Sifting Babel

Richard Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy by basically one vote per district across the country. Contrary to the popular myth that grew up around JFK, he was not even close to a landslide, and had Nixon challenged the outcome in court, which many of his advisors were urging him to do, history might have been different. Nixon demurred. He said he refused to be the cause of a constitutional crisis, took his loss, and congratulated Kennedy. Despite who he was and what he later did, he had a line he would not cross.  For the good of the country.

Nixon’s later administration set the conditions which eventually brought us to this year.

Nixon was still part of a culture that embraced common goals between adversaries. Simply put, both Democrats and Republicans believed in the same basic principles, they simply differed on the appropriate paths forward. Oh, certainly there were disconnects, but there had been a core of ideas and aims held as givens.

That no longer seems to be the case.  For large portions of the electorate, it would appear there are wildly different outcomes desired. The possibility for working across the aisle, compromise, and envisioning a common future has fractured. The exaggerations fueling the animosity are becoming more pronounced, to the point where at times it seems two completely separate languages are being spoken, languages which share vocabularies and even syntactical and conceptual similarities, which are becoming more and more unintelligible to each other. What the two sides mean by things like Progress, Patriotism, Tolerance, Law, and Rights require interpreters.

I have been wondering for years now just what some people want to see happen. What do they want their country to look like if they win?

With the era of Trump, I think I know what those who support him, even now, want. Partially anyway.  If I’m even close to correct, I can definitively say it is nothing I want. More than that, it is not something they’re likely to get even if they somehow get their way politically.

When one works through the rage, the foul language, the insults, the chants and slogans, it sounds like the goal is an American Empire that acts entirely by decree. But decree that is almost entirely directed outward, at the rest of the world. The Mexican border wall is exemplary of this. Keep the world out. Keep what is American in, at least in terms of ideology, wealth, and community. Tariffs go hand in hand with this.  Certainly much of this has to do with jobs.

Following upon this is some vague desire that the economy be one which supports a large middle class that is somehow self-sustaining. One based on high wages and low prices and rests upon the dominance of American manufacturing, which should be mostly if not entirely contained within the borders of the country. It should be robust enough that some version of the single-income household can re-emerge so the culture itself ceases to be whipsawed by questions of equity fueled by low wages which require segments of society to seek work when that same culture wishes them to labor inside the home.

And all of this is to be achieved without regulations or unions or systemic wealth redistribution.

There are pundits and ideologues aplenty telling us all this can be done, but for liberal influences which privilege multiculturalism, globalization, and a variety of individual empowerment programs that seek to hamper industry, destroy the family, and deny American Exceptionalism. Charts, graphs, power-points, and pedigreed lectures reinforce the belief that we have lost our way because some of us are at heart anti-American.

The possibility of achieving this utopia of nationalist privilege is unquestioned in this instance. Facts, theories, projections, and basic reason notwithstanding, the aesthetic triumphs because accepting anything else is terrifying.

The possibility of sitting down with those so frightened is small, because fear impedes the ability to reason, which is itself terrifying to those trying to reverse damages seen as suicidal in their unchecked eventualities.

The point, though, is that we are confronting less a set of principles than an aesthetic movement. I have suggested for years that a certain element of rightwing malcontent is not doing this for sound economic or political reasons so much as it hates what the country looks like. Momentum has been gained because opportunists have fed them on their own bile for a long time. So much so and so effectively that now some of them are all but apologizing for what they did because they didn’t think it would go this far. The manipulations are not, therefore, theoretical—the Kochs and the Murdochs have admitted it—and were done for simple greed and power.

The simple reality is that people make poor decisions when they’re afraid and buy all kinds of stuff along the way. Keeping the pipelines open has been the primary aim of these people. Pipelines? The ones the money flows through.

Wartime economies run hotter than peacetime economies. We have been operating on such a footing since Vietnam. Well, since WWII really, and that military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about is anxious to maintain the flow of capital.

It is an absurdity to suggest that someone, anyone—say, Jeff Bezos—“earns” seventy billion dollars in five months. It only goes to him because that is how the system is set up. This is hydraulic capitalism and it has nothing at all to do with “deserves” or “earn” or “make” or, really, fairness. But by keeping enough people frightened of the world more or less constantly, the political and social will to change it simply never coalesces.

And now add to that this aesthetic element fed to people about what America “ought” to be, and the confusion multiplies.

But wait. Such a machine cannot operate as well as it does without a certain truth to its claims.

Globalization has impacted our economy, in some ways negatively. When you are losing your business it is difficult to look at the so-called bigger picture. And both political parties have for a long time served the same masters at the expense of the middle and working class. And the poor? Individual politicians have cared, here and there and from time to time, but the poor have been disenfranchised as a matter of course and thus do not vote, at least not in sufficient numbers to be heard. This is the unfortunate legacy of those days when both parties shared broader goals and only argued over the details of how to Get There. It is easy to understand, if we care to, how someone like Trump can come along and persuade a lot of people to vote for him when he poses as their champion against a common enemy—Washington. We cannot forget that many who voted for Trump in 2016 would have readily voted for Sanders, who is about as opposite as one can get from Trump, but who represented the same possibility—overturning the D.C. applecart.

The utility of that possibility was and is debatable and we will discover in what ways in the coming months and years, but both were lightning rods for a basic frustration.

What we have now is a roiling mass of inarticulate dissatisfaction that has grown into a social movement, and social movements are often aesthetic as much (if not more so) as political.

Aesthetic?  Look at the targets. LGBTQ rights; separation of religion; the rage over immigration; the dichotomy between demanding one set of social conformities be put into place while others be rejected, often with extreme prejudice. And, as always in this country, issues of race. Any one of these can be demonstrated to be strawman issues, but appearances—ah, appearances, and what they say about who we want to be.  Or at least be seen as. Absent the concrete aspects arising from analysis and an understanding of the components of social dynamics, the aesthetics become the binding commonalities of what amount to tribal affiliations and roll onward as if all the rest needed for cogent response to civic policy were already part and parcel of the call to action.

Unfortunately, this makes it all the more difficult to address, because it is very like ( a perversion really, but still) of matters of taste.

For my part, I reject the basic aims of this mass of inappropriately-named conservative ends. They are illusory for one thing. Hollywood codifications of far more complex phenomena. For another, we long ago passed the point of comfortable isolation. We no longer live in a world where we can ignore each other. Globalization may have been poorly handled (although I defy anyone to explain how something that dynamic can ever be “handled”) but it is inevitable. We all live on a single planet, and we have run out of room to run away from the effects we have on each other. We can’t behave like lone gunmen anymore.  Too many people will get hurt, killed, and our own legacy will be one of ignominy and ruin. We here cannot close the borders, either physically or culturally, and hope to survive, and if we keep trying the world will abandon us and we will not be part of a better future.

We have for a long time been reversing the shambles of Babel, but recently it seems some of us are trying to reinstate the fear of that idea, when everyone was utterly alone and terrified because no one could speak to each other.

Reality vs Not

The image of Trump that says all one needs to know about him came during the so-called Million MAGA March, when his SUV drove through the crowds that had assembled in D.C. on his behalf. We see him pressed against the window, hand raised, grinning, and scooting on by to their cheers. He did not stop. They came for him but he did not stop. He knew they were coming, so something could have been prepared for him to at least give a short speech. But he did not stop. He hurried through, grinning at them. Where was he going that he could not stop to give something back to his supporters?

He was going to golf.

Jokes have been made about a lot of presidents and their golf, but in this case it long ago ceased to be funny. He may or may not have spent more time on the golf course than any other president, but his personal jaunts have cost the taxpayer more than any other.

And the fact that this makes no difference to his supporters speaks to the more cultish aspects surrounding him.

Disclaimer: I have never found anything appealing or even mildly amusing about Donald Trump. He struck me as a fraud back in the Seventies and his string of mismanaged endeavors since has done nothing to convince me otherwise. The best I can figure, he’s one of those people who has financial support because he owes too much to too many and letting him go to live in a trailer park would be too costly. I tried to read his book, The Art of the Deal back when it came out and found it a kind of secular version of an occult magic text based on illusion and bad psychology. I didn’t finish it.

So when it appeared he was going to have a shot at being elected president, I, along with many others, thought, well this is the end of the Republican Party. They’ve put a shyster in the running.

A shyster who has managed to pull the same trick politically as he did financially—too much rides on him to just let him sink, too many careers, too much political capital.  Not because he’s such a great politician but because he has managed to make too many people dependent on him in unhealthy and frankly undemocrtatic ways.

I have been told to look at his accomplishments. To be fair, there are a few that aren’t all that bad.

But it doesn’t matter. Consider Nixon. It can be unapologetically argued that he did quite a lot that was good for the country. The EPA for one. And one might be excused for arguing that had he been left alone, even better things might have emerged. And while that may be true, it is also true that he subverted the institutions he swore an oath to uphold, created a shadow government, bypassed Congress, and committed crimes.

Nothing excuses that.

We do not here rely on cults of personality and because we have tried to be a nation of laws it is implausible to excuse someone who did so much damage on the basis of a few “good” things he may have done.

Because for one thing those good things were not and could never be all of one person’s making.

Nixon damaged our democracy. Trump has possibly broken it.

I don’t care what he might have done that in the next several years we might find laudable. Those things could have been done by anyone and he could not have done them alone in any case.  We have to ask, at what cost?

Suggestions of a sharp intellect behind the clownish veneer are frivolous.  The result of four years of this administration are in the streets. Discord, distrust, confusion, and distortions of right and wrong.

We could go down a list of the campaign promises he failed to deliver on, but why bother? The Trump Cult will excuse them in any of a dozen ways.

The frightening thing is, without the COVID pandemic we might have re-elected him, because he has managed to call so much into question that we are second-guessing ourselves about who we are. But 200,000 deaths from a mishandled public health emergency are impossible to ignore. His claim that they had no playbook for this has been shown to be false. Obama’s people left a detailed playbook behind. His people were smart, they knew what might happen, and they fulfilled their civic duty by trying to prepare the country.  Trump did nothing but shut down clinics that gathered data because he wanted the numbers to be different, which he stated, up front, in public.

I have been challenged to see positives in this.  Sorry.  Even in the broad policy strokes that in some wayu I might agree with, the management of them was so hamfisted and sophomoric that it has made things worse.

Trump has made the world a more dangerous place.

I am not exaggerating.

One might argue that pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords was questionable, but that was largely symbolic.  But pulling out of the WHO was criminal.

For a long time it has been clear that the GOP has become the party of wishful thinking, of appearances, of denial. The moderates are mostly gone, the base isn’t interested in rights so much as privileges, and too many people just want the country to look a certain way and to hell with social responsibility, demographic reality, and evolution of technical change. These are people who want people in church praying to Jesus and no one else, women to stay home and be mothers, men to be straight (and white), and business to lead the way. They want America to be at the forefront of everything but refuse to fund education or support labor in any meaningful way. They think Trump exemplifies their vision of America. A draft-deferred, womanizing, tax evading, subliterate conman who knows one thing—appearances are all that matter.

This is not Trump’s problem.  It is ours.  We bought into that image, enough of us that he actually made it into the White House. Like George W. Bush said almost 20 years ago, “I don’t do nuance.” But the world is nothing but nuance and those who refuse to deal with that will always make a mess.

Messes are costly.  We have one now.  And this obdurate refusal to concede the election, even when every reliable institution says it is legitimate, is the final evidence we need to see that this mess, one of our own making, is all Trump was ever going to provide.

Enough. It is time for him to go and it is time for his supporters to sit down and shut up about it. If I may remind them of their reaction four years ago, “He lost, get over it.”  And finally, “Fuck your Feelings.”

Fine legacy, that. I hope they’re proud.  Oh, wait. They are.

And that’s our problem.

Over?

The temptation to gloat is immense. After four years of living in the land of the cognitively dissonant, we have managed to displace a major symptom of national dysfunction.

Gloating would be a huge mistake.

The senate is still in the hands of the Party of Enablers who have for 12 years stood in the way of national amity. Mitch McConnell is for the moment still the majority leader there and he has already made it clear he intends to do the same to Biden that he did to Obama. I don’t care what your opinion may be of a specific policy, this is petty, vindictive, and destructive obstructionism and a palsy on our democracy.

That Biden/Harris seemed not to have sufficient coattails to turn over the Senate (and even lost a few seats in the House) does not surprise me so much as depress me.

Look: whatever side you’re on, we cannot solve problems by refusing to consider solutions, and the place for consideration nationally is in Congress. That can’t happen if someone keeps preventing bills and people from even being considered on the floor. The question is, what are they so afraid of? Because the only reason to keep ideas and proposals from being aired is because you are afraid your own ideas are weak or useless.

I cannot tell you how many times in the last four years encounters with self-professed conservatives (mainly on social media) have come down to name-calling and superior-sounding dismissals when all that was asked was for sources for factually dubious claims. I cannot tell you how many times insult came forth when all that was asked was an explanation and the chance for engagement. I also cannot tell you how many times it felt as if two alien languages were being spoken, even though the words and sentences were in English.

But we cannot begin to heal until some basic understanding happens. Whether we who have opposed Trump and his enablers like it or not, the fact of this election shows that we have a massive ideological divide that will not magically go away because a new president will be in the White House. We will war over this until we figure out how to resolve it or end it.

First suggestion: we must stop confusing tolerance and mollification. We have to find ways to tolerate the spreaders of nonsense without appeasement to the nonsense. People have the freedom to believe anything they wish, but that does not mean nonsense must be accepted as part of legitimate discourse or forms some kind of valid argument. I am speaking now to those who style themselves as liberals or on the Left.  We do this.  A lot. In the name of getting along, of “finding common ground,” of civility even, we have let things pass that ought never to have gained traction.  Saying out loud that something is bullshit is not a bad thing. But we can’t dismiss the people themselves. Trust me, those on the Right clearly have no problem expelling those with whom they disagree or dismissing arguments they either do not understand and refuse to accept.

Secondly, I believe we must deal with the underlying disconnects where they live, namely in the narratives that inform our apposite perceptions. One of those, I’ve come to think, has to do with the nature of property.  This nation has been built on an idea of property that runs through our history, elevating the very substance of it to the level of holy writ.  But I don’t believe we have a very good grasp of what property is.  Or, more relevantly, what it is not.

In 50 years of discussions, casual conversations, articles, op-eds, business, political, and cultural tracts, I’ve come to the conclusion that people on opposite sides of the so-called conservative/liberal divide have fundamentally different apprehensions of property. For liberals, loosely put, property is a by-product of living. For conservatives, it seems, property is the whole point of living. The real problem is what gets defined as property. For a conservative, again loosely put, everything is property, including rights. This is basic capitalism, which seeks to commodify everything.  And as capitalism has been practiced for two plus centuries, commodities are always limited. Capitalism is founded on scarcity.  Sometimes the scarcity is real—there’s only so much nickel, titanium, and aluminum is expensive to make, and arable land is finite. But today, recently, those scarcities have become manufactured,  Even so, some things cannot be so except by law—like human rights.

The conservative/capitalist playbook tells us that in order for someone to have something they haven’t got, someone else has to give something up. The zero sum game.  What we have to come to terms with is that to some people, when you talk about expanding rights or services, they automatically hear that they will have to give something up.  It is counter-intuitive to them to state that such is not the case.

Even in operant capitalism.

We must also begin to grapple with the fact that problems are never of a single facet. And when we get down to the individual level, the complexities multiply.

So relegating groups to single-diagnoses categories will always backfire.  They are not all stupid, ignorant, venal, or obsessed.  Seventy million of us voted to keep in play the guerrilla war for the culture.  Effectively, we might be able to deal with broad issues, but ultimately that means there are seventy million unique perspectives that do not match up with the seventy-five million who have rejected their choice for president.

There are basic moral issues at stake.  But mingled with those are people who think they will lose something in this outcome.

The one thing we cannot afford to do this time is think we have won and can now go home. This is only the latest battle.

So breathe, enjoy a bit of relief. Then do not fail to show up. You can’t win if you’re not on the court.  Nothing is over.