When Trump Loses, the Real Work Begins.
“The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. “The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.” Trump, who “tells it like it is,” is our twenty-first century Realist, come to the political arena through the back door of celebrity. We fed him media and taught him Twitter, and his “profit on ’t is he knows how to curse.” Just as Caliban reflects the megalomania of Prospero, to see Trump is to see ourselves, and we are justly horrified by the monster we have created.
But Hillary’s glass is a window through which our purple mountains’ majesty looks a little too Romantic — perhaps unbelievably so. It is love and respect and free college tuition and affordable healthcare and world peace. And, unforgivably, it fails to reflect a significant chunk of our twenty-first century Realists, who find themselves eerily absent from Hillary’s utopic vision.
We are a nation at war with itself — a house divided even over the issues that used to unite us. Our arrival here is no accident. When the public good is subsumed by private profits, it is natural that we will elevate a man who built a fortune while shirking his own contributions to society. When education is chronically underfunded and expertise is ridiculed, it is inevitable that we will celebrate a man with no experience and whose sentences cannot span six words before collapsing like a casino balance sheet. When Individualism becomes God and Community is equated with Communism, we will inevitably become people who decry any system that does not privilege them as “rigged.”
Trump may be headed for a loss, but the battle for America is not over. We have only just understood the terms of engagement. The divisiveness and demonizing and double-speak that brought us to this point will not go away, even (or especially) if Hillary beats Donald as handily as she is expected to. The information wars waged between partisan sites like Occupy Democrats and Breitbart and (less egregiously and less excusably) MSNBC and Fox News make clear that the downside of the information revolution is that, with so many flavors of reality to choose from, everyone can have whichever facts suit him best. Authority and veracity have been deposed; our new gods are clicks and reposts. Joseph Goebbels once said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” To put that in today’s Twitter-ready truth, “Viral=real.” The internet has given us access to any information we want, but it has also allowed us to silo ourselves with only the information we want. We stock up on articles like ammunition, and venture out of our echo chambers just long enough to lob inflammatory hyperbole like a hand grenade, attaching the penetrating commentary, “THIS.”
Marc Fisher recently asked, “Has Trump transformed America, or simply revealed it?” Let me tell him what every person of color in America knows:
Trump is America.
Despite Obama’s half-hearted protests to the contrary, the fact is that xenophobia, racism, and sexism are poisons that have been floating in the American bloodstream for generations. Trump has not created them. He has merely rechristened them as chemotherapeutic agents that will purge our polity of foreign interlopers so that we may restore “our” country to her original, “great” purity. It’s a clever strategy — ennobling your indisputable liabilities so they become your greatest strengths. Once that narrative is out there, it doesn’t go away. Just ask France, whose far-right National Front party, traditionally a fringe, is enjoying a disturbing resurgence.
How do you solve a problem like the Donald? By speaking to the fears and values that birthed him. That messy and frustrating dialogue must begin in the same virtual venues that unleashed the monsters in the first place. It must begin with ordinary people, for it is ordinary people who gather at Trump rallies and condemn Hillary Clinton for betraying the “Real America.” It must begin, as Jon Lovett said over two years ago, with the commitment not to ostracize our opponents and delegitimize their arguments. We must realize that when we win a battle on Facebook, we drive the loser further into his own trenches. Perhaps we fight not to convince our interlocutors, but those persuadable people who read along silently. But I suspect that they, like those all-important undecided voters, are dwindling. When a hashtag can turn your opinion into attention, few people hold their tongues.
Healing dialogue must consist of a different kind of rhetoric.
Educated liberals, I’m talking to you.
America will not be won by intellectually browbeating everyone with elite degrees. If Jonathan Haidt is right, the battle for America must be fought not in the mind, but in the heart. Trump’s voters are legitimately afraid of something, and we’ll not win by trying to delegitimize that fear. We must try to understand it. Yes, that’s going to mean wading into some unpleasant waters. But that’s what you do when the basement floods. You put on your boots and steel your nose and do the hard work to find the problem and address it. There is no Great Plumber who will fix this broken American house. We thought we had elected him in 2008, but he couldn’t save us from ourselves. The last black man who successfully united people knew that change begins with “the man in the mirror.”
When Trump fades on November 9, let’s also dismiss our impulse to “other” his supporters. We will not win against “them.” But there might still be a chance to save “us.” Until we try, we all might as well kneel or sit or sleep through the national anthem and the pledge, for it’s clear we have no interest in being one indivisible nation.