Bitter Cucumbers: Where Stoicism, Liberalism, and Trump Collide
You have power over your mind -- not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States of America.
Regardless of your political alliance, religion, skin color, and personal feelings - if you are a citizen of this country, then at noon on January 20th, Donald J. Trump became your president. No amount of shouting, whining, name-calling, or tweeting can change this truth. Barring impeachment, resignation, or an unfortunate accident, President Trump will remain in office for at least the next four years.
If you find yourself disheartened or disenfranchised by President Trump’s election, you could decide to behave in the manner I described above, or you could opt to deal with this reality by drawing upon the age old philosophy of stoicism.
The foundation of stoic thinking is to approach all things with both a sound mind and a realistic attitude; focus on the things in the world that you can change, not the things that you cannot. Through this lens, it becomes clear that the time for preventing Trump’s presidency has passed as the voting booths closed on November 8th. It may be harsh, but simply put, the office of the presidency does not care about your Instagram post claiming that the racist, anti-LGBTQ+, close-minded patriarchy screwed Americans over again. While President Trump himself is rather thin-skinned when it comes to insults, the actual office that he holds is quite immune to scorching, minority public opinion. Throwing a fit won’t change who sits at the Resolute Desk tomorrow. All liberals and moderate conservatives can do now is respond coolly and collectedly to President Trump, and mold or restrict the president’s policy through effective legislating and mass mobilization.
Solely expressing your distaste for President Trump in 140 characters over Twitter will not hold him accountable. Neither will restricting your political conversations to shouting matches with your conservative relatives over the dinner table. What will do something? 500,000 people flooding the streets of Washington with picket signs and chants.
These recent Women’s Marches are an outstanding example of powerful political action, the kind that will, at best, bring about real policy change and, at the very least, bring the conversation about women’s rights to the forefront of our national debate. The marches’ sheer volume of supporters is too great for President Trump to ignore. The message is too loud to fall deaf on his ears. The cause is too righteous to be dismissed any longer. Such activism demonstrates how stoic philosophy, when applied properly to a political agenda, can truly be effective. Focus on the things that you can change. Don’t waste valuable energy on the things you cannot.
And yet, there were certain extraneous incidents that the Women’s Marches could have done without. Calling the President of the United States “a man who looks like he bathes in Cheeto dust” does not accomplish anything, Ashley Judd. It attacks no particular policy and addresses no aspect of inequality. Comments like these sling mud for the sake of slinging mud.
But what about what President Trump has said regarding women? What about his comments denouncing Rosie O’Donnell as a “fat pig”?
Yes, the President has made some deeply sexist, even misogynistic, comments about women, and in no way do I condone these. But stooping to his level of pettiness will further neither the female nor the liberal agenda. Instead, comments like these detract from an important cause that everyone ought to care about. Just because our President has gotten away with bullying and vulgarity doesn’t make it right. None of us should want to live in a political environment where petty name calling becomes the norm, or where screaming the loudest makes one the winner.
Understandably, something as overwhelmingly powerful as the Women’s March can’t be accomplished every day, no matter how hard we might try. That is not to say, however, that there are not everyday battles for liberals to win. Real battles...not Twitter wars. Stay updated on what the White House is doing, argue with your conservative friends and colleagues about what’s going on, even attend a rally if you want to. It cannot be stressed enough, however, how crucially important it is to leave destructive emotions at the door if you hope to bring about change. Don’t skip class to go chant “F*** Trump!” for two hours. You won’t change a thing. A stronger approach would be to go to a rally with a real purpose.
And when you are staying updated on what’s going on, don’t just rely on BuzzFeed News or The Huffington Post. Look for credible sources, such as The Atlantic, Vox, The Guardian, The Economist, Foreign Affairs. Furthermore, don’t only read the sources that validate your opinions. Regardless of your political preferences, it is always beneficial to explore opposing views. For example, if you identify as liberal, give The Wall Street Journal a try. If you are conservative, try The New York Times or The Washington Post. It is in this manner that we should begin to question our often solipsistic assumption of the rectitude of our political views.
We can continue this process in the classroom. Rather than assume that the white, conservative kid in your poli-sci class is a heartless, xenophobic bigot because he doesn’t object to Trump’s executive order on immigration, try debating him. Rather than attack the character of your opponent, pick apart his or her policy. As Senator Marco Rubio explained, “(proper) debate (is) impossible if, in fact, matters become of a personal nature.” Exchange thoughts and ideas, not insults.
Just as President Trump’s comments on illegal immigrants are misinformed, so too is assuming that all his supporters are uber privileged, racist, straight, white men. Furthermore, if you believe that Trump’s comments are dangerous to America, then you cannot expect to better our country by punching back twice as hard.
Over the course of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning 2014 season, head coach Bill Belichick made all players and coaches on the roster read The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday. Following the Patriots’ win in Super Bowl XLIX, the book gained national fame. Many even claimed that its contents were Belichick’s secret weapon. It was not long before other NFL teams emulated Belichick. At the start of the 2015 season, Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks (New England’s opponent in the previous Super Bowl), distributed copies of the book to each of the players in his locker room. The irony is that this book contains no secret to success--only logic.
Remove all harmful emotions from your actions and your decision making. Change what you can change. Work so that your weaknesses soon become your strengths.
It is particularly striking that the nation’s best college football program, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, also employs a similar strategy to that of the Patriots when it comes to game preparation and play. Head coach Nick Saban is renowned for what he calls “the process”-- a sequence of techniques which he uses to mold his players from men into football-playing machines. Crimson Tide players are taught to take each game one play at a time.
Don’t look ahead; look to the task at hand. Do your job, and do it well. Don’t let your emotions cause you to make mistakes.
By implementing these classically stoic strategies, the Patriots and the Crimson Tide have become perhaps the two most dominant sports teams of the 21st century. These concepts, however, are not only applicable to football. They are remarkably useful and refreshing when executed in everyday life, and especially when brought into the world of politics.
Complaining and worrying about what has already happened are not nearly as effective strategies as calculatedly planning for the obstacles that lie ahead. This is not to say that the past should be dismissed, though. A proper stoic learns from the past, and uses this knowledge to better prepare for the future. Democrats have the chance to learn a lot from this past election cycle. For example, in 2020, it may be a better idea to run a younger candidate with a stronger message, particularly concerning the economy. It would also be wise not to dismiss any opposing candidate, no matter how unconventional, if he or she is galvanizing widespread public support.
From a stoic’s perspective, the next four years provide the left with an unusual, and possibly invaluable opportunity for reflection and purposeful refinement. If you view President Trump’s win as a disaster, then that is how it will remain--a disaster. If you cry and whine about it endlessly amongst your friends or on social media, then that is all it will ever be--something to cry and whine about.
Rather than act like this, it is more beneficial for Democrats to frame President Trump’s tenure as a chance to better themselves now and get ready for the work ahead. If you’re upset by the election, don’t sit and pout, or stew in your anger. “If the cucumber is bitter...then throw it out,” wrote stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. A toxic attitude will only lead to failure. Don’t let your emotions dictate how you act, and certainly don’t resort to demonizing the other side. Instead, remain passionate but level-headed. That goes for everyone--from the pissed-off high school senior interested in politics to Senator Elizabeth Warren. Not all Trump supporters are xenophobic misogynists, and the sooner this becomes fully recognized, the quicker the left can come back stronger for the 2018 Congressional races and the 2020 presidential election.
How will Democrats win the rust belt? How will they flip Florida? How will they win back all the two-time Obama voters that either didn’t turn out or voted Trump in 2016? Promote secure borders but also inclusivity and immigration? These are but some of the questions that need to be answered in the upcoming years, and while Trump’s election was a deafening blow for Democrats it was not a knockout punch.
Democrats, take a page from the book of the stoics. The obstacle is the way. Take a step back and see the Trump administration for what it is--an opportunity to re-evaluate, rebuild, and revamp the leftist cause.
(Overhead photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)