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Observations on the Election of 2016
From the Archives.
I don’t know, being new to this platform, how often I will publish. I do want people who have never read me to get a feel for how I write on a broad variety of subjects. So from time to time, I will cherry pick from my archives whole cloth rather than just link to them. This is from November of 2016, after the election of Donald Trump. I have used the final metaphor many times.
I've been abusing history lately because I don't have the luxury of spending time with people who think like me. So I've been hunting among authors and books for stories that give me some feeling of what it's like to be a Russian. The reason is the same as the reason I read Dickens a few years back. I'm expecting the death of public optimism and a separation of classes, so I want to know how people keep their heads in such circumstances. I think I've learned something, and now I'd like to share it.
One of my life quotes is from Rabbi Hillel. "Where there is no hero, you be the hero." It means taking responsibility for keeping a level perspective when hope dies. Along with Hillel, I have over the past few years been reading Lovecraftian stories. I have this compelling need to understand what it means to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run. In Japanese, there is a strange irony in the term 'domo arigato' which can be interpreted not only to mean 'thank you very much', but also the ironic 'thank you very much for the obligation to return the favor that you have now placed on me'. We may have lost some of that here when we reply to 'Thank you' with 'No, thank *you*.' The old response was 'You're welcome', which implies, feel free to ask again and I will respond again in kind. But that's a bit too much responsibility. Saying 'you're welcome' is tough. Civility is tough. The social contract is tough. In America, the social contract is under stress.
If you ask me what I feel about the election of Donald Trump, then I have to say this. Most clearly this is a rejection of what became the new normal under Obama, but also a reiteration with exclamation points of the same kind of reckless populism that elected Barack Obama the first time. The expression 'Yes we can' never escapes my mind without the implication 'because we are the majority and we have the votes'. Having the votes, is of course what democratic rule requires, and in the US, it requires money too. Whose votes and whose money are things we think we know but probably don't. But money and votes are aggregated by the infernal machines of party politics in America and dreams and wishes are pasted on top of that machine. The optimist in me looks forward only to a sort of glorious sacrifice. It's an unusual attitude for an American, but it gives me a great deal of comfort to know that I am not too comfortable. I do not let this discomfort poison my relationship to my fellows or to the common man. Instead, I look at history and world events and try to figure out what's keeping me out of war, and prison. The answer is 'plenty' and that plenty is what I look to. What keeps the buildings standing? Why does water keep flowing? Who keeps the electricity on? The Constitution and the infrastructure of this nation are simple enough to understand, as are our basic needs as people. It shouldn't be so hard to keep all that alive, so long as too many people don't take too much for granted.
All of us are subject to wishful thinking. No matter what actually happens in our lives, we project ourselves into other people's situations, or what we perceive them to be. Of course there are limits. There are certain people with whom we cannot identify at all. We say that we could not possibly be like that. I cannot identify with people who eat dogs, or practice female genital mutilation. They are the Other. All this is personal and psychological. I have come to recognize how much of our politics has abandoned the rational and calm and been hijacked by the personal and psychological, but I think this is to be expected under certain circumstances. I view this particular phenomenon largely as a consequence of the Culture Wars which has undermined that which we used to call 'E Pluribus Unum'. Whatever the reason we have moved from pluralism to populism, the consequence is the same. It's winner take all with no real sympathy for those perceived to be the Other. But we have even gone beyond that, to even project whom our political opponents cast as the Other. So people believe that somewhere they are hated and repudiated and all of those Others are voting for the Other Candidate. This is the characteristic of what we have just witnessed, and for those who were surprised at the victory of Trump, they simply presume that there were more Others out there in America than they ever suspected.
I should go on to say in particular that I find it so perverse and strange that people found it not only comfortable but compelling to argue that all of the racists and sexists were siding with Trump, and this was the defining element of his campaign. So it stands to reason that they were, in the spirit of a winner take all populist contest, dismissive of these opponents and considered them to be part of the great unwashed Other Americans. But that was the personal and psychological wishful thinking of people who were not interested in pluralism. How would they build a compromise on a zero-tolerance policy for dog-eaters and genital mutilators? But the actual terms and conditions of 'racism' and 'sexism' of America's Other voters was never defined, no more than anyone accurately measured into a moderated focus gun-grabbing, police-shooting, influence-peddling, weed-smoking, email-smuggling, muslim-hating, crotch-grabbing, or bible-thumping. It became an all or nothing wish to banish such Others into shameful oblivion. These were the terms of the American presidential election with the aim of destroying the opposition with aggregated majorities. What was surprising was how differently these majorities came together outside of the lines of both parties.
The energy and force of the Democrats was contained in the personna and campaign of Bernie Sanders. Whichever kind of socialist he was or is (I think grossly uninformed, narrow-minded but principled) his stripe of populist rhetoric carved out a new set of partisans from the Democrats. That which Bill Clinton, the most charismatic and clever politician of our era, had solidified, Sanders dislodged with aplomb. Neither Obama or Bill Clinton, even with the assistance of George H. W. Bush could elevate Hillary Clinton in the eyes of the general public. Sanders won the hearts and minds of the newly energized Left and the Democrat machine stabbed him in the back.
The career-long calculations and aspirations of Ted Cruz came to a rude and abrupt halt in Indiana. More than any of the hundreds of twists and turns of the election season, the crude disrespect of the crowd of Hoosiers telling Cruz to shutup and leave is the marker for me. Democrats must have been utterly confounded by Cruz' failure, as they have been focused on him as the apotheosis of social Christian Conservatism, that thing they believe to be the very heartbeat of the Republican soul. I think Cruz parading his Stepford family was too clever by half and that someone between him and Huckabee might have tapped that vein more properly. But I am a great deal more sensitive to the rudderless ramshackle that is the GOP as it struggles between its desire for power and its need for principle. Trump took all of its oxygen. Trump vacuumed all of the crumbs of the Tea Party and then moved them to orbital speeds, escaping the grip of gravitas of the Republican Party over the American Right. Trump is the ultimate RINO Conservatives have always feared, and now they will have to face the fact that Conservative principles will, from this moment forward, be a permanent minority of public opinion. Here is the clear failing record of three presidential elections they could not triangulate, and they've been trounced by a reality-show bounder.
All of that emotional investment has produced a litany of gut rumbles, weeping and wailing that I was able to ignore, with some patience. I have developed a strong stomach for the democracy of the masses, and it is not the mood of the people or even the subjects of their psychological obsessions that I measure. America is its traditions and its infrastructure, both of which are in jeopardy owing to its inability to transmit the energy and dynamism of its actual champions into the corridors of public service. The government we have cannot be hotrodded, its wheelbase is too long. People will have to get out and walk to freedom, come back and build a new chassis. Trump is not that builder. He is the madman who will chop the top and do donuts, orange hair blowing in the wind. America will not move forward, it will spin in place and knock over a lot of cones and maybe a bollard or two. At the end of four years, we will choose a sober mechanic, and perhaps we won't be so afraid of the blowtorching we need.
In that long walk to freedom, America will discover its legs. That is my expectation. There are no free rides. There is no comfortable backseat.