Trump in the Age of Speed

Author Jeremy Rifkin believes that we are in the midst of the third industrial revolution -- after the second, which culminated in the production line and production line-like killing in World War I. This marks a fundamental change in the way humans relate to each other. He writes in his book 'The Empathic Civilization,' "The new communications/energy revolution, like those before it, forced a change in human consciousness, as millions of people wrestled with the reality of adjusting to a world where the temporal and spatial context had shifted dramatically in just a few decades."

If experienced time was moving fast with automobiles and electricity, it courses by doubly fast in the Internet age. In our social media culture, we are constantly connected to each other, but that doesn't ensure that we are intimately connected, a condition which the New York Times' David Brooks has written eloquently about.

Given these new developments, our attention spans are suffering and our sense of community is flagging. This was on display in the second presidential debate between the Republican presidential candidate--and scrofulous git--Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump was unable to sit still, often pacing back and forth when it wasn't his turn to speak and looming over Clinton. (A friend of mine joked he was trying to get in his 10,000 Fitbit steps.) Trump's vituperations often left his mouth in unfinished form. This up-all-night angry tweeter showed that just as he is unable to sit still, his mind is a turbulent mess. Erich Fromm wrote of the changes convulsing society during his time, "One possible way to escape this unbearable state of uncertainty and the paralyzing feeling of one's own insignificance is the very trait which became so prominent in Calvinism: the development of a frantic activity and a striving to do something. Activity in this sense assumes a compulsory quality: the individual has to be active in order to overcome his feeling of doubt and powerlessness. This kind of effort and activity is not the result of inner strength and self-confidence; it is a desperate escape from anxiety." I think this characterizes Trump quite well. As President Barack Obama recently quipped, it seems Trump is insecure.

Beyond producing unfit candidates for president, what does the experience of sped-up time do to our culture? Oftentimes, it exacerbates already difficult choices we must make. I've noted before Nick Kristof's great idea that society is responsible for the choices we have and we are responsible for the choices we make. But in the vast majority of cases, when we must make vital decisions in the nick of time, we often don't make very good decisions. Certainly this becomes a major factor when making important decisions as president but it also affects us in ordinary life. Here in Chicago, I believe it is contributing to our rise in homicides. In impoverished areas living under the threat of violence, quick decisions can be deadly. Author Alex Kotlowitz writes, "By the time (inner city children) enter adolescence, they have contended with more terror than most of us confront in a lifetime. They have to make choices that most experienced and educated adults would find difficult."

When analyzing the behavior of others and our own decisions, especially in a whiplash culture, it becomes important to take a step back and observe our fast-track minds. Einstein wisely said, "We must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community." Although it may be the first thing that pops up into our minds, those who are destroying others' lives in our inner cities are not monsters--they are shaped by forces greater than themselves and their motivations have become so twisted because of their situations and past decisions. They are suffering too and instead of working through that suffering, are exporting it onto other people. Given proper incentives, they could make better choices. Honestly, the same could be said for Trump, although a transformation is highly unlikely in these last weeks of the presidential campaign. That is because Trump is unwilling to examine himself, assess where he comes up short and change.

In a time that encourages very little self-reflection, it is important to understand our own and others' motivations and illusions. With less time to think and be still, we risk missing out on the gift that is each other's presence and, at levels of power like the presidency, we can become destructive.