autocratic tendencies: is the president changing us?

Next week, Helsinki, Finland will host a Trump-Putin Summit. President Trump has requested that he be guaranteed a meeting with Vladimir Putin in total privacy, with no witnesses present. As these two leaders come together, I am saddened by their apparent similarities, and even more grieved by the impact they have on the rest of us. A year ago this week, Presidents Trump and Putin met face to face for the first time during the G20 gathering in Hamburg, Germany. In an article juxtaposing violent protests with that friendly and longer-than-planned encounter, in which both parties accepted as fact assurances repeatedly disproven by professional journalists and intelligence agencies, Edward Lucas, writing for CNN, reports “the sight of two autocratic, media-hating leaders with dodgy business connections getting together.” He describes Putin and the President of the United States, our President, with the same words: “autocratic”, “media-hating” and “with dodgy business connections.”

While it is easy to lament the similarities in these two leaders, and the abandonment of an honorable ideal that President Trump represents in my view, I am more concerned with the trickle down effect I see him having on the cultural norms of Americans. What happens to a society when there is no expectation of integrity in the leaders upon whose discernment we depend? What happens when strength and leadership are proven through unchecked power and unilateral decision forcing? What happens when people in power decide who is safe, who is human, and who is welcome, while all others are treated as hostile, animalistic and terrifying? What happens when differences of opinion are demonized and multiple angles of an issue are excluded as biased, fake news? 

I’m afraid that “what happens” in these hypothetical instances are the things we see happening all around us. Our multi-branched government can’t function with an autocratic leader, and inciting violent disdain for reporters who challenge authority undermines a society that theoretically champions our 1st Amendment. Despite the perspective coming from the White House, encountering diverse perspectives strengthens my ability to appreciate others, increases my understanding of complicated issues I need to navigate, and contextualizes my experience as an adult living in Nashville, TN in 2018. Autocratic leadership forgets that we need each other. I suspect that a quick glance at any of our pasts demonstrates the idea that we are all encouraged, challenged, matured, helped or advanced by the input of others.

We know what our President refutes. Humanity only works in community.

We not only need others, we specifically need people whose experiences differ from ours. During last year’s G20 Summit, my 13 year old learned to ride a motorcycle at my parents’ farm. My dad taught me to ride when I was 8, and his bikes had not been started for years. While I could teach my son the delicate rhythm required between the clutch and gears, or the ins and outs of cranking, braking and balancing, I did not have the experience required to take a carburetor apart. Luckily, my dad does, so my son not only learned to ride a dirt bike, but how to take apart, clean and rebuild a carburetor as well. Yes, I could teach him to ride, but no, I could not have started the bike in the first place without my dad’s distinct experience and expertise. We need each other.

Nevertheless, I see evidence, modeled best by our President, that our society is functioning in a way that meets difference with not just skepticism, but outright disdain. This is a failing strategy. Surely each of us knows our experiences would be severely limited if we refused to hear or learn from the people around us. Knowing this, we must expose the idea of being “autocratic” as a terrible way to lead. Deriving all knowledge exclusively from the self is limiting. When that self has unchecked power, it leads to tyranny, and is an affront to American governance.

Autocracy is decidedly not democracy. Nevertheless, consider: Are we moving toward autocratic ways of thinking and acting? We see these traits in our President as he discredits a disagreeing judge, refuses to follow the suggestions of an office created to help him manage his affairs ethically, insults people who approach a problem from different angles, ignores experts, uses Twitter to bully and even fire supporters, shames allies and dismisses professional reporters as irrelevant and dangerous. We cannot change his habits. Indeed, it appears we cannot even challenge his proven track record of unethical speech, action and business deals. Even as we find ourselves powerless in the face of such autocratic and media hating habits, we can actively resist our tendencies to follow his lead. 

Just as importantly, as a person who has been offended by our President dozens of times, I also speak to those of us who self-righteously claim to be nothing like him. Sure, it is easy to spot friends who make life choices based on a foundation of fear and mistrust of the ‘Other.’ Sure, it is easy to roll my eyes at people whose news sources prove to be driven not by facts and thoughtful reporting but by allegiance to a specific perspective. Sure, it is easy to pity people who live in a virtual hivemind, only trusting those who share a single perspective.

Here is the kicker: I do the same! I have autocratic tendencies! I belong at the Trump-Putin Summit!

Am I capable of dismissing the perspective of a person I disdain? Am I capable of thinking I know all, that I am best equipped to make a decision without consulting others? Am I capable of behaving unethically in certain parts of my life, while galloping across the moral high ground when it suits me? Am I capable of distrusting someone because of a stereotype, or ignoring experiences that challenge a notion I hold dear? Yes, to all of the above, yes.

In short, all of us have a part to play in resisting powerful leaders who could do us harm. Rather than railing on about how Trump and Putin deserve each other, lamenting how low the US has fallen in the eyes of the world, perhaps each of us should do a personal inventory, examining our own “autocratic”, “media-hating” and “dodgy business dealing” spots.  Those of us most appalled by our current regime might just fit right in. Changing norms change people unless they resist.