As an enlightened society that values science and wants to improve humanity, it is our responsibility to try and understand human behavior, especially when that behavior has important moral and societal consequences. This means we must dedicate serious thought to understanding the political ascent and cultural allure of Donald Trump. The midterm election results confirmed that we are seeing a nationalist surge in America, inspired by the president, and it is showing no signs of slowing down.
Because of his divisive rhetoric, perpetual lying, and support for policies that hurt the environment and tear families apart, some people think Donald Trump is the anti-Christ. But this characterization is unfair. It is more accurate to say that Trump is the anti-Dalai Lama. The comparison is more fitting because they are alike in many regards, but exist on opposite ends of the ideological and moral spectrum.
What do I mean by this exactly? Like the Dalai Lama, Trump has millions of devout followers who accept his words as doctrine. Also, the president has a larger-than-life personality that commands global attention, and a way of speaking that clearly resonates with people at a visceral level. He and the Dalai Lama both have an uncanny ability to tap into the collective consciousness of certain cultural groups. Where the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism is a master of meditation and elevated states of consciousness, Trump seemingly has Jedi mind powers that allow him to masterfully control the thoughts and actions of others.
In these ways, they are alike, but in essence and in worldview, they couldn’t be more opposite. The Dalai Lama emphasizes empathy above all else — the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Trump not only doesn’t preach empathy to his followers, he seems to lack the ability to empathize altogether. Instead of acknowledging the struggles of Hispanic immigrants fleeing deadly conditions in the hopes of finding a better life for their family and children, he portrays them as dangerous criminals coming to America to pillage and plunder. And we should not forget the time he unapologetically referred to third-world countries in Africa as “shitholes.” What is more problematic than this description of those nations is the context it was given in. The president was suggesting that we shouldn’t be allowing people from those regions to come to America, as if it were their fault that they live in such places, and as if being born in a certain part of the world affects one’s ability to positively contribute to society.
The Dalai Lama emphasizes the fact that all humans are interconnected, and dependent on each other for survival and happiness. On the other hand, Trump sows division every chance he gets. Despite the fact that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and makes fun of southerners behind closed doors, at rallies he tells them they are the “true Americans” and “patriots,” unlike the liberals and “coastal elites,” thereby dividing the nation into clear in-group and out-group members, a tactic that has powerful psychological effects. Trump also proudly accepts the Nationalist label, and in some areas, has made it trendy to value the lives of those who share your religious and political beliefs more than the lives of others. His decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord is another example of Trump’s blatant disregard for the welfare of others, including future generations of Americans.
With all this being true, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the Dalai Lama has called Trump “selfish.” When asked what he thought about the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan he responded, “When the president says, ‘America First,’ he is making his voters happy. I can understand that. But from a global perspective, this statement isn’t relevant. In today’s global world, everything is interconnected. America’s future is dependent on Europe, and Europe’s future is dependent on the Asian countries.”
The vision the president has for America is one that favors hatred over compassion, division over unity, and anger over love. Nothing good will come from going down that dark road. But by recognizing the gloomy future we are edging toward, we can make a conscious decision to change our trajectory, putting us on a new path to progress, equality, and enlightenment.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.