Beyond Trump: The Politics of Courage

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Beyond Trump: The Politics of Courage

"To grow spiritually is to begin to realize how little one knows and practice reaching out not with aggression but with humility," writes Koehler. "This is what takes courage." (Photo: Peter Stevens/flickr/cc)

If Donald Trump can thrive politically by throwing meat to the American id, what else is possible? How about the opposite?

Trump’s most recent attempt to reclaim poll supremacy — his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our representatives can figure out what’s going on” — is not simply reckless and dangerous, but also starkly clarifying. America’s bully billionaire, so rich he doesn’t have to heed the niceties of political correctness, is channeling old-time American racism, as mean and ugly and self-righteous as it’s ever been. Jim Crow is still with us. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is still with us.

Americans — at least a certain percentage of them — like their racism straight up, untampered with code language, unmodified by counter-values. Come on! An enemy’s an enemy. A scapegoat’s a scapegoat. Don’t we have the freedom in this country to dehumanize and persecute whomever we want?

"Trump is a dangerous idiot, but perhaps as he pursues his own interests he is also, unintentionally, helping to crack open the locked vault of American politics."

The unfolding Trump phenomenon is stunning to behold because there’s no telling how far — or where — it will go. Following his latest reckless “proposals,” which include mandatory IDs for Muslims, he’s being compared with Adolf Hitler. He’s also being called the best friend ISIS could have, as he spreads outrage and hatred across the globe and, in the process, helps foment the same war they’re attempting to engage.

Fascinatingly, some of Trump’s biggest critics are neocons and fellow Republicans, who, though not that far away from him politically, feel threatened by his reckless candor. The conservative strategy, at least since the Nixon era, has been to use and manipulate American racism rather than directly rouse it to a fever pitch. That sort of volatility isn’t so easy to control and could be counterproductive to the economic and geopolitical interests of the stewards of American empire.

For all the baseness of Trump’s scapegoat politics, he’s doing, it seems, one thing right, which is what makes him unacceptable as the Republican presidential nominee. He’s speechifying as though values matter, as though they supersede market and strategic interests. The danger Trump represents cuts in multiple directions.

All of which makes me wonder whether American democracy is, in spite of itself, at a transition point. I mean, it’s been decades, from my point of view, since real, society-changing values have been on the line in a presidential election. Questions of war and peace, among much else, have been utterly off the table, with any serious questioning of U.S. militarism ignored and belittled by the mainstream media and completely excluded from the corridors of national decision-making.

The Republicrats rule and war is no longer merely inevitable but eternal. At the same time, the security state has grown like cancer and the prison-industrial complex has expanded exponentially. America in its exceptionalism is the world’s largest arms dealer, snoop, jailer and hell raiser. We destabilize the planet in the interests of the corporate few and call it exporting democracy.

And none of this is Donald Trump’s doing.

But the fact that he’s a threat to this status quo raises some interesting questions. Trump is a dangerous idiot, but perhaps as he pursues his own interests he is also, unintentionally, helping to crack open the locked vault of American politics.

“He’s essentially the American id,” writes Glenn Greenwald, “simply channeling pervasive sentiments unadorned with the typical diplomatic and PR niceties designed to prettify the prevailing mentality.”

The challenge Trump poses, it seems to me, is this: If the basest of human instincts — fear and revenge and the hunger to blame our troubles on a scapegoat — can enter, or re-enter, American politics, can the best of human nature enter as well and, in the process, challenge the prevailing status quo more deeply and profoundly than Trump could ever imagine?

Let me put it another way. “In the practice of tolerance,” said the Dalai Lama, “one’s enemy is the best teacher.”

Such a statement poses a serious challenge, of course, on the order of a quote I heard several years ago from a seatmate on a transatlantic airplane flight: You’re as close to God as you are to the person you like the least.

What if such ideas had political resonance? What if — even in the face of tragedy, even in the face of murder — we lived within a social and political structure that was committed not to dehumanizing and destroying a designated enemy but to understanding that enemy and, my God, looking inward for the cause of problems, not simply flailing outward with high-tech weaponry? What if human compassion, soul deep and without strings attached, played a role in international relations?

Believe me, I’m not asking these questions simplistically, with some pat belief that the answers are obvious. Rather, I’m pressing forward into a dark unknown, or so it seems.

“It is terrifying that on the one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace,” António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said earlier this year, in the context of a global refugee crisis staggering beyond belief.

To grow spiritually is to begin to realize how little one knows and practice reaching out not with aggression but with humility. This is what takes courage. Can we begin creating nations with this kind of courage, whose “interests” embrace the welfare of the whole planet?

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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