If you've spent any time on Facebook over the past 24 hours, you've probably come across an open letter to Donald Trump by Brandon Stanton, the creator of the incredibly popular feel-good blog Humans of New York. In case you missed it:
In the day since it was published, Stanton's open letter has gone viral. At the time of this writing, it has amassed 950,062 shares, 52,333 comments, and more than 1.8 million likes. It has been approvingly aggregated by at least a dozen mainstream media outlets. ("Humans Of New York Is Pissed Enough At Trump To Write This Powerful Letter," declared The Huffington Post. "Humans of New York Founder Just Wrote the Most Powerful Open-Letter to Donald Trump," gushed Vogue. "Humans of New York Creator Writes Epic Letter To Prove that Donald Trump is a Terrible Human," decrees a website called NextShark.)
Stanton's letter has clearly struck a chord with the grassroots anti-Trump movement, which approaches a day like today's potentially decisive round of primaries with considerable trepidation.
An "open letter" already requires the writer to assume a certain self-importance — you may be writing to Donald Trump, but you're writing for everybody else. And Stanton's credentials do have some relevance here; as he says, his interviews with Syrian and Iraqi refugees make him an expert of sorts on many of the kinds of people who would be most negatively affected if Trump's policies were ever written into law.
But if you actually weigh the substance of the letter, Stanton isn't actually writing about any of that. He's writing about himself. There are 26 sentences in Stanton's letter, and 17 of them are about himself, not Trump. This isn't a letter about the dangers of Trump being elected; it's a letter about Brandon Stanton being brave enough to speak out against Trump. I suspect Stanton's motives were pure when he sat down to write this, but the end result is a self-satisfied tribute to his own high-mindedness — and, inevitably, an extension of the extremely lucrative Humans of New York brand.
It would take less than 10 minutes to rewrite this letter without any of the narcissism. Before he gets to Trump, Stanton talks about himself: his aversion to political statements, his decision to break this rule to speak out against Trump, and a strangely self-important little aside about the presidential candidates who have asked him to interview them.
"I've watched you retweet racist images. I've watched you retweet racist lies. I've watched you take 48 hours to disavow white supremacy," writes Stanton. The only reason those sentences don't read "You have retweeted racist images," "You have retweeted racist lies," and "You took 48 hours to disavow white supremacy" is that Stanton can't bring himself to take himself out of the story.
But the real problem is that this letter — which frames itself as a courageous stance against a dangerous demagogue — stands no chance of doing anything but preaching to the choir. You can see it in the sheer virality of the letter. Sharing Stanton's post is an easy and consequence-free way of making a statement about one's values. In this case, the statement being made — anti-racism and anti-violence — is a little like coming out in favor of ice cream or ponies. It's easy to be against racism and violence, and it feels good to be lauded for it. If you're genuinely worried about Donald Trump ascending to the presidency, this kind of rhetorical broadside can be cathartic. But it's also totally useless.
And, in this very unique context, it's also a missed opportunity to address Trump's presidential campaign in a way that could have an impact beyond the glurgey immediacy of making the already-converted nod their heads in agreement. Here is one way that someone like Stanton could use his elevated public platform — which is literally built on fostering empathy and understanding for all people — to do some good.
"Dear Donald Trump supporters," Stanton's open letter could have begun. "I understand your frustration. Over the past six years, I've photographed and interviewed thousands of people who come from every situation you can imagine. I've seen people struggle, and talked to people with genuine concerns over the direction of this country. If you feel the same way, Donald Trump might seem like the answer to your problems. But he's not. Let me try to explain why."
That's not as sexy a headline as "Read the Humans of New York guy as he destroys Donald Trump," but it might do what it seems Stanton intended to do with this open letter: make a difference.