Talking Trump: What would RBG do?

“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

We all know that we are in a time of great strife right now. Whatever our worldview, we all seem to feel that this world is imperiled by those who see this world differently — or seem to live in an entirely different world altogether.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a shining light of reason, intellect, and compassion. Her loss is incalculable. And certainly, the timing of her loss is catastrophic. If she were able to counsel us about how we might move forward, I suspect she would start with her own words.

“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Many of you who visit this blog are willing and eager to embrace the first clause, as am I. We have read and liked and shared our thoughts and our anger and our outrage, not just about the death of Justice Ginsburg and the ramifications of it, but about so many crimes and injustices, especially since January 20, 2017.

But how many of us — myself included — are willing and able, even fleetingly, to consider and to act upon the second clause?

“But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

I never considered voting for Donald Trump. Never. I grew up in New York, and even though I left many, many years ago, I have maintained strong connections to what we call “The Tri-State Area.” So I have always known that “The Donald” was a crooked, petty, wounded, greedy, pathetic man, but I had to admit that he had an outsized personality and was a master at electronic media so I wasn’t too surprised when he was able to parlay his carnival barker persona into national TV stardom on “The Apprentice.”

When he began his run for the presidency, I was convinced he was doing it for the publicity. And I still think that this was his primary motivation. Volumes have been written about this, but I think that he saw this run as a business opportunity and that he fully expected to lose at some point in the primaries and then in the general election. And afterwards, he would have been perfectly happy running Trump TV and Trump Hotels and all the other Trump Whatevers, riding the publicity of a failed presidential run and feeling absolutely no responsibility for hammering the nails in the coffin of the moral and ethical foundations of a major political party.

Of course, it didn‘t work out that way, for him or for us. So here are my questions for myself and for anyone who cares to consider them: Why did people vote for Donald Trump? And what have those of us who knew all along how calamitous Donald Trump’s reign would be been doing, as Justice Ginsburg advises us, to “lead others to join you”?

First things first: Why did people vote for Donald Trump?

I was as depressed and frustrated and angry as anyone in November 2016. I talked to friends, I wrote about it here, I vented, I breathed, I accused, I cried, I pointed fingers, I went to the gym a lot.

Toward the end of that month, I took a road trip. My extended family all live back east, mainly in New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We would be gathering over Thanksgiving weekend at my sister’s house in Jersey. I love road trips on my own. I especially cherish this one because the eastern half of it allows me to recapitulate the trips our family used to take each summer when I was a kid. The five of us kids would be packed into the back of our big black Mercury station wagon, and my dad would drive us from our home on Long Island where my parents moved soon after I was born to western Pennsylvania where my mom and dad had grown up, and we would spend two weeks with all our aunts and uncles and cousins.

During the early years of this annual trip, the stretch through northern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania was primarily US-22, a heavily-traveled commercial corridor, which would bring us to the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Harrisburg. Occasionally over the years, due to construction, we would be diverted off 22 and travel secondary roads through thriving small towns. In the mid-1960s US-22 was in some places rebuilt and in some replaced by brand new Interstates, I-78 and I-81, shortening the time but also reducing the character of the drive.

On Thanksgiving Day 2016 I was diverted off of I-81 near the I-78 interchange because of a huge accident. I consulted googlemaps and found a route that roughly paralleled the interstates, winding through small towns I had not seen for decades.

As I approached the first town on a narrow state road long in need of repair, I saw houses on the outskirts wearing faded paint and bearing rickety porches. The once-quaint Main Street was now largely lined by boarded up storefronts. The gas station was shut down. People and hope were gone.

I drove slowly through the husks of a few more towns before making my way back to I-78. It was sobering.

I am no stranger to economically depressed and marginalized communities. I practiced pediatrics in Loris, South Carolina, for two years and then in East St. Louis, Illinois, for ten years, before landing at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and Saint Louis University for the past twenty. I have worked in these communities and have done my best to serve the needs of those whose lives, through no fault of their own, have been precarious.

And here I was, driving through ghost towns, places I vaguely recalled as a kid looking from the back seat of a 1962 Mercury station wagon as being sunny and leafy and pleasant, with frolicking kids who looked just like me.

What would it feel like? I wondered.

To have grown up here, to have gone to school, to have gotten a job at the local grocery store, to have fallen in love and gotten married, bought a house, and started a family, and to then see the local factory shut down and my friends move away and the streets become cratered with potholes, and then to have my own job evaporate, and I have to wonder, what the hell is going on? And while I might have been aware that other people in other places have always had it worse, I’ve always done what I was supposed to do. Maybe I didn’t think much about the lives of people more than a town or two over, but why should I? I’ve got a full plate here. I’ve gone to church and paid my taxes and held down a decent job and been devoted to my family, and now here it’s all fading away, and I lay awake nights worrying about how I’m going to keep a roof over my family’s heads, and I wake up in a cold sweat realizing that my kids are going to have it worse than I ever did.

Damn it, I followed the rules, I did everything right! So when a candidate for president comes along and promises me that he is going to change things and gives me hope, that maybe he will make things better and get rid of all the crooks in Washington who’ve been making decisions for their own gain that are destroying my life, I’m willing to go along even though he really doesn’t have the kind of résumé I’d expect for a president.

So I vote for Obama.

And things maybe get a little bit better. At least things don’t get worse. For now. And in 2012, Romney seems like part of that Washington Establishment that I kicked out in ’08, so I vote for Obama again.

By 2016, though, I’m starting to wonder if anything will ever get better. I can’t vote for Obama again, and I’m wondering if I even would. Has he been in DC too long? Bernie looks great, and he’s saying stuff I like. Sure, he’s a DC person, but he’s also not. I support him, but then Hillary gets the nomination. And she really is a DC person. And I wonder, despite what she says, is she really just this year’s Romney or George W? Trump is a clown, but he is entertaining. He says whatever he feels, and I kind of like that. And at this point, I wonder if they’re all alike anyway so what difference does it make? If someone has to be president, it might as well be someone who’s entertaining and unpredictable.

So I vote for Trump.

I’m thinking all this as I find the entrance ramp to I-78 East to continue on to New Jersey. I think about it a lot on the drive to my sister’s and in the months and the years to come as Donald Trump and his cronies settle in to feed at various taxpayer-funded troughs, as they fight to deprive millions of heath care and restrict the civil rights of immigrants, persons of color, and LGBTQ persons, as they claim to be “pro-life” while advancing economic and social and reproductive policies that force more women to “choose” abortion because they either had no choice in getting pregnant or in not having the resources to raise a child, as they — and he in particular — lie and lie and lie about the morbidity and mortality of the novel coronavirus that he knew from the beginning would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.

The list, sadly, infuriatingly, goes on. Because in 2016 people had their own perfectly good reasons for voting for Trump.

Which brings us to the second question: What have those of us who knew all along how calamitous Donald Trump’s reign would be been doing, as Justice Ginsburg advises us, to “lead others to join you”?

To be frank, we seem to be doing a pretty lousy job. We frequently dismiss and vilify anyone who voted for Trump as deplorable or stupid or racist or any number of other labels you can find by a quick scroll through Facebook or Twitter.

We often do as awesome a job of demonizing and dehumanizing them as they ever have of demonizing and dehumanizing us.

And of course, when someone realizes that I think of them as less than human, I really can’t blame them for walking away or fighting back.

So what can we do?

There is at least one sphere of my life where I have often had to step back and consider why someone is doing something that I consider stupid and even dangerous: Medicine.

In medicine, pediatrics in particular, it is not uncommon that a parent might question or even refuse something that I know is overwhelmingly beneficial for their child. That quintessential “something” for pediatricians, of course, is vaccination.

I’ll be candid with you: Whenever a nurse or a student tells me that they are ready to have me come and see a patient, and they tell me, “Oh, and this mom is refusing vaccines,” I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. I have to sit there for a minute, compose myself, and let go of all the anger and righteous outrage I feel at that moment. I feel all that because I don’t want kids to get sick. I feel all that because this one action is amazingly effective at keeping kids well.

And I also feel all that because, when a parent says to me, “Dr. Haller, I do not want my child to get that vaccine because I’ve heard what they put in them, and I don’t want my child to be damaged like that,” it threatens my self-image at its core.

Like all doctors, I try to think of myself both as a smart person and as a good person. So when a parent says something like this, what I hear, way down deep in that ancient “lizard brain” called the amygdala where emotions get processed is, “Dr. Haller, I don’t know if you are stupid or if you are evil, but I am not going to let you hurt my child!” So yeah, I need a minute. I need time for my pre-frontal cortex, that new, unique human innovation where rational thought happens, to catch up and tell my amygdala, “Yeah, I heard it too. Now let’s take a deep breath and then go find out why this person has this notion.”

Because if I don’t take that moment, if I go in with my amygdala firing on all cylinders before the pre-frontal cortex has a chance to chime in, my response might very well be something like:

“Fine. Don’t immunize your kid, even though there are mountains of data and thousands of studies overwhelmingly documenting the safety and efficacy of vaccines at preventing life-threatening infections and even though these infections are making a comeback because of careless parents like you. But if you choose to believe what you heard on ‘The View’ instead of what dedicated doctors and scientists have worked on for decades to keep your kid safe, I guess that’s up to you. Look. Even if you don’t care about your kid, I do care about your kid, so if she gets sick with whooping cough or measles, you just bring her right in, and we’ll do what we can to save her. Any questions?”

And how well do you think that works?

About as well as painting all Trump voters as “Stupid deplorable racists!”

What does work for me with parents who have fears about vaccines — sometimes, at least — is to say to the parent, “I hear you have some concerns about immunizing your child. Could you share with me what you’ve heard?… Uh-huh. Yes, I’m heard that too. That is certainly very frightening. And I can tell how much you love your child because you don’t want to do anything that might hurt her… Okay. Would it be all right with you for me to share some things that I get scared about?…”

Like the facts about vaccine safety and efficacy, the facts about Trump’s cowardice, greed, and lies are overwhelming. But facts alone are not convincing. We cannot get to Facts until we address Fear. And Trump is a master at fomenting fear. And when someone’s amygdala is screaming full-blast, the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t stand a chance. We can show someone ruled by fear that we accept that their emotions are totally valid, even as we firmly know that the “factual” underpinning of that emotion is completely bogus. Only when we can say to someone, “I see and honor your fear and your pain,” when we speak amygdala to amygdala, will we have a chance of giving this person’s pre-frontal cortex the opportunity to bloom, to take in new and conflicting information, and perhaps to act on it.

I’ve seen it work in my office. I’ve seen it work in one-on-one conversations about politics. I’ve even seen it work right here on social media. I think of it as a combination of Carl Roger’s Person-Centered Therapy, i.e., finding something to like or to love about this person across from you, and the “Yes and…” response of Improvisational Theater, i.e., finding something to agree on with your scene partner to move that scene forward.

While I could expand on that, this post is already way too long so I will leave that for another day.

Allow me to leave this for all of us to ponder. It seems that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s closet friend among her Supreme Court colleagues was Antonin Scalia. I certainly cannot imagine two people who would be more polar opposites judicially, politically, temperamentally. Yet there we have it: RBG’s personal example of finding something to like or to love and of saying “Yes and…” to this very different person across from you.

So as November 3 approaches, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words remind us that, whatever happens, we will all still be here and will have to find a way to live with each other.

“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

How we do that is now up to us.

Pediatrician, Educator, Singer, Writer, Advocate, Actor, Improviser. Views are my own, not those of any institution where I’m employed.

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