A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality

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Thank you, Donald Trump; A Buddhist Perspective on Our Real Fears About the Republican Primaries

Even before Donald Trump formally launched his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015, it became fashionable to both dismiss him and  diagnose him as a mere narcissist.

In fact, early on very few pundits took him or his candidacy seriously. Now as his nomination seems more likely every day, dismissals and diagnoses have given way to statements of fear by his political opponents and an all-out campaign to defeat his nomination by the elite members of his own Republican party. Critics who agree on little else seem to be of one mind on Trump: he is dangerous and must be stopped at all costs.

What is it exactly that we don’t like about Donald Trump? Sure, his style is provocative and rude. But more to the point, his conduct is aggressive, grandiose, self-important, entitled, manipulative and completely lacking in any consideration of the feelings or needs of anyone other than himself. Why does this push so many buttons?

Jeffrey Kluger’s TIME article Donald Trump’s Very Strange Brand of Narcissism sums it up nicely:

“I spent a lot of time in the mirror-world of the narcissist when I was writing my 2014 book, The Narcissist Next Door, and most of the experts I spoke to and studies I read define the condition as a sort of toxic mash-up of grandiosity, entitlement and lack of empathy. Trump checks those boxes almost every day—most recently and disturbingly the lack of empathy one.”

What is narcissism? According to the DSM IV, the professional compendium of psychological diagnoses, narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by any of a number of symptoms including:

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Sense of entitlement or superiority
  • Belief in oneself as “special,” only understood by special or high-status individuals
  • Strong need for admiration, flattery and respect
  • Lack of empathy, unwilling or unable to recognize the feelings of others
  • Manipulative or controlling behavior
  • Focus on getting one’s own needs met over the needs of others
  • Arrogant behaviors and attitudes
  • Interpersonally exploitative
  • Higher levels of aggression
  • Difficulty taking feedback about their behavior
  • Envious of others

If this sounds at least a little bit like just about everyone you know, that’s because narcissism is rampant in our culture. In his book, Kluger makes the case that we are all narcissistic to some degree and that by all surveys, Americans are becoming more so every year.

According to one Psychology Today article, for example:

“One study found that 30 percent of young people were classified as narcissistic according to a widely used psychological test. That number has doubled in the last 30 years. Another study reported a 40 percent decline among young people in empathy, a personality attribute inversely related to narcissism, since the 1980s.”

The irony, of course, is that because we all consider ourselves special, we are all alike. Indeed, what bothers us most about Donald Trump is that we are all a little like him to some degree.

For millennia, Buddhists have used slightly different language to point out this human propensity toward narcissism. Nearly 3000 years ago, the Buddha taught about “ego clinging” as the root cause of suffering. Like the narcissistic politician arrogantly clinging to an out-sized sense of her own importance, sentient beings ignorantly cling to an “I” or “ego” or “self” that doesn’t actually exist. This phantom ego the Buddha described as

  • Singular
  • Separate
  • Independent
  • Most important
  • Owner of everything

We all know that voice inside our heads that irrationally tells us we should be at the head of the line. It goads us to get impatiently aggressive when we’re in a hurry and it sometimes causes a rude expectation that others should get out of our way when we’re on a mission. That’s the voice of the imputed ego calling the shots, and the Buddha taught that giving way to its demands is the one habitual mistake we make that prevents us from experiencing perfect peace and happiness and spreading peace and happiness to others.

The reason Trump scares us is that we recognize our own ego-clinging attitudes in his speech and behavior. In psychological terms, we deny our own selfish shadow tendencies and project them outside ourselves as the demon or villain.

Buddhist practice (dharma), on the other hand, requires self-reflection, self-knowledge, and self-transformation. In other words, we summon the courage to look at our own thinking as the root cause of everything in our own lives. When we cannot see our own faults clearly, we learn to rely on those we trust (for Buddhists, teacher and close sangha) to reflect to us what we cannot see clearly on our own.

It is easy to project what we don’t like in ourselves out there where we can demonize it. It takes courage to instead recognize that we are responsible for what we experience, whether that be light and love or the politics of hatred in our midst.

Donald Trump is a daily reminder to check our thinking, to ask ourselves, in what way do I “build walls” against the things and people I dislike? When do I try to silence my beneficial critics, who are often the ones who love me most? Whom have I made my enemy out of jealousy or fear? Where do I consider myself above reproach, becoming defensive and puffing up my accomplishments to dodge others’ blame? To what do I feel entitled? And most importantly, what do I chase after as the supposed cause of my happiness, whether wealth, friends, food, alcohol, control over others, etc.? If it’s outside my own thinking it will never give me the power and happiness I desire.

Although it’s not pleasant, I’m happy that Trump is dominating TV news coverage, Internet and the radio airwaves right now. His candidacy serves to point out the greed, hypocrisy, and self-centeredness rampant in our government, our  communities, our society,  but mainly in our own thinking. While voting one’s conscience is a civic duty I support, I am convinced that the cure is not to be found at the ballot box, but within our own hearts.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for the constant reminders to check my own intentions, to stop projecting and expressing my own fear and anger and to instead courageously transform my negative thinking into compassion and love, right here, right now, in my every day life.

Let me be the condition of peace, happiness, gratitude, love and service that I seek in my community and my country. If not me, who? If not now, when?

Let it begin with me.