If we don’t fix the circumstances that led to Trump’s rise to power the tyrant who comes after him will likely be much smarter and pose even more serious dangers.

As we await official confirmation of the final, formal results of the 2020 presidential contest I want to share a thought about the shock and surprise many have expressed regarding the stunning strength of support for Donald Trump despite all his many obvious and glaring flaws, and most notably, his unspeakable cruelty, which rises at times to outright sadism (taking pleasure in the suffering of others). How could so many Americans possibly endorse such sadism (mixed with racism and misogyny)?

“That’s not who we are!” is the misguided cry we hear so often from too many otherwise sensible leaders who, in the end, merely evidence their cluelessness about who we, as Americans, really are. Here is my take (informed I think by my training in behavioral sciences):

Abused people tend to abuse others. Parents who have been abused as children tend to abuse their own children. We know this. Most of the violent criminals in prison were at some time violently abused themselves. It is a vicious cycle, one that often involves other pathologies such as racism or hostility to women. The truth, as the adage says, is that hurt people hurt people. When I look at voters willing to look past, or eager to encourage, Trump’s clearly abhorrent psychopathology I see (and know) many people who in some measure have in their own lives experienced abuse or a sense of having been abused that leads them to wish the same on others as a form of retribution. “The world treated me like crap, and now I finally get to dish it out to others.”

I am 63 years old. For decades I have watched as our generation and those surrounding us have seen their standards of living, their financial security, their ability to stand proud in front of their children, families, and peers steadily eroded with little regard to how hard they’ve tried while being gaslighted about what was happening to them. In recent decades millions of Americans have been humiliated by life, by their inability to master the changes that have unfolded around us, and by the knowledge that their suffering means little to nothing to a privileged elite that looks down on them.

For them, Trump’s cruelty is not a flaw, it is a feature. If we are wise, we will stop blaming the victims of our social dysfunctions for its effects and instead in the years ahead do much more to uproot the conditions that have led to our present shame, to reshape our society and our economy in ways that break the cycle of abuse. Because we have an even bigger problem on the horizon. If we don’t fix what led to the rise of Trump and his steady support the next tyrant who rises in this country on the fumes of loss and anger and fury will likely be much smarter than Mr. Trump, and that next tyrant will pose even more serious dangers.

Hal Plotkin is a Senior Scholar at ISKME, in HMB, CA. Senior Advisor, U.S. Dept of Ed (2009-14) and Senior Open Policy Fellow, Creative Commons USA (2014-2017)

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