Why It Would Be Sinful of Me to Support Trump

I wrote this months ago but have been reluctant to post because I’m worried it may damage some of my relationships. Wary of big claims, I also wanted feedback from a conservative pastor I respect and several others who know the Bible well. The good news is that they are still my dear friends—always. The bad news is that I’ve run out of reasons not to post. Looking at myself in the mirror after November 6th seems to require a good faith effort to articulate what I believe and assume that others will fairly consider it. I hope this article serves for a foil for reflection and useful conversations. Don’t forget to vote. 

This article lays out why I believe that it would be sinful of me to support Donald Trump politically. Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear to me why my reasons don’t apply to others, but I don’t like pissing people off for no reason with inflammatory titles.

Before I get to Bible verses, I want to clarify a few things.

  • First, these are reflections about which actions or values are sins, not who among us are bigger sinners (whew!).
  • Second, my argument is not dependent on recent or controversial information. I will not discuss alleged crimes or scandals like affairs with pornstars, sexual predation, fraud, or abetting Russian cyberwarfare—all of this may be real or scary, but is unnecessary for my argument. All my arguments today could have easily been made at any point during the last few decades.
  • Third, this article is not about policy. I will not discuss the poor, immigrants, race, gender, the environment, trust in American institutions, America’s international reputation, the stability of the global order, and so forth.
  • Fourth, this article is also not about mistakes, whether it be in the form of gaffes, job performance, or basic competence.

Though all these things can be used to make strong cases against Trump, I’m ignoring them. This is a discussion of the biblical text. It is written for Christians. Others can read along, but you are not my main audience.

Defining Sin

My definition of “sin” is simple. It involves no lists of deadly sins or sophisticated historically-informed theories of salvation, atonement, or justification. I don’t claim to know anything about how the mechanics work and, to be honest, sin typologies feel weird. Instead, I define sin as what Jesus was super against (#technicalterm). You can phrase the same thing another way: sin is the opposite of what Jesus was super for (#ivyleagueeducationtotallyworthit).

I expect that, regardless of your own definition of which actions qualify as sin, practically speaking, there’s probably lots of overlap with my definition. For example, one pastor thought my definition missed the mark because sin is more about being in “wrong relationship” with Jesus, but that seems to me to be a distinction without much difference. I’m not sure how one can be in right relationship with Jesus—or one’s wife for that matter—and not care about what they care about. Augustines revived sentiment of “Love God and do as you please” only works when what God wants becomes what pleases you.

Ok. So what did Jesus care about? Well, lots of things. In fact, too many. For example, the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 suggests that Jesus cared about taking breaks from event prep. Of course, the event prep point was probably secondary to something deeper that Jesus cared about more. This is something lots of “Christians” (i.e., people who say they follow Christ but actually kinda suck at it) miss: you can’t just make a list of all the things Jesus was for and against because it super matters to Jesus what he was super for and super against (#technicaltermforreal).

First, there’s a common sense argument. Nobody, God included, cares about everything the same. Agency and action requires caring about some things more than other things. Second, there’s the biblical argument. Making what is minor major and what is major minor is itself a major thing that Jesus was explicitly super against (#technicaltermforreal). You see this in why Jesus despised who he most despised: the religious authorities of his day, the Pharisees, who constantly screwed this up like it was their super power.

For example, the Old Testament exhorts in multiple places that good Jews should take scripture and bind it on their foreheads, write it on the tablets of their hearts, tie them around their fingers, and tie them as a sign on your hands,and so forth (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:8, 11: 18; Proverbs 7:3, 3:3). So the Pharisees do that. Good? No. Jesus is furious about it in Matthew 23. He yells at them for writing scriptures all over their clothes and making big showy sashes with verses covering them. Why? Because they missed the major point about what was important and focused on a minor point about setting up a reminder system the whole point of which was NOT to forget what was important, which is exactly what they were forgetting.

Another example of Pharisees doing exactly what most irritated Jesus comes a few verses down. It touches on the Old Testament suggestion about tithing saying: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus values some things, in this case justice, mercy, and faithfulness, over other things, like tithing cumin.

What Jesus was Super For and Super Against

The question for us, therefore, is not what was Jesus for and against, but what was he super for and super against (#sin)? Fortunately, while there’s definitely room to debate around the edges, it’s not too hard to figure this out. Major cues are (1) things he said were super important and (2) things he said a lot. For space reasons, I’ll focus on the first.

Probably most scholars, theologians, and pastors would agree that the things Jesus cared most about are decently summarized by four key passages, though other verses could arguably be included. These four passages are (1) the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Mathew 5 where Jesus gives the Beatitudes and rejects Eye-For-An-Eye ethics; (2) the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 where Paul describes the particular quality of Christ that Christians should strive the hardest to imitate; (3) the fruits of the spirit passage in Galatians 5; and (4) the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13.

I’ve pasted these passages below (New International Version). I started bolding what I thought relates to Trump, but I stopped because I was bolding like 70% of it. Instead, I ask that you take your time to read and reflect for yourself and think about what Jesus super cared about. What was he most passionate about in these passages? I also provide some quotes from Donald Trump that are not gaffes, but what I think are fair representations of what Trump really thinks about some of these topics and has for years.

Passage 1: The Beatitudes and Eye-For-an-Eye Passage in Matthew 5

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Trump on Eye-for-an-Eye

But when somebody tries to sucker punch me, when they’re after my ass, I push back a hell of a lot harder than I was pushed in the first place. If somebody tries to push me around, he’s going to pay a price.
Trump, Playboy, March 1990
For many years I’ve said that if someone screws you, screw them back. When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can.
Trump, How to Get Rich, 2004
My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.
Trump, Think Big: Make it Happen In Business and in Life, 2008

My Takeaway

Matthew 5 suggests that Jesus cared enormously about meekness and turning the other cheek. Trump encourages the opposite: self-promotion and attacking people harder than they attack you.

Passage 2: The Christ Hymn in Philippians 2

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.

Trump on the Value of Humility and His Opinion of Himself

Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.
Trump, December 2013
Every successful person has a very large ego.
Trump, Playboy, 1990
Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.
Trump, Republican National Convention, June 2016 
I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.
Trump, May 2016
Nobody knows banking better than I do.
Trump, February 2016
Nobody knows more about debt.
Trump, May 2016
I know more about renewables than any human being on earth.
—Trump, April 2016
I understand money better than anybody.
—Trump, June 2016
Nobody knows more about trade than me.
—Trump, March 2016
Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.
—Trump, July 2016
There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.
—Trump, June 2015
I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.
—Trump, November 2015
I was successful, successful, successful. I was always the best athlete, people don’t know that. But I was successful at everything I ever did.
—Trump, January 2018
I have a very good brain…My primary consultant is myself.
—Trump, MSNBC, 2016
I’m very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words.
—Trump, December, 2015

My Takeaway

Philippians 2 could not be more strongly worded. Paul is saying that if someone wants to claim to be a Christian in any way, shape, or form, then you have to follow Christ not in all ways, or many ways, but in this one super and specific way that is by far the most important: humble yourself. Trumps opinion is the opposite; humility is not just unimportant, but the path of “losers.” Trump very successfully avoids the path of humility and encourages others to do the same.

Passage 3: The Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Trump on “Selfish Ambition”

If you don’t win you can’t get away with it. And I win, I win, I always win. In the end, I always win, whether it’s in golf, whether it’s in tennis, whether it’s in life, I just always win. And I tell people I always win, because I do.
—Trump, Trump Nation: The Art of Being The Donald, 2005
I do whine because I want to win, and I’m not happy about not winning, and I am a whiner, and I keep whining and whining until I win.
—Trump, CNN, Aug. 10, 2015

My Main Takeaway

Christ is super against selfish ambition and super for love and humility, which is nearly the identical point made in the Christ Hymn and Matthew 5. Trump takes an opposite view: winning is everything.

Passage 4: I Corinthians 13 “The Love Chapter”

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Some of Trump’s public statements about others just via Tweet for the 8 months prior to July 1st, 2018

This list does not include any twitter insults from July, August, September, or October 2018, like when Trump called his former staff member Omarosa a “dog” and “crazed, lying lowlife,” insulted basketball star Lebron James’ intelligence, called CNN anchor Don Lemon “the dumbest man on television,” and said that former CIA Director John Brennan is “a loudmouth, partisan, hack.”

Steve Bannon is “Sloppy Steve,” “cried when fired,” and “dumped like a dog”
Barack Obama is “Cheatin’ Obama”
Jeff Zucker is “Little Jeff”
Adam Schiff is “Little Adam”
Jeb Bush is “low-energy Jeb”
Chuck Schumer is “Cryin Chuck”
Maxine Waters and Robert Deniro are “low IQ persons”
Ted Cruz is “Lying Ted”
Hillary Clinton is “Crooked Hillary”
Eric Schniederman is “sleazy”
Tim Kaine is “a total stiff”
Clair McKaskil is “phony”
Jeff Flake is a “flake”
Samantha Bee is a “no talent”
Sam Nunberg is “a drunk/drugged up loser”
Nancy Pelosi is “absolutely crazy”
Joe Biden is “crazy Joe”
Maggie Haberman is “a flunky”
Alec Baldwin has a “dying mediocre career”
Oprah is “very insecure”
John Brennan, James Comey, Adam Schiff, James Clapper, and Mark Warner are called at different times “one of the biggest liars and a leakers in Washington”
James Comey is a “slimeball” and “Lyin James”
Jim Acosta is “crazy”
Dianne Fienstien is “sneaky Dianne”
Michael Wolff is “mentally deranged” and “a total loser”

My Main Takeaway

The point of I Corinthians 13 is that love is more important than anything, even faith and hope, let alone cumin-tithing. Without love, you’re just a “clanging symbol.” Trump takes an opposite approach.

The Point

These four passages suggest that, above all, Jesus wanted to promote certain virtues and discredit certain other qualities: humility and love and things that come from them like gentleness and patience vs. pride and what comes from it such as selfish ambition, discord, envy, boasting, and meanness. Promoting the former and discrediting the latter is what Jesus said he cared more about than anything else, even other central stuff like faith and hope.

How Does One Promote or Discredit Values like Humility and Pride?

Everyone has the opportunity to promote or discredit virtues in two spheres: personal and social. In the personal sphere, everyone individually works (or not) on their own growth. But that sphere’s a bit off limits for others except God to judge because it’s often hard to see people’s hearts. In the social sphere, however, it’s different. Here we signal to each other and our children by what we do and say which virtues and vices we should care about and which ones aren’t a big deal. Because everyone can see each other’s signaling, we are influenced by it and must speak up if important virtues are being discredited (as I’m trying to do right now) or we become implicitly supportive bystanders.

So what does it signal socially when a person continues to offer political support for a politician by, for example, voting for the politician, liking the politician’s tweets, being quick to believe and spread the politician’s statements, and so forth. It can depend on a variety of factors of course, depending on the actions and the attitudes. But generally speaking, what these actions signal is that you value and support what that politician represents.

What does Trump Represent?

Trump represents several things that are not bad. For example, Trump is not one bit guilty of drunkenness, one of the vices mentioned above in Galatians 5. Trump’s brother was an alcoholic, Trump’s been known to speak against drinking, and to some people he might be a bit of a symbol of the fight against drunkenness. But the problem is that the one thing that Trump embodies to absurd—even farcical—degrees happens to be the one thing that Christ was also super against (#technicalterm #sin).

Today I stand before the United Nations General Assembly to share the extraordinary progress we’ve made. In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. America…[laughter]…so true…[laughter]…didn’t expect that reaction but that’s ok.
—Trump, The United Nations General Assembly, September 2018

Trump’s conceit is not the garden variety pride of normal people like me and you. When we are selfish or conceited, we feel disappointed in our selves. We sense it in our stomachs. We apologize and express remorse. And we try to do better next time. The late great John Mccain was an example of this. He hated it when pride and ambition got the better of him, admitted it, and would commit himself to trying to do better next time.

We’ve all played some role in it [the current state of political polarization]. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.
—John McCain’s last speech in the Senate, July 2017

If Trump was ashamed of his pride or unkindness, or even kept his exaltation of conceit and selfish ambition to himself, my conclusion would be much weaker or wrong. Voting for him, spreading his statements, and otherwise continuing to support him in the social sphere would be less about an assault on humility and could be more about various sets of policies and we could return at least to somewhat normal politics where we vote for fairly prideful politicians who are ashamed of their slightly higher than average conceit.

Unfortunately, that is not what Trump does, nor should we expect it of him. Being regretful about being prideful is not consistent with his stated views. Instead, Trump is unapologetically narcissistic, sees his narcissism as a great aspect of his personality, and is a symbol of narcissism to billions. While the cross that Jesus chose to die on is (supposed to be) a symbol of love and sacrifice for others, Trump Tower is a symbol of naming things after yourself.

Trump Tower: Donald Trump's Unofficial Headquarters

Trump has named hundreds of large modern buildings and golf clubs after himself, as well as over 250 currently existing companies and many more defunct ones, including “Trump Books,” “Trump University,” “Trump Steaks,” and “Trump Pageants.” These monuments dotting the world are seen as striking symbols of self-promotion.

Old-Rugged-Cross-Christian-Stock-Photo

The ancient Roman way of executing thieves and criminals—-the dregs of society—was to crucify them on a cross. It is the symbol of sacrifice that Christians try to emulate. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son…” John 3:16a

Two Philosophies

The cardinal virtue that Trump has consistently preached and lived throughout his life is the virtue of “winning” and rewarding winners. His philosophy—if one can call shameless self-promotion a philosophy—is a flavor of an older anti-Christian school of thought made famous by Nietzsche, who thought that the “great man” or “ubermench” should seize glory and power for himself by crushing those who are less important—the act of dominance is itself self-justifying. For that reason, Nietzsche famously hated Christ’s ethics for elevating the weak and the poor.

Since I first read Nietzsche in college, my response has been “Hell yeah; guilty as charged; you’re right about the core of Christianity and that’s what I love about it.” As can be seen again and again in both the Old and New Testaments, God vastly prefers “losers”—the poor, prostitutes, tax-collectors, slaves, women, second-sons, and so forth—to “winners”—the rich, the powerful, and the first born. For those of us who easily confuse the importance of tithing one’s cumin or writing verses on clothing, the passages above make the implicit message of the biblical narrative explicit.

Christ’s religion is first and foremost one that elevates meekness, kindness, love, and gentleness. Our greatest hero chose to shed his power, to be born poor among barn animals, and die a criminals death. Humility is our teaching. Humility is what we are about.

So, if I’m right about Trump and about Jesus, what does it mean to support Trump politically?

Based on what I’ve said above, I’ve got to conclude that if I was to support Trump, then I would be signaling in my social sphere—to my friends and family; to Christians and non-Christians; to my fellow-citizens and to the world community; to children; to God—that humility is not that important and is even the path of losers. Boastfulness is not that bad, it’s even good. Treating others as better than yourself is for chumps. Turning the other cheek is just dumb—you should always strike back and way way harder. Unkindness is fine, selfishness works, and bullying is smart. Perhaps most jarringly, laying down your life for others—Christ’s example we are both grateful for and supposed to emulate above all else according to Philippians 2—is the choice of fools.

In 2016, 75% of American evangelicals made the choice to vote for Trump and approval numbers in this community remain largely unchanged two years later. Trump’s rise and continued power would not be possible without this ongoing support.

What about Abortion?

Many Evangelicals might agree with everything I’ve said so far, but also believe that continuing to support Trump is not only not sin, but laudable, because life starts when sperm fertilizes eggs and thus all abortion is murder.

To be honest, I sympathize with this position. It’s an upsetting predicament—how crappy a person am I willing to vote for in order to stop mass infanticide?—because the answer is and should be pretty upsetting. In my opinion, supporting Trump or even a more Trumpy Trump in order to stop some abortions is a logically consistent and respectable religious view.

My only problem with it is that it’s not Christian.

How Much did Jesus Care About Abortion?

As I’ve talked about again and again throughout this essay, Christ cares about some things more than other things. When we forget that, we quickly become cumin-tithing morons Jesus hates. Thus, again, we need to pay close attention to (a) what Christ said he was super for and (b) what he talked about a lot. So let’s look at it? Where does abortion rank in the hierarchy of Christian values?

While Jesus at least talks about tithing and taking breaks from event prep, Jesus says nothing about abortion—ask your pastor. Indeed, in the whole Bible, there are only a handful of oblique references about it. These references come mainly in the Old Testament in collections of songs (especially Psalms 139, 127, and 22)—not something that is supposed to be treated like a philosophical treatise—that suggest that babies at birth don’t instantly go from not-at-all-persons to full-persons. They claim that there is something that becomes each of us that was present in utero. I agree. In fact, I don’t know any liberal (or biologist) who wouldn’t.

Furthermore, it’s extremely hard to argue that there is a biblical case that life starts when a sperm fertilizes an ovum by burrowing through the jelly coat of the egg because Ancient peoples knew that none of these things happened or existed. They also lacked even the most basic comprehension of the developmental stages of the fetus. In other words, He knit me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139) is not remotely specific to a trimester.

But hasn’t the Church Thought that Life Begins With the fertilization of the Egg for like 2000 years?

Nope. I want to write a blog post just on this, but here’s a quick and dirty summary of my research so far:

As you might expect, next to nothing was known about fertilization, implantation, and early pregnancy until scientific discoveries in 1875. When we finally did figure it out, there were debates about what stage in the process the word “conception” should be used to describe. Some people thought that it should be used to describe implantation, not fertilization. For a time, that’s exactly what some researchers did, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In other words, it’s partly a fluke of history that the ancient word “conception” has come to mean what it means today.

While most early Christians thought all abortion was wrong, most defined “abortion” as only possible after “quickening” happens. In fact, early Christians compiled and shared lists of herbs that were thought to terminate pregnancies before quickening and prominent medieval scholars (one became pope) recommended them without seeing a problem with it.

“Quickening” is when mothers first feel the baby kick, which usually happens about four months or so in (15-20 weeks). It was thought by many as the moment of “ensoulment,” when the soul comes to inhabit the body, and scholars debated it for centuries. In the meantime, major thinkers and leaders had different opinions. For example, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Pope Gregory XIV were among those who believed that the fetus had no soul until quickening. Pope Stephen V and Pope Sixtus V came down on the other side. The official position of the church would change every few hundred years or so until the late 19th century, when the Catholic position hardened into what it is today.

Before Roe in 1973, the evangelical position was also fluid. For example, there was a major symposium of Evangelical leaders and doctors in 1968 sponsored by the Christian Medical Society. They described themselves as “conservative or evangelical” and sharing “a common acceptance of the Bible as the final authority on moral issues.” Yet their statement held abortion is appropriate when it “safeguards greater values sanctioned by scripture” including “family welfare and social responsibility” and that “each case should be considered individually.” They also clarify that “from the moment of birth [not conception] the infant is a human being with all the rights which Scripture accords to all human beings.”

And that was not a fringe evangelical group. In 1971 the Southern Baptist Annual Convention passed a resolution that called on evangelicals to work in favor of legislation making allowances for abortion, including cases when the emotional and mental health of the mother would be damaged.

Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.
Southern Baptist Annual Convention1971
The Christian physician will advise induced abortion only to safeguard greater values sanctioned by Scripture. These values should include individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility…[while] the potential great value of the developing intra-uterine life cannot be denied. There may, however, be compelling reasons why abortion must be considered under certain circumstances. Each case should be considered individually, taking into account the various factors involved and using Christian principles of ethics.
Christian Medical Society Symposium, 1968

Thanks for the History Lesson. What’s your Point?

When it comes to when life begins, church history is far from unanimous and, much more importantly because I’m a good Bible-thumping Protestant, the Bible is nearly silent about it. Of course, while we can draw connections and use the Bible to inform our thinking, the only way that continuing to support Trump is not sin because of abortion is if one could have asked Jesus about abortion and gotten a response in the realm of something like this:

“Oh yeah. Totally. If abortion is on the table—or, more specifically, if the opportunity to have government punish women who have abortions is on the table—you can forget about all this humility stuff. Get really involved in politics. Alter the balance of high courts. Make this the central issue.”

There’s many reasons why that’s crazy and lightyears away from the sort of thing Jesus would say. For example, Jesus hated solving moral problems through political means and said so often (e.g., Romans 13:1). He encourages Christians to stay out of politics, to submit to the governing authorities, and focus on cultivating in themselves (personal sphere) and encouraging in others (social sphere) the personal virtues of love and humility. So, while it might make a modicum of sense for Christians get political to defend humility and love (which would mean getting into politics to be against Trump, which is what I guess I’m doing), there is no Christian justification to get political—something Jesus didn’t like—about abortion—something Jesus didn’t discuss—at the expense of humility and love—the thing that Jesus said was far and away the most important.

In any religion, there should be a high bar for overturning the most important teachings in that faith. By any reasonable biblical standard I can find, abortion does not come close to that bar. Prophesying in Jesus name, driving out demons in his name, and performing miracles—things Jesus actually talked about more than once and was explicitly a fan of—also don’t make the cut. How do I know? Because Jesus said so at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about that miracles and prophesy, he just doesn’t care about that stuff remotely as much as humility. When evangelicals stand at the pearly gates and say, “Did we not elect Trump and get Gorsuch and Kavanagh on the Supreme Court in your name?” I’m predicting a lot of disappointment. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a final word for those who have been faithfully tithing their cumin at all costs.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

Conclusion

I’m an academic whose trained to never introduce new ideas in conclusions. That’s silly. I think a new idea ties all this together nicely.

A folk religion is a form of religious practice that adopts the rituals and trappings of a religion but displaces its central teachings in favor of a variety of culturally-based views. I have argued that the obvious non-controversial center of the true Christian faith is love and humility and that what sin is is treating this center as bad, peripheral, unimportant, or stupid. I have also argued that continuing to support Trump is a strong statement that says exactly that and that abortion—not to mention homosexuality, gun rights, immigration, tax cuts, and so forth—are more important. I’m fine if people ground their views in their religions convictions, but I’m not fine calling their religion Christianity. It’s a folk Christianity, an obvious bastardization of Christ’s central teachings.

Maybe that’s an overstatement, right? After all, it’s just politics. Different strokes for different folks. Who you support politically can’t define you and isn’t damning. Aren’t you just hyperbolizing to make a point, Jer?

God, I hope so. But it’s not about policy or politics. It’s not even about lying or sexual immorality. It’s about actively tearing down the thing Jesus cared about the most…gosh. It’s hard to think of something worse that a Christian could do.

I wish I had a more optimistic note to end on. I look forward to your thoughtful comments.

 

 

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Jer’s Take on Today’s Indictments

Some friends these days don’t know what news is true, especially Republicans, who don’t trust respected but typically left-leaning outlets like the NYT and the Post, but are beginning to realize that Fox News is crap. To help them out, and to wrap my head around what is happening, I looked through the 29-page indictment released hours ago, retrieved straight from the Justice Department website. Here’s my summary.

Who is being accused of crimes today?

In short, the Russian military. Specifically, the indictment charges 11 high-ranking Russian military officials, including a Major, a Lieutenant Colonel, a Colonel, a Senior Lieutenant, and a Second Lieutenant. It looks like this indictment only includes the leaders and major players within the operation. My speculation: with people this senior, it seems unlikely that Putin could not have known about and approved of this attack. He may have even managed it directly. 

What are they being accused of?

A vast three-pronged cyber attack on the United States for the purpose of damaging one political party to help throw an election to the another political party they liked more.

What did they do exactly?

A lot. The three prongs were (a) damage the party’s major organizations, (b) damage the party’s leaders, and (c) damage the American election apparatus (actual voting systems, state election boards, etc.). The overall strategy for the first two prongs seems to be to steal as many documents they could, hopefully some that are damaging, and then strategically release the docs in order to inflict maximal damage on the political candidate that the Russians didn’t like. Looks like they were less successful at harming the governments machinery around elections (the third prong).

Prong 1: Organizations

The main part of Prong 1 was a successful effort to hack directly into the two most important organizations in the targeted party: the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which focuses on presidential elections, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which focuses on electing Senators and House members. For example, they had an ongoing malicious presence on at least 13 different DNC and DCCC computers for around 6 months (May-Oct 2016; the election was just after on November 8th). Their ongoing presence on these computers allowed them spy on people as they entered passwords, composed documents, composed emails, financial records, and so forth. They could take screen shots as people worked.

Prong 2: Individuals

The main part of Prong 2 was targeting over 300 individual party leaders, activists, and staff, including 76 individuals with email addresses hosted through the presidential campaign. They gained illegal access to many personal email accounts, stealing tens of thousands of personal and professional emails and documents. For example, they stole 50,000 documents from the chair of the presidential campaign alone (the role of campaign chair is typically understood to be the most important person in a campaign besides the candidate). They tried to gain access to the presidential candidates’ documents too.

Prong 3: Election-Day Systems

The efforts targeting election-day systems was less successful, but in some ways more scary. Two of the defendants attempted to hack these systems directly (e.g., state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and the companies that provide the election software that we use to record people’s votes). At least one state board of elections was successfully hacked. Though we do not know the full damage of this successful hack, we do know that at a minimum information on 500,000 American voters in this state were stolen. One unnamed technology company was also successfully hacked, and we don’t know if the Russians were able to use what they found to change votes. We also know that specific counties in Georgia, Florida,  and Iowa were probed for vulnerabilities. These two Russians also targeted 100 individuals in October, 2018, weeks before the election with similar malicious code that they used to break into the DNC and DCCC. My own wild speculation: perhaps the Russians did not realize how wildly successful they would be at damaging the public image of the target political party and thought they might also try a somewhat last-minute, under-resourced, hail-mary pass to try to cripple Americans’ ability to actually cast and count our votes correctly. I, along with the intelligence community, am very worried about future attacks and the extremely minimal efforts we taken to counter them and Russian aggression generally. 

Dissemination

These Russian military officers then turned to the question of how to publicize all these stolen documents in a way to maximize damage on the American political party they disliked. They planned and discussed dissemination for at least a month before any documents were released. One thing they did is to invent the persona of a fictitious lone Romanian (Guccifer 2.0) as a go-between. The indictment says this “Guccifer” did at least four things:

  • Some unnamed candidate for the United States congress actually reached out to this “Guccifer 2.0” and asked for stolen documents that he/she could use to embarrass his/her political opponent. Guccifer 2.0 then sent that US congressional candidate stolen documents. My speculation: This has gotten very little attention so far, but I imagine the name of this congressional candidate will come to light someday and that person’s career will end. You can’t traffic in stolen bicycles, let alone things stolen by an enemy of the United States for the purposes of hurting the United States. 
  • “Guccifer 2.0” offered a news reporter stolen emails from the presidential candidate’s staff and gave this reporter access to these documents.
  • “Guccifer 2.0” sent 2.5 gigabytes (i.e., a lot of docs) to a lobbyist and reporter, including detailed information on 2,000 major donors to the Democratic party.
  • “Guccifer 2.0” sent stolen documents about the Black Lives Matter movement to a reporter and coordinated with the reporter about how to time the release and publicity of the documents.

In addition to “Guccifer 2.0,” the Russian military distributed stolen documents through an unnamed news organization (some people think this was WikiLeaks, though the indictment does not say).

  • First, the Russians coordinated with this unnamed news organization about timing to inflict maximum damage on the Democratic party. For example, they were highly aware of the divisions between Clinton supporters and Bernie supporters, and aware that in America party conventions are used to heal divisions that arise during party primaries. One quote from the unnamed organization on page 18 reads, “If you have anything Hillary related we want it in the next two days preferably because the Democratic National Convention is approaching and she (Hillary Clinton) will solidify Bernie supporters around her after.”
  • This request was apparently granted. Six days later, on July 22nd, 2016, three days before the Democratic party’s national convention, 20,000 stolen documents were released through the unnamed news organization.
  • From October 7th to November 7th (the presidential election was the next day on Nov. 8), the 50,000 emails from the chair of the Democratic presidential campaign was released by this unnamed organization in 33 “tranches,” which I think means they let it out in drips everyday to make sure it stayed in the news in the month leading up to the election to do maximal damage to the Democratic presidential campaign.

Many other laws were broken in the process of this three-pronged attack, such as identify theft, lying on official documents, and at least $95,000 worth in money laundering (they paid for many things they needed with cryptocurrencies).

So do we now know the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election?

No. These indictments concern the second of at least two major ways Russia attacked us in 2016. Six months ago, the Justice Department indicted 13 Russians who spear-headed the vast social-media effort to disseminate false and misleading information directly to voters (I didn’t summarize that effort, but maybe I should have). Now we have found that the Russian military, led by these 11 officers, led a second major attack, this time a direct and large scale cyber attack on one of our political parties, it’s leaders, and American election-day processes. Hopefully there is not a third big shoe to drop, but we do not know what else the Justice Department will conclude.

So what do we do now? 

If you haven’t already done so, recognize that America was attacked. Treat the threat seriously. Put America before party. Vote against any candidate who does not do the same. (In my view, doing anything otherwise is just straight-up unpatriotic. I don’t mean that as a slur or anything. That’s what the word unpatriotic means.) Encourage others to do the same (that’s why I felt the need to spend the last few hours writing this blog post…also because I’m a huge nerd wanted to read the indictment itself instead of through a media filter).

Practically speaking, I think putting America first here means three things. First, voting for politicians seeking to do everything they can to help investigators finish their work–we can’t defend ourselves if we don’t know how we are being attacked. Second, voting against politicians who claim that efforts to examine how Russian attacked us is “a witch hunt,” “a made up story,” or “an excuse by Democrats for having lost an election they should have won”–we can’t protect ourselves from attacks if leaders deny we are being attacked. Third, we have to take major steps to defend ourselves from future attacks–its not remotely enough just to find out what Russia did and have leaders willing to recognize it. At some point, we’ll have to fight back.

 


An Open Letter to Trump-Supporting Loved Ones

Dear Trump-supporting family and friends,

These days people keep asking me, “Why aren’t you blogging? I need your help now more than ever processing these strange political times in your always brilliant and delightful way.” They say it with their eyes perhaps, but I get it.

Seriously, despite so much political news to process, having stronger opinions then ever, and the historical momentousness of the times (and I don’t say that lightly), I’ve held back for one huge reason: you. About 80% of my nuclear and extended family, as well as most of my childhood and college friends, are pro-Trump folks. I cherish my relationships with them. Many read my blog. And my opinions alienate them. I’ve seen it on your faces at get-togethers. It makes me deeply sad.

But, at the same time, over the last year I’ve been an ass and a hypocrite-I’ve felt a genuine and deep sadness and constant guilt–for not speaking up on issues I care about. Millions of Americans on both sides of Trump have a similar problem:

As mature humble adults go through life, we make moral space for serious disagreement with others. We have to. Good, smart, respectable people disagree all the time. However, that moral space has to end at some point, otherwise we have no morals. But when does it end? When do we put our feet down, make things super awkward, and say, “Forgive me, I can’t just politely disagree anymore. Wake the fuck up—what you are doing is immoral.”

This post is an attempt to save relationships and my integrity—wow that sounds obnoxiously dramatic. To do that, I need to say two things that do not negate the other.

First, to cousins, uncles, church friends, professors, college friends, and friends I grew up with in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and other loved ones who support Donald Trump: I love you. I always will. Nothing will change that.

Second, to the same people, forgive me, I can’t stay this quiet or politely disagree like what is happening is normal. It’s time to wake up. Supporting Trump is not like supporting other politicians. Its not ok. Either you’ve been conned or you are doing something immoral and, based on my view of the Bible, sinful. (I’m not trying to change your mind right now. We can get into reasons later. I’m merely relating where I am.)

So what do we do? What do friends and family do who disagree so fundamentally about sin and morality? Not talk? Drift apart with mutual disaffection? I completely understand why that tempts us. My views, though loving, are not welcoming, and you may likewise see my lack of support for Trump as beyond the moral pale too.

But I have hope: though I hate that you support Trump, I don’t hate you and I don’t think you hate me either. In fact, I’m convinced we both hate thinking poorly of each other. We hate feeling our loved ones are at odds with our beliefs and values.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln, 1861

So where does strained but unbroken bonds of affection leave us? I think I need to try to speak up more about what I believe and participate in the democratic process. I hope you can remember my affection for you and what I say won’t alienate you too much. I also look forward to seeing you at the next reunion or get-together and hearing about your life. I hope you will want to see me too. Please reach out out for a call too for any reason. If you are in the Philadelphia area, and itooks like Alicia and I will be hear for two more years as I finish my PhD, please drop by! We can stick to small talk and go deeper as we feel comfortable. No pressure.

With continued affection,

Jer


Is this the story a more thoughtful Trump would tell?

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Some try to explain Trump’s rise by citing local causes like Hillary or the wall.  But there’s something  happening all over the world.  Why?  And why now?

Once upon a time, there was a planet named Terra that teemed with life.  These life forms lived by a particular philosophy on how to interact with each other called the “Right to Oppress.”  Under this egalitarian philosophy, every creature had the right to oppress other creatures because all creatures were committed to the rule of oppressing other creatures if given the chance.  In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sum up this philosophy in 431 B.C. while explaining to the Milesians why they are attacking their neutral city and wanting to kill the men, enslave the women and children, and take their possessions.

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As millennia went by, one Terran life form grew more intelligent, more collaborative within their groups, and began to dominate the rest, and also sought to dominate each other.  For thousands of years, they organized themselves into ever larger and larger tribes to protect themselves from other groups.  Eventually these very large tribes were called “nation-states” the role of which was two-fold: to actively protect a population of millions within a geographic boundary and to actively protect and promote the culture of the majority (i.e. way of life).

Following the “Right to Oppress,” many nation-states rose and fell over the centuries as they tried to enrich and profit themselves at the expense of others.  Famous examples include nation-states Terrans call “the Romans” and another called “the Mayans.”  But one group of nation-states, often called “Western” nation-states, happened to be the ones particularly strong at a moment of two big changes in Terran history.

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Western colonial empires covered most of the world.  

First, unprecedented planetary war.  War was normal, but the scale of this war was not.  All the most powerful nation-states on Terra devoted their resources to destroying each other.  One generation later, another global war took place, this one more devastating.  Afterwards, though Western nation-states remained strong, they were not quite strong enough to continue the “Right to Opress” philosophy as usual.

Secondly, they didn’t want to.  Under their feet, the “Right to Oppress” had been declining in popularity for some time, dating back to what the Terrans called the “Enlightenment,” which was birthed in Western nation-states.  This new philosophy held that creatures did not have a right to be oppress.  Instead, the opposite was true.  Creatures had the “Right to Not Be Oppressed.”   This included rights to be free of things like unfairness and coercion.  In this view, people had the right to keep private property no matter who was in power, say outwardly what they thought inwardly, and be able to freely enter into contracts with each other as each individual saw fit.  This new “Right to Not be Oppressed” philosophy spread rapidly across Terra and became the general expectation of the governments of nation-states.  Moreover, most judged their ancestors who lived under the previous philosophy as barbaric and pathetic.

Because Western nation-states where those most recently “winning” under the now discredited set of rules, they were scorned by others and, more tellingly, by themselves.  They felt guilty for their old colonial empires and oppression.  At the same time, they did not feel that their culture was currently especially threatened.  Indeed, their language and customs was relatively dominant and they were still by and large the most powerful nation-states on Terra.  As a result of this, many Western nation-states became merely “states.”  These states saw their sole role as protecting a people within a geographic boundary but not actively promoting the culture of the majority.  They didn’t want to.  It also seemed immoral under the new philosophy of “Right to Not be Oppressed.”

But other Terran nation-states did not feel this guilt.  They remained keenly interested in promoting and protecting national culture and identity.  Consider, for example, the issue of naturalization, the process in which members of one nation-state becoming members of another nation-state.  Though the issues is more complex, limiting naturalization is an important way that nation-states protect the identity, cultural norms, and values of their nation.

For comparison, consider the European Union, which was a collection of Western states with a total population of 510 million.  They naturalized about 800,000-900,000 people a year between 2009-2014.  In 2014, 2.6 new members were naturalized for every 100 non-new members.  The United States was another collection of Western states, though more unified by history and language, with a total population of 320 million.  They naturalized 600,000 to 1,000,000 a year during the same time period.  In 2014, there was about 2 new members naturalized for every 100 non-new members.

This can be contrasted with naturalization rates in non-western nation-states such as Japan and China.  Japan, home of 127 million, naturalizes 10,000 people per year, or about .1 people per 100 (5% of the United Sates 2014 naturalization rate).  China has 1.3 billion people, the largest nation-state on Terra, yet it only has a total of 1,448 naturalized citizens in total.  If we divide that total across 50 years of naturalization, this means China naturalized on average a mere 29 individuals a year or .00002 new members per 100 non-new members (.001% of the United States 2014 naturalization rate).  Furthermore, in many non-Western nation-states, governments actively promoted it’s national character by, for example, banning foreign influences by excluding certain media, monetarily supporting efforts to revitalize and expand traditional culture and values, and even promoting cultural ways of doing everyday things like eating food.  In these Nation-States, the “Right to Not be Oppressed” came to also mean the right to live in a state that actively promotes your own values and the general sense of feeling at home and welcome in one’s own country.  In these countries, a priority of the government is protecting a certain way of life.

Furthermore, dovetailing with expansive naturalization policies among Western states, new technologies allowed growing communities within Western states to keep their own national identity.  They could eat their foods that tasted foreign to locals, build their own buildings that looked foreign to locals (see how Swiss and German nationalist movements pursue minaret ban), interact with those back at home via a worldwide communications network so they made fewer local connections, etc.  Furthermore, many states worked diligently to make sure that these communities were given equal resources and treatment, removing power dynamics that typically assist a homogenizing process

The result was unprecedented intermixing with much less homogenization.  Many members of western states welcomed and celebrated this new diversity, and in a way welcomed the eroding of the dominance of their culture, which they themselves associated with oppressiveness.  Many others, however, felt that though they were truly warm and welcoming of other people into their homeland, and had nothing against their way of life specifically, they resented when these guests were not willing to adopt their host culture.  Instead, they found that many of these new members wanted to create mini-nations within their own.   They were witnessing, in other words, small, ongoing, lawful, and peaceful invasions by foreign groups into their territory.  They felt that their government was keeping them safe, but not keeping their way of life safe.

These frustrations built for about 50 years until Terran history reached another tipping point, though this tipping point was less important and it only happened within Western states.  In short, many decided they wanted to be nation-states again.  They wanted their government to actively promote their cultural norms and values and they did not want to feel guilty about it.  New generations of Terrans no longer felt colonial guilt to the same extent, as those sins became increasingly associated with the work of ancestors than family members.  At the beginning of the 21st century, Western states en masse made democratic decisions to close borders, promote traditional values, and make their homeland more distinctively their’s.  To those who lost these surprising elections, it seemed like a return to racism, bigotry, and the “Right to Oppress,” and that narrative was not entirely false either.  Many were racist.  But for many others, this nationalism was not a nationalism against any particular nation, but a positive nationalism for one’s nation.

Moving forward with this new philosophy, Terrans are then confronted with difficult questions.  Do Terrans in Western states have the right to live under a nation-state that actively promotes their way of life?  Can nations choose to welcome people through their borders only if immigrants adopt the host culture?   Who is to decide what aspects of a culture are important, or which culture to promote in a heterogenous state?  When a nation makes decisions that make it increasingly heterogenous, can they then seek to homogenize at the expense of minority communities that they previously welcomed more unconditionally?  Will Terrans continue to uphold the universal “Right to Not be Oppressed”?  Is the future of Terra to be dominated by states or by nation-states?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer most of these questions, but I’m sympathetic to the reasonableness of each side.  Is this the narrative, or something like it, that many Trump folks and Brexit folks are trying to share?  (If it is, please pick a more honest, respectful, and better informed spokesperson next time.  I simply cannot promote a nationalism that exalts a figure that represents to me everything crass, ugly, and materialistic about America.)  If it’s not, should it be?

I grew up as a white kid in Taiwan for the first 18 years of my life.  In Taiwan, it’s really hard to become a citizen, even though I was born there and lived there so long.  A foreigner is not even allowed to buy land and the government spent considerable sums of money on promoting local culture. I assumed that is what nation-states did.  When I came to America, I was surprised to learn about what seemed to me an immense double standard.  I wasn’t surprised that the rest of the world had that double standard–the default disgust mechanism against the loud and powerful is understandable–but Americans themselves had it too.  Many seemed fine with decisions of other countries to protect their own way of life, such as how Vietnam actively discouraged  American-style burgers and fast-food chains in Saigon, but if New York State outlawed burritos, that would have been interpreted as racist.  That doesn’t seem fair to me (or racist, but that’s another post).  While in Taiwan, I also adopted a Chinese name to use with locals.  This was expected of me and I was fine with it.  How could I expect them to remember or pronounce such foreign syllables?   But when I came to the U.S., I assumed that it would work here the other way.  Often it did, often it didn’t, but what was interesting to me was the posture of the Americans I knew, who did not feel comfortable encouraging foreigners to adopt local names.

So is our future a world of states or nation-states?  I’m not sure what the future holds or even what I would wish for.  Both paths seem enlightened in their own way, as long as both firmly resist the old philosophy of the “Right to Oppress.”  Both present starkly different versions of the future that make me excited that I get to live for the next 50 years (hopefully) to find out what happens.

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I was born in Taipei, Taiwan.  My Mommy and Daddy loved me and named me Jeremy.  But that is a super foreign sounding word in Taiwan, so I took a local name too that was easier for locals to remember and pronounce.  It seemed helpful and appropriate to me and I figured that’s the way it worked everywhere.  So it feels strange that I haven’t been able to find an English-speaking culture where the members would feel comfortable having the same expectation of Taiwanese long-term residents that the Taiwanese had of me.  It’s not racism.   It’s just hard to make friends and influence people if they can’t say your name.  


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I also lived in Hong Kong for a while.  My brother (right) still lives there with his family.  Last time my wife and I went to visit, there was a Chinese traditional opera that was performing in the local square.  Apparently the troupe travels around Hong Kong performing for local communities at the public expense.  America certainly does some things that are somewhat similar (e.g. the Smithsonian), but nothing comes to mind quite like that.   Sometimes I wonder about why.  


In Trump’s World—But Not of It

The morning after the election, I sat down to work, and couldn’t concentrate. Like millions of Americans, I felt strangely ill.  Like fewer Americans, I processed my emotions via essay-writing.  It’s about why this particular election result hurts so stupidly much, and what we can do about it.

Why listen to me?  I’m a politics and history nerd, but no expert.  Mainly, I consider myself a bridge between the Ivy League and rural/small town America. To the former group, I’m too conservative. To the latter, too liberal.  (I’m guessing I’m a centrist Democrat.) I hope these reflections will help Democrats understand themselves and Republicans how to deal with us. To the latter, you will disagree with many premises, but I’m not trying to persuade you.  This post is reflective.  I’m describing what I think is our common dilemma.

For as long as I’ve known who Trump was, I thought he was a buffoon representing everything that was awful about America: wealth, trophy wives, bullying, reality television, loudness, entrepreneurship that feels like scams, sue-happy, uneducated, and self-important.  So, of course, this election result is an unreal-for-the-love-of-god-pinch-me nightmare, but what makes it special? I’m weirdly affected by this. After staying up until 3:30AM to find out Trump won, I could not fall asleep until 8:30AM. Why did I suddenly tear up in the shower this morning? Why do I go to bed each night thinking about it? Why do I care this much? I’ve never done this.

Let’s get some things out of the way: History nerds everywhere can cite a few reasons to not be too too upset. First, regarding the end of the world, be of good cheer. The Republic will stand. We’ve survived worse (e.g. Fascism, Andrew Johnson, the Civil War, the Cold War, etc.). Though the man is much, he is not totally incompetent. That much is obvious. Second, is this a step backwards? Of course! But I remain completely convinced that the arc of history is towards progress and big steps backwards are nothing new. For example, immediately following the Civil War, there were numerous African Americans elected to public office in the South before they disappeared for a century. Our setback yesterday is major and serious, but it is not a precious or unique snowflake. Third, by historical standards, our current problems are small. This is arguably one of the best times in our history to make a stupid presidential choice. Lastly, though shocked by the result of this election and my predictions being so wrong about it, I’m not shocked that we were shocked. Upsets are nothing new. Truman 1948, anyone?

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In 1948, FDR was dead, Truman was up for re-election, WWII was over, and the Democratic party, which had been in power for 16 years, was split three ways, with fringes on both ends mounting independent bids. Everyone thought that if the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, was cautious and made no mistakes, he would win for sure. The Chicago Tribune even printed their papers before full results were in. But everyone was wrong.

Let’s get the demographic determinism out the way too: I’m very white, very man, very heterosexual, and very safe all around. I have great health care through my employer. I have job security. I’m not afraid of being deported or otherwise being personally impacted in some specific way.

Let’s get the policy out of the way too: a great many people are posting that this election being tragic because of what it means for the environment, foreign policy, immigration, taxes, gender equality, you name it. But, painful as it may be, “this is (exactly) what democracy looks like.” Losing any election entails direct hits to policies and issues you care about. Nope! That’s not what makes this election result special.

So what is it? The diagnosis of my malaise, and I suspect of Democrats across the country, is much more simple, immediate, and personal. We are in a moral dilemma and don’t know how to move forward with integrity. We have two competing values. They put us in a bind. It’s new to us. It’s confusing. It’s what makes this especially hard.

On the one hand, we believe in respecting the will of the people. We believe in coming together. We believe that, in a democracy, sometimes you lose. We believe that we are Americans first and Democrats second. This drives me to embrace the winner on the other side. I’ve lived long enough to know that, in my own life, this drive is real and not lip service. For example, at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I (with Hillary) supported W. I figured he was President, he was in the best position to make this hard choice, and we should follow his lead. Though it ended up being the wrong choice, I don’t regret my inclination to be supportive. Knee-jerk antagonism towards our leaders is a failure of patriotism, regardless of who is in power. Even if we see the opposing winning candidate as having no experience, the wrong policies, little knowledge, poor wisdom, and a bad temperament, our civic duty remains clear: respect the people’s choice. Elections matter and they should alter our attitudes. This is what Trump said the first night, and what Clinton and Obama said the first morning.

But I’m not feeling it. Why? Because elections don’t and can’t change my sense of right and wrong. Morality stays the same. For example, calling people names is not OK with me, and never will be. Discriminating on the basis of religion is not OK with me, and never will be. Sexual assault is not OK with me, and never will be. Not being committed to the peaceful transfer of power unless you win is not OK with me, and never will be.

These sorts of moral issues, you might say, our first-order concerns. Though I care enormously about experience, policy, knowledge, wisdom, and temperament, these are “just” second-order issues. I expect election results that go the other way to be painful on any or all of these points. What makes this election result so hard is that many of us have never dealt with first-order concerns before and don’t know how. I guess I didn’t think I’d ever have to. Unlike some other Dems maybe, I could have fairly easily united behind McCain, Romney, and clearly did for W. These people were obviously fundamentally decent human beings. I can’t stress this enough: McCain and Romney are good people.

But Trump is not. I’m sorry. I want to unite! But this is one those Martin Luther “here-I-stand-and-can-do-no-other” sort of things. I can’t both embrace the “let’s unite” instinct and also see myself as a good person. Many Democrats, myself included, have not been lying when saying for months that Trump is a different sort of Republican in our eyes. I think we used words like “temperament” and “unfit for office,” but what we have really meant is that our honest opinion is that he’s a deeply immoral human being and that we would be unable in good conscience to be supportive.

So, where does that leave us? Civil war? Obviously not. Nothing remotely that drastic. At the moment, three things are clear:

First, Trump won an open and free election. Violence is not justified at all. I went to a protest last night in Philadelphia and found myself disgusted and alienated by “not my president” chants. He is my president—for all of us. To reject this decision is to reject democracy. Like it or not, the Trump/Tea-Party/former-but-really-still-a-little-birther wing of the Republican Party is stunningly triumphant. They won fair and square. Seriously, I would personally enlist and fight in a war to defend this national choice. Trump is our legitimate President. That must be accepted and supported.

Secondly, we must not light the house on fire to burn Trump. After Obama won in 2008, Republicans did this to Obama. For example, Obamacare, very similar to plans proposed by Gingrich and implemented by Romney, was designed to work through and expand the private insurance industry. Of course, there was room for criticism—that’s necessary and helpful—but none for demonization, lies, “death panels,” etc. So, yes, let’s work with President Trump to get as much done as possible. We can’t help others less for the sake of soothing our own self-righteousness or gaining political advantage by denying Trump political victories. We must be bigger. I’m glad to see Warren and Sanders make statements to that effect.

Lastly, and I’ll get to details on how we might do this in a second, we absolutely must deny Trump any claim to moral leadership. He’s an immoral man and we have to say it, and keep saying, to our kids, outsiders, and each other. Why exactly? Many reasons.

The biggest one: we cannot allow morality to be redefined for the next generation. We must tell our kids that it’s not OK to be a bully. We must tell our less-than-large breasted daughters that they are beautiful. We must tell our sons it’s not OK to insult a woman’s looks (or anyone’s looks for that matter). We must tell our kids its not OK to lie to get ahead in life. We must tell our kids that apologizing is a sign of strength, not weakness. We must tell our kids that its not OK to view people that look different than you as worse than you. We can’t budge on this.

More practically, we must distance ourselves for the sake of stopping violence against Americans abroad. One of the things that annoys many Americans about Muslims is that they spend too little time and energy condemning fringe elements that call themselves Muslims who support terrorism. Of course, the analogy is far from perfect in both directions (Trumpism is definitionally not fringe; his immoral behavior is nothing in comparison to terrorists). Still, a broad point stands: without Muslims seeing Americans very active in condemning the immoral behavior of other Americans, they will assume they condone it to some degree. In particular, the Trump win represents a stunning recruiting opportunity for ISIS. This logic has not changed. His election confirms their suspicions that Americans are ignorant, loud, immoral, bullies, whose religion is fame, wealth, and worldly pleasures. The brief inter-culturalism of Barack Hussein Obama can be construed as an aberration. We must do whatever we can, therefore, to isolate Trump as a moral leader and any claim to representing American values. (In fact, Trump might make a speech to that effect and pacify a few people.)

And let’s not focus only on enemies. Canadians, Europeans, Mexicans and others are freaking out. Some of them Trump has openly insulted and threatened. In particular, we must tell the Mexican people that we are ashamed of Trumps comments and policies. We have to assure them that, despite losing this election, he doesn’t speak for all of us.

We must also tell the world that it’s not OK to lie about elections being rigged as a tactic for winning them, seek to jail political opponents (or give the impression that that is appropriate), or malign judges for personal expediency. That’s the strategy of 3rd world dictatorships and threatens to undermine peace and order.

Finally, we we need to affirm our moral code to each other, to people within our country that are afraid, and anyone afraid or happy that there is a new standard for what is right and wrong. There’s not.

So how do we reject Trump as a moral leader? It’s starts by being moral ourselves and accepting the election results. But it must include some ongoing form of visible protest that the world can see everyday. What exactly? We #neverTrump people will continue to reflect on how to do this. As I’ve said, moderates like me are new to more extreme political action and need time to figure it out. However, a few ideas are emerging.

First, screw snarky tweets, angry Facebook posts, or being passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive dicks to our friends and family for four years. We can do things more helpful to others and ourselves.

One thing we must do is draft a moderate declaration that condemns some of Trumps worse behaviors, articulates moral values, and gets 50 million signatures. That’s a start.

A second thing we can do, and this one excites me, is commit to a visible and non-violent four-year Trump protest. It’s purpose? Remind ourselves and each other of the simple point: we are in Trump’s world, but not of it.

donotconform

Paul wrote his most seminal, intentional, and structured epistle to the Romans, the most dominate (and some thought decadent) nation on earth. He gives an exhortation on how to live in their world.

Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.  (Romans 12:2)

For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world.  (1 John 2:16)

Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God.  (1 Peter 2:11-12)

For me, the Christian teaching “Be in the world, but not of it,” expresses exactly my belief that Trump is both legit Caesar and legit unethical, and I won’t conform.

So what do we do exactly for our four-year protest? Ideally, all of us would do the same thing. Wear black? Too sad. Arm bands?  Too fascist. We also want to draw attention, but not so much it defines life. It should be inexpensive, not time-consuming, and easy as possible to implement as we’ll have to do this a lot. What should we do?

One thing that spread after Brexit was wearing safety pins as a sign to refugees, minorities, and other groups afraid and facing increased rates of assault. The message was simple: you are safe with me. I’m surprised by how much I like this. It’s simple, beautiful, and inexpensive. I also love it’s not just anti-something. But there’s 2 small problems. First, it’s not as visible as we’d like: it would be impactful if we could see them everywhere on a busy street. Second, it takes work, even if it’s just a tiny thing. People would have to pin them to their shirts everyday, and I would just forget about them, wash them, and ruin my shirts. I’m ethical and all, but there are limits.

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The safety pin protest is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and it’s already picking up steam.

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This is a selfie of my wife she just put on Facebook. Her caption: I am a safe place. #safetypin #ally In the words of my dear friend, Brent Chamberlain, I wear this pin “to represent safety not just for the minorities with whom I feel solidarity, but also the majority whose too-often legitimate feelings of fear have led to this climate. No one is alone, not the steelworker in Ohio, nor the child of illegal immigrants in New York.”

I love it though. If that’s what we all decide to do, count me in! I’ll wear my ruined shirts with pride. However, I’m toying around with something else: pink socks–they always change the world. Seriously, I want to buy 25 pairs of bright pink socks and wear them for 1,460 days; from January 20, 2017 until January 20, 2021. I think this strikes that balance of visible but not too visible. I’d also actually do it (just put your other socks away). It’s a tad pricey, but it’s also not wasteful. I’d get four years of sock use! Anyway, I’m not ready to commit to it, but the point is “Do Something!” All of us in this ethical dilemma must express that we are both in Trumps world but not of it. If you are doing something else, I’d love to hear about it! Maybe we can all do your idea! For me, I picked pink partly because it’s distinctive, but mainly because I think women and girls are doubly hurt by this election, and it breaks my heart.

Finally, on the right or left, if you are distraught by this election, if you see productive public discourse as important, if you are depressed, if you feel the need to act right now but don’t know what could possibly do any good, there actually is something concrete you could do in the next five minutes.

Search for Common Ground is the largest dedicated peace-building non-profit in the world. They work in 49 countries on everything from high-level diplomacy to community engagement. One thing I love is that they set up discussion groups between individuals of opposing political and ethnic groups and mediate weekly discussions over 10 weeks that cover increasingly divisive topics. This shit changes lives. Unfortunately, they have virtually no grassroots presence in the United States. Why? Money. Yay! A solvable problem! Go donate $10. It will help America heal and help you feel better. It did for me. Also, I’ve got science: we know that supporting causes you care about contributes to mental health. Seriously, you’ll feel better.

My goal in this essay was to articulate what makes this election result especially upsetting for me and others, and what we might do about it. I wanted to close, however, with an apology to Republicans.

I’m super angry with you, don’t get me wrong. Policy aside, you forced an immoral person on all of us. Really? Kasich would have killed you? I’m super pissed at you. However, however, however, I’m also painfully aware that, had the election gone differently, many of you, policy aside, would feel the same about Hillary.  I apologize for forcing you to decide between someone you found morally reprehensible and Donald Trump. It was wrong of us.  I’ve realized we shouldn’t want nominees with cross-party appeal for only electability reasons. We want them for wellbeing reasons. Good rule of thumb for future primaries: If my guy wins, will the other side hate their lives for four years? This time, it’s moderate Dems like me who feel ethically bound to purse new and radical things like four-year protests. Next time, it might be you. Moving forward, I hope to be more like we were in 2008 and 2012, and nominate people universally acknowledged as morally upright to champion our different views.  Lesson (painfully) learned.

In future posts, I hope to get into more details about the ramifications of this win, why it happened, and process what it might mean for the future. There’s a lot of reflecting to do! Also, I’m a guest blogger on Huffington Post now, so feel free to make suggestions about how to make this better and shorter for that venue.  Thanks!

Disclosure: I have a super big conflict of interest about Search. My wife works there and I will do whatever’s neccessary to get into her pants. Please note: she’s super talented and could work anywhere, but she chose Search because she believes in it. I also know the organization pretty well and I think it’s a good one (and I’m a serious non-profit snob). Seriously, go donate $10. You’ll feel better.


What Reality are Trump People Living In?

If you are anything like me, you don’t quite understand what to make of the Trump phenomenon.  Sure Hillary is winning, but what is more interesting to me is that over a third of Americans still plan to vote for this guy.  Why?  I’m bored with demonizing Trump and Trump supporters.  I want to understand the world they are seeing because I don’t get it.

As luck would have it, I happen to be a researcher at Penn who studies the impact of primal world beliefs, which are beliefs about the nature of reality writ large such as “the world is fascinating.”  Primals are the most super simple, essential, and general beliefs we have.  As of a few months ago, we can now measure 28 primals (yay!).  To give away the results, 24 of them mostly collapse into three big ones (Safe, Enticing, and Alive) and these in turn collapse into 1 big one (Good, defined hedonistically).  Currently, I’m trying to publish all these measures and look at psychological correlates (super happy…lots of big effect sizes and highly significant findings… primals predict depression, wellbeing, life satisfaction, etc.), but I had some data on current politics and, in this season of absurdity, I thought some people might find it interesting.  I’m also learning how to report and conduct these analyses, so it’s good practice. What follows is a summary and an appendix with all the numbers.  Keep in mind that all findings below come from one online sample of 533 people [so place grain of salt here].  Eventually, I plan to publish a peer-reviewed journal article with much of this information.

What reality are Republicans and Democrats living in?

So I had this fantastic theory that Republicans would see the world as way more dangerous than Democrats.  I though that might explain Republicans’ “irrational” a) fear of criminals which manifests as interest in law and order and support for mandatory minimums, b) fear of ISIS, c) fear of Mexicans, d) fear of people coming to take their guns, e) fear of government, and f) fear of out-group members generally.  At their last convention, and indeed for every single Republican debate, it seemed like candidates were always trying to out-terrorize each other (“No, I understand the great peril we are in!”…”No, no.  I understand it better.”)

However, this theory was wrong.  True, Republicans see the world as slightly more dangerous, but way less than I thought.  It’s a small relationship.

Furthermore, both parties see the world as about more or less equally good, revolving around them, abundant, acceptable, beautiful (Dems were slightly higher), changing, pleasurable, improvable, improving (Dems were slightly higher), interesting, meaningful, needing them, fragile, understandable, and against them.  There were so many similarities!

Ok.  So where do they differ?  Republican reality differs from Democratic reality in 9 ways, 4 small, 4 medium, and 1 big.  Let’s get the small ones out of the way first.

  • On average, Democrats see the world as less competitive.  That is, on average, their honest opinion is that collaboration, and not competition, makes the world go round.  In turn, this would make sense of why Republicans tend to see Democrats as more naive “kum-by-ya-ists,” and Democrats tend to see Republicans as more merciless cutthroats.
  • On average, Republicans see the universe as more atomistic while Democrats tend to see the universe as more of an interconnected whole.  Perhaps this helps Clinton’s slogan of “Stronger Together” have traction among those with a worldview in which deep interconnection and cooperation is more of a felt reality.  Perhaps this allows the issue of climate change to find more fertile ground among Democrats.

I predicted the two above.  They make sense of Republicans emphasizing free markets and American exceptionalism, among other things.  I did not predict the two below:

  • On average, Dems see the world as more funny.  Republicans tend to think that funny things are fewer and farther between.  I wonder if this partly explains why virtually all comedians and entertainers are Democrats.
  • One of the primals I measured is what I call “Characterizable.”  Basically, do you think the world has an overall nature or not?  On average, Republicans tend to think it has a nature while Democrats do not.  Again, however, these are all fairly small differences.

Moving on to the 4 differences that are a bit bigger:

  • On average, Republicans see the world as more alive, which means they see the universe as more imbued with intention and that the world is interacting with them personally.  However, these sorts of views correlate with increased religiosity, so I’m not sure if seeing the world as alive is relevant to political views or just a side effect of religion.  My intuition says it’s probably more of a side effect, so I don’t talk about it as much in the analysis below.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as less worth exploring.  This is essentially a gut level sense of return on investment for the worthwhileness of exploring or learning more about any given thing, place, or person.  Democrats do not necessarily actually explore their worlds more; it just means that they think most everything is more likely to be worth exploring.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more just.  Does the arc of life trend towards justice.  Does life find a way to reward those who do good and punish those who do bad?  Is the world a place where working hard and being nice pays off?  Republicans tend to say ‘Yes,’  and Democrats say ‘No.’

    Demi are top. Reps are bottom.

    Dems (top) tend to see reality as unfair and Republicans (bottom) tend to have the honest opinion that life will find ways to reward those who work hard and help others.

  • Finally, the second biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans live in a reality marked by decline, and Democrats think the world is getting better.  On the one hand, this makes sense of why such vague rhetoric as “We don’t win anymore” appeals to Republicans and not Democrats, because even though it’s a super vague statement, it corresponds to a primal world belief that distinguishes these groups.  On the other hand, this distinction between Reps and Dems might be to some degree an artifact of who’s in the White House.  I imagine that when Bush was in charge, Republicans might have seen the world as in less decline and Democrats’ views would have changed a bit too.  Still, I doubt this distinction would disappear.

All this, however, except for decline, is relatively small potatoes.  Let’s talk about the biggest difference, because it both makes sense and doesn’t make sense: hierarchical.  

hiear

Democrats are on top, and Republicans are below. As you can see, despite plenty of overlap between the two groups, there is a striking difference.

What the hell does “hierarchical” mean?  Out of all the primals we have identified, this one is the least intuitive.  For me, it was also super fun to see it “pop” in relation to politics because Hierarchical wasn’t related to depression, anxiety, optimism, curiosity, income, education, or really any of the other variables I looked at.

The “hierarchical” primal concerns the nature of differences.  Namely, does difference imply that something is better or worse?  For those who believe that reality is hierarchical, if two things are different that usually implies that one is better than the other.  Likewise, for those who see reality as nonhierarchical, differences are likely surface and meaningless distinctions and probably distractions.  Under the latter view, any attempt to organize the world into “better” or “worse” things will either fail or be inaccurate and superficial.  However, for folks who see the world as hierarchical, most things can be fairly usefully ranked and ordered from better or worse.  This includes objects, from knives to landscapes, and people, from individuals to ethnic groups.  The biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans, on average, see the world as more hierarchical, or, to put it a different way, Democrats gloss over differences.

Are Trump supporters particularly strange Republicans?  

In a nutshell, no.  Trump people, as opposed to old Cruz and Kasich people, as well as independents, are fairly similar on every primal except 4.  Trump supporters out-Republican their Republican peers by seeing the world as even more Alive, Just, and  Hierarchical.  Also, Trump people think the world isn’t changing quite as much.

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All Republicans/independents on top. Trump folks on the bottom.

So what does this all mean? 

I’ve been trying to wrap my head arounds what this means, but it is starting to make some sense.  I’d love input:

  • Those who see the world as hierarchical and just will tend to assume in small ways that successful people are better people.  This suggests susceptibility to infatuations with billionaires.
  • If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then political correctness appears foolish.  PC culture is a real problem because it glosses over differences that really matter.  This might explain a deep frustration on the Right about political correctness that the Left just doesn’t get.
  • I’ve often been confused by why Americans need to talk about their country like it’s the best country in the history of the world.  But, if we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, and America is the most powerful country in the world, then it stands to reason that America is also the best.  It would feel false to say, “America is unique” without also saying, “America is the best.”
  • If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then we will have more difficulty mixing with and including out-groups.  Obviously, hispanic or African American culture is different than the culture of small-town white America where, according to Haidt, sanctity concerns matter more.
  • Jon Haidt identifies 5 political values: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, & sanctity/degradation.  Democrats score higher on two–care and fairness–while Republicans score more equally on all of them.  It may be useful to understand how primals interact with these values.  For instance, if, like many Republicans, you see the world as more just, then pursuing fairness should be less of a priority.  Likewise, if you see the world as hierarchical, then it is natural to value authority and submit to it.  Indeed, investigating the relationship between the values and primals of political ideologies could be a fascinating line of research.
  • The difference between Dems and Reps regarding Worth Exploring may be merely a manifestation of the much bigger difference on Hierarchical.  For Dems, the tendency to assume that differences don’t speak to value may be a tendency to gloss over differences in how worth exploring things are too.  In turn, for Republicans, seeing the world through the lens of rankings and hierarchies can’t allow every thing to be equally interesting because some things got to be boring.
  • Finally, the very definition of conservatism entails conserving something.  This is not an urgent priority for someone who sees reality as improving.  But, if the world is going to the dogs, then we need to hold on to the more just hierarchy of yesterday.

Ok.  Pretending this makes sense for a second, where do these primals come from?  

We don’t know.  I speculate that they come from many sources, including religion and numerous life experiences.  But what seems promising for explaining Hierarchical is simply where one lives.  Ask yourself, if you wanted to design an intervention that encouraged people to see the world as less hierarchical, what would you do?  Well, we would want to expose people to many different types of people and things that were quite different from each other, but not necessarily better or worse.

Where better to do that than in cities?

With all the talk about red and blue states, we forget that the political divide in America is likely better described as the rural-urban divide.  Check out the map below of the 2012 presidential election results by county.  You will find, of course with plenty of exceptions, that rural areas are red and urban areas are blue.  For instance, Oregon is a reliably blue state, but what’s really happening is that a redder countryside surrounds Portland and Eugene.  In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Allentown, and Harrisburg are blue dots in a mostly red state.  In Texas, Dallas (up there on its own), Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Beaumont are particularly striking.  This seems to hold for Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and others.  Of course, there are plenty of exceptions.  If I remember correctly, Oklahoma City is particularly conservative.

2012-usa-election-map-by-county-nyt

In other words, belief that the world is nonhierarchical could be a side-effect of urban life.

Could Democrats or Republicans use my data to help win this election or future elections?  

I think so, but should we?  Full disclosure: as a missionary kid who grew up overseas and is quite intercultural, I see the world as deeply nonhierarchical.  Adopting the lens of hierarchy does not come naturally to me, and of course I’m very much a fan of making everyone more like me.  Woohoo! Let’s do it!  Further, as a scientist, we’ve discovered no evidence so far that seeing the world as hierarchical helps or hurts wellbeing that much (though that’s not saying much… we’ve just started looking at this).

However, for a Democrat, I’m also a bit of an outlier on the belief that the world is just.  I tend to assume that life finds ways to reward those who work hard and do good.  As a scientist, I should note too that belief in a just world is the most studied primal to date.  It is connected to wellbeing, being more productive, being kinder to those around you, and numerous other good things.  Unfortunately, it’s also tied to blaming victims for their misfortunes, whether the victim is poor, sick, or disenfranchised.

What about Decline?  Way before I got into primals, and as a history super nerd (seriously friends, audiobooks and lectures on history are almost exclusively what I listen to in my spare time; I’m currently working through 3 books on medieval England), I have had a strong view that the world, in almost every way, is improving.  For example, Harvard’s Steven Pinker makes a case that violence has declined over human history.  Reasonable people can disagree, however, including Democrats like my wife, who happens to be much smarter than I am!

So, though I’m personally not down for changing Just beliefs, I could get excited about changing Declining and Hierarchical.  For the former, I would suggest that, in school, we study social history more and the history of those in power less.  Much of the improvements across the ages have been in such things as health, how we treat the mentally ill, women’s rights, human rights, legal systems, etc.  In my view, the facts speak for themselves (but that, I suppose, is how all of us think about all of our primals).

For Hierarchical, the big trick, as implied above, seems to me to be exposure.  One could seek to expose individuals to very different people, places, and things.  The logic being that this is why going to college, immersive overseas travel experiences like the Peace Corps, and moving to big cities tends to manufacture liberals (nothing new here).  These sorts of activities expose us to gays, jews, jesuits, rich, homeless, etc.  They become our friends, and we realize that the differences between us are very visible and fairly superficial. Who knows?  Maybe the DNC should think about supporting reality TV shows like Wife Swap (I’ve never seen it).

Finally, assuming we (Democrats) want to get more Republicans to vote for Hillary by capitalizing on primals already in place–to appeal to primals for political purposes without changing them–it seems that the Clinton folks were right to seize on how the Trump convention was pessimistic about America and then, at the Democratic convention, do more than the usual “America is the best” fanfare.  In other words, in order to appeal to those who see the world as more hierarchical, just, and in decline, it may be useful to be seen, to some degree, as the party of and celebrating the successful in-group.  I’m not sure if it’s worth it though.  It could alienate all those Dems who see the world as unjust and nonhierarchical.

In the meantime, I think it is important to not be condescending.  My original hypothesis had been that Trump people are essentially scared children, and that drove them, their politics, and their party into the arms of a demagogue.  This paternalistic theory was wrong.  The major difference between me and Trump supporters is more interesting and, hopefully, more useful.

Appendix

  • On average, Republicans see the world as a tad more dangerous.  There’s a small difference between Republicans (M=2.31, SD=.96) and Democrats (M=2.53, SD=.92), but it’s barely significant t(321)=1.96, p=.05; g=.24.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more Alive than Democrats (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.42, SD=.86; t(321)=-2.67, p=.008; g=.32).  This means they live in a reality more imbued with purpose and intentionality (M=2.63, SD=.91; M=2.2, SD=1.01; t(321)=-3.7, p=0.0003; g=.45).
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more easy to characterize than Dems (M=2.86, SD=.72; M=2.55, SD=.74; t(321)=-2.36, p=.019; g=.29).
  • On average, Dems see the the world as less competitive than Republicans (M=2.74, SD=.9; M=2.5, SD=.9; t(321)=2.2, p=.029; g=.27).
  • On average, Dems see the world as more funny than Republicans (M=2.88, SD=.91; M=2.66, SD=.93; t(321)=1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
  • On average, Dems see reality as more interconnected (M=.303, SD=1; M=2.74, SD=.91; t(321)=2.43, p=.016; g=.29).
  • The 2nd biggest difference is that, on average, Republicans see the world as more just (M=.2.58, SD=.84; M=2.86, SD=.93; t(321)=-2.78, p=.0057, g=.34).
  • When it comes to primals, the biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that whereas Republicans on average see reality as full of things that are meaningfully distinguishable from each other, Democrats tend to see all differences as not better or worse, but just different (M=2.73, SD=.82; M=2.17, SD=.91; t(321)=-5.23, p<.0001, g=.63).  You can think of this as “hierarchical.”  Republicans on average see hierarchy as more natural.  Everything is different from each other in ways that can make the object or person truly better or worse.  Democrats see hierarchy as more unnatural because the differences between things are not typically good or bad.
  • On average, Democrats see the world as more worth exploring (M=3.35, SD=.8; M=3.05, SD=.1.16; t(321)=2.8, p=0054, g=.34).
  • On average, Republicans tend to see the world as in decline (M=2.66, SD=1.32; M=2.12, SD=1.15; t(321)=-3.73, p=.0002, g=.45).
  • Compared to other Republicans/independents, Trump supporters see the world as equally good, safe (not even a little different), enticing, scarce (not even a little different), acceptable, beautiful, characterizable (Trump people see the world as slightly more characterizable), competitive (Trump people see the world as slightly more competitive), pleasurable, funny, improvable, improves, interesting, interconnected, meaningful, needs me (Trump people think the world needs them a little bit more), fragile, harmless, understandable, worth exploring, against them, and declining.
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more Alive (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.38, SD=.91; t(303)=-2.94, p=.0036; g=.36).  And thus even more intentional (M=2.77, SD=.91; M=2.4, SD=1.12; t(303)=-2.9, p=.004; g=.36) and about them (M=2.22, SD=.84; M=1.96, SD=.83; t(303)=-2.57, p=.011; g=.31).
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more hierarchical (M=2.62, SD=.9; M=2.31, SD=.9; t(303)=-2.85, p=.005; g=.35).
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more just (M=2.77, SD=.94; M=2.54, SD=.93; t(303)=-1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
  • On average, Trump people don’t think the world is changing all that much (M=2.99, SD=.81; M=3.18, SD=.71; t(303)=2.12, p=.035; g=.26).

Note: After this post got approximately a bazillion more views than I expected (actually just 15,000), I thought I would double-check my analysis.  So, FYI, the above has been updated in light of a further review of effect sizes.  


My Nerd Dream Team

I discovered my preferred form of intellectual hedonism by staying up past my bedtime one evening in late 2006.   I was a junior at Houghton College and hanging out with intellectual heavyweight classmates Alicia Walmus (now Clifton…bam!), Brent Chamberlain, and Chris Fiorello in the basement of Wesley Chapel.  They had just read a draft philosophy manuscript of mine and, before I knew it, Chris came out swinging, Alicia disagreed, Brent nuanced, and they were off debating whether I was right, what I had meant, and whether I was being brilliant or a totally inept monkey typist.  

At first, I was trying to jump in to lay down some wisdom.  But, thank goodness, stuttering slowed me down enough to be distracted by the conversation itself.  It riveted me.  Hours flew by.  I found myself adopting an observer role with occasional questions (remarkable only for being uncharacteristic), and something clicked:

There’s nothing more fun and weirdly addictive than listening to smarter better-informed people wrestle with your own ideas.   

Don’t get me wrong, I’m into being super virtuous and all, but the current topic is straight-up selfish infantile pleasure.  Whether it’s bashing, praising, building off my ideas, connecting them to other ones, etc., I love it when smarter people discuss my ideas and find them interesting.  (Finding them accurate is good too I guess).  Years later, I would learn that my top two strengths, according to the VIA strengths survey, are Creativity and Bravery.  Basically, this means that I like coming up with crazy shit and putting it out there.  My life can be generously described, therefore, as one sustained effort to gather smart people and hog discussion topics. 

Ten months ago, all my nerdiest dreams came true in the form of a three day event at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvannia.  I meant to blog about this sooner but I’ve been irrationally fearful.  Frankly, I have a hard time believing it happened.  In short, my tombstone will read,

Here lies Jer, who had an idea, made a top-ten list of the world’s scholars he’d most enjoy talking to about it, got them into a windowless conference room, didn’t let them leave for three days, made them talk about nothing else but the idea, and they seemed it find it super interesting.

These scholars are worth knowing about.  I want to introduce you and share a quote that gives a flavor of their thinking about primals.    

Dr. Carol Dweck
Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck is considered by some to be one of the most influential psychologists alive today. Her research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets. She has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard, and her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it. Carol is very involved in the primals initiative before and has been deeply kind to me, inviting me out to stay with her and spending hours talking to me about primals. Prior to the retreat, Carol is putting some thought into how we might organize primal world beliefs.

Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard and is considered by some to be one of the most influential psychologists alive today.

Carol’s research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets.  In particular, the belief that abilities can be improved is critical to actually improving–we pursue what we think can be caught.  Her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it.

The picture above cracks me up because Carol is an incredibly kind person.  She was also one of the first to buy into the primals concept, inviting me out to stay with her in California, spending hours talking about primals, and continues to shepherd me through this crazy time.  I’m proud to call her my friend.  She says,

Beliefs are at the heart of motivation, personality, well being, and much pathology, yet this is not widely recognized. To the extent that studying primals (or core beliefs) can bring this to the fore, it could have a tremendous effect on how we conceptualize and study human nature.

Dr. Alia Crum
Dr. Alia Crum received her PhD from Yale, her BA from Harvard, and is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford. Her research focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality. Her research has won several awards, including the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize, the William Harris Prize, and has been featured in popular media outlets. I adore Alia. We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours. Prior to the retreat, Alia is putting some thought into meta-beliefs (beliefs about beliefs) and how primals relate to health.

Dr. Alia Crum received her PhD from Yale, her BA from Harvard, and is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford–one of the youngest ever.

Alia’s Mind & Body Lab focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality.  For example, our beliefs about the effects of stress changes the effects of stress and beliefs about fattening foods makes some foods more fattening.  

I adore Alia.  We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours.  We talk about examining the influence of meta-beliefs (beliefs about the usefulness of a belief), how primals relate to health, and how to navigate academia.  The main difference between our focus is that she studies beliefs that are more specific than primals (e.g. beliefs about stress rather than beliefs about everything), and she focuses on how they impact physical health.  She says,

Although some may be confused—or even overwhelmed—by the premise that we have implicit assumptions about the nature of the world and that those assumptions play a powerful role in shaping our experience of the world, it makes complete sense to those of us who study mindsets and beliefs…Primals, as Jer has defined them, are the most general beliefs of all. As such, they have the greatest potential to assert a biasing influence into our lives, for better or for worse.

Dr. Alan Fiske
Dr. Alan Fiske is a famous anthropologist from UCLA.

Dr. Alan Fiske is a famous anthropologist from UCLA.

Alan received his BA from Harvard, PhD from the University of Chicago, and has done fieldwork in Malawi, Congo, Bangladesh, and Burkina Faso.  He’s well known for his theory of social relationships which breaks down all human relationships into four basic types.  He’s just written a new book, Virtuous Violence, in which he suggests that much violence is pursued by a genuine desire to be moral.  He helped us at the retreat by voicing some cautions.  In particular, he wants us to be careful when it comes to applying primals theory and research to other cultures.  He says,

The concept of primals is stimulating…as was evident from the animated discussions….[but] my claim [is] that concepts about the world are culturally embedded: they don’t make sense in isolation.

Dr. Rob DeRubeis
Dr. Rob DeRubeis was chair of the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the 2014 retreat. He has authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on topics that center on depression treatment. He is a recipient of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy’s Aaron T. Beck Award and the Senior Distinguished Career Award from the Society for Psychotherapy Research.

Dr. Rob DeRubeis is a depression expert, having authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on the topic.

Rob was Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the retreat, so we were lucky to have him.  He put some thought into how primals relate to depression and has also had some advice for me on how to pursue measuring primals.  

In clinical psychology, we do not adopt a hands-off attitude when one has a belief such as “I am worthless.”  We try to help the patient re-evaluate such beliefs, as they lead to poor life outcomes and nearly always are exaggerations or simply untrue.  Jer and Marty want to study the belief “the world is worthless.”  It’s imperative that we find out if this belief is also connected to poor life outcomes.

Dr. James Pawelski
Dr. James Pawelski is Director of the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dynamic Individualism of William James.

Dr. James Pawelski is Director of the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dynamic Individualism of William James.

James is a mentor.  I love him.  We share an affinity for facial hair, philosophy, goofiness, scholarship, and we both grew up overseas the children of Christian missionaries.  He was my Master’s capstone advisor and helped launch all this.  James is one of the world’s experts on William James, a philosopher important to both psychologists and philosophers, and is building projects exploring how the humanities can be used to explore and advance subjective wellbeing.  Also, he recently figured out what “positive” means in “positive psychology” (he would hate me for saying that).  He says,

It appears that most people, most of the time, do not know their primals, even though it seems likely that they influence us in a variety of ways.  Given the promise primals research has for yielding life-changing insight and for facilitating profound individual and cultural transformation, I eagerly await the results Jer’s research will uncover.  

Dr. Crystal Park
Dr. Crystal Park is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, associate editor of four journals, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and former president of Division 36 of the APA (Psychology of Religion).

Dr. Crystal Park is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, associate editor of four journals, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and former president of Division 36 of the APA (Psychology of Religion).

Crystal’s research explores many aspects of human life (including yoga!) with a focus on how certain beliefs influence an individual’s ability to cope with hardship.  You might say that, if there was such a thing as “primals literature,” she would be one of the world’s top experts.  She knows the studies done on beliefs which are most similar to primals, she knows how to measure them, and is now helping me figure out how to measure primals too.  She’s also become a close mentor,  a constant source of expertise and encouragement, and I am deeply grateful for her.  She says,

I am quite familiar with the literature on those psychological constructs most similar to primals, and can therefore say without reservation that focusing on primals provides an opportunity to explore a fundamental element of human experience that has heretofore been minimally examined. It may be that it is so obvious that psychologists simply overlooked it… This is one of those projects that has great potential for identifying an important piece for what it means to be human.

Dr. Paul Rozin
Dr. Paul Rozin is a well-known psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Paul Rozin is a well-known psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul’s major research focus has been human food choice, the emotion of disgust, and cultural psychology.  It was fun to have him.  He was one of the guest professors for the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program when I was a student.  Before the retreat, he put some thoughts into how primals relate to cultural differences.  He, David, and Alan shared a concern that helped us to become more nuanced.  He says,

The problem that David, Alan and I kept returning to is that there is often no adaptive general belief that works for all situations. I will use the “world is safe” proposed primal. It is appropriate to feel unsafe in the Middle East and to feel safe in Denmark. It is appropriate to feel safe with one’s family, and less safe when dealing with strangers.

Dr. Richard Reeves
Dr. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, former director of strategy for the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, and former director of Demos, the London-based political think-tank. He is also the author of John Stuart Mill – Victorian Firebrand as well as many articles, radio programs, and publications on politics and policy. Richard is one of my favorite people. Funny, witty, whip smart, and English, Prior to the retreat, Richard is putting some thought into primals that have dominated historical eras.

Dr. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, historian, philosopher, policy-maker, and former director of strategy for the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister

Richard’s one of my favorite people in the world to have a beer with: the smartest, wittiest (most English) philosopher/historian/policy guy I know.  Richard’s policy work focuses on inequality.  The image above is from his kickass appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart earlier this year and in the video below he explains the current state of American inequality with legos.  I recommend both.  

At the retreat, Richard talked about primals across history, looking at the primals of Sparta and Athens, which was candy for a history nerd like me.  He, James, Rob, and others, are convinced that primals have relevance across academic disciplines and for policy.  He says,

There have been a few times in my professional life when an idea came along with that feeling of freshness—like putting one’s spade into genuinely new intellectual soil. This is how I feel about primals. The idea is so basic, so simple, but I really think that is has the potential to do some really good work and influence a wide range of fields.

Dr. David Sloan Wilson
Dr. David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionist at the University of Binghamton who studies all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world. His books include Darwin's Cathedral (2002), Does Altruism Exist? (2015), and Evolution for Everyone (2007).

Dr. David Sloan Wilson, President of the Evolution Institute, studies evolution at the University of Binghamton, examining all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world.

You’ve probably heard of David’s books.  He’s written Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), Evolution for Everyone (2007), and, his latest, Does Altruism Exist? (2015).  In a room of top scholars, David’s breadth of knowledge across disciplines stood out.  In addition to putting some thought into the relationship between primals and evolution, David had a suggestion for us,

Primals might not describe human and cultural universals. Instead, they might be culturally specific…vital for some cultures but marginal or even absent in others. [This] does not detract from the importance of the concept—especially if primals are found primarily in modern cultures, which are most relevant for improving human welfare in the future.

Dr. Chandra Sripada
Dr. Chandra Sripada holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan in Philosophy and Psychiatry. He works on issues of human mind and agency that connect philosophy and the behavioral and brain sciences. He received his PhD in philosophy from Rutgers and completed residency training in psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Chandra has been very useful in talking about the connection between primals and values. He's also an incredibly encouraging human being, having supported me in key moments.

Dr. Chandra Sripada holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan in Philosophy and Psychiatry. He works on issues of human mind and agency that connect philosophy and the behavioral and brain sciences.

Chandra is an incredibly encouraging human being and has supported me in key moments over the year.  He had a great deal to say about values, which he thinks are really important to consider in conjunction with primals, and what was great is that he could talk about his stuff so deeply from both a philosophical and empirical perspective.  He says,

I deeply hope that this project continues and that we come to identify these primal world views, measure them, and come to understand how they influence our lives. The results could be extraordinarily useful, not just in psychology, but also for other academic disciplines.

What Fun! 

Honestly, bringing these folks together is an honor and privilege I will treasure for the rest of my life.  Writing these posts, and seeing  photographic evidence of us in windowless conference rooms bathed in warm fluorescence, I’m starting to believe it actually happened.

In the next post, I’ll share more about what we did at the retreat itself.  Spoiler alert: Where’s Marty Seligman?  In the meantime, here’s two group shots.

This group picture we took of ourselves in the middle of our talks because Marty just got out of surgery and we wanted to send him a picture and our love.

Primals Research Retreat Participants left to right front: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford). Middle: Dr. James Pawelski (PPC), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Jess Miller (PPC), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Back: Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (PPC), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings),

Crew left to right front: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford). Middle: Dr. James Pawelski (PPC), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Jess Miller (PPC), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Back: Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (PPC), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings),