“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout,
with the voice of the archangel, and with the Trump of God.”
– Four Thessalonians
So here we are.
We’re almost done with the national project of normalizing utterance of the sentence, “Donald Trump is the 2016 Republican presidential nominee.” We have physically mutilated our very synapses into a shape capable of acccepting a reality in which the party whose first presidential nominee went to war to liberate slaves will now nominate a man who went on TV to fire apprentices.
We’re already moving beyond that. Polls show that approximately half of the country wants to hand the levers of economic power, the nuclear codes, and the keys to our future over to Trump rather than to a former secretary of state or a sitting U.S. senator whose political weakness is his embrace of the same political ideology that has made Scandinavia the envy of the world.
How did we get here? This is not solely the death throes of a confused, angry, anxious, white, male, Christian hegemony. In choosing Trump we have simply made explicit what has been implicit in a million fucking choices made by right and left alike for decades.
Yes, there is racists in Trump’s ranks. But there have always been racists. And he could not win on racism alone. And his racist/sexist statements have always been caveated enough to enable the coming pivot.
Trump said what he had to in order to win the nomination…is what he will say in order to win the election.
And the left will focus on which of those two he really means. Because that’s what the left does. That’s what we all do. That’s how we got here.
We are obsessed, like children, with essentialism. What do they really think? Are they racist? Who are they…really? Because we think that tells us something about how people will act in the future.
We find ourselves asking these questions about Republican nominee Donald Trump because we ever started asking those stupid questions in the first place.
Essentialism is the stuff of children. Which we now are.
The counter-culture of the sixties did a vast amount of good…but also hurt us with the exaltation of feelings and emotions. Conservatives once took pride in the idea that they were the intellectual ones, scoffing at the emotionalism of the left, at the primacy the left gave to people’s feelings, for fuck’s sake.
The conservatives lost. Feelings won. Impulse won. Essentialism won. If it felt good, we did it.
So we traded a thoughtful president for a thoughtless one. We traded reluctant warriors for war-loving warriors. Rocky for Rambo.
The left dealt with the right, and vice versa, in absolutist, essentialist terms because it was easy, and that’s how we felt. The way children do things.
People love Trump because he appeals to this childlike laziness. We don’t want to do the work of evaluating policy, of thinking before we speak about people of color, of figuring out who to vote for in the mid-terms, let alone in state elections, let alone in local elections.
We grew up with the left preaching “Think Globally, Act Locally.” As if there was some reason we couldn’t think and act globally and locally. And so we acted locally, and while we were thinking globally, we lost the globe to climate change and Wall Street Unbound. And acting globally, it turned out, didn’t mean showing up at local elections, let alone volunteering or donating. It meant ordering locally grown, non-GMO produce for our kale salads at the artisanal bistro while our statehouses became the trendy spot for organic, free-range lobbyists raised on an exclusive diet consisting of our future.
Because elections were tawdry, dirty things, and we were above them. We removed ourselves from the fucking work, the way we’d been taught by Henry David Thoreau, and Timothy Leary, and Jon Stewart. Our primary accomplishment was keeping our own fucking hands clean. We talked about “Congress” because we couldn’t bother to find out which members were good on which issues. Easier and more rewarding to condemn the institution, the city, as if were built on mystical ley lines of corruption rather than the fault lines of human dynamics and the constitutional bedrock of adversarial systems. Priding ourselves on saving our own selves from “the system,” while still thinking of ourselves as patriots who revere the American way, which–guess the fuck what—is participating in the system. Which is the system.
We held ourselves above the system, but that didn’t elevate us, it lowered the system.
And we let the boring, actually essential stuff, slip away. The unions. Regulatory regimes. Truly progressive tax rates. Because the arguments against those things are easy to win if we evaluate them based on feelings rather than on work. Which we did.
So everything turned to shit. Because we shat on the hard work needed to preserve and sustain it. And once the right figured out that the left’s embrace of emotionalism and essentialism was actually better suited for them, they ran with it.
In 2000, when Al Gore made his case about the shitty state of Texan health care, George W. Bush was asked whether Gore’s numbers were correct.
“If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hard-hearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.”
– George W. Bush, Oct. 11, 2000, presidential debate
It was the answer of a child. A child running for president. Atop the ticket of the party that once prided itself on its coldly reality-based intellectualism.
The triumph of lefty emotionalism was complete. Now everyone could believe whatever they wanted because of how it made them feel. Belief in global warming went down. The country embraced Draconian anti-crime measures—despite stunning declines in crime—because we didn’t feel safe.
So it wasn’t just the things that were worse that felt worse…everything felt worse. Because it’s hard to convince people of the truth when they don’t do critical assessment. Things feel true or they don’t.
So we did away with the quaint requirement that television news provide equal access to participants in the political system. Stories had to feel important.
And one by one, our essentialism and our emotionalism made it easy for the robber barons and the terrorized children to steal away all the bulwarks and norms that used to propel us forward, economically, socially, scientifically, culturally.
Until we were left with norms that were arbitrary and untethered from the engines of our past successes. Our media and politicians observed these norms above all else. And yet. And yet.
The American Dream slipped away. We answered chaotic crimes with chaotic wars. Anyone who thought about this shit saw prima facie that these were mistakes. But we made them because they didn’t violate the last, stupid, vestigial norms.
Bipartisanship. “The tone” of our discourse. Expertise and experience.
None of those things saved us. They’re the very things that fucked us.
Trump has extended himself as the most potent middle finger we can imagine aimed right at all the norms and niceties that got us here. It’s not just Angry White Dudes tired of defending their essences from charges of racism, tired of doing the work not to say things that are racist. Democrats and independents sympathize with the Great Norm Rebellion, too. Norms and niceties cost us precious blood and treasure in Iraq and on Wall Street. TV journalists only got mad when a guest violated the norms against crosstalk. How did those norms help us against global warming, al Qaeda, Wall Street…things that never seemed to anger the TV news people, if they covered them at all.
We see it even among those who hate Trump. It’s hate, a feeling. We see it in the Clinton supporters who can’t admit that she’s advocated some shitty policies and defended her husband’s shitty record. We see it in the Sanders supporters who think all of that makes Clinton essentially “corrupt” or “untrustworthy”…as if all of us aren’t corrupt and untrustworthy.
Absolutism, essentialism, simplification. Watching for “flip-flopping” as if that’s not asinine, the mark of someone who believes there’s a “real” person in every politician, steering them, and that if we could only find out what that real person really believes…we’d have the kind of solace and certainty a child craves.
Yes, Clinton is corrupt. No, Clinton’s not corrupt. Yes, Sanders is egomaniacal. No, Sanders isn’t egomaniacal. They’re just fucking people, people, responding as best they can to the incentives and circumstances in which they find themselves.
But we can’t see that, because that’s not satisfying. It doesn’t feel good. It’s fucking work. And so we get Trump, who is easy. Not because he’ll say anything, but because of what it says that he will say anything: That it’s okay not to do the work, that the norms don’t matter. He has officially liberated Americans from the yoke they’d already come to resent and reject. The yoke of empiricism and engagement. Of acting and thinking globally and locally. Of embracing nuance and accepting uncertainty. Of subordinating feeling to thinking.
Until we change all that, we will get Trump, or someone like him. And we will deserve it.
Actual, non-comatose, job-holding, child-rearing adults, educated in our schools, have chosen him. So until we change ourselves, restore our norms and institutions and do the fucking work required of citizens in a participatory democracy, some of us will be tempted to withdraw from “the system” even more, to close their eyes and think of America.
We don’t actually deserve President Trump. NO ONE deserves President Trump. But we have earned him.
We have nominated the enemy and he is us.