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Who is Imitating Whom? A Mimetic Meditation on the Upcoming Donald Trump Presidency

January 16, 2017

As René Girard pointed out, mimesis, our capacity for imitation, is a significant part of our humanity. Language and culture are passed on through the generations mimetically; young children mimetically pick up on taboos and values of their family.

Girard went on to develop how are desires are mimetic—we want what others want. This can lead to frustration, rivalry, and potentially violence. When violence is introduced, Girard goes on, it is returned with interest.

Building on Girard, I conceptualized mimetic structures of violence and mimetic structures of blessing. These “structures” are relational patterns that go on through time. They may be large, such as the violent orientation that mutually propelled the Soviet Union and the United States to wage a Cold War for decades. Or they may characterize family dynamics.

Mimetic structures are constituted by an orientation, a set of attitudes and values, and behaviours flowing from the attitudes. An orientation of violence means that people wish to get ahead at the expense of another so that they end up hurting or harming the other. Blessing, on the other hand, leads to mutual benefit, empowerment, and enrichment. At this critical juncture, Americans will need to discern ways in which potential mimetic structures of violence might be transformed into mimetic structures of blessing.

The Trump – Clinton presidential rivalry seems to have been overtaken by a mimetic structure of violence. Permit one example. One of Clinton’s speeches referred to large numbers of Trump supporters as “deplorable.” In this she imitated Trump’s tendency to characterize large groups of people in the most negative of terms. ‘Deplorable’ became a badge of honour and before long Trumpites proudly sported tee shirts designating them by this term. Similarly, women who supported Clinton donned apparel designating them by Trump’s derogatory term: ‘Nasty Woman’.

Given the intensity of emotions on both sides of the political divide, there is every reason to believe that mimetic structures of violence might become entrenched and the American people will suffer the consequences. Democrats might purpose in their hearts to block Trump as much as they can; mimetically following Republicans who systematically stopped Obama, depriving him of legislative initiative. Local Trumpites are already following their leader with racist comments and exclusionary tactics. Progressives could lose themselves in (righteous) anger, hatred and resentment, turning Trump into a ‘scapegoat’, Girard’s term for the phenomenon of unity in opposing a common “enemy.”

We have choices about whom to imitate and with what kind of spirit or orientation. This requires self-awareness, discernment, and courage. Let’s take the example of Nelson Mandela who became President of a deeply divided South Africa, rumbling with the potential of overt violence. One issue was whether or not he should support the rugby team, knowing that rugby was close to the hearts of white Afrikaners. His own ANC said “No.” Every mimetic cell in his body will have screamed “No!”: he could get back at his former oppressors by denying them what they valued in the same way that Apartheid had robbed his people of so much. Instead, building on what he had learned of Afrikaner culture during his twenty-plus years in prison, he embraced what they valued and in doing so, embraced them as a people. This played a pivotal role in transforming the country out of mimetic structures of violence in the direction of mimetic structures of blessing. (My wording here is cautious, not everything is rosy in South Africa but compared to a lethal civil war, it is amazing.)

Suppose there would be an ethical vision for mimetic structures of blessing. Certainly this would include holding Trump accountable for rhetoric and actions ungirding stereotyping, hatred, and division. But it would also include discerning, validating, and supporting Trump initiatives that just might have the potential to make America a better place. As Johan Galtung has observed, every leader, event a tyrannical one, has a point; the challenge is to differentiate between any valid points and those that are distorted, false, and inflammatory.

Trump supporters who gave unequivocal, passionate, support to their leader, need to take a step back and give themselves the luxury of being more discriminating. Evangelicals who got on the bandwagon adopted a Trumpist hermeneutic to guide their reading of Scripture. As long as he asked for prayer and brandied an anti-abortion stance, teachings of Jesus about loving enemies and accepting the marginalized of society became invisible in their Bibles.

In the midst of one of the bipartisan logjams during the Obama administration, I remember reading an op-ed from India in which the writer observed that while the United States was immobilized, countries like his were moving ahead. If Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Progressives, and those on all sides of racial divides get entrenched in mimetic structures of violence, hurting one another, the United States will likely be on the decline over the next four years. There could even be runaway gun violence morphing into outright civil conflict. However, if those millions of good-hearted Americans (living in the US for four years taught me to appreciate and love its people) with a capacity for self-reflection purpose together to transcend the walls between them and commit to mimetic structures of blessing, United States could become great in ways that no-one yet imagines.

The United States could build on past moments of greatness, mimetically embracing exemplars of the past, such as: when Martin Luther King Junior made his famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” and millions of Americans joined with passion his commitment to transcend racial divides; when Cheyenne Peace Chiefs dealt with murder by meditating for days outside the homes of murderers; when millions of hurt and lonely people from around the world were welcomed and given a chance; when Dorothy Day worked tirelessly throughout a lifetime for the benefit of poor people; when Sargent Shriver gave leadership to a Peace Corps that provided a chance for tens of thousands of young people to engage constructively with communities in many countries; when George Marshall came up with a plan for former enemies to be rehabilitated; when the United States gave leadership in the emergence of the United Nations… When we think about mimetically “restoring” American greatness, we need to discern which moments of “greatness” are worth emulating, leading to mimetic structures of blessing.


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Vern Redekop      January 25, 2017 at 15:35
Thanks for the feedback, Katherine.
Katherine Peil Kauffman      January 23, 2017 at 18:59
Wonderful Vern! One of the most balanced pieces I've seen in quite some time.