How to Be The Adult in the Trump Era

The Keynes CentreHow We Think

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The question of adulthood and growing up is often lurking around discourses of Trump, often seen and described as an over-grown child. But perhaps there is also a need to mature on our part in relation to how we think and talk about Trump. Such an observation is made by David Brooks, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist and generally fair observer of the U.S. He begins by venting some frustrations :

“For the past two years Trump has taken up an amazing amount of my brain space. My brain has apparently decided that it’s not interested in devoting more neurons to that guy. There’s nothing more to be learned about Trump’s mixture of ignorance, insecurity and narcissism. Every second spent on his bluster is more degrading than informative.”

David Brooks, New York Times Op-Ed columnist, thinking about Trump

But, continuing about ‘listening to his brain for a change’, Brooks elaborates that it would “mean trying, probably unsuccessfully, to spend less time thinking about Trump the soap opera and more time on questions that surround the Trump phenomena and this moment in history.”

“It is clear that Trump is not just a parenthesis”, Brooks says, and after his presidency “things will not just snap back to ‘normal’”. Referring to ‘dying old demographic, political, even moral orders’, Brooks considers that “… what comes after will be a reaction against rather than a continuing from.”

Ultimately, Brooks asks:

“What lessons are people drawing … and how will those lessons shape what comes next?”

Indeed, we must, as reasoning persons, go on to ask what ought we to do? In brief, the answer is: ‘grow up’.

Susan Nieman, in her book Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age (2014: 6-8), puts the matter very well when she says:

“Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge: all information in the world is no substitute for the guts to use your own judgment…”

and continues

“…courage is required to live with the rift that will run through our lives, however good that may be; ideals of reason tell us how the world should be; experience tells us that it rarely is. Growing up requires confronting the gap between the two – without giving up on either one.”

Referring to how common it is “to meet people who are stuck in the mire of adolescence” and, noting the stance that it is brave to face the rot of the reality that there is no place for ideals any more, Nieman counters:

“Such a standpoint is less brave than you think, for it demands absolutely nothing but an air of urbanity. Far more courage is needed to acknowledge that both ideals and experience make equal claims on us.”

We could add that this is the stance of common cynicism–an easy stance to take up, maybe the easiest.

For Nieman, the bottom line is:

“Doing what you can to move your part of the world closer to the way it should be, while never losing sight of the way that it is, is what being a grown-up comes to.”

The gap between is and ought – how we see the world as it is and how we think it ought to be – is the central challenge in forming a sustainable stock of opinions to guide our behaviour. Just as “so much more is possible than the world we know”, which leads to making the “claim about how things ought to be” (Nieman, 2015: 28), we too can enlarge our own sense of the possibility for ourselves as we deliberately and responsibly shape our stock of opinions in a changing world.

Closing the gap between the is and the ought – the way our world is and the way it should be – is about putting things right. How we bridge that gap requires us to make leaps by exercising our power of judgment when combining reason and passion. We make this leap based on trusting that we are a ‘well-made self’ (Barzun) because we know how we have made it ourselves and have practised living with this dualism without running for simplistic resolutions to this dilemma.

As Nieman says, “…if we are ever to arrive at an adulthood we need not merely acquiesce in but can actively claim as our own”, we must operate at the “space between is and oughtthe space where questions arise.”

Questioning is the fundamental operation among people. We can disagree on opinions, facts, and ideas and so on but we can always ask questions of each other.

Again, Nieman spells out the implication:

Since the questioning activity does not end, “growing up is a matter of holding the is and the ought in balance, it will never be a stable position: each will always seek the upper hand. Hence growing up is not a task that ever stops.”

So it is with making, forming, using, and holding opinions (the topic of our previous blog post ). Opinions are answers to questions we ask ourselves and each other. They are not knowledge – our stock of opinions not a stock of knowledge – but rather what we have come to believe is true while not being certain. Because they govern our behaviour and because they are not certain we must continue the search for truth. A commitment to searching for truth as an element in one’s preferred best working attitude is what distinguishes an adult mind from an immature one.

In a word, growing up demands that we think, and think for ourselves, and engage with each other in dialogue.


The Keynes CentreHow to Be The Adult in the Trump Era