It’s hard, isn’t it? watching Trump’s most vicious fans on the march, righteous and emboldened.
It is painful in a different way — as in, bitterly ironic — to watch marginalized rural folks cheering for policies that would eviscerate their own interests. It is galling to see struggling, out-of-work Americans fawning over a billionaire who brags about tax-dodging and union-busting.
It is exasperating to hear self-avowed Christians championing a man whose every act flies in the face of everything their religion holds dear. It is terrible to hear people without access to decent schools condemning those with specialized education.(1) It is hideously frustrating to see white people who’ve been snubbed and ignored by those in power blaming their problems on the browning of America.
It is all very disheartening and infuriating.
But it is disingenuous to claim we don’t understand it.
Incredulity, a mild form of denial, is governed by Saturn (now stationary, conjunct Trump’s Moon and opposing his Sun). As a socio-linguistic affectation, it is very popular since last year’s election.
The claim of non-comprehension is often used to distance ourselves from that which we find repugnant and/or surreally ironic. We say that we just don’t understand it.
Right after Trump won, collective incredulity was buzzing through the airwaves. Nine months later, many Americans (except those who voted for him; they have different Saturn issues) are still claiming disbelief.
TV commentators find themselves shocked — shocked! — at each new lie, each new lowering of presidential standards, each new departure from decency.
This is a case of playing dumb.
Donnie being Donnie
Throughout his career, with dogged consistency, Trump has promoted himself by means of his pathologies and vulgarities. His perverse genius is to flaunt his flaws as if they were badges of honor.
Long before he came to national prominence he was notorious in New York, a city that “found him repellent despite his incessantly harassing courtship.” (2) His father, a corrupt landlord, taught him the benefits of cosying up to the mob and the KKK, as well as how to hire, fire and then report illegal immigrants for deportation.
Since reaching the White House, Trump, the “heir with the urchin’s manners” (ibid), has undergone no moral transformation. He has simply carried his thin-skinned narcissistic exhibitionism to a bigger bully pulpit. By now, even the wishful thinkers — the “Let’s give him a chance” crowd — have stopped kidding themselves about who this man is.
Our next step should be shaking off our incredulity about the 39% of our countryfolk who support him.
To stand amidst
Where this sizable chunk of the populace is concerned, can we come up with a response more complex than fear and loathing?
It is appropriate, of course, to refuse to accept repellant behavior. But we’re talking here about understanding.
The truth is, we probably understand it better than we care to admit.
The original meaning of the word “understand” (from Old English understandan: “to stand amidst”) was to know a thing through having experienced it. I wonder if the unconscious logic behind our extravagant incredulity is this: If I admit to understanding bigoted and xenophobic thinking, that must mean I share in it.
This suggestion, naturally, gets our back up: the last thing we want to do is to concede a commonality with neo-Nazis. And yet, if these impulses exist within any of us, surely they must exist within all of us.
In potential form, that is. The crucial distinction is that we don’t indulge, approve or practice what we find deplorable.
Distancing ourselves from such practices is fitting. But there’s no rectitude in lack of comprehension.
If we really don’t comprehend something — especially something important, that impacts the health and safety of our world – shouldn’t we try to?
We should, if we hold out any hope of responding — rather than reacting — to values we condemn. Otherwise, when faced with tiki-torch-toting marchers, we’ll just try to bash their skulls in with our peace signs. (3)
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
― Isaac Asimov
The first step in seeking to understand this cultural moment is to put it in perspective. There are things that are unique about the shit storm going on in the USA right now, and there are also things about it that are woefully predictable.
Take the racist scapegoating and anti-intellectualism of many of Trump’s supporters. In every era, demagogues have encouraged their listeners to fear and despise any groups lower than them on the social ladder; and to resent the “elites” a few cultural rungs above.
Granted, Fox News has slicker production values than the black-and-white newsreels of the 1930s. But the emotive manipulation of the masses by those in power, usually embellished with allusions to divine entitlement, is as old as time.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.”
We Americans are drowning in information, and desperately need someone to interpret it.
In times past, societies had shamans to explain the world. Wise elders helped their tribespeople organize the chaos of life.
Now, we have politicians, pollsters and pundits.
These are the guys we have appointed to make sense of the deluge of cultural data we slog through every day. To determine its meaning, they employ a crude dualism, e.g. “liberal” or “conservative.”
News anchors and pollsters use framing devices like these as if they were the only way of seeing collective life. But they are too primitive to explain anything. “Red states vs. blue states” –? What are we, kindergarteners, that we need color-coded pictures?
Not only is the binary model ridiculously reductive, it is dangerous. Based on mutual blaming, the opposing-sides paradigm encourages violence. To Big Media, we voters might as well be mindless sports fans, transfixed by a bloody gladiatorial contest. (There is a cynical method in this madness. Who are the impresarios of this grotesque spectacle? Cui bono? See this article).
Would we see the cultural landscape this simplistically, if we unplugged from conventional news outlets? I doubt that we would. I think we would instantly realize how limiting it is to see our public identity in terms of one of two teams, locked in a zero-sum game.
I think we would realize that political parties have dissolved into meaninglessness. Certainly Bernie Sanders’ supporters have realized it.
As has Trump himself. Rather than identifying himself as a Republican at last week’s rally in Phoenix, Trump referred to himself and his supporters as a “movement.”
For a president to insult the top dogs in his own party (Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan et al) could never have happened before Pluto moved into Capricorn, marking the beginning of the end of the old political infrastructure.
I believe that if we weren’t in thrall to news-anchor-speak, we would notice that the term “democracy” no longer accurately describes this country. It is, by any definition of the word, a plutocracy — a term we’ll never hear from Anderson Cooper.
Instead of informing, the media seeks to thrill and entertain. It serves up sexy headlines about identity and personality politics. Pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces alike hop on the bandwagon.
The “liberal” wing of the establishment is deeply invested in this media emphasis. For example, Democratic politicians have been loving all this attention to Confederate monuments. They seem to think that huffing and puffing about it polishes their cred as spokesmen for decency.
But voting for the dismantling of a statue is far easier than putting in the decades working for social justice, as Bernie Sanders has done.
Trolls and tweets
As the mainstream press falls all over itself covering the latest misspelled Trump tweet, Washington is up to no good.
They’re quietly cooking up “tax reforms” that would nudge the country deeper into plutocracy. We will not hear on the network news about the implications of this move: that the more tax money Big Business saves, the more politicians they will buy, and the more indebted those “public servants” will become to their corporate benefactors.(4)
And while the media exhausts itself trying to keep up with celebrity trolls, Congress is normalizing the concept of endless war. It was literally in the dead of night that the GOP stripped away Barbara Lee’s repeal amendment which would have put a check on the military whims of Washington. Soon afterwards, we heard that Trump was escalating the 16-year-old, undeclared war in Afghanistan.
Then there’s net neutrality: as issue that’s possibly more universally relevant than any other, in this media-saturated age. So why aren’t more of us up in arms about imminent threats to internet freedom? We’re too busy arguing about Melania’s footwear.
Click here for Part Two.
1) As anthropologist David Graeber has written about pro-Brexit voters: “Working-class…voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich… [because] they can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia.”
2) “Winning the presidency was never a deep desire, more a branding scheme that spun out of control, but Trump has tried to turn his victory into a means to compel New Yorkers finally to genuflect.” See this illuminating essay.
3) Of the torches used in Charlottesville on 8/12/17, John Oliver said, “Because nothing says white nationalism quite like faux-Polynesian kitsch.”
4) According to the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, not only is Trump’s plan unlikely to create the job boom he’s promising, but it will add trillions to the national debt.
Graphic by Edel Rodriguez
Painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Photo: Huey Long with rural farmers
“End User”: Alex Gross
Collage by Julien Picaud