Yesterday, Donald Trump announced he would not be seeking the presidency in 2012. But, of course, that doesn't mean we've heard the last from him – far from it! And so what does his voice in American politics mean today? Anyone interested in moving the country forward should pay attention. Trump succeeded in gaining the spotlight in some measure due to his ginned up “birther” mania targeted at President Obama, the current thinness of the Republican presidential field, and the propensity of the news media to latch onto the next big thing.
But the feelings Trump tapped into is also being reflected by more and more mainstream politicians – for Americans are angry about the state of the country, fed up with politics, and untrusting of their leaders. At each turn, they are letting their deep displeasures known.
Indeed, people’s anxiety about the scope, scale and rapidity of change in their lives is being felt worldwide, not just here in the U.S. Just yesterday, there was this headline in The New York Times: “’Enraged Citizens’ Movement Rattles German Politics.” The article started off with the following:
They are called “Wutburgers,” and they have become the bane of every political party in Germany. Loosely translated as “enraged citizen,” the Wutburger has stepped outside the classical political and parliamentary system by organizing demonstrations and town hall meetings, protests and marches and sit-ins.
Andrea Rommele, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, talked in the article about what it means to lead in this environment. She was quoted as saying, “You need a double legitimacy: the traditional parliamentary system of top down, but also a parallel way, of bottom up, that will involve citizens.”
I think she’s right. What people want to know is that their concerns have been heard AND understood. What’s more, simply passing yet another piece of legislation will not necessarily satisfy those concerns, as people believe that much of what is being done is “window dressing.” Furthermore, many of the challenges people talk about, are not amenable to legislative fixes.
For instance, let’s take education. In listening to Americans, it’s clear people’s concerns are not just with “teacher effectiveness” or developing “more effective student testing.” To most people, “education” is fundamentally a community issue – about how we are raising and guiding children, providing adult supports to them, and teaching them values. These are all things a community must do. And yet, the education debate is framed as a technical problem to be remedied by technical fixes. That won’t cut it.
“The Donald” is part of a long tradition of public figures (e.g., Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader, among others) who help to crystallize the frustrations and protests of Americans. For those he does not “represent,” their concerns are being voiced by other public figures and their own protests, such as those seen in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
At issue here is what to do. The time is for political leaders, non-profits, and other groups to realize that their mission must include engaging Americans in shaping the future, bringing people together to take meaningful action on their aspirations, and telling new stories of self-trust and hope that illuminate our ability to take effective action together. Anything short of this will only dash people’s hopes and potentially deepen their frustrations.
Donald Trump reflects the symptoms of people’s frustrations. Now, let’s find the answers.