Raise your hand if you love Trump or if you hate him. OK, you can put your hands down, that was just about everybody.
A few of you are indifferent about Trump. Not to sound too dismissive, but statistically you represent approximately nobody. Trump has managed to politicize even the vast middle ground of Americans who previously never gave a flip about politics.
I think most Trump supporters do a lot of alternating between cringing and cheering.
So I’m a hater I guess. I should get that right out there. And I realize that seems crazy to those of you who see in Trump a strong champion of what it means to be an American. We in the hater group seem so dogmatic to you in our hate of him. You wonder why we think he is irredeemably evil. You who support him think that seems sort of extreme.
But in our view from over here with all of the other Trump haters, you Trump lovers seem just as mindlessly supportive. We see the blind loyalty as kind of cult-like. But do you know what my best guess is? Most Trump supporters don’t see themselves that way. I think “ambivalent but supportive” might describe their opinion pretty well. Other than the rally-going crowd, I think most Trump supporters do a lot of alternating between cringing and cheering. And I think in their mind, this behavior seems perfectly reasonable compared to those who assume he can do nothing right.
I know that critics of political correctness make it seem like that effort is just a way to force us to do something stupid.
Such is the state of our ruptured national discourse. Each side takes turns drawing up an itemized list of failings or successes. A big food fight ensues and everyone gets splattered. I just came across such a list. It was a form letter meant to be forwarded to members of congress to recommend impeachment. I guess I was supposed to edit it down to what I personally thought were his worst offensives but that dang thing went on forever. I had to scroll for several minutes to reach the end. I have seen similarly lengthy lists trying to boast about the President’s accomplishments.
This is not that.
I realize we’re at a point where the culture war is being elevated to a pretext for possible civil war. And I know that critics of political correctness make it seem like that effort is just a way to force us to do something stupid. But let us just take a breath here for a minute. Following the title of an old comedy album, let’s “pause in the disaster”.
It’s probably apparent that I’m trying to see though other people’s eyes here. And since you know my bias (David Lucht = Trump hater) you probably assume my motivation is self-serving, and that this attempt at even-handedness towards Trump lovers is merely a ploy of persuasion. And so it may be. But I genuinely care about dialog and consider demonizing opponents a real danger. So I’ll proceed with this attempt, possibly futile. Believe me, I get chastised all the time from Trump haters about the futility of even trying to talk to Trump lovers.
Apparently, I am just that kind of fool.
So let’s start with what we all want out of this. We all want a stronger, more unified country. A country at peace with itself and the world. A place where we can raise our kids and teach them to value what is good in themselves and foster what is good in others. A country that cherishes freedom in equal measure with responsibility and opportunity. A country that fights for justice, hates corruption and works together to balance both the limits of government and its power for good.
So now comes the tough part, because haters or lovers all, we actually disagree only about who we’ve picked for this task and what we need to do to get us there. Hang with me here to see if there might be a small scrap of something else to agree on.
As I said, I will not itemize the long list of infractions that I think Trump has compiled here. In fact, my purpose with this is not to spend time criticizing him for his policies. That is a polemic that is perfectly valid but off topic here. I will simply say that both his political style and substance are vile to me.
My topic is not the direction these policies are taking us, or what his most recent bizarre behavior might have been. My topic is the institutional challenge that he represents.
We are at a crisis moment unlike any other we are likely to see in our lifetime. We see our institutions as being unable to deal with issues ranging from privacy to personal agency to corruption to greed to injustice to how we provide opportunity for all.
Even our basic understanding of the nature of “the good life” is in crisis because this life of ease and consumption has fostered a kind of atomized individualism untethered to values of community and fair play.
Meanwhile, we have been taught to see government as something “out there”, something distant and insulated from us by its own seemingly self-serving nature. As a result, we have been gifted with powerlessness. There has long been a process at play to make our natural skepticism of government become a hardened cynicism. This creates the illusion that we are all better off without it. Actuality what it does is render us politically powerless.
The next step is to quickly replace that powerlessness with an illusion of power. Economic institutions act to bleed our political will dry with countless small cuts and offers a substitute, the power to consume.
But several shocks to that cozy dreamworld of the fat and happy apolitical consumer have served to upset that system. The economic and political power structure could not save us from the 9/11 attacks or from the banking crisis of 2007. These are both raw wounds, huge gashes in our sense of vulnerability. Together, they act to subvert the power structure’s message of “We’ve got this… just go and be happy!”.
Do we need to forget who we are as a constitutionally governed people, as a country, because the exigency of the moment and the threats we perceive in this moment demand that we do so?
Whether or not you think the environmental crisis is man-made, it still drops a mind-numbing problem in our lap. And the inability of our economic and political institutions to come to grips with that only adds to the shock of recognizing our collective powerlessness.
Institutions, from government to police to the justice system to religious institutions to even the very source of our information are challenged. The solidity that underpins our confidence seems to be dissolving.
And then, as if by magic or, (as some of us see) by divine intervention, Trump appears. The power that was taken from us can now be vested in him. This is not controversial. Trump haters and Trump lovers agree on this. We have given Trump the power.
And so I come to the question; is it a good idea to let a single person take on this role? Knowing what we know about human fallibility, should we give over unencumbered allegiance to a single leader? And if not, are the institutions of governance embodied in our Constitution up to the task of guiding us back into balance? Or does one man now represent and define that Constitution?
There are those among his supporters who view this moment as one of a moral choice with everlasting consequences. In this view, the forces of evil must be met with unblinking rectitude lest all be lost. It is the rallying call in the face of desperation; “Is he not our last hope?”
These questions all center around another one even more basic: Do we need to forget who we are as a constitutionally governed people, as a country, because the exigency of the moment and the threats we perceive in this moment demand that we do so?
Sadly, I’m afraid there are those who are now willing to compromise our constitutional checks on power with dangerous and divisive arguments about the primacy of faith in God over faith in our constitutional responsibilities.
It is understandable to fall back on core beliefs when threatened by trauma. But the consequences of doing so must be carefully examined because history teaches us that disaster can follow in the wake.
After 9/11 our country engaged in extreme behavior. We invaded a country unconnected to the problem (Irag). We tortured prisoners in a misguided attempt to elicit information because we were in a panic that it could happen again.
But as awful as we behaved as a nation in the face of our fears of powerlessness, we also came to know that the “weapons of mass destruction” excuse was propaganda. And our rattled institutions of governance managed to both produce and make public a report that exposed the sanctioning of torture by an American intelligence agency that ran directly counter to our values as a nation.
We act irrationally when we feel powerless and vulnerable. But as flawed as institutions are, they can serve to pull us back. We must not interfere with them when they act to do so.
In times of crisis we might be inclined to put our faith in a single leader. But it is of paramount importance to trust in the powers and process invested in our Constitution and not cheapen, subvert or demean them when excesses and abrogations of power appear.
Not to do so would be to permit a different kind of country.
And this is not that. Not now. Not yet.