Essay Media Literacy

Decoding the Trump Virus

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

Last summer, while traveling in Europe, I noticed that every newspaper and most television channels carried images and statements of and by Donald Trump. I could not help thinking it was probably the same in most parts of the world. Here was Trump as U.S. President, former reality TV star and master twitterer, dominating the international news cycle again. He has clearly become a global meme, capturing humanity’s attention and drawing psychic energy from millions of people hanging on his every word and action. What impact does this have on us and what power does it give him? I think it is safe to say that few individuals in history have had such a broad impact on global consciousness.

A media virus is an image or act which is so outrageous that it bypasses our ordinary rational filters. The mass murders in El Paso or the threat of a nuclear attack on North Korea by Trump in a 140 character tweet, grabs our attention and lames our critical faculties. As Douglas Rushkoff, the media critic, states in Team Human:

the amazing thing is that it doesn’t matter what side of an issue people are on for them to be infected by the meme and provoked to replicate it. “Look at what this person said!” is reason enough to spread it. In the contentious social media surrounding our elections, the most racist and sexist memes are reposted less by their advocates than by their outraged opponents. That’s because memes do not compete for dominance by appealing to our intellect, our compassion, or anything to do with our humanity. They compete to trigger our most automatic impulses.”1

This, the ‘Trump meme’ most certainly does, generating great loathing or fierce adulation – and seldom much in between.

For some years I have attempted to be a conscious witness of our times, attending to how I work with local, national and international events and reflecting on how those events effect my soul and spirit. This journey has both an outer and an inner dimension. The outer dimension includes how I work with the news, which news sources with what frequency I attend to, and how I spend my time and resources as a citizen, activist and donor.

The inner dimension involves balancing the forces of withdrawal and engagement that live within me so that I am not overwhelmed by the tragedies of the immigrants at our southern border or the African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. Nor am I pulled too much in the direction of fleeing the world altogether and focusing exclusively on my friends, my reading, or my garden.

It also entails sifting my life experiences and inner soul moods as important sources of insight into the morality and truthfulness of news sources, political and economic elites, and governmental pronouncements. By this conscious practice, I sensed that the Bush administration and Colin Powell were not telling the truth about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to our invasion of that country in 2003, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when James Comey announced a renewed FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail servers eleven days before the election of 2016.

I think that a feeling for truth lives deeply within each person if we learn to listen to it and that all human beings have a sense of conscience and morality which ultimately offers the only true basis for political, social and spiritual discernment at a time of severe media manipulation. Learning to listen to this inner voice of discernment, however, requires that we create moments for quiet contemplation and reflection every day. The experience of inner development through the practice of mindfulness and meditation supports our truth-sensing.

When I inwardly listen to our President’s pronouncements or see his blue-suited image on the news, (in short when I am attending to the Trump meme), I discern quite different levels of response and insight in my soul. At the most obvious feeling-level there is my annoyance and irritation with this blowhard. When I push a little further I begin to come in touch with something else, which I will call the ‘Trump in me’; my vanity, my distortion of the truth, my desire for the approval and adulation of others, my desire for power and wealth, my lingering racism and misogyny as a straight, well-educated, elderly white male. This part of me is of course only one aspect of my being, part of my shadow, activated by the Trump meme.

We either loathe him for revealing that part of ourselves and our society to us, or we might be drawn to him because he puts us in touch with this cruder, more passionate side of our lower self. At another level still, Trump is the perfect manifestation of the American shadow, distorting the open, idealistic, egalitarian, caring and democratic nature of the American spirit into its opposite persona: a power seeking, egotistical, narcissistic, lying, fear mongering, crude and highly manipulative salesman, who stokes our fears while seeking to dominate others. He is for many foreigners the fitting image of the Ugly American. Much of our recent history with its endless wars, its extreme inequality of wealth, its chauvinism, racism, and corruption of politics through dark money is an institutional expression of this shadow dimension of American life.

I see bringing these different dimensions of the Trump meme to my consciousness as a mindfulness exercise. In paying attention, I free myself from my automatic emotional responses, my gut reactions, and can choose when I pay attention to him and when not. I have, for the most part, disempowered the Trump meme in my soul, and am much more able to focus on the real damage he is doing to the environment, to our international trade and alliance structure, to immigrants and to race relations. Most importantly I seldom now expend much psychic energy on him, depriving him of the attention he needs to unfold his antics and to undermine our American experiment in democracy. If more people would disinfect their soul from the Trump meme we would all remember that “America is the fact, the symbol and the promise of a new beginning,”as the American historian and philosopher Jacob Needleman noted so eloquently.2)



1) Douglas Ruskoff, Team Human, W.W. Norton &Co., N.Y. 2019 p.35

2) Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, Tarcher/Putnam, N.Y. 2002, p.19

About Christopher Schaefer

Christopher Schaefer Ph. D. is a retired adult educator, community development adviser, and social activist living in the Berkshires. He has been on an inner journey for many decades and has had a lifelong involvement with Waldorf education. He is the author of a number of books, most recently, Re-Imagining America : Finding Hope in Difficult Times, available from, and from Amazon and Steinerbooks, after October 1, 2019.

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