image from The Boston Globe
Starting Sunday, I avoided it all. I deleted my Facebook app. I didn’t make my usual rounds of news sites. I left the room when my wife was watching Lester Holt talk about the electoral college. I’d done all I could–what little I could–to influence the course of this election. I’d voted (even waited in line because my wife wanted to be part of the historic first day turn out). I’d donated (to Biden…I had to give money to Joe Biden, heaven help me). I’d put out a yard sign (I wanted to add a little placard off the side of “Biden/Harris” that said, “but mostly Harris”). I’d phone banked as much as I could stand to (which is very little because God, do I hate the very idea of it). I’d run my mouth off online to anyone who would listen (which is not very many, but thank you whoever you are, dear reader).
So I waited.
And on Wednesday I woke to heartbreak. I knew that his die-hard, MAGA hat-wearing, Trump-flag driving sheep would follow this so-called president to oblivion no matter what. But what percentage of the country are those people? Not huge, but I was prepared for, say 30% of the country to vote for him no matter what. But that morning, it looked like Trump might actually prevail, which was the most overtly awful thing. But even worse, I think, he had amassed a record turn out for Republicans. The red states, the conservatives, the Evangelicals, the white suburban moms–had not rejected him as they should have.
And yes, they should have, dammit. Listen: his hard core sheep, the ones who would vote for him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, they would have accepted whatever he said about the pandemic. America was never going to do super well against this catastrophe. We would never embrace or even accept the robust contact tracing that has worked well in Asia, obviously. The story of fighting COVID is not about winning. We are not going to beat this virus. It is too easily spread and too insidious. Since January, epidemiologists have warned us that this disease will eventually infect a majority of the population of the planet. It is only a matter of time.
But time is what other countries have bought themselves. It’s a battle of delaying tactics and it is Trump who is to blame for sending us into the fray like a human wave over the ramparts.
Literally all this man had to do was to tell people in March to wear masks. If he had done that, if he had prevented this absolutely insane politicization of a basic public health precaution, then we would probably have a hundred thousand fewer deaths right now.
Instead, he railed against the logical, sensible prescriptions of every health expert on the planet.
For that, he should have been punished. For that, he should have been slaughtered at the polls. For that, we should not be fussing over recounts in Georgia and Pennsylvania. The whole damn map should be blue right now. No political leader before Trump could survive a failure of this magnitude.
Yet he had. Has. Even though his defeat is all but complete now, he has grown too enamored of those crowds. His ego–what little he has latched on to that simmering fungal growth of id–has become too dependent on the sycophantic adulation of those red hats. He has longed for this kind of attention his entire sad, small life. He will not make good on his promise to go away, to leave the country. The rallies will go on. (But fortunately, his political vision is so narrowly about himself that I doubt he will ever shape policy again, likely will never seek public office again. I say let him have his circle jerks with these people. Let them circle together in the widening gyre.)
This revelation rattled me. When I was in college, I remember an assignment for my intro speech course in which we had to present a speech about and introducing ourselves. I gave mine using the Voyager space probe as an extended metaphor. I said, “We were both launched in the 70s and we’re both dedicated to expanding knowledge and understanding.” That has been the mission of my life: To understand. To try to share that understanding.
But I had failed.
This outcome, I could not reconcile with my conception of humankind. Yes, of course we were capable of irrationality. Obviously, history is replete with societies gripped by horrible regimes, people who embraced evil. But democracy, I had always believed, would protect us from tyranny, from authoritarianism. People, when given the reigns en masse in a prosperous, safe society would not willingly choose the illiberal, the corrupt, the broken.
But they had.
Every morning I take our dog–a pandemic rescue who has upended our lives, befouled our sofa and floors, and ensured that I get a lot more exercise walking–to the nearby park and let her run around. Standing in the chill, green field alone with dawn just lapping at the edges of my serene, idyllic little world, I thought about the futility of all my sad attempts to engage in political discourse. What had they all come to? What had all that energy, time, and thought been for? I thought I should take a vow of silence on all things political.
“Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”
You can see how long that lasted.
After walking back from the park with the dog Wednesday morning, I returned to my wife, still obsessively watching every minute of coverage she could. (She would not sleep well until last night, so twisted by anxiety over vote counts.) The hosts of the Today show said something as I was passing through that has rattled in my brain since.
They were talking about how the pandemic and all the other manifest failures of the Trump administration had not broken his support among the broader Republican Party faithful.
The pundit–whose name I didn’t catch–told a story about talking to a conservative voter in Pennsylvania who had told him she had come back around to voting for Trump because she didn’t like the feeling of what the other side represented.
Savannah Guthrie suggested something to the effect of “that feeling may turn out to be more important than any actual issue.”
My son, brigand and iconoclast that he is, is fond of lambasting us, his “liberal” parents and sibling. He has told us often how Trump is all our fault. He is, in my son’s eyes, a reaction to all the excesses of the progressive vanguard in the Culture Wars. By railing so hard to inspire white guilt and extend aide and comfort to more and more narrowly defined fringe groups–LatinX transgender people with celiac disease, maybe–we had so rattled the conservative elements in the country that “in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” (Yes, he really quoted The Dark Knight to analyze politics, which just proves to me, even if he prides himself on not being me, he still is.)
But I’ve always told him that he was being too narrow, keying in on one distorted view of the landscape. So while the Today show comment and my memory of my son’s many, many rants on the subject simmered on the back burners. I returned sometime Thursday to my usual haunts to try again to understand my fellow Americans–48% of whom saw the debacle of the Trump presidency and said, “Yes, more of that, please.”
Anyone who actually pays attention to my political posts (hey, there, dear Reader, whoever you are) knows that my coziest home on the web is The Atlantic. So I read and nodded to conservative Tom Nichols’ lament and warning about what the Trump turn-out means for our political reality in the future. I also read Tufekci’s piece on authoritarianism in America. I’ve always said that what scares me most about Trump is that he has been so successful while also being strikingly inept and that my deepest worry was that out there somewhere, someone much smarter was taking notes and making plans.
But I found myself shaking my head at Lowry’s attempt to explain the Trump red wall in terms of economic policy. It didn’t hold water. Nichols was right: Trump voters didn’t care about policy anymore. They cared about power.
But why? What power did they want? How did they come to believe Trump represented it? Why would, for example, evangelicals embrace a figure as demonstrably anti-Christ as Trump to secure that political power?
Finally, I think I’m coming to understand what’s happening, what has happened to my country, and I think my son was mostly right.
Back in June, I posted something on my Facebook about an article by Arlie Hochschild. he said that the “deep story” that informs support for Trump is basically that, “You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you.”
My post replied to this by urging my Trump-supporting Facebook friends to consider that: “THE LINE IS A LIE. The line isn’t moving. They’re not really letting anyone through that door. Progressives aren’t trying to let people cut in line in front of you. They’re trying to get enough people together to push the door in.”
I doubt I swayed any of them. I don’t even know how many of them there are.
But Hochschild’s diagnosis only tells part of the story, I think. As I was reading the article in Christianity Today linked above, I remembered the psychological studies that name fear as the driving force behind conservative political affiliation and the simple formula that being afraid of change pushes people deeper into their tribal identities. When the predators circle the camp, the tribe bands closer together.
We hear more and more about how our two countries–the red and the blue–are increasingly defined by discreet and non-overlapping information bubbles. Many conservatives now live in an alternate reality fueled by misleading media like Fox News and One America and react violently at any perturbations in the barriers of those information ecosystems, like when Jennifer Griffin dared to corroborate the unsurprising story that Trump disparaged WWI veterans as he had publicly done to John McCain.
Liberals, too, live in an information and bias bubble, but there is really no comparison here. Even mentioning the truth that there is liberal bias in a lot of journalism smacks of false equivalency. Fox News has a demonstrable history of deliberate, propagandistic manipulation by Murdoch and an unswerving, idiotic devotion to serving Trump’s interests. So much so, in fact, that whenever the network steps out of line and reports something unfavorable about him, he publicly castigates them on Twitter for not doing their job–which he sees 100% as promoting and defending him!
Imagine if Obama had demanded that CNN not report something negative about him like that.
Looking back, I do think Obama was probably the best president of my lifetime, though that doesn’t say much. I have been very critical of some choices of his administration and very skeptical about his legacy overall. He was, though, a good man. Better, surely than Clinton. Better, I would say, in many ways than Bush. Only Carter, who even my father admits is probably the best person to have ever occupied the Oval Office, would eclipse him in this regard. But it is not for nothing that the warmth of Obama’s relationship with his family shines out all the more brightly in contrast with the dim, disconnected images we see of what can only vaguely be described as the Trump “household.” The presidency is largely a symbolic position. It matters most in what the president represents about the country (which makes Trump’s tenure all the more portentous).
In retrospect, Obama’s time in office looks almost bucolic. In fact, the greatest beneficiaries of Trump’s tenure have probably been past presidents. Bush’s incompetence looks almost charming in the rearview mirror. Clinton’s immorality looks wholly forgivable beside Trump’s excesses. Hell, even Nixon looks like a Boy Scout by comparison.
Another Facebook post from right after Trump’s election that I never turned into something more robust here lays out how quickly this Obama nostalgia set in for me: “I didn’t know what to say. I thought I might say nothing. But then I saw the articles already about how Obama’s legacy has been wiped out by this election. And yes, it may be true. We go from a man who represented the best of us–child of immigrants and the heartland, rational and tolerant, faithful father and husband, champion of compromise and democracy–to someone who represents the worst of us–arrogant and narcissistic, faithless in business and family, crass and unconcerned with empathy. The twin souls of America on display. Every hard earned inch of progress–millions of people with health insurance, an economic recovery finally reaching down to the middle class, the first inklings of momentum on climate change–may be lost. But the Obama era was still one of class and dignity in the White House and I can only think of one of my favorite quotes from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, ‘If it lives only for a while…it still has lived.'”
And I think now that it is Obama who is the key to understanding Trump and everything that has come since 2008.
Why did the Tea Party turn from an anti-bailout group into an anti-government mob with unsubtle undertones of racial animus? Why did Mitch McConnel pledge on day one of the Obama presidency to fight every, single initiative the new president proposed? What was it about Obama that split the rail of this country and created the two Americas?
You think I’m going to say it’s about race, but I don’t think that explains it. After all, Trump surged (well, improved) with some groups like Hispanics in Florida and even with African-American men in some places. Obviously, white supremacy and Trump’s sympathy for and from white supremecists should be yet another deal-breaker, yet another thing that should have damned his political ambitions forever, but didn’t.
But I think race is only part of something bigger here. Something broader and more ineffable.
Obama ran in 2008 under a simple banner: Change.
I think now that that simple word explains everything. Change. Obama put it on a poster, but he also embodied it. He represented a new kind of America. Multi-racial, yes. But also a product of the meritocracy that some believe aggrieves the white working class so.
It is this change that made the conservative tribe tremble so, that made them recoil from the scary shadows in the night, to huddle together and eventually pledge themselves to Trump. He was not strong, in any traditional sense. But he was loud. Loud enough, perhaps, to impose his will upon the chaos, to hold back the change.
If I had to guess, I’d say: The Hispanics who vote Trump often resent the “LatinX” label. That X represents inclusion, but these are conservatives who have won their share of the American Dream. They believe they’ve waited in Hochschild’s line and now look back and worry over anyone shaking up the order. Black men who voted for Trump see him asserting the masculine privilege to say as thou wilt and not be questioned. Will to power. That’s what this conservative tribe wants. The power to resist change.
Yes, I think I understand them now.
So what I want to say to them is: Grow up.
Snowflakes! Oh, no, America is changing! I don’t feel like I know my own country anymore. Boo-hoo. I don’t either. I’m not going to vote for a sociopath because of it. Your grievances are so shallow, it’s absurd. You want to feel powerful? Go play a video game. I can recommend a few. Oh, did you vote to protect your “religious liberty?” You don’t have a freedom not to see that other people believe other than you do. Deal with it. Just like I have to deal with the fact that 48% of my countrymen are you people. Other people having their own liberty doesn’t hurt yours. It only infringes on your privilege, not your freedom.
To quote Dennis Leary: “Life sucks. Get a fucking helmet.”
So what does this mean for President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris?
Work with them, Joe. Go to McConnel and say, “Listen Mitch, I know you pushed back hard at Barrack. He was a new kid on the block, I get it. But you’ve known me for forty years. We’ve got to do something together here. We can’t have this obstructionism anymore. Look what it did to the country. You know Trump was never your guy. You didn’t want to have to follow him. Let’s turn over a new leaf. We’ve got priorities. You’ve got priorities. Let’s get back to the old days where we tried to govern. What’dya say?”
No, on second thought, let’s go to Georgia and get the Senate back and then crush them into dust!!!
I think I’m only half-kidding.
So now, because if I have so little empathy in my heart for these people, then I still don’t really understand them, I think I will try to be silent for a moment at least…try to just listen, to learn, try to understand these people as more than just irrational, more than just naive, more than just misguided fools. I do hope that this election marks an inflection point. America is broken. Our leadership position in the world ruined. Our culture, such that it was, in tatters. Our economy and our health failing. We need change.
Stow your fear, my friends.
Now is the time to be bold.