I first saw Trumpism in my grade school, when I noticed that not all kids were popular because they were nice. Some achieved popularity via family status or money, or by being bullies (which many of us enabled by not calling them out.) We may have been scared of them and grateful we weren’t their victim. Or maybe we wanted them to include us, give us things, or help our cause. Now we have a name for the dynamic that empowers privilege while ignoring justice -- Trumpism.
As I wrote about in a previous post, "Why I am not an Apologetic Vegan," humans have a long history of enabling oppressors in order to distance ourselves from those at the bottom of the pecking order. Distancing improves our status and makes us feel less likely to be a target of the oppressor (click the "read more" button to see rest of this article...)
Donald Trump wasn’t born as destructive to justice as he is now. Good people enabled him. History shows being silent in the face of bullying behavior – no matter how seemingly trivial at first, can lead to horrific harms.
Trumpism infects the vegan movement too. Since most vegans see themselves as caring more about peace, justice and compassion, than power and money, they find it hard to believe, someone working for the cause could be bullying fellow vegans. But after 25 years in the movement, unfortunately I know Trumpism can be found from the heads of large non-profits to leaders of small local groups.
When you hear someone say:
“But he/she is a vegan! We should never criticize others in our movement working for the same thing”
it’s time to speak up!
The MeToo movement showed how such sentiments can work against justice. For years, toxic leadership at HSUS promoted a frat boy culture. Those who could have removed CEO Wayne Pacelle ignored his abuse because he was getting things done and growing the organization. Sexual misconduct/assault is only one type of harm that can result from toxic leadership. People can also be bullied for speaking up for justice. We must be alert to when this is happening so we don’t blame the victim by assuming the conflict is between two morally acceptable positions, when it is actually illuminating something more sinister. An example of this is Trump’s statement following Charlottesville, “ We condemn this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” That's Trumpism. too.
So consider this:
Suppose you saw a popular mature man you know who was an organizer of a group. Further suppose, he happened upon a barely adult female in a public space, and then launched an intense verbal assault on this female, apparently because the woman had said something several weeks earlier to a third party that got back to the man and he didn’t like what she said. What if the woman’s “offense” was to share something problematic this male had done as the leader of the group? If you were an onlooker what would you do? An attack like that is not only seeking to intimidate the woman, but also to send a message to bystanders: “Exclude her if you want to be welcome at the things I organize.” Can you see how failing to call out the male for being inappropriately aggressive facilitates Trumpism?
There are other ways those in leadership positions abuse power. Rightfully, we have an expectation that people running non-profits or groups claiming a community benefit and using volunteers will be democratic and fair in the moderation of related FaceBook pages or public chats. We can see Trumpism at play, when a leader deletes questions and civilly expressed concerns to keep others from considering things the leader would prefer they not think about. This type of censorship undermines democratic values, and is also an abuse of trust and power.
To be clear, we don’t always have to remove a leader who engages in subtle Trumpism. If enough people call out aggressive, or boundary-crossing behavior early enough and the leader can come to appreciate why it was problematic, that may be enough to keep it from escalating and prevent harm. But that requires us to be alert and speak up, and to be personally strong and not get seduced into complacency that facilitates injustice rather then risking social discomfort or the disapproval of a leader. As activist Glenn Aleksander points out:
"That which has soothed the conscience of every slavemaster, of every Nazi soldier, of every perpetrator of systemic injustice is something which exists within all of us. To presume that those who perpetrate these atrocities are in some way fundamentally distinct from the rest of us…to otherize them as evil in contrast with our own presumed virtue…is to doom humanity to an endless repetitive cycle of their mistakes. Only by reckoning with all of humanity’s individual and collective capacity for evil…only thorough constant, self-reflective vigilance…only by establishing dominion over the worst parts of ourselves can we ever truly hope to manifest the best of our potential, and to create lasting justice and peace"