Thursday, November 17, 2016

America is just a word, but I use it

Once again, the concept called America has left me behind. On November 8th, America elected Donald Trump to be the next President. He won by one million fewer popular votes that Hillary Clinton but won the electoral college count. 

As I write this on November 17th, only a week has passed, and still I find it impossible to believe these words. It is not a version of reality that anyone I know thought could play itself out. Even when terrorists flew planes into buildings on September 11, 2001, somewhere in my rational mind, I could accept the motivations that led to these actions. As shocked and depressed and saddened as I was, the world order that created the conditions for the kind of rage that motivates young men to kill innocent victims and themselves was familiar to me. The struggle between the imperial West and the oppressed, developing world has often played itself out in acts of desperation that cause great destruction and anguish in the most unexpected circumstances in the supposedly secure parts of the world. I can understand the motivation for terrorism, though I oppose it wholeheartedly.

But this is something new. Half of the American animal has risen up and bitten the other half in an attempt to mortally wound the whole body. I don't have a frame of reference for this kind of blind self-destruction. 

For about five days, I was in numb, terrified shock, alternating with bouts of all-consuming rage. In the past day or two, that has given way to indifference, and I have begun to be able to listen to the news radio again, just a little. By indifference, i mean the attitude that says "OK Americans, you wanted this, now you can eat your own shit, I give up." This attitude is actually making it easier to wake up in the morning, though I know it's not productive in the long term.

So I am now trying to piece together a framework by which to understand how a sizable portion of a developed, educated country is able to invite a figure with every trait of a fascist authoritarian into its top position of power. I have heard all of the explanations and tried to absorb them: The left has abandoned the working class. The left has preoccupied itself with social movements and identity politics and a large portion of the population no longer trusts the American political system. The personality and character of a candidate are not as important as his or her ability to completely undermine the status quo. The liberal economic agenda has sent manufacturing overseas. The liberal agenda is too soft on terrorism and radical Islam abroad. I hear and understand all of these arguments, yet they do nothing to defeat the utter cognitive shut-down that occurs when I think of one single human being actually casting a vote for the person of Trump. I "understand" the reasons but my emotions and intellect do not register them as real.

I think this is the same part of my personality that can't enjoy horror movies. I don't believe that a person without a flashlight or a weapon would willingly walk into a cabin in the middle of the woods where a serial killer lives. I don't believe it and I can't relate to it, so the movie makes no sense and is not entertaining. In the same way, voting for Trump doesn't line up with my understanding of what it means to be a human being. Anyone mindful of putting himself and his loved ones in danger doesn't hear the rhetoric coming out of that guy's mouth for a year and then willingly vote for him.

I have had a few conversations with conservatives over the past few months, and not a single one has expressed any fondness for Trump or admitted to voting for him. This is one of the most confounding aspects of this election. If this was a strategy for victory, then it was genius: Fool your opponents into thinking that no one likes the your candidate, openly deride your own candidate, and then when the other side is lulled into complacency, vote for him in secret in massive numbers. 

The left and right are so utterly divided that even a desire for dialogue seems to be met with silence or extreme reticence. I have tried to engage people I am very close to in discussions of policy, and to understand the sources of their discontent. More specifically, I have asked many people to send me factual, reliable sources to document their positions, and I have gotten nothing in return. There doesn't seem to be much desire for scientific questioning on the part of the right, or for a consensus on reliable sources of information. Liberals read the New York Times and the New Yorker and even the Wall Street Journal and listen to NPR, and these outlets reinforce all of their world views. The journalists who work at those institutions, as I understand it, are at risk of losing their highly sought-after jobs if they embellish or distort the truth. In my mind, this makes it reasonable to believe that what I read or hear from them is "the truth." I believe that the truth exists, at least a widely accepted version of perceived reality that forms the basis of how human beings walk through life. Gravity is an absolute, for instance, and not many people refute it. Where is the New York Times of the right wing? Can I read it?

This election has made me question the very idea of reality. It seems to be a concept that holds little value for a large part of the population. When a candidate goes on TV day after day, week after week, and with a straight face, says things that are easily refuted, immediately verifiable as lies, and self-contradicting, reality ceases to exist on a certain level. Any assertion that is made by a public figure can be easily fact-checked on an almost instantaneous basis these days. The lies and fabrications and contradictions coming out of Trump during the campaign were so constant and so unchecked by his constituency, it eroded all respect for their credibility.

This is the part where I could go into all of the well-documented ways in which Trump has disrespected women and people of all races and religions, incited violence, undermined the democratic process, cheated on his taxes, admitted to sexual assault, and on and on. But we all know what a worthless piece of trash he is, it’s all on public record. That’s not the point of this. The point of this is for me to try to figure out what happened. How? Huh?? The people who voted for him did it despite who he is, not because of it.

I have to admit that on my side, there is a constant echo chamber of opinion reinforcing the self-righteous assertion that we are correct. There’s not a lot of listening going on. But there’s a reason for that. The right has been telling liberals that they are assholes for decades now. The right wing has claimed moral superiority for decades. The right wing owns patriotism, it owns support of our troops, it owns the church, it owns the police, the flag, the country. Obama and Clinton (Bill and Hillary) are liars and commies and un-American, blah blah blah. So why would I listen to right wingers, when all they want to do is tell me what a piece of shit I am? I’d rather listen to my smart friends, and journalists and politicians who are trying to fix the world.

Which leads me to the part of this that makes me the most sad and angry. The reason why none of this makes any sense is that everyone I know has spent their entire adult lives supporting the working class, supporting the underdog, supporting the under-represented, the ones left behind, the people with no voice. I vote for the candidates who want to raise my taxes, not lower them, so that working people can have a higher minimum wage. This is personally against my self-interest, but I believe in the American experiment. I vote for candidates who want to help poor people get health care. I vote for candidates who want to take the corporate interests out of politics. I support candidates who want to keep people out of jail for minor infractions or drug charges. I vote for people who want to pump money into education and medicine and sustainable energy. I support regulation of the banks, and a limited military budget.

This brings up a very important point about the military and big government. The military comprises 16% of government expenditure. All of the people who work in the military work for the government, they are all paid from taxpayer money. Only some of them are soldiers, the rest of them provide support in some other way. So if you support our troops, you support big government.

BUT… The working class doesn’t want me to stand up for it. They don’t want me to speak for them. They don’t relate to me, and they don’t relate to my candidate. They hate rich people, but they want to be rich. Culturally, they relate to the middle and lower class, which they identify with the worker’s struggle, hence the designation “working class.” They are against those who control industry, who own businesses, who own real estate. But in a subtle contradiction, they envy and venerate the rich. They want to be rich. They want to retain their cultural working class touchstones (music, food, entertainment, religion) but be wealthy. So for them, Donald Trump is a perfect avatar. He has amassed enormous sums of wealth, yet has retained a veneer of working class brashness and lack of polish.  It is all a giant con, but it has worked.

The other pieces of the puzzle are the race and gender issues. If you assume that culture is stronger than economics, then it’s possible that it can be stronger than race and gender as well.  Trump’s racist comments and his pandering to racist elements of America, and his attacks on women, can seem secondary in this light. They are a giant nuclear bomb waiting to be detonated, a scary weapon to use, but apparently the people who voted Trump are not as concerned with race, and as misogynist as we think. They can shrug off his wacky statements because they share his overall desire to subvert the smug edit. This is apparently a stronger motivator than racism and sexism. This remains to be seen.

So we seems to be in a class upheaval, not a political one. There is a strong tide that makes membership in the Trump camp not just attractive but inevitable. To identify with Hillary would be a betrayal of everything you’ve known as a person for twenty years, so anything the candidate, who happens to be Trump, can say or do, is irrelevant. It blinds intelligence and overrides gender loyalty.

The final piece is the idea of “middle class” versus “ poor.” To the new right, the middle class is not the poor. To lump them together is to insult them. To the left, they are similarly categorized, since policies to help them are similar. To be poor is no more or less shameful than to be middle class in terms of national policy, it is a matter of degree of need. It carries no value judgment. Poverty is not necessarily a fault of laziness or lack of drive, but a symptom of systemic failure.  To the right, this is flabby reasoning and it lets freeloaders off the hook. There are two opposing ideologies at work in the same brain (this is the era of cognitive dissonance, don’t forget): If you’re poor and black, it’s because you’re lazy, AND, if you’re poor and white, it’s because the government has turned its back on you.

This issue of classes overlaps with race but is not necessarily the same. To lump the poor with the middle class is politically disastrous. No one wants to be compared with a neighbor who has achieved less, that is human nature. And if more and more of the poor are white and more and more blacks are middle class, racial resentment is inevitable. This does not excuse racism (and certainly does not excuse Trump’s ham-fisted exploitation of racial friction), but sheds some light on what’s going on.

So here I am, stuck in this place we call America, raising two beautiful kids. I have love for this place, considering I’ve spent most of my life here. I’ve also spent all of my politically active existence with the party that tries to help people, and the other party has responded with a resounding “F*** you.”

For now, I can only respond by saying “F*** you” right back while I gather my thoughts and try to figure out the next step. My friends and I were exhausted on November 7th, ready for a chance to stop fighting, and start implementing the policies that we believe will heal America. These are the policies that Obama spent eight years fighting for and getting shot down at every turn by a useless, obstructionist Congress. Obama and the Democrats have been blamed for not changing the system by the very people who prevent them from changing the system. So yeah, I say “F*** you” loud and clear, Republicans.

But that is no solution. We need a new candidate to build a real, strong progressive party. I would vote for Russell Brand but he’s not eligible. I wonder if Jon Stewart would go for it… Good luck, America.