President Trump’s visit has provoked much comment on the behaviour and attitudes demonstrated by this most unusual man. Not so much attention has been paid to what lies beneath. Just what makes a man act and speak as he does? An answer may lie in his Scottish roots.

It is well known that the president’s mother emigrated from Lewis, coming from a strong Western Isles Presbyterian tradition. Indeed, Trump himself apparently attributes his religious values to her. The prophetic author, Alastair McIntosh, in his most recent book about the islands, Poacher’s Pilgrimage, offers an explanation for what he describes as Trump’s high narcissism and lack of empathy, a man “for whom everything is on the outside”.

McIntosh ponders whether this disconnection between the president’s inner and outer life can be linked back to his mother’s separation from her homeland, an experience shared on Trump’s father’s German side. He describes the family trauma that Trump may carry, noting that earlier generations of his mother’s family were evicted in the Clearances of the 1820s.

In observing how readily the oppressed can become the oppressor, McIntosh traces the history of American conservative evangelism, linking it to a harsh Calvinistic binary worldview introduced by the clearance landlords, with its strong “in-group” cohesion and callous disregard for “out-groups”. That separation expresses itself externally in walls between “good” and “evil” and, internally, in a sense of dislocation. That internal woundedness may be what Mr Trump unwittingly carries and, ironically, it may be what makes him attractive to alienated voters in his own country. To that extent, Mr Trump is a symptom rather than a cause of the present malaise.

What’s the point of all this? It is easy and sometimes right to condemn what is unacceptable on the surface. But we also need to try to understand. We need to explore the causes and the address rationally what it all means. Otherwise, history has a habit of repeating itself. And we are not immune to similar dislocation and separation here.

Brexit expresses a deeper underlying unease felt by many. Arguably, merely leaving the European Union will not get to the heart of what it is really about. The same might be said of internal UK constitutional questions. In any event, to make progress we need to move from mere condemnation to deep exploration. When soundbites and short-termism dominate politics and the media, this is hard work. But it must be done.


Originally published in The Times on 19 July 2018.

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