‘Billy Bigelow’ is the lead male character in the musical Carousel. He is a carnival barker…a “carny.” He is a braggart and a loudmouth who is always ready for a fight. He is a liar and a thief. He is the man that no one should ever be in a relationship with but the one that far too many fall for. Most tragically, he is also an abuser of women. While many find him intoxicating, he is ultimately just toxic. This kind of character is dying on Broadway. People are less eager to spend hundreds of dollars to see stories about abusive dreadful men, hoping for their redemption. Actors and producers are tired of glorifying jerks. People just don’t want to glamorize pathetic, hateful bullies and make excuses for them simply because they might be even a little bit handsome or rich. The theater-going public is finally growing up.
Sadly the voting public is slower to this party than the New York theater in-crowd. But it should be some reassurance that Donald Trump, like the rest of us, is also dying. Quite literally, he’s a 72-year-old white man in a country where the average life expectancy for someone like him is just over 79 year of age. He is our oldest elected President. If he is lucky (and he has been exceedingly lucky in where and to whom he was born) he could live more than the 7 years expected. As a personal trainer and wellness professional, it was my business to be able to look at someone and add up their overall health. Despite US averages and his protests, Donald Trump is not helping himself to the fountain of long life. Today, as a faith leader, I have a different perspective on the human arc of life and health. I now have the added sureness and peace in my heart that God will ultimately deal with Trump the man and the body, not in retribution for his actions, but because he is human like the rest of us. He is finite. Death is a feature included with every living body.
But like the character ‘Billy Bigelow’, “Donald Trump…the concept”, is also dying. True, we are seeing a spike in authoritarian, nationalist (white and otherwise) leaders around the world who echo the stances of the original Donald Trump. They are mimicking his rhetoric and aping some of his worst slogans. Everything from “fake news” and calling the media the “enemy of the people” to “Make (fill in the blank) Great Again” and “Lock (gendered pronoun of your choosing) up” have become popular catch phrases with an increasing number of new leaders around the world. But these are the actions of leaders who must resort to the brutish tactics of carnival barkers and used car salesmen because they literally have nothing of long-lasting quality to offer. The classic carnival barker, like ‘Billy Bigelow’, doesn’t have anything to sell except lies, but because he is the loudest and flashiest, he attracts the biggest crowd and the most attention. These are the “leaders” in the Trump model and this is the reason their success can only go so far. Like a drug, they offer a thrill for the moment.
The Donald Trump “leadership” style must ultimately die because real leadership is not an act. Government is not a fictional series. When someone is murdered because of anti-Semitic or racist domestic terrorism, they don’t get cleaned up when the camera stops rolling and move on to the next show waiting for an Emmy nomination…they die…the end. Rather than accolades for “Best Performance,” all that is left is an irreparable, gaping, raw hole in the lives of those they loved. The cycle of news and publicity may move on, but the people remain and they suffer. There is real pain and true leaders must deal with this.
The death of the Donald Trump “leader” is also inevitable because even the people we see chanting at rallies, the people spitting at journalists, the people invigorated in their sense of racial identity and superiority…even these people do not want to be in pain; this is another piece of the human condition. It is no coincidence to me that the Trump “leader” would emerge concurrent with rampant addiction in the United States. I have lost friends to and counseled people who struggle with opioids and addiction. Addiction is not something I take lightly and it is difficult for me to make the following comparison. Still, it is clear to me that the Donald Trump “leader” has leveraged the basic human search for comfort and pain relief and offered a brightly colored cocktail of celebrity/hero worship and aspirational falsehoods to lull followers into a stupor telling them “follow me and it will all be fine”. Like addiction, the attraction to Trump “leadership” feeds on itself. Like addiction, the attraction sits at a deeper place than simply with the substance being abused. Like addiction, it will require intervention, education, support and deep love to help people to move out of its grip…if they are willing to choose to do so.
The true leaders that must…and will emerge from this will be the ones who can speak to all people in pain. It will be someone who, rather than never having experienced an empty stomach, will be able to look in the eyes of a parent who has fed their children and not eaten themselves and communicate without words “I have been you.” It will be someone who has lost a family member to a racially aimed police bullet who can be fully present with officers while communicating both the human pain and real solutions. It will be someone who has stood among neo-Nazis chanting hatred and has been transformed through deep relationship with those who were previously their targets of scorn into an advocate for re-education and reconciliation. It will be someone who grew up on a reservation, completely disenfranchised from US privilege and erased from US history, only to claim a voice in an unwelcoming government and advocate for Indigenous rights. It will be someone who is proud to have come to this country as a migrant with or without a “legal” status. It will be someone who does not casually inflict pain because they have never experienced it or have numbed themselves to it in a cocoon of wealth and access. It will be someone who acknowledges they are dying and mortal…someone who acknowledges all of our shared humanity and seeks to make the best of what life (long or short) they may have left in this world.
There is nothing weak or “snowflake” about facing the reality and complexity of living in a diverse world. On the contrary, it takes tough as leather resolve to navigate the emotions of the vast experience of life and death on this earth. This is my greatest learning as a minister and why faith leaders and the real leaders that I mention above inspire me so much. Behind every tear that these leaders shed is a piercing and steady vision for a world built on basic freedom and the human right to justice; it is creative, relentless, fearless and crystal clear. My belief in this kind of leadership comes from personally accepting that there is a higher power to which we can choose to answer. Some call it God, others believe it is the human spirit, some have no name for it at all. It is what I believe guides leaders who authentically and truthfully speak to all who would listen and it requires no theatrics. It needs no curtain call, no stage…no rally.
Its time to vote. Elect leaders…not carnies.