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. 

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