The American Experiment is Failing
We are about to elect a dictator. The entire intellectual elite, living or dead, predicts this. In the case of the living, they fear it. I fear it. I am a decent representation of what Trump’s base despises most: A person supported by the existing political and cultural system, able to spend most of his life pondering his place in it, and largely unaffected by social or economic turmoil, either spiritually or financially. The most nauseating trait of the elite is one of its most defining: We are above it all.
Until we’re not. And we don’t step down to join the crowd, we are torn down by it. Sometimes the crowd is the oppressed, but usually not, since power works hard to maintain an internalized notion of powerlessness in the powerless. Yet even as America has done that — like every other nation in history — the part we like best about our last fifty years, with all their pain and violence, is the part about empowering marginalized people. Not perfectly; the chart of progress looks more like a stock market than a tide, but the line has been going up, and the disaffected tend not to want to break the system when things are getting better. The crowd that wants to break the system is the crowd for whom things having been getting worse.
A few years ago, a sales person at my job came back from a conference about luxury goods and services. He quoted one of the speakers as saying there’s going to be a lot of activity in the luxury market because “The middle class is dead. Gone. Forget about selling to a middle class.”
I didn’t take many civics courses in college, but I’m pretty sure one of the key lessons was strong middle class: society goes on; no middle class: society goes boom. As the mean income shoots up, a very few get taken with it, and most fall behind. We can’t dismiss the middle class, because if it’s “gone” you’re left with a huge population of people for whom things just got worse. Sometimes you get a civil war, which is called a revolution or a rebellion depending on who wins. Sometimes you get a populist dictator, elected on the strength of his ability to express the anger at the haves, ostensibly on the behalf of the recently-hads. That anger is all that matters: It has been empirically and repeatedly demonstrated that it does not matter what Trump says as long as he’s shouting.
In America’s case, the noose was already hanging from the rafters when Trump found a chair. The noose was the problematic myth central to American identity: each and every American is the best and can have everything, as long as he or she goes out and gets it. When people hold up the Founding Fathers as the ideological bedrock of America, they miss by about a century. Our internal mythos is the Wild West. Take your land, kill the savages, protect your family. A man and his gun, with no one else to fend for him. Our hero isn’t Alexander Hamilton, it’s John Wayne.
The notion of individual triumph being the pinnacle of society is nonsensical. The mythologizing of this achievement is violent anarchy in disguise, and delusional to boot. You cannot be a part of society and still succeed purely on your own laurels. You can’t even have meaningful laurels without society: they’re just shrub leaves unless someone gives them to you. A consensus to treasure the individual above the cohesion of the state directly leads to the dissolution of the state. If you don’t mind that, fine, but why have the state in the first place?
This myth is a perfect thing to sell to a people you don’t want to help. “You make it on your own” will keep people blaming themselves for the problems in their lives that could be cured by better government services. It also aligns them politically against anyone who wants to take more of their income to create better government services.
Then, when they start getting less money in the first place, because the harnesses were stripped off the economic rollercoaster, you have a population primed to think their illusionary self-determination has been stolen, and they need to take their country back and make it great again. Why would these people care what Trump lies about, when they’ve been fed so many other lies for so long? Why would they care about any of the details as long as he’s validating their rage? Anger doesn’t care about the details.
It’s not America’s fault that the world created a plutocracy, but we helped, and we’ll pay for it. Economic globalization without political globalization invariably disrupts social peace within the discrete political entities, as the flow of money and employment becomes divorced from the implicit agreements governments make with their own people. The winners of this game are the people able to exploit the global economy, and without a global nation, these people become further and further removed from the agreements of any particular nation. Their influence is powerful, and important to the functions of each political climate, so no single government can effectively control them, or enforce a locally popular moral standard.
All that trickles down from this situation to us — and breaks through our daily concerns — is the endless media feed of the ultra-rich repeatedly raping the world and getting away with it, or killing people by accident and getting slapped on the wrist by whatever government had the misfortune of catching them in the act. It is beyond satire. If it was fiction, it would be a depressing low concept drama winning awards at Sundance. As a reality, it creates rage in liberal elites like me, who stand helpless in the face of institutions and individuals that are immune to the system of justice that makes our existence defensible. I’m part of the liberal elite and being angry on behalf of others is my job. Now I am existentially unable to be a good person in this society, because I profit by it too much. It openly exploits and dismisses everybody a few tax brackets down, and the rule of law evaporates a few tax brackets up. I cannot be good unless I’m screaming.
The processes by which democracy undoes itself are accelerating, and in the midst of this nightmare, two people appeared on the political landscape: one who wanted to break the processes at the root, and one who wanted to ride them into the ground. Everybody whose life got better in the last couple of decades thought we might be able to finally go that last few rounds and become a humane country. Everybody whose life got worse wants to shout fuck you until they pass out.
Of course Bernie would have won against Trump. More people’s lives got a little bit better on this last ride, and a lot of them know their lives are about to get a whole lot worse if we don’t at least change the oil. Of course the angriest among them are going to hate Hillary. We got all riled up, we had a voice for our impotence, and then he didn’t win, and we’re stuck with someone who looks like more of the same. Personally, I like Hillary. Why wouldn’t I? We’re both part of the liberal elite. If I had a few more million dollars, we could go to the same dinner parties. But she can’t represent my anger or my fear, and I feel like I’m watching the Lakers accept another set of rings.
It’s exhausting to keep talking about what’s wrong with Trump. He’s a mass shooting that won’t get out of the news cycle. Ranting about him reminds us of our helplessness. So our anger has to jump to the next public figure.
Every politician has lied, because no politician has ever said, “Of course I don’t want to kiss your gross little baby.” The phrase “honest politician” has been a joke since Voltaire. I’m comfortable with a level of dishonesty that feels human, and every politician is going to have everything they’ve ever screwed up trotted out every election cycle. It feels worse this time, because, briefly, we thought we were really going to get a Good Guy. We thought we were really going to get what Obama’s marketing campaign promised us eight years ago.
Putin is making land grabs next to an unstable EU and a China that props up a psychotic child who launches missiles when he’s angry. One thousand years of poor foreign policy choices about the Middle East have made it a little worse than usual.
I don’t worry about the logistical impossibilities of Trump building his wall or deporting thirteen million people. We have checks and balances for a reason, and they provide some systemic sanity that’s carried our democracy thus far. I don’t worry about Trump launching a nuke and ending the world, because people in control don’t want nuclear wars. The nuclear option is only on the table for the desperate and the crazy.
I worry about him pushing an isolationist policy and pulling out of NATO. I worry about him sending so many recruits to ISIS they become a stable aggressive state. I worry about him enabling a worldwide destabilization that will eventually drive a nuclear state to desperation. I worry about him letting my own country devolve into a police state, because he likes to intimidate journalists and he doesn’t care about anyone else’s rights to privacy. I worry about him doing all of this by accident, because he has no idea how to do anything but improve his brand. It would be comforting to dismiss the presidency as a figurehead, but the last sixteen years have taught both establishment parties a lesson about what the executive branch can and cannot accomplish.
There is no comparison between Trump and Clinton, but let’s assume there is and the choice a million Facebook memes have presented me is actually the choice: stupid or corrupt.
If that’s the choice, always vote corrupt. Corrupt people keep the system from falling apart completely because they depend on it. We’ve had corrupt people keeping society running smoothly for millennia. That may be why it all burns down in a few years, but when you put a stupid person in the highest office of a world power, it burns down a lot faster.
Ultimately this race barely matters to non-Muslim, non-Mexican, non-black men in our own country. The job of everyone who isn’t voting for Trump, regardless of what they believe, will be the same: vote in local and congressional races, either to make sure Clinton does the right thing, or to make sure Trump does nothing.
That said, Trump can and will destabilize the world because he doesn’t understand it. He has already made America more dangerous for half its population. His popular empowerment doesn’t distinguish between valid anger at a broken government, and rampant xenophobia. We shame racism and sexism so it stays in the closet, to give the next generation a better shot at being good people. Trump coaxes it into the living room to improve his polling numbers.
Trump is a refreshingly pure evil in the political world, and clearly must be stopped. The rickety, elitist, bizarre, and all but dismantled representative voting process was designed to prevent a Trump from becoming president, and it may yet prevail. If it fails, the world probably won’t end, and if it succeeds, the world will not be fixed.
Sanders’ concerns must be addressed, and after that, we have to address mass shootings, rogue surveillance agencies, homeless veterans, growing distrust between the people and the police, popular xenophobia, a war on drugs that must end, a war on terror that isn’t working, climate change, and antibiotic resistant bacteria. Then we’ll be off to a good start.
The democratic party should be shamed. There are plenty of offices besides commander-in-chief to be taken. Take them. Scream about every nuance of conduct, every exploitation of a legal grey area. Hold captains accountable for their crews. A functioning democracy requires leaders held to a high standard, so we can continue to trust them when they do not follow the will of the people, because the will of the people is not an inherently good thing. The Founding Fathers wanted to create a democracy that would listen to that will without being torn apart by it. Their efforts, plus a civil war, made something that worked pretty well.
It is a delicate system that relies on a balance between individualism and unity. The only way to maintain that system is trust, because each concept is by nature vulnerable to the other. Ask a marriage counselor. The intellectual ideal of a union of states and identities was overridden by romantic solipsism as we plundered the land of plenty, and that already romantic idea was romanticized to a degree that distorts every ideal America was designed to espouse. That made trust all the more important, and trust has been eroding since Watergate.
The world has laughed at us as a nation that allows a third of its people to continue to celebrate a failed rebellion. But that was part of the deal to maintain both unity and individualism: you cannot break our union, but we will not break your identity.
We cannot dismiss everyone who supports Trump as stupid or evil. Many of them are the middle class we left behind. Our country can’t make it without them any more than they can make it without the country.
Our country will survive if it reestablishes trust between the people and the politicians, and an identity that values unity as much as it values the right of each person to be their own person.
Trump is a parasite nourished by a sick host. America has been choking on narcissism since before I was born. I understand the urge to shame the whole system by not voting, or voting in protest for a candidate that can’t win. I can’t say that the action is wrong, or that the act of shaming is unwarranted. I’m a pragmatist: I go to damage control mode when things like this happen, but it does feel like I’ve been in this mode for a long time. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was led to believe I would get more complacent and comfortable as I aged. Instead I only get angrier. I get sadder. I want to give up. I want to hurt someone.
I don’t, because I believe the original idea for the United States was a good idea. This is still a young and idealistic nation, trying to figure itself out in a world changing faster than ever before. Youth begs forgiveness, and lacks experience. I hope we find both.