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Trump, Grief, and Mortality

January 03, 2017

Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC
The privately-owned Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Note: I am pleased to announce that I am now part of Outside Investments, a division of NorthStar Asset Management. I will continue to publish my blog here at You can learn more about NorthStar at

On the evening of November 8, 2016, I felt something akin to receiving a call informing me that an important person in my life had died suddenly and horribly. Shocking, senseless, incomprehensible. I sat on the couch with tears streaming down my face.

If this had been just another election where my party lost, it would be one thing. However, the election of Donald Trump has felt like a highly symbolic moment. The world as we know it (or want it to be) now feels mortal. We know intellectually that we as individuals are mortal, but even that can be hard to accept. Trump’s victory represents awakening to a different kind of mortality—the impermanence of our democracy and the perverse power of our economic winners.

Trump is the epitome of what our economic system fosters and supports, whether intentionally or by default: get rich by any means, convince the public (or enough of it) that you care about them, and then willfully and openly operate in a way that flies in the face of laws and regulations, customs, tradition, and decency. We can denounce Donald Trump as a narcissistic con man, but it is hard to deny that our economic system and consumerist values have Trumped the espoused virtues of our democracy.

This, of course, began long before Trump rose to power. His extremism simply highlights what has been a long time coming. Exploitation and extraction are the necessary conditions upon which our economic system has been built and without which the economic engine would come to a standstill—at least the part of the economic engine that works to build wealth for the few at the expense of reasonable financial security for the many. We’ve had ample indications that capitalism as we practice it is destructive to the middle class, that our fixation on growth in the aggregate hurts people at the individual level, and that our disregard for the health of our planet is unconscionable. Donald Trump is an absurd-yet-dangerous caricature of the “success” that our system is designed to achieve.

None of this is easy to take, and we are all implicated. I believe we are awakening to the very real possibility of the death of our democracy, our economic system, the earth as we know it and possibly much or all of humanity – and that it is helpful to understand our times in this context. In fact, every day brings news about melting ice, warming temperatures, species extinctions, water toxicity, and unbreathable air. These “natural” phenomena are inextricably linked to social and political disruption. Drought and starvation, overcrowding and land-grabbing are the kinds of forces that incite resentment and upheaval and that portend the collapse of systems.

It’s been helpful to frame my emotions around the election of Donald Trump in the context of grief and mortality. We know from the work of Kubler-Ross and subsequent findings that there are multiple stages of grief that are not necessarily sequential or separate. On any given day, we may experience all five stages described by Kubler-Ross—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—and some people may never experience all of them.

I imagine many of us have been deep in denial about the reality of president-elect Trump, distracting ourselves with all sorts of food, drink, TV, books, movies, sports, and so on. We have felt the deepest outrage and anger, so intense that we have been helpless and miserable while lashing out loudly and relentlessly. We’ve probably tried to convince ourselves that it isn’t really so bad. After all, the earth is billions of years old, humans are only thousands of years old, and one person—no matter who—is a tiny little gnat. Or we’ve told ourselves that the system will hold him accountable, or that maybe we needed this wake-up call. Depression may have become an abiding companion during these past few months, and acceptance—well, that has yet to come for me.

It is not in our power to stop Donald Trump or to prevent the collapse of natural and human-made systems any more than it is in our power to prevent our own or others’ natural deaths. It is in our power, though, to see what is beyond grief, to know when to leave it behind, and to open ourselves to the journey and responsibility of what is next. As we experience the stages of grief for our greater community, it is my New Year’s intention to remember that the death of one person or thing or system is followed by the birth of someone and something new and that I can focus my time and energy there. I want to make space in my heart and especially in my mind for what is helpful and to do what I can to nurture what is good and equitable and compassionate in my daily life. I want to remember that we are not in the throes of sudden death. We are in the midst of a long, slow decline of certain systems and practices. There is room and opportunity for the emergence of that which is local, connected, relational, and fair.

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