Nationalism, optimism, and how I think about the future now that Trump is president
I’m sorry to say, I just watched a President Trump deliver his inauguration speech. I wish it were Hillary up there. Actually, I wish it were Biden, telling us how he is going to build on everything Obama has done, but alas.
I’ve never heard such a nakedly nationalistic speech from an American politician before. As a student of history, I know there is a school of thought which says that nationalism is a sickness responsible for centuries of human misery. That in the struggle to secure one nation against another, or pit one nation against another, or compete, one nation against another, we humans have caused nothing but war, suffering, and injustice.
The thought that nationalism could somehow be a sickness, or that it is a bankrupt idea, is not exactly in vogue right now. Nationalist movements are sweeping much of the Western world, and I fear what is to come.
I have identified as American for my entire life. I have defended American values, and I have reached for what, if anything, makes America exceptional. Is it our commitment to the rule of law? Our tradition of tolerance and diversity? Is it our founding myth that here, anyone can make it if they just work hard enough? Or is it, as I am coming to suspect, the mere fact that we are home to half the world’s arable farmland and have been conveniently separated from the major hostilities of the past two hundred years by vast oceans?
It seems to me that many Democrats in positions of leadership right now, from President Obama on down, retain their faith in America and their idea of American exceptionalism largely by relying on platitudes about the American people. Obama said as much in his farewell speech: he remains hopeful because of us, who we are.
I just don’t see that. What I do see quite clearly is that we are not good enough for the President we said goodbye to today. He was the best of us, and he is being replaced by one of the worst of us. I don’t blame the electoral system, or Russian hacking, or Hillary Clinton’s poor strategic choices, or fake news, or any of that. I blame us, collectively. Always have.
There’s not much I have to say to that swath of America who voted for Donald Trump. There really is a vast gulf in world views which separates us I’m sorry to say. We can’t even agree on a common set of facts, much less an effective way of communicating with each other. I am interested, though, in how I personally should be responding to a Trump presidency. And, I am interested in how Democrats, and liberals generally should be responding.
I haven’t seen much intelligence out there in this regard, nor do I have anything particularly earth shattering to offer here. This space exists mainly for me to work out my own thoughts. If they can somehow help inform how others could think about the world, that will be of at least some use beyond my own selfish aims.
What follows are a few reasons I’ve seen floating around liberal/Democratic circles for being optimistic, and the reasons why I think they’re misguided. You must believe me that this is not an attack on optimism itself (for that, simply go pick up Candide). It is also not a case for cynicism, per se, although more cynical it may make you. I am concerned mainly with Truth.
Yea, I capitalized that.
It is among my core beliefs that some ideas are more wrong that others, and therefore we must be judging them by some objective view of Truth. It follows that then that some religions are more wrong than other religions. Some political philosophies are more wrong than others. Belief systems are not all the same, or equally valid. Some people are just wrong, and while they may be entitled to their own opinion, that doesn’t mean I have to respect or legitimize their opinion (only their right to hold it). And yet, wrongly held opinions are dangerous. Deeply, deeply dangerous. It is a war of ideas out there, and I’m afraid liberalism is in danger of letting a few bad rounds turn into a few bad decades, or more.
So consider the following as my best attempt to litigate inside my own head what the most objective view of events should be on this day of inauguration, this dawning of the Age of Trump. Do we have legitimate cause for optimism? How should we as liberals committed to liberal principles view the future of America? What fallacies should we be excising from our thinking?
Amongst my own side, both in news accounts and in social media, I have seen a number of responses to the Trump presidency. Many of them can be aptly categorized as a particularly American kind of optimistic thinking. If you haven’t guessed by now, I can’t share in this optimism. Being pessimistic isn’t exactly a popular thing to be now a days. Sometimes it seems like every fiber of our culture and identity are predicated on projecting optimism about the future.
Thus, I am seeing a lot of begrudging optimism being thrown around. For example:
Trump will only be able to do so much damage
This is one of Obama’s central arguments for hope. The theory goes that he has moved the cause of progressivism so far down the field that Trump simply has a long way to go backwards if he truly wants to reverse eight years of progress. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, as Obama is fond of quoting.
You know what? The past few months I’ve been wondering whether MLK was right on that one. If the arc of history bends toward justice, how many wars must we endure to get there? How many genocides? How much injustice is justifiable in order to maintain that worldview? While it is true that we have never lived in a more prosperous, and some might say just time, I don’t see it as inevitable that that progress will continue forever upward.
To be sure, there are many things about the next four years which we will be able to reverse at some point. Poor economic policy may cause catastrophe in the short term, but that can be repaired. Funding can be cut, but it can be restored. But wars inadvertently blundered into tend to have rather lasting effects. And the consequences of some policies really cannot be undone.
Yes, there are turning points in history. There are times when things could have gone right, or wrong, depending on the actions of just a single person. Entire wars started or avoided based on the sound judgement and good intentions and reasonableness of just a handful of level-headed leaders (Just read this).
But for a more current example: I had some shred of hope for climate change, a dull but palpable glimmer after the Paris accords. But for the leadership of reasonable people, I thought, the world could not come together on that sort of thing. And now, our government for the next four years will be largely run by climate denialists. And the damage they will do cannot be undone on any reasonable time frame. My kids and their kids and generations to come will suffer. More than a billion people will be displaced, with unforeseen consequences the likes of which few of us can imagine.
The damage that Trump could do is real, and it is potentially catastrophic.
Democracy is cyclical; it’ll come back around
Will it though? Perhaps you haven’t notice that Democrats are in the wilderness with no clear way back. There hasn’t been such dominance by a single party in America in a loooong time. Since Obama took office, Democrats have lost 25 percent of their House seats, 19 percent of their Senate seats, and 43 percent of their governorships. (For a thoroughly depressing account of just how deep the hole is, read Politico’s latest)
The real problem though is that our institutions have now enshrined a party of blind ideology to bankrupt ideas in a position of power from which they will not easily be dislodged. Gerrymandering of Congressional districts means that these ideologues hold on to power both in their districts and in Congress, despite consistently receiving fewer overall votes than their opponents. The electoral college has now delivered the past two Republican presidents to office despite their losing the popular vote. Throughout the country, GOP-led state legislatures and governors are busily fixing the system to enable themselves to hold power indefinitely, and to suppress those aspects of fair and free elections which may lead to their defeat.
There is nothing embedded in our institutions, our Constitution, or our character, which says that there be two parties who will share power through a cyclical process of push and pull. So don’t count on it.
America has survived worse; we’ll get through this
Yea, I know it’s not as bad as the Civil War. And no one is about to bring back the institution of slavery (although, if some Trump supporters had their way…). But a Civil War-like trauma is not really what I’m worried about here. I’m not worried about some dramatic schism that would make for a good movie. No, what I’m worried about is the slow-burn after-effects from a president who does not care one way or another about democracy, or about the strengths and health of U.S. institutions, or about separation of powers, or about tolerance & diversity, or free speech, or freedom of the press, or about a range of other issues which collectively prop up the American experiment.
If the end of the Republic comes, it won’t come because of a war or a coup. It’ll come because we have so eroded the things which made us American that we will no longer have the will or the capacity to defend those things. The GOP’s strategy the past eight years has essentially been to do everything they can to ensure that government does not function so that they can point to it during elections and yell at the top of their lungs: “Look! Government does not function!”
Now that the GOP is in charge, it does not appear that they have any interest in fixing government. Quite the contrary. They now have every lever at their disposal to dismantle all the things that government does well. If we do this for long enough, why would we expect the American people to defend it? What will there be left to defend?
When people argue that we will get through this, I wonder what they expect our country will look like on the other side. Will we still have a free press left if the Trump administration changes libel laws to prevent criticism of his administration, and then sues journalistic institutions into such oblivion that they can no longer sustain meaningful reporting? Will we have institutionalized discrimination based on religious belief through a series of laws intended to keep Muslims out of the country and force those already here into a de facto state of being second class citizens? Will we have so stacked the Supreme Court with conservative ideologues that the notion of a judicial “check” or “balance” to legislative or executive power will be effectively erased? Will we have so eroded voting rights and enshrined Congressional boundaries that elections no longer have meaning? Will we still be capable of meaningful resistance to an administration unaccountable to Congress, unaccountable to the courts, and uninterested in Constitutional limits?
At what point do we wake up and decide that this is no longer the Republic our founders had in mind? And in fact it might not be accurate to say that it’s a Republic at all. I believe that point may be closer than any of us realizes.
Trump Won’t Want To Do Anything Too Unpopular
This is a variation on several common theories I’ve heard about how policy-making could work under Trump. This theory holds that since Trump is an attention-whore who more than anything wants to be loved, he will head off or veto any truly terrible or destructive policies. Obamacare is exhibit #1. Here, the thinking goes that once Trump learns that 32 million people could lose their health insurance if Obamacare is repealed, he’ll decide that sounds bad and won’t go through with it.
The problem is that Trump has never once displayed any ability to think through a policy implication. He’s going to get laws delivered to his desk to sign that are hundreds of pages long. What are his advisors supposed to do, boil everything down to a one-paragraph briefing summary? Who are we trusting to advise him, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon? Things will slip through, and these things will be bad things. They will be far beyond Trump’s attention span to care about, not to mention beyond his intelligence to understand. This is the most ideologically conservative, dogmatic, anti-science Congress we’ve ever had, and they are going to take advantage of Trump’s short attention span and lack of interest in anything even resembling a policy detail.
There are no easy decisions as president, and Trump has no capacity to navigate difficult decisions, or to judge competing recommendations. The people he has around him are in many cases as ideologically driven and anti-science as members of Congress (many of them are former members of Congress). As far as I can gather, there is not a single, moderate policy expert at all capable of heading off the ambitions of a Republican Congress combined with a pliant President.
You think the worst policies that have been bandied about won’t actually come to pass? Fine, let’s hope so. Let’s certainly hope that Trump won’t simply take at face value his HHS secretary’s contention that the bill in front of him provides “universal access” to health insurance. Let’s certainly hope that Trump will understand that universal access isn’t at all the same as universal ability to purchase. But I wouldn’t count on it.
On top of that, I would be worried not just about Trump’s tendency to be misled, or to take the position of whomever he last spoke to – I would also be worried about the things we won’t ever know about that the lobbyists and the ideologues and the religious zealots and the xenophobes in Congress will be slipping into bills. I would be worried about the things they are actually counting on Trump to not care about, or not have the attention span for, or not have the intelligence to really grasp.
Hoping for Trump to fail is like hoping for a pilot to crash the plane we’re all flying in
No, it is not.
This is one of the most inane analogies making its way from Facebook page to Facebook page. The argument is that the country is like an airplane. And we didn’t ask for Trump to be the pilot, but now that he is, we have to hope he’ll do a good job flying. Wishing for Trump to fail, the argument goes, is like wishing for him to crash the plane.
No, no, no. I in fact do wish Trump to fail. I hope he fails in his stated desire to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices. I hope he fails in his stated desire to withdraw us from the Paris climate accords. I hope he fails to repeal Obamacare, fails to delegitimize NATO, fails to build up our nuclear arsenal, fails to cut taxes for the wealthy, fails, fails, fails.
There are a few things I kind of agree with him on, although I can’t think of any right now other than rebuilding our infrastructure. He says he’ll bring back jobs, but the U.S. is already close to full employment, so I’m not sure what Trump means by that exactly. Yet even in those few instances in which I agree, I am nonetheless tempted to hope for failure, because any success Trump has in one area is likely to lead to more successes in other areas, and I do not want this man re-elected in four years time. I am tempted to say, as David Faris has suggested, “Give us Merrick Garland or you may go die in a fire.”
It is not on us Democrats to find areas of agreement here. It is on us to play dirty, as dirty as Republicans have played with Obama the last eight years, which is dirty indeed. I have few qualms with this strategy. Will such a strategy potentially result in the failure of an infrastructure bill? Big effing deal. There is very little good Trump and a Republican Congress could ever do from a legislative perspective. The greater good here is to do what they did to us: break their government in the hopes that we can get back into power.
We all now have a responsibility to stay and fight
To this I respond: at what point do we say enough is enough, and this isn’t the country I want to fight for anymore? The fact is, people have left their homelands throughout history in search of something better. Why shouldn’t I do the same?
I’ve heard it said – indeed it’s been said directly to me – that we have a responsibility to stay and fight for our values and not abandon our ideals to the misogynists, the white nationalists, the anti-intellectualism that has infected our national dialogue and politics. But how long do we go on fighting, when there are other options available?
And there are other options. I’ve heard it said that other countries have just as much problems as the U.S. does, and that’s true. In all countries there will be forces lining up to undermine liberalism, to prey upon our worst instincts as a species, to enshrine xenophobia and anti-intellectualism as a governing philosophy. Perhaps as long as we have nation states we will grapple with these issues, which is to say, we will grapple with them for a long time to come.
But there are places out there: Scandinavian socialist Democracies which are thriving economically while also guaranteeing health care for all, education for all, and a strong social security net for those who need it. There are multi-cultural societies where differing ethnicities and religions exist not to demonize each other but to strengthen each other through mutual respect and tolerance. There are libertarian states (if that’s your thing) where you can pretty much be on your own to succeed or fail as you will. Or, there are places where Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (which seems to be what Trump would prefer).
The point is, there are alternatives. No place is perfect. I get that. But this country isn’t all there is. You can leave if you want to.
The day after the election I sent an email to my family in which I questioned whether I wanted my son to grow up in this country the next four years:
There is no lesson about patriotism or American values to be taught by staying here if it turns out that our vision of patriotism means white nationalism, and our idea of values means being actively intolerant toward those who are different. For me, it’s not just that our president is going be Trump. It’s what it says that we elected him. For the next four years, when one asks, what kind of country is this, or what kind of people are we as Americans, the only reasonable answer to give is that this is the kind of country in which we decided to elect a bigot, a demagogue, a huckster, a cheat, a sleaze, the absolute worst of us as opposed to the best.
If this is a country which has endorsed racism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, hysteria, disregard for human decency, than is not a country I’m much interested in calling home or maintaining any sense of allegiance to…
I still stand by all that. I guess what I’m saying is: we are humans, first. Now is a good day to remember that. Not Americans – humans. This country that we live in is just a country, organized by man, and most certainly not endorsed by God or some divine right. And, it is lucky to be geographically privileged and contain a lot of arable farmland.