel quotes:

“For a long time our elites have been in the habit of denying difficult realities. That’s how bubbles form.” Thiel is the anti-bubble.

Yes.

People incorrectly believe that “If you don’t conform (to diversity), then you don’t count as diverse. No matter what your background”

I love it.

When I read those quotes as a business leader and someone who has worked on my own start-up, I get pretty fired up. It evokes emotion. It stimulates me. They are powerful words that speak directly to the psyche of change makers-people who want to drive to a better tomorrow. And when I posted those quotes and his name on my Facebook page without commentary, I got a very heavy dose of feedback about Thiel being a white nationalist and an anti-semite and a rape apologist and an opponent of the free press. All of which may be true. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the same room with the man. But none of the dissenting commentary addressed the ideas he had. Because in a vacuum, they are ideas that are nearly impossible to discredit.

We don’t live in a vacuum though. And right now, those words are being spoken in the Trump-ist echo chamber with great excitement.

So what exactly is that truth Trump-ists believe that no one else does? Except all other Tump-ists of course. Steve Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News and recently appointed chief strategist of Donald Trump’s administration can help explain it. Now, it’s possible that hearing the words Steve Bannon evokes a blinding rage in you and a need to spout out a laundry list of grievances about white supremacy, misogyny and maybe even a twenty year old arrest report for domestic violence. And that’s fine. But realize, you’re doing it again. That’s the man. The man is easy to beat. The idea, well, that’s another thing all together.

So here’s the idea in his words.

America is in “a crisis both of capitalism and the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west in our beliefs.”

Bannon says that crony capitalism and globalization have eroded the stability of our country and weakened us to the point of crisis. Whether or not he believes it matters far less then what it means. Thiel and Bannon are Trump-ism. They form a combination of contrarian, anti-elite non-conformists, conforming together behind the belief that the key to restoring righteous capitalism is a focus on the return to a Judeo-Christian led world.

That’s the idea. And it comes in the form or a red hat, and a slogan.

It’s powerful idea. And it represents one side of the modern political argument in America today. You couldn’t have sent a worse champion than Hillary Clinton to strike it down if you tried. She was perfect if you were fighting the man. But she wasn’t fighting the man. She was fighting the idea. And she was powerless against it. Perhaps if we had taken the time to understand the idea, we may have thought differently. Perhaps that’s why the Democratic National Committee is in ruins, when most of us thought that it was the Republicans on the edge of oblivion.

That doesn’t mean Trump-ism is right though. In fact I believe it’s quite wrong. But it took a little digging and understanding to get there for me. And in order to do that, you have to be willing to divorce the ideas from the men saying them, especially since some of those men are only saying those ideas because they know they are the ideas that work right now. Because the ideas are not wrong because of the men saying them. The ideas, by themselves, on their own merit are wrong. Dangerously so. And we need to start screaming from the mountain tops why.

First, intended or not, the core argument of Trump-ism is a substantial part of the argument that white supremacist groups use to further their message. Trump-ism left off the part about racial superiority. Those groups gladly add it back in. And when you deliver the Trump-ism message, and you are willing to accept anyone who believes it, without strong condemnation of those specific groups that add racial superiority to it, it provides oxygen for them to grow and breed and start to normalize and call themselves things like “Alt Right”. And then they form groups that sound snappy like The National Policy Institute. Make no mistake about it.The National Policy Institute is a white supremacy organization. If you can’t get a couple hundred of your members in a room without a bunch of them throwing out Nazi salutes or yelling sieg heil, and the first Op-Ed on your pretty web page is about the folly of desegregation in schools, then you are a white supremacy group.

You can call yourself something else. And you can ooze into the room with lots of other dis-enfranchised people and tell them you are the same. But you aren’t. And unless the leadership of the new Republican Party denounces it and cast it out of their numbers, a dangerous political discussion is on the horizon. Because whether or not to denounce and eliminate from prominence groups that further white supremacist ideology cannot become a political debate.

Secondly, because frighteningly the first part isn’t enough, if the “Judeo-Christian” portion of your message really is the whole message, than that’s a problem. Because that’s not American. America, imperfect in her ways, has been defined by relative inclusivity. Our strength has come from differing people coming to us from places with their ideas and their drive to build something. And my opposition to Trump-ism is grounded on the belief that I’m not willing to give on that. Not because I’m full of love and togetherness and because I’m naive to those out there that want to do us harm. I’ve fought them all over the world in places you’ve probably never seen doing things you’ll probably never do. I’m not willing to give on that relative inclusivity because turning inward makes you weak. And ignoring the skills and ideas that others have, and forcing them to seek other places to have them, makes others stronger. My message of dissent is about making and keeping us strong.

It pretty simple for me.  If that big idea that you have that no one else agrees with, that Peter Thiel disruptive change the world for the better idea, is that the words penned in our Declaration of Independence or in the Bill of Rights are wrong, that all men aren’t created equal and that only some are born with liberties and the freedom to pursue their faiths, then fine, let’s have that debate. And let’s have it in earnest. The fact that middle America, my strong patriotic brothers and sisters that took up arms with me to fight Islamic fundamentalism and other ideologies that threatened our way of life appear willing to have it, hurts me. It hurts me down to my soul. Because I believed, and I still need to believe that we are better than that. And that the principles that I swore to defend with my very life didn’t only apply to me and people like me. They applied to everyone.

So let the debate begin.

6 replies »

  1. Respectfully, I disagree.
    Being for leadership without arrogance, for more accountability in federal gov’t, for stronger military, for more confidence in leaders to speak truthfully, for the US Supreme Court not being a social policy agency does not portend the demise of the America you and others fought and are fighting for.
    The fact that some people with less than admirable motivations support ” Trumpism” does not define it.
    Democracy works best when those in the minority
    are vigilant. Vigilance, however, does not require attributing such negative motivations to the heartland.

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    • Hi Don,

      Some of the things you mentioned I have opposing views on, but not all, and I was hoping for some dialog about one of those in particular – the idea of accountability in federal government.

      In addition to it, I also support strong accountability for business, as I think an over-growth of power for either government or business is an incredibly bad thing for citizens.

      I’m curious what your thoughts are on that. I’m not of the opinion that *any* government regulation of business is inherently job-killing or burdensome. In fact, I would argue that much of the deregulation that has occurred over the last 40-ish years has gone a little too far.

      That’s not to say that I’m anti-business; far from it! I do, however, think that at this particular point in our history, business interests have more power than is fair. In my mind, the disenfranchisement felt by many Trump voters was caused by Washington “elites” spending decades only focusing on policy that benefited the already-wealthy business elites.

      My question is, how do we form policy that creates and maintains a good balance of power between government and business? Also, how do we find way to to have productive dialog and compromise with each other about this as we engage in political discussion? In my experience, there are a lot of people with extremely pro-business or extremely pro-government stances, and not very many who are advocating for a balanced stance that seeks compromise.

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  2. Actually, Sean, I started reading your blog because you make an honest effort to be rational. I try REALLY HARD not to let “rational” be synonymous with “agrees with me.” So you’re part of my effort to incorporate opposing points of view, and thank you for that! (Although “opposing” here doesn’t necessarily or always mean “opposite.”) Looking forward to reading more!

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  3. One of the things I imagined doing during these last few stressful past months was travelling throughout America and sitting down in every state to really listen to what people want . Of course I knew I would have heard choruses of MAGA, Keep Immigrants Out and so on. But as I began to further distill these themes and the accompanying rancour, what I “heard” was this. .
    All Americans, well off and not so, want the same things : job security and job futures for their kids.
    Good schools for their kids. Reliable, affordable health care. Safe, affordable places to live.
    And they want the Federal government to hear this. Muslims, MAGA, immigration issues, etc etc are all just places to put worry and fear. Outlets for feeling that they are not being heard.

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  4. Sean,
    Great post as always. I especially appreciate your last paragraph.

    Do you see similarities between the current national mood of Islamaphobia and McCarthyism/Red Scare of the 1950s?

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