Trump, self-interest and collective hope

Probably like most of you, I spent yesterday evening listening to the US presidential election results with increasing disbelief. It was as if they were happening not just in a different country, but in a different dimension. 

When Trump’s acceptance speech came on the radio I listened, and was mildly reassured. He seemed to be saying that the grisly tournament was over and now the serious business of running a nation must begin. But one snippet disturbed me greatly. Not because of what it said about Trump, but because of what it said about how one is supposed to galvanise people in today’s world. This was when he referred to working with other nations, but prefaced his comment with, “While we will always put America’s interests first...”

What does it mean to offer relationship, while stating that you intend to put yourself first within that relationship? The message is something like: “Be wary of me. You are ‘other’ to me at all times. I will never allow myself to listen deeply to your needs and for us to agree on what is fair and right in this situation regardless of who it appears to benefit in the short-term.” What is doubly extraordinary about this statement is that Trump probably felt it was a needed caveat to keep Americans happy, as if Americans truly believe the world works best when everyone is out for number one. I am not saying Americans (and New Zealanders for that matter) have not bought into this claim at some level, but in reality they will have experienced over and over again that genuine cooperation is what makes the social world go around.

Research consistently shows that the majority of people choose cooperative strategies most of the time – even when it goes against their immediate self-interest and even when they do not have an ongoing relationship with the other people involved. However, research also shows that when people do not trust others to cooperate, they retreat into self-interest.

So in a subtle, but important way, rhetoric that reinforces self-interest as a reasonable strategy – the only reasonable strategy in the case of Trump’s statement - undermines the trust essential to cooperation. It turns us from the generous, open, and creative people we are at our best; into guarded, fearful people who feel it is our duty to get as much as we can from the collective. Sure, the idea of our group dominating the world (a.k.a. patriotism) can generate a certain feverish excitement and unity at times, but it has always got a nasty edge. It is an excitement based on someone else’s loss or at the very least on turning our back on those who are not ‘one of us’. And that hyped-up, competitive state - no matter what the dominant rhetoric tries to tell us – is not the natural human condition. It is not how the great majority of us behave in our daily lives, it is not what brings personal happiness and it is certainly not how societies maintain the collective hope needed to become more sustainable and just.

We maintain collective hope by constantly appealing to people’s desire to work together. Telling the world I (or we) are, or should aim to be, “better than” or “the leading” or “great” – sounds both exhausting and hollow the morning after. (What you mean me? No mate, that’s for those people that go on those TV shows.) Telling people that they are cared for, and will continue to be cared for no matter what life brings their way – well, there is liberation in that.

Knowing that you will look after me, if and when I need it, is what allows me to look after you.  

Oh what the hell. I am going to do my best to look after you anyway.

Now it’s your turn.

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