Cognitive Dissonance in Trump’s America: Action and Awareness May Be Necessary if Beauty Will Still Save the World

On the eve of MLK, Jr. Day, Trump targeted legendary civil rights icon John Lewis for his latest Twitter rant after Lewis, in an interview, questioned the legitimacy of Trump's election for all the very public reasons that do, in fact, call it into question. Trump, of course, made it personal, saying Lewis' district was "crime infested" and that Lewis himself was "all talk, no action." The facts beg to differ.
On the eve of MLK, Jr. Day, Trump targeted legendary civil rights icon John Lewis for his latest Twitter rant after Lewis, in an interview, questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election for all the very public reasons that do, in fact, call it into question. Trump, of course, made it personal, saying Lewis’ district was “crime infested” and that Lewis himself was “all talk, no action.” The facts beg to differ.

I started this post a few days ago, when I was feeling very upset about the news of the day and was trying to get to the root of why. I mean it’s not as if I didn’t know that any of this would happen. Nothing that’s happening right now in national politics- from Trump’s terrible Cabinet picks to his circus of a “press conference” the other day, complete with the steady stream of lies in person, on Twitter, and from his surrogates- none of this is a surprise. Maybe it’s the stark relief of President Obama’s farewell address vs. what happened in Trump Tower during his “press conference.” Obama showed, one last time, how one could at least give the appearance of rising to the dignity of the office and spoke with amazing eloquence, humility, and inspiration. He almost made me want to be hopeful again, despite the striking dissonance of his words with the actual reality of our situation.

Speaking of dissonance, I think this is a big part of what has me most troubled right now. I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance, and I don’t know how to resolve or how to relieve the tension it creates. In the Wikipedia entry for “doublethink” (more on that later), it states that cognitive dissonance is that “…in which contradictory beliefs cause conflict in one’s mind.” F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Perhaps wrongly, I think of this as the ability to hold a paradox, to engage in sound reasoning from true premises that nonetheless results in “a self-contradictory or a logically unacceptable conclusion” according to Wikipedia, which adds: “A paradox involves contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time.” Paradox is central to Christian faith. Christians hold that Jesus was both “fully human” and “fully divine,” at the same time. Life in Christ, especially these days, is a constant paradox since we hold that the kingdom of God is “already” here (and where Jesus is King, love, justice, and peace are the rule, and poverty and racism could not exist); yet daily we are confronted with evidence that God’s kingdom is “not yet” remotely close to being fully realized in this way.

I am not mentally conflicted about the paradoxes I hold in regard to faith, as there is a mystery involved, and hopefully a little maturity, that helps to dissipate any tension that the apparently conflicting beliefs or ideas I have in regard to Jesus might cause. I understand that the kingdom of God is “already” upon us because of Jesus, but clearly “not yet” fully realized, in part because I know that God has chosen to work through us, flawed and broken as we are, yet in the process of being healed and restored and made whole even as that healing and restoration and wholeness is brought to the whole world. I believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine because I trust him, however imperfectly, and the mystery of the incarnation, of “God with us,” is a beauty I believe will and is saving the world, to borrow a phrase from Brian Zahnd.

Cognitive dissonance, however, as I’m using the phrase, is distinct from paradox in that it cannot be sustained over time. It causes mental conflict and tension that must be resolved in some way. I described above the distinction I’m making between cognitive dissonance and paradox, how tension that might develop in an attempt to hold simultaneously two apparently contradictory beliefs is sometimes able to be sustained over time through belief and trust in Jesus and an appreciation for the mystery that is often a part of the way God works. Sometimes, however, describing something as a paradox just won’t do. It seems to me that paradoxes must in some way be balanced or supported by some other overriding or underlying belief or idea. The paradox of Jesus being both “fully human” and “fully divine” is sustainable over time because it helps inform the idea of “God with us,” that the transcendent God who once seemed so far away would come close, would be immanent, would make himself small and vulnerable in order to join us where we are and end our self-imposed separation from him. The paradox of the kingdom of God being “already” upon us but “not yet” fully realized helps us understand why hate and injustice persist, for now, and is a powerfully motivating force for informing how we can respond to such evils with God’s love, justice, and shalom.

Sometimes, though, would be paradoxes are not at all balanced or are not supported by a larger underlying truth, and thus the resultant cognitive dissonance creates tension that must be resolved, often I suppose through abandoning one of the beliefs or ideas that one previously held to be true. I suspect this is why they’re so stressful, as it is always hard to realize that something you thought was true simply is not. Here are some of the contradictory beliefs/ideas I’ve been struggling with in regard to the election:

  • On the one hand, “Christians” follow Jesus; Jesus is their leader. Most “white Evangelicals,” who at least think of themselves as being “Christian,” voted for Trump and say that their faith informs their vote. However, on the other hand:
    • Trump is a Biblically illiterate, narcissistic, serial misogynist who brags about sexual assault, lies incessantly, and demonstrably loves money- and himself- above all else.
  • Again, on the one hand, especially for “white Evangelicals,” a conversion experience, often involving saying the “sinner’s prayer” in which one confesses one’s sin(s) and asks Jesus to forgive them is the entry point to the faith and the highlight of it. For “white Evangelicals,” this is arguably what makes one a “Christian” or not. Most “white Evangelicals” voted for Trump and say that their faith informs their vote. However, on the other hand:
    • Trump has stated that he’s never done anything for which he might need forgiveness, despite:
      • routinely using, abusing, and objectifying women as evidenced by bragging about sexual assault whether he engaged in it or not (and odds are, he did) and being married three times and famously carrying on an affair with the woman who would be his second wife
      • beginning his career in real estate by being sued for discriminatory housing practices toward racial minorities
      • routinely cheating his workers and contractors out of earned wages
      • daily, incessantly, lying to further his self-aggrandizing agenda or engaging in petulant rants about people or institutions he thinks- rightly or wrongly- have slighted him
      • …and the list could go on and on and on. The point is, this man doesn’t believe he’s ever done anything he should ask forgiveness for, an assertion which stands the test of time despite his forced faux-contrition during the campaign only after being publicly caught in just one of his most egregious offenses.
  • Again, on the one hand, and at the risk of conflating Republicans and “white Evangelicals,” most of them I know or encounter online and in the media seem to hate, with a special vitriol, President Obama. However, on the other hand:
    • Obama is an avowed Christian and can describe- and has- his own conversion experience. Obama made it through eight years at the pinnacle of U.S. power with a scandal free administration and an intact nuclear family. He’s conducted himself in office with dignity and grace. He’s (mostly) pursued policies that are at least defensible from the standpoint of someone trying to follow Jesus. It is evident in Scripture that God has a special concern for the poor, that Jesus-followers have a duty to care for the sick, the imprisoned, etc. Obamacare, for all its faults, is a move in that direction; it’s an attempt to better care for the sick. Moreover, instead of pursuing universal healthcare from the start, which I and many others wish he would have, in an effort to compromise with his political opponents from the very beginning he took a Republican idea- Romneycare- and tried to roll it out for the nation. Instead of appreciating this and working with him, Republicans famously vowed to oppose absolutely everything he did whether he pursued things they might otherwise have agreed with or not, and so they did. Their incessant efforts to foil, block, undermine, and obstruct his every effort has much to do with the extent to which Obamacare is currently “failing” (and whether or not it’s “failing” is a debatable point, this year’s dramatic price hikes notwithstanding). For example, if the Medicare expansion that was supposed to occur in all 50 states had actually occurred, more people would be covered and the entire system would be more stable, and cheaper. Taking another issue, Obama did not go nearly far enough, or even do very much, to tackle actual poverty in the U.S. or around the world. However, his efforts to better the lives of “middle class” USAmericans at least mitigated and slowed the typical Republican efforts to pursue preferential policies not for the poor but for the ultra-rich. This was good while it lasted. All that said, Obama obviously is not perfect and his administration has been far from it. He has not been nearly as transparent in office as he said he would be. He has not closed Gitmo, though again Republican obstruction has a lot to do with this. His escalation of the use of drones to kill alleged terrorists has resulted in many, many civilian deaths and has helped to perpetuate a climate of fear and distrust that can only contribute to the perception in some parts of the world that the U.S. is “the great Satan.” He pledged, though, to wind down the wars he inherited as President and his use of drones was a strategic attempt to keep that promise while simultaneously continuing the metaphorical “war on terror.” He believed that the use of drones rather than “boots on the ground” would result in decreased loss of life than would have happened otherwise. The point again is that his policies are at least defensible from the standpoint of someone trying to follow Jesus, and his personal conduct has been above reproach. Yet many, many, “white Evangelicals” seem to absolutely despise him and would rather have someone like Trump in office. This is a fact which defies explanation. It defies sense or decency and certainly runs counter to the notion that those “Christians” who voted Trump in did so with their values foremost in mind.
    • It’s the vitriol that really gets me and gives away the underlying motivations. It’s hard to believe that racism is not an issue. I know white folks at whom that charge is leveled object, but racism is not (or is not merely) an attitude. That’s prejudice. Racism is a system by which “white” people benefit from unearned privilege and people of color suffer from unearned discrimination. In the anti-racism training I had many, many years ago, I was taught that “racism=prejudice+power.” That’s debatable, obviously. What’s not debatable is that there is a dramatic power differential between people of color and those who self-identify as white. What’s not debatable is that most systems and institutions in this country are set up to perpetuate that power differential. Therefore, the fact that “we the people” elected Obama twice is not evidence that racism is not an issue or that we live in a “post-racial” society. Obama is instead a charismatic, likely once-in-a-generation exception that proves the rule. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said: “If I have to jump six feet to get the same thing that you have to jump two feet for ― that’s how racism works. To be president, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds … Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.”

I know that there are many otherwise well-meaning “white” people who want to follow Jesus and think they are even while they voted to put Donald Trump, of all people, in charge of the U.S.’ housing policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color) and fiscal and financial policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color) and justice system (which systematically disadvantages and incarcerates in grossly disproportionate ways people of color) and immigration policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color from other parts of the world who usually have it much worse off even than people of color here in the U.S.), all of which is to say nothing of the U.S. military machine (which systematically is used in ways that oppress and disadvantage people of color around the world). I know some who might read this might dispute my interpretation of the facts I’ve alluded to, if not the facts themselves. I’m glad to be shown if/when I’m wrong. I don’t think the basic thrust of my argument is, and daily I am convicted by the Holy Spirit in a way that tells me I’m on to something.

I suppose all this is why I am grateful for Mill City Church‘s now forming “Action and Awareness” Missional Community that is focused on action and awareness concerning racial justice. If cognitive dissonance is the result of the presence of conflicting ideas that cannot be resolved or sustained over time, the only recourse is to surrender one of those beliefs or ideas in order to resolve the tension. Soon Trump will be president of the U.S. It seems likely that people will suffer and experience more oppression as a result, especially people of color. If I can not believe that supporting Trump and working to enact his policies is consistent with following Jesus, I must take action to the extent that I’m able. I must act to confront and resist the oppressors and to stand in the gap with the oppressed. I am hopeful the Action and Awareness Missional Community will be a vehicle for this.

Likewise, awareness is crucial too. Just the other day the A&A Missional Community learned a little about implicit bias. I know I have a lot to learn about my own biases and the many ways I support and perpetuate racism in this country without even realizing it simply because I’m an educated “white” male. I spoke too above about “doublethink.” Wikipedia says “Doublethink is notable due to a lack of cognitive dissonance — thus the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.” Perhaps all those otherwise well-meaning would be Jesus followers that voted for Trump simply somehow aren’t aware that their vote for him and support of his policies are inconsistent with following Jesus, that supporting Trump and having Jesus as your leader are, in some very notable ways, antithetical. Where that’s the case, I’m hoping the awareness that the A&A Missional Community will work to promote will be part of the answer. Lord, let it be so.

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