Oh, let me count the ways that Trump has been disastrous for America. But not today.
America, these are not good times. Our better angels seem to have abandoned us. Tales of progress no longer comfort. Anxiety, anger, and despair shadow bright moments. Millions flee, through drugs, through gadgets, through an entertainment industry that offers a cascade of fantasy worlds and insipid narratives about the wonders of family life. And yet we are told these are good economic times. We should have happy dancing feet. Instead ye olde Sword of Damocles insists on hanging around with its shimmering presence now available in ultra high definition.
I was horrified when I heard Obama speak at the Democratic convention in 2016. Clinton had been insisting that America was still great and that things were moving in the right direction. His speech ratified this view. I saw it as a prescription for political suicide. (See here.) Recall that when Obama was elected people started to talk about a post-racial society, as if we had entered a sunny Disney song or ride: It’s a Small World (After All). Many of us knew that this was nonsense, given how deeply embedded racism is in this country and how often it is intertwined with economic insecurity. Obama himself didn’t have any illusions about a post-racial society, but he succumbed to the temptation to invoke an all-purpose progress narrative when it suited his fancy or interests. You know the drill: brighter days are ahead for America if we just keep doing what we have been doing, but do it better, with seed money from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. So, not to worry, the moral arc of the universe will bend properly over time.*
Enter Trump: he blew this narrative to pieces. His followers howled at claims about how things were getting better. And they had legitimate concerns, mainly regarding how the economy had left them behind, or perhaps more accurately, fears about how the economy would leave their children and grandchildren behind. Yet for months before and after Trump’s election the Democratic Establishment focused almost exclusively on the racism and tribalism of his followers, while attacking Sanders’ supporters as unrealistic and naive, which proved to be one of the more ironic twists in the election.** It was in fact the Democratic Establishment’s emphatic insistence that things were getting (slowly) better all the time that exhibited a creepy hopefulness, a tin ear optimism, that proved to be out of sync with what huge swaths of America were experiencing.
Have things become appallingly discordant since Trump was elected? Of course. We see extreme hostility between political factions daily in the press, on twitter, on cable, and in the voices of leading political figures. It’s disconcerting. Frightening. Damaging to the fabric of the country. But it’s also real. You can’t cure problems or diseases until you understand their power and magnitude. It is better to have the problems that we face made explicit, rather than have them fester and explode in ways that may be far more damaging to the Republic down the road than a Trump presidency. Further, the Trump presidency has made the divides within the major parties more explicit, and Americans, especially the younger generation, are beginning to realize that the old party ways are not highways to the future. Politically and philosophically incoherent parties do not inspire hope for tomorrow, adding one more anxiety to our load.
Hannah Arendt argues that the essence of political life is debate. We are right to be fearful that we may be heading down a dark alley in which debate is impossible and all we have is vitriol. On the other hand, what Trump’s election has shown is that the vitriol had been there, somewhat under wraps, semi-dormant, fenced-off in various ideological and media preserves. But animosity and grievances submerged for too long, without a voice in the larger society, are toxic. Yes, vitriol can feed on itself, and this is one of the main dangers of a Trump presidency. Risks abound. Later, however, is not generally better when challenges are experienced as existential, whether they be among poor whites in Appalachia or black teenagers in Flint. Perhaps now that our concerns and divides are becoming more explicit we stand a chance at confronting the depths and extent of our problems.
I know. This sounds too hopeful. Yet it is hope in the face of known demons, and not a carefully polished Panglossianism built on denial.***
*Interesting side note. It appears that Obama didn’t properly use the quotation from Martin Luther King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (King put the statement in quotation marks because it originated with Theodore Parker in the 19th century.) See “Obama Loves Martin Luther King’s Great Quote—But He Uses It Incorrectly.”
**Of course, this is not to suggest that racism and tribalism weren’t crucially important factors in Trump’s victory. Rather, it’s an attempt to acknowledge that it was a serious error to sideline or dismiss other concerns by saying, things are really pretty good and getting better.
**Why too hopeful? All the knowledge and good will in the world may prove impotent in face of the intractable interests of those dependent on preserving the status quo.
Photo: Trump/Voldemort here.