And often it’s not the official slogan that defines a campaign – it’s one that emerges spontaneously, as the party faithful comes together and their collective worldview becomes clear.
The official slogan for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run was “Change we can believe in”. But history has largely forgotten this – what lives on is the memory of crowds of Obama fanatics chanting,
“YES WE CAN”
Donald Trump’s official 2016 slogan had more sticking power – in fact you don’t even have to say “Make America Great Again”, just “MAGA” will do. But his supporters also came up with an indelible slogan that seemed to define his campaign and his candidacy.
“BUILD THAT WALL, BUILD THAT WALL”
Two simple slogans. And each seems to communicate something profound about the candidate, their support, and – crucially – their perspective on boundaries.
Separation or connection?
In an article like this it makes sense to define what it is that we mean by a ‘boundary’? But definitions are not neutral – in defining something we invariably end up commenting on it. Whether we’re talking about the boundaries between places or – for the purposes of this piece – the boundaries between people, there are two basic approaches.
Some would say that a boundary is a line of separation – the point where one place or person ends, and another begins. Others would say that a boundary is a point of connection – the location where two places or people meet. This may seem like only a semantic difference, but as worldviews they are fundamentally different.
When Trump led his crowds in the chant of “BUILD THAT WALL” the intention was clear – to make a geographical border bluntly physical, all the better to keep us safe, and keep them out. Obama’s call of “YES WE CAN” was an invitation to acknowledge that different groups may have different agendas, but that together they can achieve more than they can apart.
All of which may seem like we are proposing that the Trump interpretation of boundaries is ‘wrong’ and the Obama interpretation ‘right’. Not at all. Each perspective offers valuable insights into what is needed for a boundary to be healthy. The question is not which is wrong and which is right – the question is what is the intention behind the position, and what is the impact?
You and Me
In June 2019, President Trump tweeted “Democrats want open borders, which equals violent crime, drugs, and human trafficking”. And while some may not agree that this is a true representation of what Democrats actually want, it would be hard to argue with the idea that entirely open borders could not facilitate all of the things that he warns against.
If we approach human boundaries from the Trumpian perspective – the point that I end and you begin – it’s absolutely clear why a clear dividing line is necessary. Many of us have been in relationships that, somewhere down the line, go from being close and cosy to suffocating. In a relationship where there are absolutely no boundaries, or where boundaries are fuzzy, we can get lost. There is no longer a you or a me, just us. Each individual’s personal needs, their sense of self, their essence gets subsumed into the collective.
A term often used for these types of relationship is ‘co-dependent’. In a co-dependent relationship there is an excessive reliance on the other person for approval and a sense of identity. The outcome is usually that unhealthy behavioural patterns emerge – perpetual conflict, individual underachievement, and unmet needs.
From this perspective the Trumpian call to “BUILD THAT WALL” reflects an entirely legitimate impulse. Just as an individual needs a strong sense of self to be psychologically and emotionally healthy, so – many might say – does a nation.
However, just because a clear sense of self is a pre-requisite to psychological and emotional wellbeing, that doesn’t mean that it is in itself sufficient. A strong boundary is not necessarily a healthy one…
Strength vs. Rigidity
When it was opened on July 1st 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington was hailed as a marvel of engineering. The designer Leon Moiseiff solved a problem of 50 years standing – how to build a bridge to span the near 2km width of the Puget Sound. He created a solid, rigid suspension bridge that was forecasted to last for many generations.
Just over five months later, on November 7th, the bridge collapsed in 40-mile per-hour winds. The very factors that made the bridge strong and stable also made it too rigid to withstand high winds. The collapse had a lasting impact on science and engineering – rigidity does not equal integrity.
With bridges, as with borders, as with relationship. A rigid boundary offers only superficial safety – under enough pressure it will collapse. We can try to have our relationships be exactly the way we want them to be by setting hard, immovable boundaries – “this is what is acceptable to me, and this is what is not acceptable”. But here’s the thing – a boundary is the space between two or more people or places. What is OK for me may or may not be OK for you. If I enforce my desires and insist that my needs are met regardless of your desires and needs then we have a problem. Either you submit entirely and lose yourself, or you push back. And if you push back strongly enough then the boundary collapses, and invariably the relationship breaks down.
Yes We Can
What the world of engineering came to realise after the Tacoma Narrows collapse was that structural integrity is a combination of strength and flexibility. A bridge needs to be strong enough to carry its load, and also flexible enough to withstand the pressures that the environment will inevitably exert upon it.
In the same way a healthy boundary needs to be able to flex to accommodate others’ needs – and also to snap back when it has moved far enough. But to find this place means adopting more of a ‘YES WE CAN’ than a ‘BUILD THAT WALL’ perspective.
When Obama said ‘YES WE CAN’ the emphasis was on the ‘we’. For a healthy boundary to exist there needs to be an appreciation that there are three parties in any relationship – you, me, and us. This means appreciating difference – what I want may be different to what you want – while acknowledging our essential sameness.
From here the boundary is not a point of separation, it is a place that we meet to celebrate all that makes us different, and all that we have in common and to create something wonderful in service of all of us.
All of this is – of course – easy to talk about, but can be hard to achieve. Relationships are places of emotion and high stakes – what does it take to get this balance of keeping me safe, while keeping us connected right?
It requires you to be a Warrior.
Warrior boundaries are defined by three things: discipline, discernment, and awareness.
Discipline: Warriors are disciplined. They know what they need and expect and are consistent in maintaining it. As people and as leaders those who follow you will expect consistency and integrity. They will expect to see you role-modeling these qualities, even when it is tough.
Discernment: Warriors are discerning. They have the ability to keep the present moment in mind, whilst also regarding the bigger picture. With these two perspectives they can judge when to fiercely guard a boundary, and when to allow it to flex. Not only that, they have the courage and strong sense of OK-ness in themselves which means they can allow those boundaries to flex without feeling threatened.
Awareness: The pre-requisite for both of the above is simple awareness. Warriors are aware not just of the world around them but also of the world within them. They have learnt to tune into their senses, to detect that gut feeling of where their boundaries lie, and when they are being impinged upon. If you are not aware of where your own personal boundaries are you are a slave to them – with awareness comes choice.
Build That Bridge
In a time of remarkable polarization around the world it can be hard to imagine that certain groups will ever find common ground. What are supposed to be boundaries look more like canyons, dividing people by generation, race, gender, and political orientation. And there’s no denying that Donald Trump has become a lightning rod for this polarization.
But what if we were to regard the man and his movement from less of a ‘Build That Wall’ and more of a “Yes We Can’ perspective? From here his call for nationhood and selfhood is not necessarily divisive – it is a call for clarity about who we are, and by extension who I am.
Maybe those who oppose him can acknowledge this call and build on it. Remembering the lesson of Tacoma Narrows – and the need for flexibility as well as strength – we can transform “BUILD THAT WALL” into “BUILD THAT BRIDGE”.