The Dangers of I-Do-Me-ism

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The Donald Trump quote in this tweet really hammered something home for me:

It strikes me that this could and should be the slogan for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign: “I don’t care. I do me.” Trump’s malignant brand of populism is founded and fostered on the idea that the individual comes first, at the expense of society. I’ve already written about Trump’s disastrous business style, which is predicated on an “I do me” platform, but in politics this philosophy is even more destructive.

Trump’s I-do-me-ism is based on the idea that a very particular individual—white, male, Christian—comes first. Everybody else gets scraps, if they get anything at all. In Trump’s ideal America, for example, white women can work and vote but they’d better not get uppity about the pay gap, or sexual harassment. Immigrants get sent home. Muslims are profiled and harassed until they get the message that they’re not welcome.

“I don’t care. I do me” is also the message that the British people sent in last week’s Brexit vote. When leaders like Boris Johnson promise that Britain will have all the benefits of EU membership without any of the expenses, he’s promoting a me-first attitude that foregoes any ideas of community or responsibility.

The strains of populism and nationalism on the march today are rooted in racism. Racism is what happens when you throw empathy in the garbage. Trump’s rallies have emboldened white supremacists to a level that we haven’t seen in America’s public spaces since the 1960s. And racist incidents have skyrocketed in Britain, post-Brexit.

Let’s be clear: Trump and Brexit are not happening in a vacuum. It’s easy to convince people to promote a racist, harmful political ideology when they feel as though they’ve been left behind. Income inequality doesn’t create racism, but it does create an environment that encourages racist actions. People are likely to act more exclusionary when they feel as though they’ve been excluded.

But we’re at a real crossroads here. What Trump is proposing with his I-do-me-ism is a political ideology based solely on selfishness, a feral politicsthat urges citizens to grab whatever they can before it’s all gone. Looting is not a successful form of governance; it eventually ends with the biggest, loudest bully taking over, in the form of authoritarianism.

Progressives need to reject exclusionary politics in all its forms. That means we can’t leave anyone out—even Trump voters. Without policies and talking points that embrace America’s working class and the white male voters who flock to Trump, the election threatens to spin into a toxic game of us vs. them.

This is not to say that progressives should court racism, xenophobia, or nationalism; we should condemn them at any opportunity, but we should do so in a constructive way. We should call out racism by proving that equality is better for everyone. We should argue that hate is bad for nations. (We’re seeing this now in Britain.) We must spotlight and amplify the same people Trump and his I-do-me-ists are trying to silence and vilify.

Most religions and moral codes offer some variation of turning the other cheek, of welcoming those who don’t make us feel welcome. This is because we know as a species, on a DNA-deep level, that inclusion makes us stronger than exclusion. But the only way we can prove to Trump voters that inclusion is stronger is by continually offering meaningful, inclusive solutions for the problems they perceive.

Politics has never been easy, but never in my lifetime has it felt so actively distasteful as it does right now. For many, it would be easier to turn your back on the whole process, to give up on politics and to hide away from the hurtful words. We must not give in to the easy way. We have to keep making the case that we all do better when we all do better. We’ve come too far to fall prey to the vicious philosophy of I-do-me-ism.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.