Good Grief: The Power of Hope to Defeat Fear
Posted on December 10, 2016
This is grief.
In the days since the presidential election my feelings have swung between “eerily detached” and “desperate” with a healthy spattering of “frenzied.” I have bouts of near rabid directionless energy. I’m very good at this last one around 3 a.m. or in business meetings where my complete focus on something else is required.
In the past couple of days I have grown curious, when I can get out of my own way enough to find the curiosity amid the emotional rubble, about the intensity of my feelings.
I am Gen-Xer, an accomplished ironist and cynic. I handle disappointment with mockery. I bring jokes. But I can’t joke about Donald Trump. When I try it sounds bitter and resentful. Nothing ruins a good joke like vitriol.
Surely I am being hysterical, I tell myself. I am a battled-tested trial lawyer. I’ve deposed and dispatched Wall Street investment bankers, economists, Ph.Ds. and CEOs. I am not someone who falls apart. In fact, I have learned to absorb and deflect what we Southerners would call a “shit ton” of stress, conflict and uncertainty, with relative emotional comfort. I take a certain amount of pride in being unflappable.
Yet here I am. Flapped.
What is going on with me? Why am I carrying around a sense of dread? What is this blue-gray dismay that keeps sucking the joy out of my life’s beautiful moments (like when my kindergartner ran naked from the bathroom to show me he could read an entire book)?
As odd as it sounds to me, the answer is grief.
Looking back over the past weeks, I can see the stages. They’re not orderly, of course, and I flip back and forth between them. First, there was the denial, fueled by rabid research for a constitutional method to un-elect Trump. There isn’t one, by the way. Not really. The Electoral College was designed to maintain unity among the states—a brilliant compromise. Without it rural areas would have no voice in presidential politics, which would erode our union. Faithless electors voting for anyone other than Trump in sufficient numbers to affect the outcome of the election would result in a constitutional crisis of epic proportions. While Hamilton did, in the Federalist Papers, envision faithless electors, it is completely contrary to established norms of the past 150 years for the Electoral College to elect anyone other than the candidates chosen by state elections. I am concerned that a win by the so-called Hamilton Electors would set a dangerous precedent allowing a small group of un-elected Americans to decide whether the country made the correct choice.
Then there is anger. I suck at anger. I am Southern through and through and I’m much better at being passive aggressive than I am at being openly angry. Southern ladies don’t get mad; we get even, quietly, while wearing a nice shade of lipstick and linen pants. We don’t rage or fight, we just make sure you don’t get voted in to the Junior League.
My anger has been the seething sort, the kind where I look around and make mental judgments about who people voted for based on reliable measures like their clothes and hairstyle. Then I imagine a scene where I say something cutting and cruel to them, which results in their immediate shame and embarrassment. I know I’m angry (and scared) when I start scripting imaginary zingers and scenes where I crush my Trump-ian opponent with verbal barbs. I also know because I fight with my husband about the look on his face while I’m cooking dinner, which is clearly mocking and dismissive.
“Bargaining” is supposed to be one of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. I’m not buying this part of the rubric. While I think people may bargain as a part of grieving—particularly in the case described by Kubler-Ross, where someone is facing a terminal disease, but I don’t think bargaining always happens. For me, instead of making ridiculous and manipulative deals with God, I succumb to anxiety. I know I can’t change what happened and so I ruminate, obsess and worry. I play out worst case scenarios and prepare for doom. I feel exposed and vulnerable, but not in the way that leads to growth. I feel the kind of vulnerable like the dream where you realize you’re sitting in your high school English class naked. And you are 41 and everyone else is 17.
Acceptance is the final stage of grief. I’m wrestling with this one like David with the angel. Whether I’ve moved into acceptance depends on what it means to “accept” a Trump presidency. Is he going to be president? Yes. I’m there. I’m not happy about it but I’m no longer burning up Google plotting to unseat him. Also, as I will explain, I have some hope that a Trump presidency might be the cadaveric spasm of the racist right—that his embodiment of hate, post-factualism, demagoguery and populism will ultimately prove to be his demise, thereby repudiating this element of American society. I also have some hope that his presidency will be the push that politically inactive, fair-minded folks need to get involved, vote and take responsibility for their obligations under the social contract to which we are all parties. Some of what happened on Election Day was caused by part of the Obama coalition believing Clinton was a lock and that they didn’t have to do anything to avoid a Trump presidency.
I want to be careful here to note that just because I am concerned about the use of the Electoral College to undo this mess, does not mean that I think this election is normal or acceptable. Do I think Trump and his growing horde of militaristic nationalists are all a part of messy republican democracy? That is an unequivocal, shouting to the heavens, “No!”
I’ve spent hours journaling, Googling, and otherwise tearing myself to emotional ribbons trying to understand what it is exactly that feels so awful to me about Trump and his advisors. I would not feel this way if Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush won. I am not saying I would be happy, but I would not have tipped over into this grief-fueled, anxious pit either. I know this because I remember clearly the election and the presidency of George W. Bush. I was fascinated by the legal questions raised by the vote counting issue in Florida and I thought SCOTUS should abstain from deciding a political question for the reasons expressed in a dissent in Baker v. Carr, written by former SCOTUS Justice Felix Frankfurter. Yet when it was done, and W was inaugurated President of the United States, I did not feel as if he was trying to drive the country backward, headlong into our racist, xenophobic past. W is an evangelical Christian neocon—a foreign policy hawk— which is looking a lot like George McGovern in comparison to Trump. President George W. Bush would never, ever have stooped to insulting private citizens on Twitter or casually throwing out years of U.S. diplomatic protocol with China with respect to Taiwan before he had taken office.
My pain, I’ve decided, is because Trump embodies personality and temperament traits that most of us outgrow. He is impulsive, power hungry and cannot accept constructive criticism. Often, a mother of two boys, I can predict Trump’s behavior by imagining what a First Grade boy would do in the same circumstance—usually throw a tantrum, refuse to accept responsibility and name-call (“Crooked Hillary”).
Also, Trump is a bully. Reviewing his speeches, his books and his life, it is clear to me that above all else, Trump needs to feel powerful, even at the expense of others. In almost all of what he has written or said publicly, the common theme is power, not love. My suspicion is that there is a tiny boy hidden under that orange outer shell that needs external approval and even adoration. I know men like Trump and they are dangerous. His modus operandi is straight from the narcissist, autocrat’s handbook–deny, blame and counterattack. Whatever you do, do not admit error or weakness.
As a Christian, I take seriously 1 Corinthians 13, which states, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Likewise, in Mark 12:29, Jesus commanded “Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” I see no evidence that Trump loves anyone or anything more than himself.
The word “narcissism” is from a Greek myth. In that myth, Narcissus, the beautiful god-youth fell in love his own reflection, eventually falling into the water into which he was gazing and drowning. The myth only goes so far, though. Narcissists don’t merely drown themselves in their self-adoring. They also pull down those around them. Their lack of empathy limits their ability to love because love requires humility, service and vulnerability to hurt. Love requires admitting when you are wrong, apologizing and making amends. Can you see the man who proclaimed that “he alone” could make America great again apologizing or accepting responsibility for a failure?
Narcissists display a trio of defensive behaviors aimed at protecting their view of themselves as powerful and exceptionally talented. These include denying bad behavior despite evidence that it occurred, blaming others for bad outcomes and attacking anyone who confronts the narcissist with facts, logic or arguments indicating the narcissist is fallible. Woe be to the one who tries to prove to the narcissist that he is wrong.
To test my theory, I threw together a nonexclusive table demonstrating Trump’s use of these tactics. This table is not intended to be complete, just illustrative.
To anticipate the response of Trump supporters, I willingly concede that all politicians are incented to characterize bad facts as favorably as possible and to attack their opponents. Trump is not unique in this regard. Instead, what makes him distinctive is the rigidity and grandiosity he displays in doing so. I’ve not in my lifetime seen an American political figure continue to vociferously deny facts that have been proven by direct evidence. Hell, even Nixon admitted when he’d been bested. Bill Clinton eventually admitted (albeit after a frustratingly long time) his affair with Lewinsky. Trump’s level of denial, combined with his blaming and attacking, are, I fear, symptomatic of a type of narcissism and a tendency toward autocracy that we have not seen in the American presidency since, perhaps, Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson.
The question I am left with is what do I do in the face of a Trump presidency? I believe that fear is the opposite of love and that Trump trades on fear. So, do I succumb to my fears? Do I sit home and watch this mess unfold on the news? My faith compels that the answer is no. Hope is a function of struggle and the next four years promise to be an intense struggle. Researcher and teacher, Brene Brown says, “Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.” I believe this is also the kind of hope required by my faith.
I am choosing to trust in the goodness of the American people, the checks and balances established in American institutions designed to prevent the tyranny of the Executive and the love that is ultimately God.
I also believe that in the long term, this hateful, mean-spirited political season may help us continue to heal our nation’s racist wounds. Sometimes you have to break things to fix them. For years, some have contended that America is post-racial. They have said we defeated racism and we no longer need systemic corrections like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . The vitriolic, white nationalism and scapegoating of this election prove those assertions are patently false. We are not post racial. This means that those of us who believe that all men are created equal, that the U.S. Constitution protects all Americans have more work to do, much, much more work. And I, for one, have signed up to do it.