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Lessons from the Trump campaign, a father’s optimism

August 24, 2016

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 24, 2016

Like many — Americans and people around the world alike — I have been astounded at both the vulgarity of Donald Trump’s words and his immense popularity.

During the current presidential campaign — and history shows, for much of his adult life — Mr. Trump is prone to speaking and behaving in ways that include: hurling personal insults, degrading women, negatively stereotyping racial and religious minorities, mocking disabled people and those who speak with broken English, promoting the use of violence against his opponents and being dismissive of those who were captured or killed in combat.

As a father, I find myself asking: How do we promote kindness, compassion and respect in American culture when one of the two people most likely to serve as the next U.S. president has given new meaning to the phrase bully pulpit? And, what do I say to my children, Zoe and Adam, who at ages 7 and almost-10, are well aware of what constitutes bullying behavior?

Curious to better understand the ground swell of support for a candidate who espouses so much hatred, my search led me to a recent editorial in The Atlantic, a magazine regarded by many as relatively non-partisan. The author cites the work of a recent study by a Gallup economist, who analyzed recent opinion polls. According to the analysis, a key difference between Clinton and Trump supporters is largely a glass is half-full versus half-empty world view.

The data suggest two-thirds of Clinton’s supporters think the next generation will be in better shape than we are today, or at least the same, whereas 68 percent of Trump supporters think the next generation will be worse off — and only two percent of Trump supporters think life is better now or will be better for their children.

These are remarkable differences that speak volumes about the people who support each of the leading candidates. What I find even more startling is that, according to the same analysis, the voters who are the most marginalized are not strong Trump supporters. Rather, those who fear that they are about to lose what they currently have — largely white high school graduates, the research notes — are among Trump’s strongest supporters.

Searching for the kind of empathy I try, and often fail, to model for Zoe and Adam, I begin to see the picture of a man who seeks to feel better about himself by degrading others and a group of his supporters who are afraid that the conditions of their lives, and the lives of their children, are in great peril.

Pausing, I acknowledge my own pessimism about the precariousness of humanity and the global ecosystem we inhabit. From these shadows I grapple for a sense of optimism, where I am sobered by a different pool of data, one which shows that optimists live longer, get sick less frequently, have better quality relationships, have fewer problems with depression and are more successful.

Optimism, and its outcomes, is not derived from a state of denial about the injustices and inequalities of the world. Rather, as Victok Frankl, Holocaust survivor and one of the leading psychological thinkers of the 20th century taught and modeled, humans are meaning seeking, with the capacity to find happiness, even in the midst of hardship.

So, again, I ask myself: How do we ensure kindness, compassion and respect — for our children and each other? We can start by noticing that when we recognize the inherent dignity and worth of a person, that person is less likely to seek self-worth by degrading others. We can also promote a world view of optimism, as a path that is available to all of us — and one that is as enduring as the human spirit. And, of course, we can support political candidates who engage in these practices, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com

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