The Middle Way on Trump

When polarities become extreme, we need the Middle Way more than ever, and the election of Donald Trump as US president polarises not just the US, but the world. That’s not just a polarisation between those who voted for him and those who desperately oppose him. Amongst those who do not support him, some urge adaptation to new ‘realities’, others eternal resistance to the normalising of this unpredictable new power in the world. The new US administration currently seems to offer horrible visions for the future: galloping global warming, mass round-ups of US immigrants, potential abuse of executive and legal power in the US on an unprecedented scale, and the untrammelled exercise of autocratic power by Russia.

What is the Middle Way in response to such? It’s not a compromise or just an appeal to moderation. As always it requires us to go back and rethink our starting assumptions. The Middle Way involves the identification and avoidance of absolute assumptions, both positive and negative, and in many past political conflicts, those absolutes have been ideological ones. Bush caused conflict because of the inflexibility of his neo-conservative view that liberal democracy could be imposed on Iraq. Reagan and Thatcher caused conflict because of their inflexible faith in market mechanisms.donald_trump_as-a-young-man

But Trump isn’t like that. He is not an ideological absolutist. He has changed party at least five times. Has been recorded contradicting himself on numerous occasions, for example on this video. Nobody can accuse him of being inflexible in terms of ideology. He crosses the lines between traditionally liberal positions (e.g. investing in infrastructure) and traditionally right wing ones (e.g. tough on immigration). So does that mean that Trump is a pragmatist who exemplifies some version of the Middle Way between ideological extremes? Unfortunately not. His positions are so variable because they apparently don’t even have a basic level of reflectiveness and consistency behind them of the kind that we generally expect from successful politicians. Far from being stuck in a dogmatic, left-brain model of how the world is or ought to be, he apparently hasn’t even reached first base in assembling a basically coherent ideological view of the world about which one might be dogmatic.

So what is Trump’s absolutism? From the evidence available to me, it seems to be just egoism. His view of the world is that he can’t be wrong or acknowledge weakness regardless of his inconsistency, and the beliefs that he holds to absolutely are just that what Donald Trump believes in right now is right. That makes him an ultra-pragmatist in the worst, not the best sense – that is, of someone who will follow political expediency based on very narrow values. He doesn’t flip-flop because he’s so integrated that he’s provisional, but rather because he’s not even integrated enough to hold an ideological position.

What about the thinking of those who voted for him? The dominant absolutism here seems to be one of nostalgia or idealism about ‘making America great again’, together with absolute rejection of ‘the establishment’, crudely identified, regardless of their actual merits or demerits. You don’t have to go into any further social or psychological profile of Trump voters to identify that tendency. These feelings seem obviously to have been absolutised, because they have not been weighed up against any assessment of the strengths and weakness of Trump’s policy or personality. Of course I don’t know whether or not that’s the case with every Trump voter, but there seems no reason to question it as a reasonable generalisation.

So, of course, Trump isn’t absolutely wrong, and nor are his voters. But I agree with his ‘liberal’ critics in being extremely concerned about the situation. His level of dogmatism is not even grown-up, to the extent that many people in the world have no idea how he is likely to act or how far he means what he said in the campaign. The Middle Way is quite compatible with overwhelming confidence in one position or another, precisely because we have recognised that we have no justification for absolute positions, and therefore a respect for evidence and the power of coherent provisionality and a clear rejection of absolutism. That confidence has to be politically opposed to Trump.

But what about the ‘you can’t normalise this outrage’ argument verses the ‘realpolitik’ argument? The Middle Way always requires us to accept the conditions, but one of those conditions is the tendency for people to socially normalise what was once considered utterly unacceptable and then forget that they have done so. That can work positively to make people forget how much better today’s world is for, say, for ethnic minorities, women, children or LGBT people than it was even 50 years ago. However, it can also work negatively to  enable the persecution of minorities to become normalised when it wasn’t before, as it did in Nazi Germany. We always need to maintain a wider awareness of the possibilities than the people in power would like us to have. So, recognise the reality of Trump but don’t normalise him. Don’t let him take over your consciousness too much. Take breaks from politics to get perspective. Remember the standards you had before Trump.

As a British person, I’m not in a position to contribute to bringing down Trump, but he is nevertheless likely to affect my life profoundly. I’d like to support all Americans who oppose him, and wish you the best of luck in removing him as soon as possible (whilst, of course, trying to engage positively with the Trump voters). That’s a politically partisan wish, but not one coming from unreflective absolutism. As far as I can see it demonstrates an application of the Middle Way, which is a method of dealing with both internal and external conflict without false neutrality. Your understanding of the Middle Way, of course, may be different because it depends on the conditions you are addressing in your life. You could conceivably reach a different conclusion whilst sincerely and reflectively applying the Middle Way. But since most readers of this blog are likely to share many features of the overall cultural and political context of the modern West with me, I doubt it.

Related: Introduction to Politics and the Middle Way

Picture: Donald Trump as a young man (public domain picture)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

3 thoughts on “The Middle Way on Trump

  1. I read, “The Middle Way is quite compatible with overwhelming confidence in one position or another, precisely because we have recognised that we have no justification for absolute positions, and therefore a respect for evidence and the power of coherent provisionality and a clear rejection of absolutism”

    Am I misunderstanding this? I can have confidence in one position (even an absolute one) to the extent that my confidence excludes an any alternative? This absolute confidence is compatible with the Middle Way?

    So when the Donald of Trump says “We’re going to build that wall” and really believes it, his confidence overwhelming all alternative decisions (if only for that ten seconds it takes to say it), with no tinge of doubt , then that position is compatible with the Middle Way? How come?

    As for being politically opposed to the Donald, I’m opposed to some of his apparently outlandish ideas (like building a wall on the US-Mexican border) because, like most Americans (I reckon), I don’t think it’s something he’s going to be able to deliver on it. He will be President, but he’s not going to get everything his way.

    On the other hand I do think there’s a lot to be said for his apparent wish for a rapprochement with Russia. There’s been far too much stoking up the old Cold War tensions for my liking. As long as such a rapprochement doesn’t set the scene for a worsening East-West or Euro-Asian confrontation to eclipse the former US-USSR one.

    One thing the Trump situation points to is a much wider dissatisfaction on the part of the hoi-poloi (to put it mildly) with politicians, democracy, and the stale theatrics of politics as usual across the world. I’m not very confident of what values I think I hold, but I’m interested in having them put to the test, and the appearance of the Donald of Trump is doing that for me.

  2. Hi Peter,
    I think you are misunderstanding here. I wrote ‘overwhelming’ confidence, not absolute confidence, and by that I don’t mean a position that excludes all awareness of alternatives. I mean a position where alternatives are considered, but where nevertheless one makes judgements based on the weight of evidence.

    I agree that rapprochement with Russia may potentially have a positive side, but that all depends on how Putin behaves. I am very concerned about how he may choose to behave in Ukraine, Syria, the Baltic States and indeed anywhere else if he thinks that the US will let him get away with whatever he wishes to do.

    1. Hi Robert, after typing my comment i was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes and i had a moment of clarity and the essential difference between overwhelming confidence and absolute confidence took on a sparkling lemon-scented freshness: i saw for myself without having read your own reply that overwhelming confidence is indeed not the same as absolute confidence, however the former is a confidence strong enough and justified enough to outweigh unjustifiably absolute alternatives generated by old patterns of left-hemisphere activity that jostle and thrust and undermine new ‘big picture’, non-anxious right hemisphere evidence that is waiting patiently and humbly for consideration as soon as i relax and calm down.

      So you see as i see myself with a modest but i think justifiable satisfaction that i am not as thick and hopeless as i sometimes describe myself or allow my left hemisphere to define me, and your own kindly ministrations are not in vain. good show robert, good show peter 🙂

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