The election is sort of over, thank the gods…
As I switched off the computer this Wednesday morning the fourth of November 2020, the last headline I saw was this: “Presidential race too close to call.” I mulled this for an hour and the hidden clarity in this announcement, its essential meaning, swept over me physically, leaving a smile—unusual for revelation to confirm itself in this perceptible way. A burden lifted and I felt relief. No more would I harbor hopes for positive change in my lifetime for the land of my birth and no more disappointment as they are dashed. No more thoughts that if this or that could occur perhaps a page would turn on all the nonviral afflictions of this virus-ravaged land. What other conclusion was there when four years’ experience such as we have passed through led not to repudiation but a race too close to call? Stoic wisdom means to accept what appears inevitable or beyond your control. In relinquishing futile hope, I found peace.
My relief would not be affected by who won after the votes were counted or after the lawyers reconnoitered and marched through armed-guarded courthouse doors, and the Tweets moved into newly scurrilous territory, if any is left. I prefer Biden because he would block some of the more egregious assaults on Nature (long live the Tongass ecosystem!) and would promote scientific approaches to dealing with the coronavirus (the absence of which amounts to a president’s culpable negligence measured by the body count) and to mitigating climate change (before it’s too late to matter, which is sooner than most people think). And more of course, and most would be good as I see it. At least those initiatives allowed to happen in the face of Republican obstructionism, also culpable.
The relief I speak of, which is based on the clarity of that morning moment when I accepted the hopelessness of our situation (not with satisfaction), has much to do with this: no matter the victor, the vote totals show that the American peoples—we no longer can accurately be spoken of as a people—are nearly evenly divided and not over mere policy preferences. Identities, fundamental anxieties, antipathies, fears, and more drive the Republican mass (the infamous “base”), and liberals of all stripes have been unable to turn any tides or even to fully grasp how deeply runs the abyssal divide and propose a convincing course correction. Not that liberals are without guilt for our degraded society and politics, but in comparison, it is the difference between one night’s infidelity and a libertine career, between a cocktail and a binge.
For people like me, who wonder how any citizen who has been present for these four years of the Trump Show and witnessed its calamities and corruptions, deceptions and destructions, and not fled the theater…who wonder how anyone could ask for four more years of the same but worse… whatever the reasons, they appear to be people with a single focus. They were not slumbering; they just do not care about the costs so long as their single-mindedness offers the security of holding onto power, which it is believed will protect them. Obviously, this travels the road toward authoritarianism, but they do not mind.
Those numbers, those numbers, so nearly equal; think what they mean. How can anyone imagine surmounting that abyss? Can we understand how deeply alienated those people are, how the country has failed them, how they have failed the country as they flee into fake security, all else be damned? How long can impasse be tolerated before the ship of state founders and society divides irremediably?
Do I exaggerate? Is reconciliation more likely or more possible than I realize? I doubt it. The only idea I have heard that offers a chance to avoid what appears to be our suicidal plunge into societal collapse, our movement into a First World version of Third World autocracy, mid-wived in my view by Banana Republic-ans, points toward versions of local communitarianism. Initiatives like those reported by James and Deb Fallows in Our Towns, those associated with “Weave: The Social Fabric Project,” and The Communitarian Network portray versions of reconciliation arising through pursuit of shared goals, from collaborative actions and their results along with the experience of spending time and working with fellow collaborators who would otherwise be strangers and often presumptively despised. People find that they can care for their community and members not from the same party or perspectives, that difference is not threatening, that negotiation and compromise are possible, that solidarity creates its own rewards and meanings. This would of course be in stark contrast to what is seen in the political realm, and one hopes that in time it would lead to demanding the same accountability from town councils, county commissioners, Congress people, and so forth as the local collaborators expect of one another. Without accountability (measured out in “Eternal vigilance” as the price of liberty, it was first said a couple of hundred years ago) human nature is such that greed, fecklessness, and power lust, unrelenting as they are, will always seek control.
This is an appealing and probably well-founded picture of human possibilities actuated by a central aspect of human nature—our need for the security and satisfactions of sociality, mutual care, and liberty bound solidly to responsibility (all of which appear to have found spurious substitutes in Trumpism). Can it happen soon enough and broad-based enough? Can it neutralize the dividers and egoists? Consider a few of the threats it faces.
- Climate change: Credible voices backed by considerable data portraying plausible scenarios tell us that without substantial action within this decade followed by further decisive action in the next, the trajectory of human-caused climate disruptions may spin beyond our control. We will face more weather catastrophes, more wildfires, more drought, heat, and flood…leading to food and freshwater shortages, famine and disease, and mass migrations of desperate people looking for relief. Having seen how the American response to a deadly viral pandemic has been politicized and degraded, and how the consequent piling up of casualties has had no effect on the deniers and perpetrators of false narratives—having seen this, how can we imagine a different response to climate disruptions whose casualties are less visible and identifiable, and whose causative forces more readily ignored, especially with the malign complicity of those with corporate or political desires to satisfy? And once the worst becomes commonplace, then political and cultural divisions may not matter; survival becomes paramount and in the American case it would be each for themself. The virus and climate change are transformative threats in themselves and revelatory of an American society that lacks the will and intelligence to take care of itself.
- Political dynamics: The Republican Party has shown itself to operate without moral compunction and has a history over recent decades of unrelenting focus on securing and protecting power by any means it considers necessary. It passes, for example, tax cuts for the rich while calling them cuts for the middle and lower classes. It works assiduously to undercut medical care while claiming the reverse. It politicizes shamelessly while blaming it on the opposition. Suppresses voting. Works to overthrow legitimate electoral outcomes, as we see right now. And so on ad nauseam. And 46.8% +/- of the electorate wants more of the same. Eternal vigilance? Occasional daily unfettered consciousness would be an improvement.
- Rot at the top: Two days after the election a Washington Post headline reported this: “Wall Street rallies as investors believe Washington gridlock is good for business.” Several other publications saw the same thing and reached the same conclusion. Gridlock means no new taxes or regulations even when reason and the common good require them. Investors salivate and count their blessings. A nation that increasingly reveals it was built on sand; a disordered climate that will provide the forces to further undermine that sandy foundation; a deadly caste system that persists and moves now into its five hundredth year; pernicious and growing economic injustice—all this, and investors are happy because gridlock will not threaten to fix anything thus unburdening them of imposed responsibilities and releasing them to make hay while the sun shines hotter and hotter.
- Inertia, habit, propaganda: Human nature is still an incompletely understood entity. From my perspective it is the only animal nature that seems, at least in the forms it has taken in historical time, almost constantly at odds with itself, confused about why it is here and what it should do, prone to self-sabotage, projection, and aggression. When fearful it tends toward gullibility, and always it is bound by habit and the momentum of the known. America is one of the few countries, and the only “advanced” one, that has gone laissez faire at the top, its federal government, in its response to SARS-CoV-2 and refuses to see what that has wrought and adjust course.
Now we’re at nine days after. On day five Biden was declared winner and as expected Trump cried foul, fraud, and conspiracy; he was robbed of his rightful victory since that was the only way he could be made to appear to have lost, which he is sure he did not do since he never loses; only losers lose, and he is not a loser. So, it was onward: Unleash the lawyers, who have tried valiantly to support his calumnies but face the embarrassing hurdle that no evidence has been found to support the charges. To a layperson, it sometimes appears that the lawyers themselves make fraudulent claims in the courtrooms, but I may miss the subtlety of their arguments. Even so, they lose every suit, and there are other lawyers and a few judges who assert that they had better watch themselves since there are professional ethical and legal prohibitions against frivolous lawsuits containing seriously bent versions of truth and known reality.
So, it was no surprise that Trump took on as he has—he has mastered the art of victimhood—and it probably shouldn’t be that Republicans, including Party leadership, uniformly either support his claims or keep quiet. Although not surprising, it seems to me remarkable that a Grand Old Party that goes back as far as this one does is so ready to cash in even the appearance of integrity and love of country with so flimsy an effort that has so little chance of accomplishing anything other than self-debasement. I know they mostly don’t expect to prevail and do this with other motivations having to do with the Senatorial run-offs in Georgia, fear of Trump even as a loser, and the unwholesome notion that this is a good way to keep their legions fired up. In short, though more extreme, this gambit comes from the same manual the Republican Party has been using for close to four decades: like a magician, the hand juggling the fears, bigotries, and deceptions that work so well with a certain portion of the electorate holds its attention while the other hand is behind the Party’s back feeding the plutocracy, which along with holding power (to enable the feeding) is their real goal. A simple means-ends calculation. It may seem like playing with fire and with the country’s future but what else can they do when all their other powder is wet and it remains effective. They don’t care about side-effects—when your end justifies any and all means that’s where you’re left.
But Party malfeasance is not what interests me; it was predictable. It is the followers who mystify me. (By now it may be questionable who is leading whom as the magician may have prestidigitated so skillfully that the masses have become a runaway horse and leaders just hold on for dear life and political hegemony. The margin is sufficiently narrow now between those who yearn for more robust democracy and those who seek one party rule that the latter is conceivable and may even be in sight; the U.S. could easily undergo a Hungarian or Polish style transition from fair and square [more or less] electoral victory to permanent victory built on destruction of the formerly democratic systems that set the rules and were thought to prevent shenanigans like this. Regardless, my curiosity at what makes people, the Republican masses, act as they have is intense.) How could 48% of the electorate have witnessed what they have over these four years and want more? There is clearly no remaining belief among them in accountability and public morality, but how did they get there? It is as if one took himself and his illness to a doctor and found that she had gone for the day and left incompetents in charge who lied about her absence and offered bogus treatments that made the patient sicker and yet the patient cheerfully pays his bill and makes another appointment. Who cares so little about his health and how he is treated? Does he not notice the progression of his disease?
Since I was young, I have wondered how humans work as biological, mental, and emotional beings. What makes us think and feel and do as we do? A large part of the answer lies in the outer world, or better put as in the interaction between inner and outer worlds but one that begins outside and has the initiative owing to our early helplessness. Every form of life—plant, animal (humans included), fungus, bacteria, other—depends utterly on suitable conditions for beings of their kind to live and, they hope, flourish. Cholla cactus does fine at particular elevations with their measure of rain, the right temperature range, and suitable soil. Alter these even slightly, as is happening in certain deserts now—add heat, subtract from its meager supply of moisture—and it withers and fails to reproduce. Similarly, the pika enjoys life at preferred montane elevations with their fitting supply of warmth and other essential goods, but raise the temperature and they head upslope until they reach the top…and then what, as the heat also climbs? Humans aim to finesse the imperatives of Nature but we, too, have our basic circumstantial needs; because human nature is more wide-open than the others it may also be more vulnerable to surrounding influences, innate vulnerabilities, and its own misjudgments about what’s good for it.
People don’t do well under persistent conditions of excess insecurity: inadequate nutrition and health care, instability of family and community, uncertainty about work, wages, and housing, threatened sense of identity and place in the world, unsafe environments, navigating the burdens of caste distinctions and bigotry. Poverty, for example, may be thought of as a disease as well as social condition. Both disable their victims, sicken body and mind, make uneven and unequal life courses, add burdens to the life journey. And so it works relative to the other conditions listed. And yet, except for hard-earned exceptions, American society considers itself as a society unaccountable for how basic security goes among its citizens. This has serious consequences for citizens and nation, and they are not those trumpeted by the disingenuous adherents of “personal responsibility,” a concept so commodious and adaptable that the country’s Vice-President recently explained, during a campaign debate, that based on his and the President’s trust in every American’s assumption of personal responsibility it wasn’t necessary for the administration to assume leadership responsibility in the midst of pandemic. National problems don’t really require a national response. Americans could be trusted to take care of themselves, contagion be damned. Under the unique characteristics of the present viral pandemic, this particular instance of the personal responsibility rationalization means that hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens will sink into their graves prematurely before it is all over, graves dug by malfeasance. In addition to the prospect of early death, existential type insecurities piled atop one another are seriously damaging in other ways: anger, scapegoating, vulnerability to demagogic appeals, and hatred and violence against purported sources of the unspoken anxieties. They also make for a fragmented and unhappy country.
American society does not believe in looking at itself as an object that may be made better through assuming more concern for its cultural quality and social conditions. These are left for personal responsibility to take care of; society says this even to the sick and hungry two-year-old: every person for themselves, up by their bootstraps even when they have no boots. Meritocracy does not notice that its winners mostly start on second or third base while others can hardly get a hit, their bats are broken, and their gloves secondhand and worn-out.
Add to the insecurities built into our social fabric another—the cultivation of fear, which is a regular part of the national diet. Much, perhaps most, American international aggression has been based on fear-related rationales with greed and the dominator impulse hovering more discreetly in the background. Native American genocide, the Monroe Doctrine and Latin American interventions from Veracruz to Honduras, the unrelenting hostility to Cuba that still beats in the hearts of some even now after sixty years, and erection and continued maintenance of the American caste system are examples. Other expressions: overthrown governments in Iran in 1953, Nicaragua in ‘54, and Chile in ’73 were explained as anti-Communist, as was the Vietnam debacle. After WWI and especially since WWII the always exaggerated “Communist threat” has been the carrier of American fear, heavily promoted among the citizenry. As others have said, we appear to thrive on “endless enemies,” countries and forces that might keep us awake at night but for the shield of national defenders and homeland securitors. The nation’s “fight or flight” reflex eventually goes slack when fear is omnipresent; I suspect it mostly goes unconscious but always is subject to manipulated arousal and is bound to leave the fearful vulnerable to demagogic promises.
It is paradoxical that this has been a land where millions of immigrants and refugees found homes while fear of outsiders has always flowed steadily beneath and sometimes across the surface. And more so that the land of freedom and equality accepted slavery followed by the steady and vicious drumbeat of racist lynching and Jim Crow oppression. It seems to me that fear promotion has been consistent for a very long time in this country, with Commies, the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear holocaust, ubiquitous threats conjured by the “defense” establishment, and terrorists being large players in the drama. Is it surprising that persistent fearmongering at the macro level accompanied by genuine anxieties and fears owing to the structures and values of our society at the micro level would create the conditions for what we see happening now under Republican sponsorship?
So my hypothesis about why almost half the electorate continues to support Trump—a support that requires the suspension of moral judgment, reality testing, and love of genuine freedom—builds on the predecessor observation that we are fundamentally a fearful, insecure people. And it concludes with observation that unreasoning fear of various others and unreasoning hope that a nationalistic/white supremacist/oligarchic president and party will protect them against existential identity anxiety, which is then linked manipulatively to fear and hatred toward liberals and most lower-than-whites-of-any-class caste members. As is obvious listening to their own words, theirs is a culture of victimization and resentment, and all it takes to harness that for political purposes is the right demagogy. Which now has arrived.
I must add another factor that motivates support for Trump, one that has nothing to do with social and psychological threats. In addition to seeking harbor in a changing world, the unsettling world of difference, novelty, and new ideas, there could be this: many Americans may share his views and appreciate his permission to be open about it. The coarseness, indifference to self-respect and morality, the meanness and selfishness, the bigotry—for those who may have been embarrassed to feel these things to see someone at the top not only feeling them but making no effort to hide the fact, even parading it openly, a voice for the unspoken…this would provide a new kind of comfort. If this is how a large part of the country actually feels but didn’t consider it quite respectable before 2016, they now have a person and political party to welcome them home.
If Trump had not been so personally repugnant even to many sympathizers and fellow travelers and had there been a hundred or so thousand fewer Covid-19 deaths (which would have been readily manageable for a less inert, ignorant, and self-centered president), I suspect that one party, autocratic government would have won the election. Angst and alienation will do that to people. We appear to have built a society that is good for business (owners primarily) but bad for the people living and working here. Its ideology: Economy first! and happiness, community, confidence that basic needs will be met, national solidarity…all the amenities and quiet satisfactions and expansive opportunities of a humane, egalitarian democratic system come last.
How can such fear and hostility toward scapegoats, well nourished by the very groups they look to for safety, be overcome—if it can? It may well be that the only alternative to impasse or autocracy would be dividing the country up into as many self-governing units as are desired (that little corner of Georgia that has just elected a Q-Anon congresswoman might want to become its own independent fantasy land), linked perhaps, if even this could be managed, in a sort of overarching federation around clearly shared interests, national defense, for instance. Logically, pandemics, of which there will of course be more, and climate disruption would fall into this category, but the signs are not promising, which means, lamentably, that the responsible will continue suffering for the sins of the irresponsible. But at least the two would be severed politically and culturally—until major calamity brings them together in a shared and final closure.
As basic as alleviated fear and anxiety and the social and psychological security that humans require to flourish, so is an alternative to our present culture of atomized pseudo-individualism and you’re-on-your-own-ism. Personal responsibility as a healthy reality rather than cop-out depends upon having as many of the right supplies and early and continuing forms of security for the journey to be one where most of those who undertake it have a good chance to succeed. As far as I can tell, the most likely source for this happy situation lies within caring families and communities, as referenced earlier. The mutualities, the supports appropriate to individual development and needs, the pleasures of giving and receiving care: these are among the attitudes and practices where people can see themselves as members of a nourishing whole, a place with binding relationships. Relatively small, voluntary, mutually respectful, beneficial, and responsive…a place that used to be described as one where people looked out for each other, where eccentricities and myriad beliefs were tolerated and sometimes enjoyed. If Trumpism constitutes a distorted and hollow simulacrum of genuine communal solidarity, then perhaps real community would be welcomed by some of its members.
If it is true that fear and insecurity nourished by greed and power-hunger are the primary source of America’s tilt toward division and autocracy, then I don’t know where else to look for a solution than resurrection of communities where fear can be alleviated, and security ensured. They might eventually turn things in a different direction, and in the meantime and even if they do not, they provide satisfying sanctuary from and alternatives to our failing society.