Reflections about Following the Leader

Carol A. Hand

After reading a couple of chapters in Howard Zinn’s (1997) book, A People’s History of the United States, one of my students last semester asked a crucial question.

What does Mr. Trump mean when he says ‘Make America great again?’ When was it ever great?

Her questions led to a fascinating class dialogue.

Although it’s tempting for me to say that it was great here before Europeans arrived, I really can’t. Surviving the past long, cold winter made me realize how foolish and untrue it would be for me to say something so simplistic and disrespectful. Yes, much was lost for Indigenous people, but there have been benefits as well. For example, I can’t imagine the challenge of living in the north country without indoor plumbing and heat during a winter like the last. I am not sure how my ancestors survived by hunting and by gathering ever more distant fire wood outside to heat themselves, cook, and unfreeze water. Even when I lived off the power grid, I still had a well for indoor plumbing, a generator to run the electric water pump, and a backup propane heater in addition to a wood stove.

Despite my students’ critical view, the phrase “Make America great again” seems to be a powerful rallying cry for many people in the U.S. these days. I suspect it’s most powerful for those who have been programmed by schools that assiduously avoid resources that expose students to critical thinkers like Zinn. Those on the poorly-educated margins have been waiting a long time for America to be great for them as they struggled to make it as farmers, miners, or people trying to find jobs that made them feel that they were contributing something worthwhile to others and earning a decent wage in exchange.

Feeling forgotten or like a failure makes it far more difficult to resist the illusion that one can gain a little more power by putting others down. Many people are willing to follow a leader who sanctions divisiveness, who makes them feel special, and who helps them set aside any misgivings about morality. After all, someone in a position of authority tells them it’s a patriotic duty and demonstrates that it’s appropriate and legal to demean, scapegoat, and brutalize others whose differences set them apart somehow.

As I think about the class I’ll be teaching in the fall, research, I realize that Mr. Trump’s America reminds me of the Stanford prison experiment on steroids.

Give people a title and a little power and some will do anything to keep it. Or, as Stanley Milgrim’s experiments show, many people put aside their own common sense and empathy if a person in authority tells them what they’re doing is right even if it means inflicting harm on others. I have seen those dynamics in my work throughout my career in all types of organizations and communities. We’re witnessing what seems like escalating, outrageous, brutality on a national and global level.

The most crucial question to ask is, of course, what can be done to stop the egregious harm that is being done by people in power who seemingly have no hearts. I believe each of us who is aware must resist in our own way. For me at the moment that means stepping outside the protective comfort zone I created to heal from the battle scars of past encounters with the status quo. The specifics of what that will mean are still a work in progress. But so far this year, it’s meant planting the flower boxes I left empty last year as a gift of life and beauty to those who walk down the alley behind my house and happen to notice. It’s a small gesture, yet each life-loving thought and action may matter in ways we will never know.


June 25, 2018


Work Cited:

Howard Zinn (1997). A People’s History of the United States (Abridged Teaching Edition). New York, NY: The New Press.


38 thoughts on “Reflections about Following the Leader

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        1. Perhaps, although I think it also comes from those who have not experienced privilege but feel they should be “great” by virtue of their gender and skin-tone. Perhaps those whose education is limited and whose socio-economic status has placed them on the margins are the MAGA aspirants, as it was for the indentured servants from England who willingly became overseers of slaves, buffering the numerically smaller group of propertied Anglo-American ruling elite.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Hmm…that’s a very interesting point. There is a large sector of America that is white and working class and are MAGA aspirants (even if never benefiting from the “greatness”).

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Very interesting thoughts Carol. Similar things were said when we in the UK voted to leave the EU – suggesting that we might become ‘Great’ Britain again, but Britain was only ever great for a selection of the population and it’s prowess was based upon colonising other countries.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thank you for sharing such crucial, thought-provoking insights, Andrea. I wholeheartedly agree. Colonizing empires have gained “greatness” for a limited elite at the expense of other peoples around the globe. Part of what has made, and continues to make, colonial domination possible is defining the “others” who are oppressed and exploited as inferior, and destroying the environments and cultures that give their lives sustenance and meaning. So many of the disasters people are trying to escape in recent times are a direct legacy of the brutality of colonialism. Yet we blame them and treat them with unbelievable cruelty.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ahhh, Stanford’s psych department, it provokes such a continuous condemnation of the university itself. There were so many “notorious” psych experiments at my husband’s grad school alma mater. They reflect so badly, to this day, and both the university, and the profession.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for sharing such important observations, Cindy. Sadly, researchers have continued to conduct studies that are ethically suspect in many fields. And “bad” research continues to give credence to biased views of those who don’t have the power to speak for themselves and be heard.


  3. The flower boxes are a lovely gift to passers-by, most thoughtful. If enough of the American populace had such random acts of kindness at hand, The Leader wouldn’t have a chance with his vitriolic sputum.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Ron. I do wish more people would focus on kindness. I try to remember something I have heard from many sources.

      “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves” (Buddha).

      Creating beauty in small ways without expecting some kind of “reward” is one of the things I can do these days.


  4. Making America great is an ongoing process. It is a process of a lifetime, of decades, of generations, of centuries. It is a process of ups and downs, with the sum of the ups being greater than the sum of the downs. It is a process inspired and guided by high ideals as represented in our Constitution, which is a living document that needs to constantly grow and mature as our process of becoming great informs us and our ideals through our ups and downs, through our successes and failures.

    We are each a part of this process, individually and collectively, either contributing towards progress or towards regress, towards either our ups or our downs. No one of us or small group of us can force greatness, nor can any one of us completely block it, because greatness arises through the love and hope of human hearts as part of our inherent destiny.

    It is possible, however, for one, especially with a group of misguided accomplices, to significantly stymie our progress towards greatness and to cause regress, even while touting greatness, especially by invoking the word “again,” because we have never yet reached greatness – it is always an ideal towards which we are working – so “again” implies returning to something that never actually was.

    It is up to each of us to strive as best we can towards the high ideals we feel in our heart. We must strive individually and collectively towards our universal ideals that continually rise higher and brighter the more nearly we approach them. We must work at this on our own while knowing that we are not alone and that ultimately we can only do this together, because we are all in this Life together.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you for taking the time to share such thoughtful comments about what it takes to work toward “greatness,” Cakmn. I agree with your crucial observation that ” we are not alone and that ultimately we can only do this together, because we are all in this Life together.”


  5. Perhaps the saddest and most troubling aspect of the Trump phenomenon is something you captured in one sentence: “Many people are willing to follow a leader who sanctions divisiveness, who makes them feel special, and who helps them SET ASIDE ANY MISGIVINGS ABOUT MORALITY.”

    When morality becomes a sacrificial lamb at the altar of whatever else floats our boat, we’re sunk.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments about the importance of morality, Mister Muse. It isn’t easy to stay true to our own values when those in power tell us what to do, how to think and believe, or what we should aspire to become. Times like these provide a valuable opportunity to find out who we really are on good days and bad ones. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Carol, I have quoted your students response many time, since Trump started slithering about in big time politics.

    The system isn’t broken, as many claim, the many who want to “make America great again”, the system is functioning in the manner it was always meant to function, since klan band of pirates’ convention in Philadelphia (Love of Brother) took place over two-hundred years ago.

    Your point is well made, Carol. We have all been brainwashed/programmed, throughout our education years, to believe in the lies about an “American dream” and being ‘exceptional’, and that we are the savior of the world. When in fact, we are anything but exceptional or a savior, and the dream is and has always been nothing but a carrot, dangled from a string, in front of the working-poor’s noses.

    The time is now to put an end to this entire world order. If we don’t, then we are setting up our children and future generations to have to live under a totalitarian world system that will make this order, today, look like a stroll in the park on a sunny day.

    But I also know I am a tiny minority, when it comes to this point of view. So what’s a lunatic, like me, to do?!;-)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Students can teach us so much if we listen, can’t they, Dave?

      Thank you for such a thoughtful analysis of the challenges we face and how we got here. I wish I could answer your final question with more than planting flower boxes. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve been thinking. It is not resisting that we need. It is direction. Not the current direction, but a clear direction, where it is great for everyone. I refuse to resist. I want the best people, with the best vision.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for thinking about these issues and for your thoughtful reply. And you are correct in your choice of words, April. When we resist, it’s in reaction to something that is not of our own making. It’s far more accurate to say that we need to be true to our own sense of knowing and the vision we have of what should and could be. ❤


  8. Thank you, Carol, for this thoughtful reflection. Moment by moment, day by day, to return to the question, how can I make life better and more beautiful and then to act on the answer that comes even if it seems too small to matter …I believe that’s how we change the world.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Making America Great is about buying into the myth, whether it’s Manifest Destiny, World War II, or walking on the moon. It’s what was taught in those classic elementary texts that focus mainly on a series of supposedly victorious war efforts. They never get to Vietnam or Afghanistan. Surely there is nothing going on in Washington now that has anything to do with greatness.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. We have a running joke about his comment over here – Make America grate again! I think as with most current “leaders” there is no self- awareness, no cultural understanding, no sense of communal justice, leadership becomes more about celebrity, media moments, looking good, sounding good, and being self-focussed. All of which emmantes from the ego, and whic leads to trouble. We currently have trouble. I love the Stanford Experiment, despite the controversy surrounding it, it makes a strong point. Enjoyed this provocative post Carol.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a difference a little “e” can make, Paul! Thank you for adding a bit of humor here and for your ever-thoughtful comments. It’s been interesting for me to consider the profound cultural differences in the components of leadership. I think of the role Ojibwe leaders had to earn through their example as listeners, community unifiers, and servants who met the needs of the people through generosity, thoughtful reflection, tenacity, and integrity. How different this was from the Euro-American perception you describe so well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, so agree, many here have come to the conclusion that we should have learned from the original custodians of the land in all manner of relationships. Perhaps now we might actually begin. Hope

        Liked by 1 person

  11. i find this contemplation
    into the good old days
    insightfully meaningful, dear Carol!
    if only looking at us two legged ones,
    seems good & bad have always prevailed.
    but for most other living things
    seems they more easily thrived
    back then 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I mean no disrespect to scientific studies and definitely don’t want to appear as if I arrogantly think more highly of myself, but I can’t understand – as hard as I try – how a person can find any justification for knowingly hurting others. I simply can’t comprehend it. Apparently, I’ve been extremely fortunate in this life and wasn’t subjected to the intense fear that must lead to this type of behavior. My childhood wasn’t exactly “story book” but I guess it was happier and less painful than most. I honestly don’t understand this.

    Also, I see people who have endured lives of fear and extreme danger (such as growing up in the South Bronx and similar areas) who have grown to be beautiful, compassionate people. Obviously, there are many factors involved in this complicated issue.

    Plants and animals definitely had better lives before the era of industrialization. They’ve gone from lives of balance (if sometimes brutal) to enduring constant suffering at the hands of human ignorance.

    I sure hope we’re learning from all of this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, A Shift In Consciousness. People can and do change, but it’s not always in a positive direction. One of the most telling statements Phillip Zimbardo made at the beginning of the video posted above is crucial to consider.

      “I was interested in what happens when you put good people in an evil place. Does the situation outside of you, the institution, come to control your behavior or does the things inside you, your attitude, your values, morality, allow you to rise above a negative environment?”

      I have seen examples of both in my work in many different settings. Some good people sold out and others learned how to “rise above.” We don’t hear about the ICE staff who refuse to brutalize others or the influence they may have had on peers who may not have known that they still had a choice despite the evil of an institution. It seems the people you have met made the choice to rise above, demonstrating the power of those who resist the temptation to follow leaders instead of trusting their own sense of what’s “right” and compassionate. May we all learn to chose the ethical, compassionate path although it is not easy…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Easy and comfortable are extremely overrated. Sadly, most of us have been conditioned to forget that. The difficult part of this for me to understand is why so many people prefer the moral and emotional pain of knowingly selling out over a bit of physical discomfort.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sometimes it’s incredibly lonely and dangerous if you speak truth to power or are one of the few who are willing to behave ethically in a setting that avoids truth at all costs. The lives of so many truth-speakers, advocates and whistle blowers demonstrate the clear and present danger so clearly to all.

          Liked by 1 person

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