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.


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.

If not…it’s going to be China for a hundred years…

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, Judeo-Christian leadership of the world, 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.


The Cult of Personality

It finally happened. While I sat in my car during one of my soul crushing Southern California commutes, jammed into the I-15 freeway, paying my morning penance for living in the suburbs, it happened.  On the radio, pundits were worked into a lather, clambering about the latest runaway victory of candidate Trump. Their tone was acceptance.  Gone was the harsh warnings of the danger of nominee Trump or President Trump, dare we say. Gone was the disbelief or predictions of failure. Acceptance had seeped into their consciousness. And for the first time, I felt myself starting to normalize a Trump general election candidate-then a President Trump.  I could feel myself preparing for what that might be like. Because that’s what we do.

We humans are capable of normalizing amazing things. We can put up with a lot, if we choose to. Years ago, deployed as a Naval Officer to Africa, my team built a camp in a remote location. Within days, a massive hive of killer bees infested the showers and stung us to death whenever we wanted to get clean. I remember one time in particular after I’d showered and endured a half dozen bee stings to the face,  mumbling to a buddy heading the other direction, “At least I’m clean”.  I was willing to deal with quite a bit of downside-repeated bee stings to the face, because I was so dirty. I felt it was a fair trade off. Get clean, or don’t get stung by bees. I had no third option. Now I was normalizing President Trump, because I felt like I had not other choice.

So there I was, sitting in my car, stuck in traffic, suffering through the bee stings to the face that was candidate Trump’s victory speech in Nevada. I started thinking, “maybe it wouldn’t be too bad to have that ass hole stick it to the Chinese…maybe he might finally strike a deal between Israel and Palestine…maybe he could bully congress into doing something for once” and then I caught myself. I was surrendering. And I’m not the only one. We have entered into dangerous territory.

Here’s some background. I grew up in Atlantic City. Donald Trump has been a part of my life for my entire life. My family has worked in his casinos. I used to watch his helicopter land on the pier on the beach that I worked on as an ocean rescue lifeguard in high school. He ran those businesses into the ground and got out, in the nick of time, Trump style. Atlantic City is for losers is likely what he would say.  I don’t know him. I’ve never been in the same room as him. But I know plenty who have.  And they all say mostly the same thing about their personal encounters with him. He seems like a nice guy. He makes you feel important.  And he’s very gracious with his attention.  That’s about all I really know about him aside from the cartoon character he’s been playing in the media the last few decades. As a guy, he sounds lovely. Of course, that’s also what people said about Saddam Hussein.  About Joseph Stalin…about Hitler.  Which brings us to the problem.

Trump isn’t Hitler. He’s not Stalin. He’s probably not even Putin. But people haven’t really figured out how to articulate why he shouldn’t be president. They scream louder and louder that he can’t or won’t win and like a cosmic sci-fi movie villain, he absorbs the negative energy and grows stronger with each word of malice. I’m done predicting that he won’t win. I’m done predicting anything because I’m sick of being wrong. I won’t tell you why he can’t be president.  Because he certainly can be president. And if we’re not careful, he will. Instead, I’ll try another approach. I’ll tell you why he shouldn’t be president. But I’m going to do it in a way besides pointing to the fact that he’s Donald Trump. That’s clearly not working.

Here’s how we’ve tried so far.

He’s a chauvinist bigot. 

He might be. He might not be. I don’t believe anything he says is sincere so it could all be an act-hold that thought. He’s a 70 year old white guy from New York who was born with a lot of money so he’s probably got a little of the old white guy thing going on that we white folks know many of our dad’s generation struggle with-prejudice and sexism. Sorry folks, that may be a little uncomfortable truth for some of us. The people who like Trump-angry white people-don’t care.

He’s a dishonest demagogue that will say anything to make you support him. 

Congratulations, welcome to politics.

He’s a bully. 

See last item.

He’s a manipulator.

See last two items.

He is a lousy businessman who has filed for bankruptcy four times.

That’s actually a lot of bankruptcies. But it’s a pretty normal practice and it was chapter 11, the type where you do it so the business lives to see another day. It’s not a smoking gun.

He’s a rich kid who got all his money from his father.

Ever hear of the Roosevelts?  JFK?

He’s a draft dodger.

We’ve had one president in the last 50 years serve in combat. Thank you George H.W. Bush for your service.

You get the point.  You can play this game all day long. It doesn’t work. Trump’s most brilliant talent is staying relevant in our ever shifting culture. He started with real estate and then moved into our consciousness as someone synonymous with simply being rich in the 80’s and 90’s. Then he morphed into a reality TV star and invaded social media and now he’s impregnated our political machine with the Trump brand.

When someone becomes that ubiquitous, they become a walking talking, tweeting, insulting, bullying, Rorschac test. People start to see in him what they want. For those feeling left behind by a changing economy, he’s a business man who will solve it. For those feeling marginalized by our changing culture, he’s going to kick out all the foreigners. For those scared of terrorists, he’s going to bomb the hell out of ISIS. For those of us who want to shout down inequality and bigotry, he’s someone to hate.  He is different things to different people. Like scripture, if you stare at candidate Trump for long enough, he will tell you whatever you want. And there’s one thing you can’t argue about with someone. It’s their religion.

But that doesn’t mean we should get baptized by him. Here’s why.

There are three critically important dimensions to useful political thought.  Effective political thinkers need be equally principled, empathetic and pragmatic. Looking back at candidate Trump’s public and private life experiences, he fails this test in an extremely dangerous and troubling way. More so than any person seeking the office of President of the United States in a long time, maybe ever. After 40 years in the public eye, it’s almost impossible to point to areas where he has been a part of something bigger than himself, built on a guiding principle that made other people’s lives-people he didn’t know or wouldn’t be in a position to receive something in return from-better.

He appears to be entirely devoid of anything that mimics empathy. Heads of government need to be able to feel the pain of the people they govern as if it were their own. That doesn’t mean that they have to be selfless or even charitable. It means that they have to have the capacity to care about the outcomes of other people. Candidate Trump fails.

He does have one thing in abundance-pragmatism. Unfortunately, pragmatism without empathy towards those you govern and not grounded in principle other than self promotion is powerfully dangerous. It’s that thing that the truly dark rulers of history seem to have in common- the ability to get things done without the troublesome headwinds of principle and care for others. It’s the recipe for how the governing of man has gone horribly wrong for thousands of years.

This is usually where supporters of one candidate start to throw out the flaws of the other candidates in response. But here is where that doesn’t really work for candidate Trump. Every other candidate, on some level, does better at the standards explained above. Here’s how you can tell. Take a look at how they’ve spent their life and then look at candidate Trump. Candidate Trump was named the president of his father’s $200M real estate firm in 1974, when he was 28, six years after he graduated from Wharton.  What he’s done since, is on display for the public to see. At no point has he even appeared to serve someone else. And that’s hard to find, even for someone not running for president.

If you run the other candidates and recent presidents through that test, the difference is staggering. Hillary Clinton was one of 27 women in her graduating class from Yale Law School. She had a wealth of opportunity and chose the Children’s Defense Fund as her first professional role. Ted Cruz is the son of a Cuban immigrant who graduated from Harvard, was the editor of the Harvard Law Review and then served as a clerk for several federal judges including Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist. He’s horribly unlikable but he appears to actually believe in something other then himself. Bernie Sanders chooses to call himself a democratic socialist, something that has limited him his entire career until recently, because he believes in it. John Kasich has answered to the people of his state as the Governor of Ohio. Some are supporters.  Some are not. But at a minimum, he appears to have governed with benevolent intent. President Obama, same a Cruz, son of an immigrant, Harvard graduate, became a community organizer. Reagan was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and then governor of California. JFK was a decorated war hero as the commander of PT-109. You can go down the list and point to times, whether you agree with them or not, that other candidates have served someone other than themselves.  

But you can’t for Trump.

And this is what that means. If candidate Trump were to be President Trump, the first group of people that he will be responsible for serving, above his own interests, will be the entirety of the American people and by virtue of our standing as a global power, mankind.  And that is as strong a case as anyone can make against anyone doing anything. There’s a lot at stake here. It’s not the time to get comfortable with candidate Trump. And if he is nominated by the Republican Party to run for office in the 2016 Presidential Election, it’s not because he’s right. It’s the death spasm of a scared, angry ideology that has poisoned the conservative mind of our country. And we should think that it’s as ridiculous now as we ever have. Because it is. It’s just a lot more dangerous.