Hell Bent to Persuade: Donald Trump’s Choice of Fear as a Political Tool

44264051_33407bc16c_oWhen I served as the pastor of a Presbyterian church down South, I learned of an event common for local Baptists on Halloween. Instead of a Haunted House, these churches would sponsor a Hell House and invite children and youth of the community to go through. It was scary, and kids like scary at Halloween. So lots of them went. Parents would send their children, even as young as eight, to make their way through the house towards the message at the end. The second to the last scene of the Hell House did not feature ghosts or goblins or any creatures associated with Halloween fun. Instead, it was a passenger jet that had crashed or a brutal car accident. Church members lay around the wreckage, beaten up and bloodied, acting the part of the dead. Before the children left the scene, they were asked a straight forward question. Do you know where you are going when you die? Before given the chance to answer, though, they are shown another scene of the torturous pits of Hell. By the time the children make their way to the end, they are deeply frightened, some reduced to sobbing fits. So when they are asked the final question, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your eternal Savior?” their answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

Fear is an emotion often used (and abused, I would add) as a tool to win over, convert, or control. It’s an emotion ripe for manipulation because when it rises within us we are raw and vulnerable and easily shaped by any potter who steps to the wheel. Donald Trump, a man eager to take the seat of the potter, eager to get his hands into our national clay, is a master manipulator of emotions. I felt myself being manipulated as I sat down in my living room to watch the Republican National Convention and listen to his daughter, Ivanka, introduce him.

As I listened to Trump’s beautiful, smart, eloquent daughter, I thought, maybe, I was wrong about this man. She spoke of her father’s company employing more women executives than men and supports family leave. Her father was a man who is color blind and gender neutral, she said, and I found myself wanting, or maybe just hoping to believe her— hoping to believe that this man who has garnered so much support, this man who many want to become THE man, the most POWERFUL man, was actually good and kind and fair. Was the report I read about how he violently raped the 13-year-old girl a lie? Was he not the distractible sociopath who will do anything for attention that his ghost writer wrote of—the sociopath this ghost writer fears will be the “end of civilization” if he has the nuclear code? Ivanka painted a picture of a loyal father, a wise mentor, a man who runs for President only because he wants to serve. Earlier in the convention, Rudy Giuliani spoke of Trump’s anonymous charity and good deeds for which he never wanted any credit. And then, Donald himself walks on stage, begins his speech humbly, gratefully, using the word “we.” But all of this—this picture of a kind, generous, self-sacrificing, good and fair man—faded for me as Trump began to shout.

He shouted that we will be a country of “law and order”, that the “attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” I heard these words and wondered how he could succeed while ignoring, blatantly disregarding, the cries of Black Lives Matter, the injustice of police brutality, the needs of the African American community. He shouted about his way of “Americanism” that would replace the current way of “Globalism” and I wondered how he could succeed while clearly choosing not to play well with others.

He was succeeding, though, by the use of an effective tool. Stoking the fear of white middle-class Americans, leading them rhetorically through his own version of the Hell House, motivated people to vote for him. His claim was bold. He was the strong man, the savior, the hero who can protect and make us safe.

Donald Trump reveals how easily a country’s emotions can be exploited by a man hell bent on getting his way. To witness so many fellow Americans sucked in, manipulated, and emotionally abused by such a narcissist, makes me afraid, very afraid.

So Trump has also tapped my fear, but not to his own benefit. I am determined to speak out and act out against him. Fear, in a sense, is motivating—a heated, pulsing emotion that moves us out of complacency. But I wish it weren’t so effective. Just as I wonder about the damaging effects of fear used to convert in religion, I wonder about the long-term use of fear as a motivating force. The heat of fear cannot be sustained. It eventually burns out, or we do. A better, healthier, less abusive tool for persuasion and motivation, then, would be an appeal to our best self, our sense of justice, our desire—and need—to live in peace, rather than fear.

Terry Tempest Williams hooked me recently in her plea to save our National Parks. I heard her speak at an independent Iowa City bookstore, where she began, yes, by tweaking my chord of fear. “In their platform” Williams began, “the GOP proposes getting rid of all public land. This means all our national parks, monuments, and historical markers.”

As she spoke, I recalled trips with my family to Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Those trips were capstone experiences for me as a child, as the beauty of the landscape called to mind the grandeur of our country and our ideals. Even with the boom of our population and our dependency on the limited resource of oil, how could anyone consider doing away with this public, protected land? Williams made me feel the heat.

But, as she continued, she turned to a different, more poetic tool for persuasion. She described beautifully, eloquently, what our public land provides. She shared an experience she had driving through Yellowstone, coming to a bison jam in the road. She inched her car forward, her windows down, her radio set for classical music. The bison, to Williams’ surprise, did not move away from her car, but inched closer, and closer, tilting their heads to listen to Vivaldi. I smiled at the picture she painted, and felt the emotion beauty stirs within, as Williams reminded, “We are not the only species that lives and loves on this planet.”

Our national parks are our “breathing spaces” Williams surmised, where veterans go after coming home from war to heal, learn to trust again, and open their hearts to beauty. They are where children are taken to learn that the world and those who live in it are not to be feared, but respected and cared for and protected. Our national parks are places 300 million visitors appreciate every year, perhaps because they know they need an alternative source of motivation, an alternative to the fear that will eventually destroy us if we do not seek a more peaceful and sustainable way.

Williams appealed to my sense of possibility, tapped my appreciation for beauty, and wove a message that stirred in me a desire to save—not by the threat of hell—but by the promise of heaven on earth, for those of us willing to strive towards it.


[Feature Image by mell]








Praying at the Corner of Michigan and Ohio

2897091862_eea07b3c15_oToday I prayed for the man sitting, cross-legged, his back against the street pole at the corner of Michigan and Ohio. He held a cardboard sign like all the other cardboard signs with “Help. Hungry. Homeless.” written in bold, black marker. My prayer began with the man but led me to those who had made me aware of the man as more than just another suffering human. Crouched around him in a semi-circle sat a curious group of youth whose adult did all the talking. “What did you do today?” “Where did you go?” I heard the questions but not the answers as more and more people gathered, waiting to cross the street.

With my eyes fixed on the signal that would tell me when to leave this scene behind, I prayed about the man’s shame, about his being exposed—even more—by this doting group of urban missionaries. And I prayed about the relief I felt he felt as he slipped a new pair of Thinsulate gloves over his stiff, cold fingers—a gift from the group who would soon disappear. And I prayed about the knowledge of poverty, the awareness, the street-weary experience the group craved because I knew that craving too. His story was all the homeless man had. But that was all they wanted. So I prayed for the man to hold on to his story and for the missionaries to move on and for the wind to not be so cold and for the universe to be more right and our problems to be less complex because I didn’t know what else to do.


[Feature Image: Kymberly Janisch]


I find you spiritually attractive.

2708943201_d085338809_oI recently told a male rabbi about my age that I find him spiritually attractive. Actually, I didn’t tell him. I posted it to his Facebook page. Immediately before adding this message to his feed, though, I hesitated over the following inner monologue:

Is this creepy? Am I over-complimenting? Will this be misconstrued as some sort of strange clergy come on? Should I run this by my husband?

I was in the mood to be bold, though. I wanted to share this compliment because it was true! I hit POST.

Then, I spent the next few hours scrolling, repeatedly (some may say obsessively) through my Facebook feed. I watched my comment linger and hang at the end of his post without one person validating it by hitting the cherished “Like.” Uh oh. I thought to myself in a hot flash of regret.  Maybe I need to explain.

So what makes a person spiritually attractive? Well, for me, a spiritually attractive person manifests a quiet confidence. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention and would never put himself there, but others do because they want what he has. She gives off the sense (or maybe even the scent) that she is at peace within, she is comfortable in her own skin, and this translates into people feeling comfortable and at peace in her presence. He owns his wisdom that he communicates by the way he moves through the world. It’s a kind of charisma, but it’s NOT about her. In fact, it clearly comes from something / someone wholly other than her. All the spiritual greats have it.

Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa all come to mind as people who possessed this quality—people who we could not get enough of because they had that special spiritual something. But even us “ordinary folks” can have our moments.

About a month ago I wrote a post about feeling magnetic through the practice of meditation. Here at my college, I’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. The group never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own practice. It fascinates me how the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel, attracting ten to fifteen college students every Friday to this time of attentive stillness.

There are a number of religious groups here on my college campus clamoring for the attention of generation “None” (a.k.a. no designated religious affiliation.) These groups seek to attract students through all kinds of methods: invitations to free ice cream socials, volleyball tournaments, camps and retreats; miniature New Testaments pressed in students’ hands as they enter or exit the dining hall; adults who dress and act as if they are eighteen. Honestly, I’ve tried a few of these approaches myself—it’s hard not to believe that free stuff wins in such a consumer driven culture. How good for me to remember, then, that a deepening, personal meditation practice is attractive food for the hungry. Perhaps it is the spiritual authenticity of the practice; the understanding that it flows from my own time of ‘mind-wrestling’ on the mat, that others feel like they can trust.

I felt this way when I met this rabbi—he was spiritually authentic; a person whose experience I felt I could trust. He sought me out later, by the way, to say thank you for my complimentary post.  I was so relieved.  I was also grateful for his ability to receive and own a genuine compliment–another trait of the spiritually attractive to which we all might aspire.


[Feature Image: Bill Selak]