By Deepak Chopra, MD
We are living at a time when the story of America is changing, with nothing but more change on the horizon. Therefore, we face a critical decision. Should the new American story be born out of fear or hope? The stark contrasts in the 2016 election make this choice inevitable. One indelible human trait is the craving to turn our experiences into stories. These stories gather tags (now often called memes) that keep the story straight and allow people to agree about them. “The greatest generation” is such a tag, supporting the story of the Allied victory in World War II, which is referred to as a “good war,” another tag. Politics is many things, but one of the most important is a war between competing stories, and if your side comes up with the winning story, your victory can last far beyond one election cycle.
Donald Trump has been wildly erratic when it comes to actual ideas, policies, and positions, but he rode the crest of an immensely successful Republican story. So-called conservative “principles” are largely a collection of mythical storylines, and the tags that define them go back to the Nixon era. We are all familiar with law and order, the silent majority, morning in America, “Government isn’t the solution–it’s the problem,” “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” clash of civilizations, “Guns don’t kill people–people do,” and many other conservative memes.
So fervent is the craving for stories that the right wing clings to storylines that are totally false if your standard of truth is historical fact, accurate data, and pluralism. But rigidly clinging to our story is something we all do. By the same token, we become nervous and disturbed when our story starts to fray. The right plays upon fear very successfully at times of national anxiety, from Nixon’s “pitiful helpless giant” to Bush’s “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” to Trump’s “make America great again,” which plays upon the anxiety of national decline. Fear is a powerful motivator in the short term, even when it proves to be disastrously bad as a guide to action, as witness the Vietnam war and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
It seems likely that Donald Trump has finally reached the end of his string and will self-destruct thanks to his total inability to control himself. But the crisis surrounding the American story won’t go away. The benign revolt led by Bernie Sanders isn’t comparable to the toxic revolt led by Trump. Yet they share a refusal to go along with the American story we’ve been living with, and the fact that such a huge proportion of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction indicates how deep our confusion, frustration, and discontent have progressed.
It’s a positive sign that right-wing coherence is falling apart, because the conservative storyline is freighted with too many malignant tendencies. That it serves to condone religious fundamentalism, Southern racism, the Tea Party, birthers, and Trump himself is reason enough to provoke a complete shakeup. The problems are less dire on the progressive side. Even though the right-wing smear machine dominates talk radio and has successfully turned the tags “liberal” and “progressive” into terms of disdain, the social reality–and historical truth–lies on the liberal side. We owe democracy, liberty, the Constitution, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, cultural pluralism, immigration, and the impartial rule of law to a liberal storyline going back more than two centuries.
The problem for Hillary Clinton isn’t as alarming as it looked in our worst nightmares, which saw Trumpism seizing the country, riding a tidal wave of discontent, and resulting in a chaotic, toxic political revolution. But assuming that she is elected, Hillary must address the fact that the old liberal story is loosely sutured and coming apart. Trump instigates fear about illegal immigrants, globalism, radical Islam, slow economic recovery, the rise of China, and home-grown terrorists, yet even without him, these are new memes that challenge the American story.
Presidents are in a unique position to guide a new narrative. President Obama recognized this in Ronald Reagan, even though Obama himself has largely been stymied by the right wing to bring about many of the changes he wanted. Beyond electing an Afro-American to the Presidency, which was a huge change in our story, other shifts on the liberal side, such as supporting democracy in the Middle East, establishing national health care, and normalizing relations with Russia are successes that still haven’t found full national acceptance.
So the question remains: Will the new American story be written out of fear or hope? The times are never settled; the unknown is always upon us. What matters isn’t how rich a country is or how dominant its armies are, but whether the national spirit is discouraged or confident, forward or backward looking, progressive or reactionary. Stories are the underpinning of psychology, and what the American psyche needs more than ever is self-awareness. If nothing else positive comes from with his run for the Presidency except wake people up so that we can re-examine ourselves, Trump will have done one good thing.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Chopra #17 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com