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Humanism and Opposition to Donald Trump

A humanist philosophy may be many things, but generally it is one that subscribes to the doctrine that people are basically good, that reason and science, rather than religion, are the guideposts for constructing a better world, and that every person’s similar worth as a human being should determine her or his value. Humanists do not allow themselves to make distinctions among people in terms of their worth or their rights based upon their skin color, their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual orientation or their cultural heritage. Humanism draws its roots from ancient Greek philosophy and thus it exalts the power of human reason to solve man’s problems and, in modern times, has largely been opposed to theistic and particularly to religious ideas about how to solve the problems of the world. The ethics of most who call themselves humanists are ones that recognize that ethical principles are devised by humans and reflect culture and history. The valuing of each individual is a core principle of most humanistic ethical systems.

Donald Trump and his election as President of the United States presents a problem for humanists. The problem exists because of who Donald Trump is, and because of what, as president, he has the power to do. It is difficult to know a person’s true self via the media, nevertheless, we have videotape evidence that  Donald Trump is a braggart with sexist sentiments. We have witnessed him being ill-prepared for presidential debates and poorly informed on international issues, both indications of a lack of diligence in the way he has approached the office of the presidency. We have seen him give petty replies to criticisms directed at him by celebrities, by the parents of war heroes, by other politicians, and by the media. We have heard him suggest violating constitutional freedoms with regard to punishment of flag burners, enacting immigration rules base on religion, and torturing prisoners and suspected terrorists. We have listened to him call man-made climate change a “hoax,’ and call for loosening environmental regulations on industry as well as increasing our use and production of fossil fuels, such as coal. All of these issues, none of which can be denied, give pause to those who wish to “give him the benefit of the doubt,” or withhold judgment until he has had time in office, or simply hope that the President Trump is a better person than the candidate Trump.

In terms of his power, Trump has suggested nullifying the Paris Climate Agreements, and nominated a climate change denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a fossil fuels advocate as head of the Department of Energy. His nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary is an opponent of government influence on the medical and insurance industry, a vocal opponent of Obamacare since its inception. His nominee for head of the Department of Education is an advocate of government support of private education over public education. His National Security Advisor has made broad, prejudiced comments about Muslims. These, again, are not rumors they are easily verifiable facts.

I have not included many of the so far unfounded, often hysterical criticisms about Trump and his actions, such as that he is a pathological liar, that his chief advisor is a White supremacist, that he is in league with Vladimir Putin, who may have helped him win the presidency and to whose country he may have business aspirations or a variety of other even more outlandish accusations and predictions about what will transpire under a Trump presidency. The factual evidence is enough to raise the worries of many Americans and particularly humanists, who value reason, human equality and preservation of the planet.

The real and imagined dangers of Donald Trump and a Trump presidency have created fear, paranoia and anger in a lot of people, particularly those who are liberal or progressive, including humanists. In many cases, the anger has boiled over into hatred and the accusations into name-calling.

As a humanist I want to see the human side of each person—the side that I can understand—even if it takes work and new learning on my part to do so. I don’t expect to agree with every person, and particularly not with those who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from me. But I do expect their choices to make sense, given their perspectives on the world and the values they have learned from their cultures and their individual circumstances. My default assumption is that such is the case, until I am proven wrong. I rarely use concepts such as “evil” to explain behavior I find abhorrent, although I don't rule it out as a shorthand explanation of behavior that is motivated by greed, hatred, dishonesty and disregard of others’ lives. Besides watching Fox News and listening to points of view I expect I will not agree with, I have taken Ross Douthat’s recent advice and begun to read accounts of political and value systems that are different from mine and which do, in some cases, explain the opinions of those I disagree with.

Given my biases (and I admit that that’s what they are and I don’t doll them up with words such as “values”), I continue to resist dismissing Trump and his appointees as evil men and women, or his supporters as malevolent racists. But I also resist dismissing his statements and his actions as simply something I don’t understand and which have no negative, possibly even disastrous implications for our society. I am doing my best to understand what frightens me in Trump’s positions. Frankly, though, while my reading has led me to better understand conservatism, even nationalism and xenophobia as well as suspicion of the educated elite in America and Europe, it has not lessened my rejection of the fear-oriented, the financial sector and wealth oriented, the racially biased, and the science-rejecting orientation of Trump and many of his appointees.

I continue to believe that both Donald Trump and the people he has chosen to work with believe in the worth and rightness of what they are doing and that their aim is not to hurt all, or even a significant number of Americans and probably not those from other countries either. Again, that’s more of an assumption on my part than a belief based upon evidence. But I also believe that the net effect of what Trump and his appointees (and the Republican lawmakers who, with him, now control our elected national government) will do in the near future will, in fact, hurt many Americans, the most vulnerable more than others, and cause perhaps irreparable damage to our planet. So my humanistic views urge me to think about those who have views I both fear and despise as people, just like myself, who have acquired different opinions and sometimes even values than I have, not as less than human caricatures of evil and racism. But it also urges me, just as strongly to oppose their actions.

Opposition to me does not mean name-calling or exaggeration of the positions of those I oppose. There remain areas in which I have not yet made a judgment about Donald Trump’s plans and actions: foreign policy, for instance. U.S. foreign policy has bothered me for many years and its basis in the belief that the U.S. has a right to alter the affairs of other nations, to play favorites depending upon whether countries or leaders are aligned with us or not, and to protect American corporate interests at all costs, which is, I think a fair description of our policies since the end of World War II, is something that I have opposed on many occasions. I can’t tell if Donald Trump is breaking with this tradition or continuing it. I will wait and see. But most areas in which Trump’s plans are at least outlined, demand my opposition. At the top of the list is climate change and the need to regulate industry to reduce carbon emissions, the need to remain in international agreements to do the same, the need to use government resources, not just market forces, to grow renewable energy resources and reduce dependence upon fossil fuels. These actions are all absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of the planet’s ecological systems. Donald Trump and his appointees seem determined to do just the opposite in the name of industrial profits and denial of science. Saving the planet demands taking every measure possible to oppose those who would threaten it with their actions. First and foremost this means exposing every action that undermines efforts at reducing carbon emissions and mounting massive protests, pushing elected officials to oppose them, and passing state and local laws that work against them.

Climate change is the number one threat because, even if Trump and his appointees are out of office in four more years, the effects of their actions on climate change and its destruction to the planet may be irreversible. After climate change comes, in no particular order, healthcare reform—America continues to have the most expensive and least effective healthcare system among developed countries, and the reasons for its ineffectiveness are completely tied to it being run as a private enterprise—racial disparities in health outcomes, wealth, and treatment by the criminal justice system—the degree to which Black Americans, in particular, continue to be treated unfairly by our social system and the disadvantages they continue to have are a blot on our national conscience—religious persecution—the “war on terror” has demonized the Islamic religion and Donald Trump has threatened to use terror attacks as an excuse to register Muslims and restrict their entrance into the United States. Local governments have passed their own laws, for instance, forbidding “Sharia Law.” Anti-Islamic hysteria threatens the religious freedom and even the lives of Muslims in America—Gay Rights—Donald Trump has not directly threatened legal rights for LBGT citizens and has even said he does not anticipate the Supreme Court overturning legalization of gay marriage. Still, his SCOTUS appointments, which he promises will be conservative, may do so, and this is something that Americans, who have only recently achieved parity for gay, lesbian and transgender citizens, must be on guard against.

The above list is probably only a partial one of areas where the Trump presidency may be harmful to the welfare of our country. The list will seem onerous to Trump supporters and too tame for anti-Trump activists. I have tried to be realistic rather than reassuring or hyperbolic. Action is required to combat these threats. Actions that can be effective range from legal challenges to constitutional violations, such as may occur in religious persecution of Muslims, to enacting local laws, such as California has done with regard to protecting the environment, to mass protests against loss of healthcare and violations of civil rights, such as occur within the criminal justice system (which may be less responsive to legal challenges with a new Attorney General), and protests against fossil fuel industry incursions such as pipeline construction or environmental destruction such as privatizing public lands. The most effective way to combat Trump’s program, in cases where it is harmful, is to insure that Donald Trump serves no more than one term in office and that Republican congressmen who support the damaging outcomes listed above are not reelected to office. Such a turn of events, which means altering the kind of results seen in the most recent election, would be easier if there were no Electoral College by the time of the next election, but, given who is presently in control of the government, that seems unrealistic. More realistic is changing the minds of most Americans so they are as wary of the results listed above as liberals and progressives are now.

Changing the minds of Americans is where humanistic values can be of some usefulness. Those who insist that their values, opinions and solutions are correct and that those who oppose them are ignorant, evil and should not be allowed to either express their views or enact them, even if they are doing so legally, are more likely to alienate those who don’t share their views than to convince them of the error of their ways.  Discovering what leads others to believe differently than oneself or to favor approaches that one finds dangerous is a necessary step in showing others that their concerns are either misguided or can be met by different means—means that do not compromise either our liberties or our planet. Aiming to be more inclusive in one’s political movement is more likely to cause it to grow than limiting it only to those who are “true believers” or are willing to accept every opinion and action of the movement without question. Simply realizing that one can be ill-informed or wrong and that is part of being human, can be helpful in reducing the self-righteous tone of many progressives. Self-righteousness may feel good and even be applauded by one’s small circle of peers, but it does not appeal to those who don’t already share one’s views.

The dangers of a Trump presidency are real. They need to be opposed with realistic measures that do more than express emotion or allow those who protest them to feel good about themselves. The dangers have to become apparent to a larger segment of the population and the methods used to oppose them have to be varied, smart, and effective. One does not have to hate anyone in order to carry out this opposition.

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