One thing Trump and Hillary Supporters can agree on: The Authentic Self

Let’s talk about crooked Hillary.

Okay but before that, a disclaimer: As a Singaporean, I am not particularly motivated to follow the US Presidential race. Sure, it will affect diplomatic relations and trade in this region. But there’s very little South East Asians can do about it, other than cover our ears and wait for the thunderclap.

What’s interesting to me about this election is the American cultural crisis that has surfaced in light of Trump’s candidacy, and how that speaks to an underlying fission of cultural belief systems that has come to divide the nation.

Individualism still persists as one of the core American values that politicians on both sides aim to uphold, and Hillary’s brand of collaborative, other-oriented decision-making has been lambasted by the right as a dangerous approach to governance. But in fact, the way that she operates (that have sparked “doubts about her trustworthiness and transparency” in the West) has existed and some would argue, has led to great success in the East for thousands of years.

Critics of Clinton all echo a central assertion: Clinton cannot be trusted. She’s under the thumb of lobbyists and cosies up to Wall Street. Her hacked emails, released by Wikileaks, reflect that she held private beliefs that contradicted their public positions. All in all, Clinton is inauthentic.

And they aren’t singling out Hillary. The problem, they say, is that politicians are inauthentic. Anybody who has been in politics, they claim, is not capable of defending the people’s interests because they’re so busy trying to please their powerful and wealthy stakeholders.

The Authentic Antihero

In many ways, Trump appears to be the opposite of that. He conducts himself with irreverence towards anyone, including his own party. He “tells it like it is”, which is astonishing to the public –  a never-before-seen, radical shift from and direct challenge to conventional politicking in America. And people are lapping it up.

Now, I’m not about to join the debate on who’s right and wrong or who Americans should support because hey, I’m just watching this unfold on cable news.

But the question of a politician’s authenticity resonates with me because it captures the internal conflict of dual self-construals that I studied in my senior thesis. Self-construal refers to how you define the self: either independent – a bounded and unique entity with unique characteristics that exist separate from others around you, or interdependent – whereby the self is largely defined by social roles that you play in relation to different people. According to Hazel Markus, heavyweight and pioneer in the field of cultural psychology, the independent self is upheld in Western culture, whereas most cultures in the East promote the development of the interdependent self.

Trump is a textbook example of someone with high independent self-construal. It is argued that he is true to his personality, both on- and off-the record. In fact, this is the very thing Republicans and Democrats, Trump supporters and decriers all seem to agree on.

His “locker room talk”, say Democrats, reflect that he is nothing but a truly despicable human being. And Trump’s camp says yeah, well, at least he’s being true to his alpha male persona (in other words, it is in the nature of real men to joke about sexual assault. Apparently).

Self, Blended

Hillary also has core, identifiable traits that demonstrate the independent self- impersonality, for one. Why can’t she smile more, exude a little more warmth? (Read: be more feminine.) Regardless of whom she is with or what position she is in at the time of public scrutiny, the same conclusion about her personality is drawn- Hillary is just not a gal’s gal.

But while Clinton has chosen to avoid the “woman card” this election, shying away from references to her gender identity, she also displays fluidity of the self. Her interdependent self-construal allows her to slide easily between the roles of diplomat, negotiator, mediator and nonprofit leader, not to mention politician’s wife, mother and filial daughter (who took care of her ageing mother into her last days), without questioning the contradictions in her behaviour within each role that she plays.

I would argue that she exemplifies the integration of independent and interdependent selves. To put it plainly, Mrs Clinton does not experience any cognitive dissonance when she dials up different parts of her personality to meet the needs of her audience (and according to her, neither did Abe Lincoln).

This upsets those brought up in Western cultures that are more used to the idea of personality as stable. If someone is jovial and gregarious amidst friends, you can expect him or her to be that same way amongst acquaintances and family. If you’re a meticulous person, everyone from your teacher and grandmother to your dentist should be able to tell. Personality, through a Western lens, is something that permeates one’s every cell. Who you are is accurately determinable and definable through the study of your unique behavioural patterns.

In Asia, things are a little different. For the most part, our ancestors didn’t give half of a crap about individual identity. Confucius taught us that a virtuous man was one who served his role in society well. And each person serves more than one role at any given phase of life. I can be a daughter, a sister, an employee, a tutor or a friend. What defines me is not character traits but the persons I am interacting with in that situation.

For example, as a sister, I can be a dick and say mean things to my brothers because I know that our sibling relationship allows for a higher tolerance of caustic words. Whereas I wouldn’t act like that with my tutee, because I perceive my role in her life to be a role model and not an asshole who may very well be able to get away with it.

What makes this model work is that everyone in a particular social setting agrees on what your role is with respect to everyone else in it. Mutual understanding and harmony are what holds us together. To try to assert yourself from others creates friction and therefore is frowned upon.

Which brings me back to Hillary Clinton. Hillary gets this whole idea of interdependence. Whether or not she is consciously aware of the benefits of wearing multiple hats and channeling a different energy when needed, she has no trouble accepting that personality is malleable. But on top of that, she was raised in a world that prioritises individuality, and she knows she’s a special snowflake in her own right. As a result, she has a hybridised understanding of the self.

Where it might have been okay to pick either interdependent or independent views of the self half a century ago, there has come a critical time for us to reflect on our definitions of personality and what it means in a cosmopolitan context. There is no longer an East-West divide. We’ve got Italians and French and Brazilians all over South East Asia enjoying laksa and pad thai, and over in Europe there’s Vietnamese and Kenyans who speak better English than the Brits. Beyond crossing physical borders to experience other cultures, we’ve brought along our own heritage and tradition and they have fused with the native cultures to create new ones. From the melting pot emerges an understanding that multiple worldviews can coexist and even converge.

When different beliefs about humanity on a whole, beginning with the very micro-level of what it means to be, enter into our existing belief systems, none of it will feel at odds with who we are as authentic individuals. Pluralism is not as scary as it sounds, I think it’s really the only way to keep engaged with your fellow man in this day and age.

Lol you guys should just read my thesis.

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