The tragedy of the Trump movement is that one set of struggling people has been pitted against other groups of struggling people by someone who has known little struggle, at least in the material sense, and hence seems to have little empathy for anyone struggling, and even to consider struggling a symptom of weakness....
From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other. One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed. The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal.
The first mind has always held violence nearby, to use as needed, and that violence has infused everything we do—our entertainments, our sex, our schools, our ads, our jokes, our view of the earth itself, somehow even our food. It sends our young people abroad in heavy armor, fills public spaces with gunshots, drives people quietly insane in their homes.
And here it comes again, that brittle frontier spirit, that lone lean guy in our heads, with a gun and a fear of encroachment. But he’s picked up a few tricks along the way, has learned to come at us in a form we know and have forgotten to be suspicious of, from TV: famous, likably cranky, a fan of winning by any means necessary, exploiting our recent dullness and our aversion to calling stupidity stupidity, lest we seem too precious....
I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.
But I imagine it that way now. (George Saunders, The New Yorker, July 11/18, 2016)
I imagine it that way now, too. Could this election represent more dramatically how the country splits between the two minds Saunders describes? There is some solace to be taken in the fact that more than half of Americans did not vote for Trump. But it may not matter unless the "Second Mind" realizes that it's in a knife fight with the people who have the "First Mind". More than anything else, Trump represents the abrogation of norms, traditions, protocols, that sensible people understand are essential for living together sanely and for finding peaceful ways to adjudicate their disputes. The erosion of all these norms in the public square didn't start with Trump, but he has brought it to a crescendo. It is driven by the thinking of the First Mind, which began with Newt Gingrich back in '94, but could be traced back to Nixon in '72.
Nixon knew he was in a knife fight, but he was secretive about it. Gingrich took it public. He overreached and was eventually discredited, but the damage was done. Politicians on the Right learned that they could say any malevolent thing, and that the old civility norms didn't matter anymore so long as the malevolence was directed at the Other--the coalition of hippies, blacks, wetbacks, gays, and feminists--that they saw as seeking to destroy everything that they loved and cherished. No quarter can be given to these Others, and so the GOP in each successive cycle since 1972 became with increasing degrees of intensity the Radical Right and as such the home where those of Saunders' First Mind could feel at home.
If the Right has always understood that it was in a knife fight, the Left has not understood that is in such a fight. Well, there really has been no robust political Left in this country. There has been a squishy cultural Left, but not a "political" Left that understands how political power works. What passes for the Left in this country is a coalition of moderate social democrats and neoliberals like Obama and Clinton. These moderates continue to play by the old rules and to respect the old norms. It's important that they do, but it puts them at a significant disadvantage, especially when those rules and norms preserve a status quo that favors elites and diminishes the fortunes of those who are not elites. Rules-and-norms moderates are extremely clumsy at adapting to the enormity of what they are confronting from a radicalized Right.
I have been trying during the past week to put the best spin on Trump's winning the election. There's a part of me that was dreading four more years of political constipation that would have gotten even worse had Clinton been elected. I thought if she had been elected, we would have just postponed what we have now to 2020, so better maybe to deal with it sooner than later. This part of me argues that Trump's winning the election will administer a much-needed enema to get things moving again, and that to get things moving will require in the short run the explosive production of a big, stinking mess. That's what the Right in this country has done since 1972--make big, stinking messes, and it is inevitable that Trump and his Alt-Right thugs will make their own big, stinking mess.
The GOP's making big messes has been the pattern since 1972: With each cycle since then when the country elects Republicans to the White house an increasingly radical group of right-wing thugs rides the passions of aggrieved white folks, comes into power, makes a mess of things, gets tossed out, is replaced by moderates whose sole job is to clean up the mess made by the thugs they replaced. Then as soon as the mess is cleaned up, Americans elect the thugs again. Nixon left us Watergate for Ford and Carter to clean up. Reagan left a financial Augean Stable (unprecedented deficits, the first rash of massive bank failures--read David Stockman if you forget your history) for his moderate successors, Bush 1 and Clinton, to clean up. And Bush/Cheney left the biggest mess of all (so far) for their moderate successor, Obama, to clean up.
As soon as the mess gets cleaned up, Americans want fast and furious again and so turn over the keys to the bus to the thugs who, once again, careen down the sidewalks crashing through fruit stands, and through fences and front yards, knocking down trees, mailboxes, lamp posts, side-swiping parked cars, and eventually flipping over into a ditch. What fun, especially if the wreckage is in a place like Iraq. And then it isn't fun anymore. It stops when Americans realize that they're not watching a movie, they're watching live, and the bus didn't crash through someone else's backyard but their own:
Oh, gee. Look, my retirement just evaporated, and whoa, my job has just been offshored, and, yikes, my house is underwater and I can't make the mortgage or pay my credit card debt, which I maxed out to pay for my kid's appendectomy. Rick Santelli will think I'm a loser. He's probably right, so I'll just shut up and focus all my frustration on the Mexicans. At least I'm not as big a loser as most of them. They're rapists and drug dealers, and even the decent ones don't play by the rules--they're cutting in line. Hey, get to the back of the bus, losers! Ok. Now I feel better. I think. Maybe not.
This is completely understandable human behavior when humans feel displaced in a culture that is suffering from ontological vertigo. And it points to what I believe is at the heart of the dysfunction: the story Americans tell themselves, aka, the American dream, no longer makes sense, and yet people hold onto it because nothing better presents itself. And so at the heart of our current crisis is a collective meaning deficit. Americans are people without a meaning habitat, a constructive story to orient them toward a positive future. And they are desperate and as such are easily conned by any grifter's pitch if it makes them feel a little better for a minute or two.
Americans continue in this insanely dysfunctional pattern because they don't know what else to do, and I guess, because at some level they think it's the American dream to let red-blooded Americans run wild, with the confidence that they can call in the moderates to be the clean-up crew when things get too bad. But this pattern is not static; it is like a progressive terminal disease. The moderates provide a temporary remission, but then the disease comes back even more virulently when the symptoms return. So here's how it stands: either we find a cure for the underlying disease, or this American experiment will be soon be dead, killed by a metastasized First Mind.
So maybe the pattern since '72 holds now with Trump: He and his Alt-Right, First-Mind cronies will make the hugest, stinkiest mess yet, and Americans will vote him out in 2020. And, as usual, they will find some dull moderate who will clean up his mess. But one has to wonder if with the election of Trump we have reached a point of no return. I hope not, but it should be clear to anybody with a lick of sense that we have since 1972 been locked in a progressively destructive pattern. With each cycle the level of immoderation and insanity gets worse. It can't go on forever. Something has to emerge that will break the cycle.
It gets worse each time because the opposition to it is so ennervated and fecklessly moderate, so complacently satisfied to play its role as the clean-up crew. And this opposition is so caught up in its blinkered 1960/70s era identity politics preoccupations, that it is incapable of understanding the big picture and what is truly at stake here, which is that we are becoming a country ruled by thugs for whom the will to power is the only consideration. Is it that there is no robust opposition that cares or is just that it's just too stupid to understand what is happening?
Saunders raises the critical question that we must all face: Will this experiment fail in our lifetime? It is the question.But it's as if the cosmopolitan Left doesn't realize that it's indulging in its identity politics preoccupations while riding in a boxcar that is carrying them to the concentration camp. The political naïveté is astonishing. Perhaps instead they ought to direct its energies toward figuring out how to stop the train. That would require winning over many of the people who are working as its crew, decent people who have been conned but don't know it.
These aggrieved whites in the crew believe in a story that makes a kind of sense because it sounds a lot like what they grew up with, and since no one is telling them a more compelling story that gives them a sense of purpose and meaning, they believe it. The naivete of the cosmopolitan Left lies in its not understanding that there is no saving the American experiment without the crew's help, and there is no American future with minority rights unless sane Americans with the Second Mind take control of the train. They need to develop a story that includes these aggrieved whites as much as the aggrieved of other colors, genders, and beliefs.
So maybe the pattern will be broken in 2020, but in the worst possible way. Maybe then, after Trump and his Alt Right thugs make their mess, they rig things to make it very hard to dislodge them, or maybe they will even refuse to leave once the electorate inevitably votes them out. Do we have any reason to believe that they will respect the transfer-of-power norms and traditions that have sustained the American experiment? Have they respected any other norms when it didn't suit them? And who would stop them if they concocted some quasi-plausible justification that legitimated their refusal to leave? The Beltway moderates and the liberal media would scream about it, but who would force them to go? Mitch McConnell? Paul Ryan? The generals? I fear most people wouldn't care, and those who would care might take to the streets for a while, but would eventually go home or be rounded up. This is how the experiment finally dies.
This is the worst case, but it is a very plausible worst case, and there are things we can do to insure it doesn't happen. It starts with winning back congress in '18, but doing that requires somebody or some group to emerge that understands that the culture wars are a distraction, that something much bigger is at stake. The real question is whether sane Americans in the center and center left will be able to produce an alternative American story that drawing on the Second Mind that creates an imaginative framework for envisioning a positive future, and that has a deep, positive, constructive energy that can offer an alternative to the negative, destructive energy that grounds the perverse but compelling story the Radical Right tells to give it its power and legitimacy.
Left cosmopolitanism does not offer a story robust enough to fill the meaning void so many Americans, including many who live in Blue America, feel with growing desperation. Something else is called for, something that inspires courage and camaraderie, a sense of mission to build something good and decent together. Is it too late to hope that that might be possible for us?
Update: From Bernie Sanders NYT op ed 11/14:
In the coming days, I will also provide a series of reforms to reinvigorate the Democratic Party. I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor. We must open the doors of the party to welcome in the idealism and energy of young people and all Americans who are fighting for economic, social, racial and environmental justice. We must have the courage to take on the greed and power of Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.
When my presidential campaign came to an end, I pledged to my supporters that the political revolution would continue. And now, more than ever, that must happen. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. When we stand together and don’t let demagogues divide us up by race, gender or national origin, there is nothing we cannot accomplish. We must go forward, not backward.
Exactly. Will the Democratic Party follow his lead? If it does, the country has a much better chance to keep the experiment going.