Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Have We Done?

We're all branded now
This is a disaster.  America has just been dealt a terrible blow, and it’s not clear how we’ll recover.  Donald Trump is as fit to be President of the United States as a rabid gorilla is to drive a school bus.  He’s an ignorant, bigoted, bullying, narcissistic clown, and that personal instability in conjunction with the policies he’ll likely implement (with the eager help of a thoroughly Republican Congress) will do the country, and quite possibly the world, great damage.  In fact, this is such a comprehensive disaster that it’s hard to fully appreciate it.  But let’s try.  Let’s take a stark look at the likely ramifications of America’s self-inflicted wound.  Let’s face up to what we’ve done.

You don’t have to be a liberal to contemplate Trump’s coming presidency with dread, but it sure helps.  Trump ran, particularly in the early days, as a genuine populist, promising to raise taxes on Wall Street, to protect Social Security and Medicare, to fight for American workers – all things economic liberals heartily endorse.  But as time went by he became increasingly co-opted on these issues by the Republican establishment.  Now much of his economic program looks like it was written by Ronald Reagan or – admittedly the same thing – the Chamber of Commerce.  It delivers huge tax cuts that go almost exclusively to the investor class, it relieves 20 million poorer Americans of their health insurance, it removes constraints on the financial markets that delivered us so effectively to the Great Recession.  The plutocracy’s favorite ideologue, Paul Ryan, is even claiming that the now comprehensively Republican federal government has been given a mandate to privatize Medicare!  So much for populism.

Trump has become, in effect, a special case of the investor class’s master strategy for turning populist anger to capitalist advantage.  The typical Republican presidential candidate wins by pointing angry fingers at liberal snobbery, black thievery, and gay buggery; and once elected proceeds to treat the country as little more than raw resource for capitalist ingestion.  But Trump ran against the script, attacking not just racial, sexual, and religious minorities, but Wall Street and big business too!  But the establishment that could not stop him was able to work him.  Usually the conservative populace is duped into supporting an investor-class stooge, but this time the candidate himself was duped.  So much for tough negotiation.

But it would be unfair to say Trump has become completely co-opted.  For the most part he still holds his ground on the issues of immigration and trade.  American workers will be better off if immigration, illegal and legal, is more tightly controlled, and if the American negotiators of trade deals are actually concerned about them.  But collecting up and tossing out millions of immigrants who are here illegally would be a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportion, one that no thinking or feeling person could remotely defend.  That is, the typical Trumpian brainless barbarism spells disaster even on those issues in which he genuinely is looking out for the American worker.  If Hillary had become president, thoughtful patriots of all ideologies might have pressured her to moderate her globalist attitude.  But tempering Hillary with practical concerns would have been much easier than moderating Trump with humanitarian ones.  So much for reasonable policy.

But our new Trump World isn’t just a unhappy place for working people, it’s also not particularly welcoming for blacks, women, Jews, Muslims, gays – basically anyone who isn’t a white Christian male.  The Trumpistas, like good right-wingers, rose to power denouncing the ways that all those non-white-Christian-male types are ruining things for regular Americans.  Black are criminals, Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, Jews are evil conspirators, women refuse to be mere playthings.  It’s true that Trump hasn’t targeted gays, but the restive crowd on his right clearly has no sympathy for the sexually unorthodox.  And that’s the real point: It doesn’t really matter all that much if Trump himself is a bigot; what matters is that he has encouraged bigotry, he’s unleashed it.  It’s hard to judge how serious this particular threat is, but you don’t have to be a minority or a liberal to see real danger here.  So much for equality.

And the way that Trump has re-legitimated these sorts of hostilities is particularly dangerous.  That is, he’s made white identity politics central to his appeal.  He tells whites that they’re victimized by those other groups, that their primary loyalty is to each other, and that their problems can only be addressed if they understand and act upon their interests as white people. But this is an invitation to levels of racial hatred which we can now only imagine.  If white Americans come to broadly think of their own interests in racial terms then every contentious issue will come to be seen as a zero-sum dispute over limited resources.  America would devolve into constant and bitter infighting, into a war between the tribes, probably leading to greater and greater violence.  Identity politics has been both a miserable failure for non-whites and huge source of polarization and discord for us all.  If whites adopt it too, it could mean the desolation of America.  So much for national unity.

And Trump’s authoritarian sensibility is a dagger pointed at the heart of self-government.  He admires foreign tyrants and autocrats.  He hopes to curtail press freedom.  He threatens political rivals with lawsuits and prison.  He thoughtlessly undermines the democratic process.  He’s unhappy that freedom of expression hampers ardent pursuit of the terrorists.  He advocates torture for its punitive value.  He blithely dismisses the norms that make our system function.  He embodies and encourages the authoritarian trends growing on the right side of America.  You don’t have to a liberal or a minority to find this alarming: A corrupt, amoral megalomaniac has just been given control over our military and our enormous federal investigative apparatus, one that already monitors our emails and phone calls.  And he’s certain to face no resistance from rival centers of power in a Washington completely controlled by a cowed and fawning Republican Party.  So much for democracy.

And he has no character.  He successfully ran for president without any solid convictions, without any knowledge of the issues, with no respect for our democratic traditions, with no compunction about misrepresenting opponents or himself, with no generosity or ideals or compassion.  The American people should have kicked this pathetic man-child to the curb for his impossible ignorance and gurgling malice.  But as payment for his lies and his threats and his ungodly vanity he will get to sit in the office once occupied by Washington, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelt’s and delight in his own true brilliance and awesomeness.  So much for accountability.

And that leads to what’s arguably the scariest aspect of the Trumpian calamity: his instability.  He clearly suffers from something like clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  He has little or no control over his own impulses.  He responds bitterly and vindictively to every slight.  He can’t sit still long enough to read or to learn anything.  He feels no obligation to conform what he says to what actually is.  He casually spreads lies and conspiracy theories.  He feels no responsibility to anything but his own ego.  He’s incapable of reasoning and speaking like an adult.  The combination of authoritarianism and recklessness is particularly frightening.  Is it too far-fetched to worry that he might use official force against political opponents, or impulsively start a war, or even casually employ nuclear weapons?  Maybe it is, but consider that we can’t be sure.  So much for security.

An American flag recovered from World Trade Centre site after 9/11

So much for America.  So much for our hope and our promise and our potential.  Almost everything we admire in ourselves – our commitment to justice and freedom, our generosity, our common sense, our openness, our honesty, our idealism, our optimism – has been besmirched or undermined or threatened by Donald Trump.  In effect, he’s promised to turn America into a shambles and now he’s been given the power to do so.

And now that he has won, there is enormous pressure to treat this as just another election and Trump as just another president.  As if winning excuses all his sins, or makes them irrelevant, or means they’re not indicative of how he’ll govern.  Wishful thinking, respect for the democratic transition of power, and the need to feel the world is safe, all these conspire to lull us into seeing things as not fundamentally changed.  But it’s just not true, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  The disaster is real.  We may not have seen it coming, but we should damn well recognize it now that it’s here.  As Jonathan Chait so nicely put it:

To submit to a world where we say the words President Trump without anger or laughter is to surrender our idea of what the office means.

But what’s threatened by casually accepting Trump’s win isn’t just our idea of what the presidency means, it’s our idea of what democracy, justice, and decency mean.  Of what America means.  Trump did legitimately win and he will be president for at least 4 long years, that’s a fact and we need to respect it and accept it.  But we shouldn’t just treat it as part of the normal course of events and get back to our private lives.  History has taken a terrible turn.  The name TRUMP is being stamped upon us in 10 feet tall gold-plated letters.  We should grieve, deeply. 

And we should fight back!  We should organize and peacefully march and argue and persuade and vote and keep tight in our minds the profound seriousness of our situation.  And we should remember that America is always at its best when things are at their worst.  We need to rededicate ourselves to the best promises of America, while accepting that those promises are now much farther from our reach.  We must fully face the disaster and in facing it find the strength and the determination to fight it.  And one very important way we fight it is by refusing to treat it as anything other than the terrible disaster that it is. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Breaking America Down

Donald Trump must not become President of the United States.  That must be glaringly obvious to anyone whose reason has not been overcome by partisanship or bitterness or rancor.  He’s a bigot who elicits and encourages the worst impulses of his followers; he’s an authoritarian with little respect for individual rights or democratic institutions; he’s a foolish extremist, advocating, for example, abandoning NATO, and deporting millions of illegal immigrants; he’s utterly and willfully ignorant of government, policy, or the Constitution; he’s rankly dishonest and corrupt; and – most damning – he’s a huge, smelly pile of crazy.  A President Trump would be an unimaginable disaster, for the country and the world. 

He represents what’s worst in ourselves, particularly the worst of our popular culture.  He’s vulgar, boorish, thoughtless, shallow, materialistic, self-absorbed.  And he represents the worst instincts of the conservative base.  He traffics in putrid racial and religious hatreds dredged up from the far-right fever swamps.  He indulges the most brainless conspiracy theories.  He yearns for the days when white Christian men received the deference that was their due as the only real Americans, and he encourages those same yearnings among his followers. He scorns all the correct pseudo-Americans: liberals, blacks, feminists, Muslims.  If Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh could make a baby they’d make Donald Trump.

But, he also represents the legitimate grievances of white working people.  They’ve been derided by cultural elites, exploited by economic elites, impoverished by mass immigration, off-shoring, de-industrialization, downsizing.  They are genuine victims, disdained, disowned, disheartened.  They feel betrayed because they’ve been betrayed, by an American elite that feels little obligation to them.  And Trump represents their darker impulses in response, the impulse to lash out, to destroy, to burn to the ground.  He is their revenge.  But, also, in a strange and inarticulate way, he is their hope, the hope that America can be made to work again, to sustain and nurture them rather than exploit and discard them.  At this moment there is a great struggle going on within them, but by voting for Trump they’re choosing their lesser collective self.  No matter who wins today we must not forget about these people, their alienation, their disenfranchisement, their despondency, their self-destructiveness, their fears, their hopes.  They are fighting desperately to be acknowledged, and we owe them that. They are, after all, us.

Meanwhile, Hillary represents all that’s wrong with our elites.  She’s an epitome of the new aristocracy; an aristocracy of education and profession, delineated by manners, condescension, technocracy, urbanity, even eating habits.  It’s an aristocracy possessed by the sanctimonious, globalist, multicultural, cosmopolitan distaste for anything tainted by American patriotism or the retrograde notion that American policy should particularly benefit Americans.  But a nation without leaders working in its interests is a nation without leaders.  Soon, it won’t even be that.  Trump almost gets this one right, but he’s too crude to understand that blacks, Muslims, liberals are part of the nation too.  And this is the heart of the Trumpian catastrophe: whites went looking for a leader for America, but they settled for a leader for White America.

The paradox of Hillary is that despite her vague post-American-ness she nicely embodies what’s so good about America.  Like most ordinary Americans, and unlike Trump, she’s hard-working, inclusive, and hopeful in the best way.  She really thinks America can be made to work for everyone, and she’s eager to put in the effort to make incremental changes in that direction.  She is, more than anything else, pragmatic, and that’s something very much needed in our current situation.  Indeed, the pragmatic willingness to tone down ideology and to compromise with reality is a cardinal American virtue.  It’s too bad that her post-patriotic sensibilities diffuse her abundant energies; properly focused they might have greatly helped her own people.

And it’s too bad she’s so corrupt.  Hillary’s sins are those of political connection: using high office for her own enrichment, evading professional responsibilities, nepotism.  But Trump’s moneyed birth has allowed him to systematically evade responsibility too: regularly stiffing contractors and employees, claiming bankruptcy.  His celebrity and extreme clinical narcissism have even enabled his outright sexual predation.  Both candidates have taken advantage of unearned privilege, but he’s been dishonest and corrupt in ways Hillary can only dream of: he’s tied to the mob, he’s been involved in all sorts of fraudulent schemes, he’s connected to Russian oligarchs.  And did I mention he’s a big stinking slagheap of whack-job?  She is a deeply flawed politician, but he is a nightmare.

Happily for the safety and sanity of us all, Trump probably won’t be elected President.  And once he’s lost, and goes creeping back to his gaudy, gilded towers and his cringe-worthy TV appearances and his rancid tweets, it will be tempting to dismiss his followers and their concerns.  But consider right now the very real and terrifying possibility that he might actually win!  Let yourself feel the full weight of the disaster that may be about to engulf us.  A frightening demagogue, an ignorant and irresponsible buffoon, a colossally absurd joke of a person is actually within a few percentage points of being handed the nuclear codes.  And now take very seriously how profoundly dysfunctional our politics must be to have delivered us to this moment.  The system is broken, and we can’t ignore it any more.  Once Trump has lost – if there is a God in heaven! – think back to today and remember how stark and undeniable that brokenness was made by the near-election of this one-man wrecking crew.

At that point all our energies must be directed toward healing our country.  That may require more generosity and forgiveness than we’re capable of.  In all candor, it’s probably not possible.  The system is so broken, and the rancor and mistrust and alienation it so plentifully dispenses just break it more.  America may really be on the path to irrevocable decline.  We’re all obligated to fight the brokenness, to not give in to it.  Trump’s gift to us is to make us appreciate the depth of the brokenness.  He’s here to tell us we may not have much time left.

And that must be the starting point for any serious post-election reconciliation and healing.  All those people out there are mad as hell, so mad they’re blindly rushing themselves over the edge in a blind fury.  But despite their staggering irresponsibility, we have to remind ourselves that they’re mostly good people, and we must acknowledge that if they’re so willing to put America through this torture then things must be much worse than we had previously thought.  We know why they’re angry: they’ve been dismissed and exploited and propagandized and disappointed and discouraged.  The system isn’t just broken, it’s breaking them too.  It’s breaking their hope, and their generosity, and their common sense.  And Trump, whether he wins or loses, is breaking them – and us – even more.