Values underlie our beliefs and actions. This is clear whether the lens is focusing on person to person interactions or government to government relations. This is clear to us when we reflect on it, but often this fact is overlooked or obscured. We tend to more easily focus on content, on the surface-level issues and triggers that evoke powerful emotion, involve tribes and loyalties, and which are purposely stoked by those who have a dog in the fight – be they advertisers, social media giants, or government officials. This blog presents some examples of how values underlie our beliefs and actions, and urges us to both be more supple and strong when it comes to our relations with others.
“Defining a foreign policy theory that might merit the title of ‘doctrine’ is difficult in the Trump administration, which is dismissive of reflection, consistency and precedent. But in practice, it is the replacement of national pride with personal vanity.” ~ Michael Gerson
Every US president does things that bespeak his values, and for better or worse, it reflects upon all Americans. Lately, it has certainly been for the worse. This is especially evident with Donald Trump – even if he can also be accused of lacking true values. An astute observer sees him as patently readable and obvious. Though my thesis here is that our values underlie our beliefs and actions, often Trump’s values are as small and detestable as: Protect your own ego against criticism or belittlement, or Never let ’em see you sweat, or Be the most important and dominant person in any relationship, meeting, or room. When he interacts on behalf of this country with leaders such as Kim Jong Il or Vlad Putin or President Macron of France, or when he represents us in something as significant or nettlesome as US-Saudi relations, his values are clear to see. He often will just be candid – it’s about him, it’s about selling arms, it’s about oil prices, it’s about approval ratings, it’s about avoiding embarrassment, it’s about unilateralism. With his campaign that is entitled – in Orwellian fashion – Make America Great Again, he is doing what many presidents before him have done, but with alarming alacrity and little embarrassment. He uses subterfuge artfully; it’s more like Black is white and war is peace than obfuscating and dissembling. Sure, Clinton lied, but Trump is positively Orwellian in his approach.
“One of the problems with narcissism as a foreign policy doctrine is that it hides national challenges from the president that are blindingly obvious to everyone else. While Trump employs a mirror, others in the federal government have been using a magnifying glass to find a direct and growing threat to American national security,” Michael Gerson writes here.
“The GOP stands united behind an authoritarian president who repeatedly urged violence against protesters at his campaign rallies, who threatens opponents with jail, and who regularly uses Twitter and raucous mob rallies to harass and belittle anyone, especially women and minorities, who dares challenge him.” ~ Greg Sargent or Sarah Jones
The GOP is what it is. I think it is a national embarrassment, and the values it both espouses and cherishes are for the most part, morally bankrupt. Take a listen to anything Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says or does and this becomes obvious. I particularly detest folks like Kellyanne Conway and Reince Priebus because they are reprobates whose morals and character are severely lacking. They either are or are one step from the notorious classification of a sociopath.
What occurs is very illuminating for the fact that our values underlie our beliefs and actions. Trump is absolutely notorious for taking a figurative sledgehammer and driving a wedge between Americans. As an aside, this amounts to high crimes and misdemeanors, I think. Here Jon Roland clarifies this term: “I have carefully researched the origin of the phrase high crimes and misdemeanors and its meaning to the Framers, and found that the key to understanding it is the word high. It does not mean more serious. It refers to those punishable offenses that only apply to high persons, that is, to public officials, those who, because of their official status, are under special obligations that ordinary persons are not under, and which could not be meaningfully applied or justly punished if committed by ordinary persons.” Thus, Trump, ironically, tragically, is in a special position that both involves special privileges and entails special obligations. Thus, his demagoguery and wedge-driving is a very serious problem for this already-fractious country.
“According to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, most Republican candidates spoke at a high-school or middle-school level in the last G.O.P. debate, based on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Index. Meanwhile, Trump spoke at a third- or fourth-grade level. After the Nevada caucuses, Ted Cruz spoke at a ninth-grade level, Clinton at a seventh-grade level — and Trump at about a second-grade level! (I checked Trump’s victory speech on Super Tuesday evening, a more moderate speech that seemed to reach for the center, and Trump had raised his rhetoric to a sixth-grade level.)” ~ Nicholas Kristof
Take the issue of kneeling during the National Anthem in late 2017. Or sending troops to the border to cool their heels during Thanksgiving 2018. These whims and flights of fancy actually have a very corrosive effect on our national fabric. I would argue that it is a matter of life and death, because I am sure that Trump’s ill-conceived wedge issues which function to deflect criticism, drum up support, and threaten rivals have led a white supremacist or two to take up arms against his fellow citizens. Indeed, since our values underlie our beliefs and actions, one can see that when a mass shooter kills victims or a social misfit performs a hate crime, many factors influence them to take such extraordinary (and extralegal) steps. It is my belief (and many others’ as well) that when Trump demagogues and engages in hyperbole and lies and manipulates, it leads folks with a shaky grasp of moral principles, good character, and some legitimate grievances to act out aggressively.
Thus, when the GOP, led by Trump, does what they do, more often than not, the values which are being represented are deplorable ones such as dominance, preservation of power, obfuscation of truth, driving a wedge between groups, and maintaining the status quo. This is the way of the racist, the power-monger, the villain. Though not under the mantle of the GOP, when America held slaves or during the Jim Crow South or during the Civil Rights movement, one can see from photos such as this what is in the hearts of those in power. It’s not good.
Perhaps the ultimate value driving every facet of the Right’s politics is love of money. Or, perhaps I should term it, the love of money above and beyond its proper or normal allure. Yes, sub-values such as power and dominance and the end justifying the means all are there, but I think in a way money is the hub of that wheel. This is not to say that money certainly contradicts virtue, but it’s not far from it. Here is how Henry David Thoreau – a man who was not in love with money if there ever was one – phrased this cynical point in his booklet, Civil Disobedience:
Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it.
If it is true that one’s values underlie our beliefs and actions, then any institutional support of phenomena such as racism, segregation, hate, misogyny, apartheid, oppression, class warfare, and the like are detestable; perhaps evil. So, when Trump does all that he did to draw negative attention to Obama as not being a legitimate American, or Ryan Kaepernick as being wrongheaded and disingenuous and pernicious in his demonstrated beliefs, it has serious consequences. This impulse on Trump’s part to use deceit and disingenuousness to defame enemies inflames tribal tensions that have been growing since Reagan began to drum up support for white grievance, unlimited wealth, social superiority, and allied ideas in the 1980s. We are seeing the fruit that mature poison tree has borne as I write. That Kaepernick would be painted as a selfish fool who sought to inflame racial tensions to get negative attention versus showing him as the latest in a long (broken) line of civil rights protesters is very telling about Trump’s character.
“I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.” ~ Thomas Frank
Trump was made a millionaire at age 8. I am not joking or exaggerating. His father was seeking to flout the socially-economically important estate tax by making his son rich well before his own death. Since one’s values underlie our beliefs and actions, one can infer a great deal about Donald Trump’s father by noting what his actions were and what kind of son he raised. I believe that Trump’s soul is rotten, and it didn’t get that way by coincidence. He probably wasn’t born a psychopath, he grew into a quasi-sociopathic narcissist who is playing president and the rest of us are held hostage because of the sclerotic nature of the American system.
Why do millions of Americans support Trump and the GOP? If he and his party are rotten with corruption, self-concern, and a noxious form of aristocracy, why do so many poor and misbegotten souls follow him seemingly unto death? Why hate, why behave so ignominiously, why be myopic, as his followers do?
On this page, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof creates a conversation between himself and a Trump supporter. He seems to also believe that a person’s values underlie our beliefs and actions, and it’s an enlightening pseudo-conversation. Here is a snippet:
“Kristof: how can you support a candidate who is so hateful? This is a man who calls Mexican immigrants rapists, who is slow to denounce the Ku Klux Klan, and who is mulling a registry for Muslims. You’re O.K. with a racist in the White House?
Voter: Give me a break. You media guys always roll out the race card, but we’re fed up with political correctness. I don’t agree with everything Trump says, but at least he isn’t pussyfooting around. He’ll make America strong again. As for his wilder statements, take them with a grain of salt. He probably doesn’t believe them himself, but he’ll use them to negotiate. His history is as a deal maker, not an ideologue.
Kristof: But Trump is already damaging America’s reputation worldwide by commenting sympathetically about Putin and the Chinese massacre of protesters from the Tiananmen democracy movement. More than 580,000 Britons have signed a petition to ban him from British shores. And Larry Summers warns that just the prospect of a protectionist demagogue as president could tip the United States into recession or trigger an international financial crisis.
Voter: Take a deep breath. I don’t care whether foreigners like us, as long as they fear us.”
“When members of the professional class wish to understand the working-class other, they traditionally consult experts on the subject. And when these authorities are asked to explain the Trump movement, they always seem to zero in on one main accusation: bigotry. Only racism, they tell us, is capable of powering a movement like Trump’s, which is blowing through the inherited structure of the Republican party like a tornado through a cluster of McMansions.” ~ Thomas Frank
I think another one of the values that underlie our beliefs is authoritarianism. This is clear by looking at Trump supporters. Thomas B. Edsall writes the following about this topic here:
“The election of Donald Trump — built as it was on several long-term trends that converged in 2016 — has created an authoritarian moment. This somewhat surprising development is the subject of Remaking Partisan Politics through Authoritarian Sorting, a forthcoming book by the political scientists Christopher Federico, Stanley Feldman and Christopher Weber, who argue that: ‘Three trends — polarization, media change, and the rise of what many people see as threats to the traditional social order — have contributed to a growing divide within American politics. It is a divide between those who place heavy value on social order and cohesion relative to those who value personal autonomy and independence.'”
They are saying that authoritarian-minded individuals, who tend to be conservative, find Trump’s rhetoric and demagoguing reassuring and permissible. They like him serving a heaping dish of comeuppance to those who try to buck the status quo. They support him being a “law and order” kind of guy (at least, ostensibly) and beating back upstarts like Kaepernick or Bernie Sanders who would seek to make progressive values such as equality, social justice, and unionization rampant. Federico, Feldman, and Weber sum it up nicely with: “Authoritarianism is now more deeply bound up with partisan identities. It has become part and parcel of Republican identity among non-Hispanic white Americans.” The whites who grieve for their ebbing power see it not as an economic phenomenon as much as a social one — one that is fundamentally racial, tribal, and class issues. These aggrieved folks want their power back and they think that Trump can stick it to the liberals, the media, the professors, the protestors, the downtrodden, and the blacks and the gays whom they see as being out of line. They don’t view Kaepernick’s goal as social justice as much as they do a black person seeking to inflame racial tensions and gain unfair attention. They see it as dishonorable and disloyal, and as scandalous and as an act of sedition.
It seems evident that our values underlie our beliefs and actions, and when one looks at individuals in society, at Trump, or at the political Right, it can be very disconcerting to those of us who are truly patriotic and value social justice, open-mindedness, and equality of economic opportunity. Ω
Here is an external article that is very similar to my thesis, that values underlie our beliefs, entitled “The Relationship Between Beliefs, Values, Attitudes, and Behaviors” by a U.K. physician.
Here is another blog I wrote: