Hope Springs Eternal…for Americans – But Not for Me
“Trump’s election means new fears and new uncertainties that can only be countered by reaching out, digging deep, and finding new hope.”
Brittany, on behalf of the Leadnow.ca team in Canada
Natalie, an old anti-nuclear ally and good friend of my oldest son, wrote me this note:
Dear Howard, I think Jeremy is right–we may well have won with Bernie Saunders as a candidate. Rabbi Jill Jacobs of Truah writes that this is time to mourn, but it is also a time to think what we can do to protect the human and democratic values we hold dear and to protect our human fellows against war and our dear world against extinction. Chandler and I, older than you (I turned 88 yesterday as well), have lived through terrible times, and were buoyed by thinking what can we do and working with others to try to do it. That’s all we can do, try to keep the flame of hope alive.
We are now feeling the after-shocks of the American election. Dramatically falling stock prices. The Mexican peso fell to its lowest level ever. My children who are American citizens (3 out of 6) are in mourning, as is everyone they know along the East Coast, A student of one broke down in tears. For another, the whole faculty, without pre-planning, came to teach in black. Foreign Policy on the morning after wrote, “We were wrong about Trump’s electoral prospects, thinking he had little to no chance to win. Is it possible we were wrong about Trump’s governing prospects?” and then went on: “For the sake of our nation and the world, we hope so.”
But that is the problem. Hope blinded us to the tsunami we faced. We believed our tea leaf readers and other prognosticators instead of walking about in the suburbs, exurbs and backfields of America. West Virginia was one of the first states to fall into Donald Trump’s lap. Larissa MacFarquar in The New Yorker in the 10 October 2016 issue went to Logan County and spent time talking to Trump supporters. In her article, “In the Heart of Trump County,” she asked how did West Virginia transform from a Democratic state to one that voted Republican? She did not unpack the scandal-ridden politics of the Democratic Party in West Virginia and the voter bribing as revealed in the FBI sting in Logan County in 2004 that revealed Thomas Esposito, the four-term mayor of Logan County, to be corrupt and could be used as a decoy to trap other corrupt officials. And there were plenty. For example, Danny Wells, the Magistrate (not to be confused with Danny Bundy Wells who was elected to the West Virginia Senate in 2004) received an eight-year prison term for taking bribes.
Instead, MacFarquar interviewed a third generation descendent of Muslims (Rick Abraham), a Latino (Richard Ojeda whose grandfather came from the Pacific coast of Mexico), a Black (Reggie Jones) and a white Protestant male (Brandon Kirk). All four had deep roots in Logan County. Rick Abraham, had a blown-up portrait of Hillary Clinton behind bars. Abraham “knew” Clinton was a crook. Democrats were all crooks had become the received wisdom. On the other hand, Keith Judd in 2012 in the Democratic primary defeated Barack Obama in the county even though he was a felon serving a 17.5-year sentence for extortion.
“Like most West Virginians, Rick Abraham was angry with the President for hastening the decline of the coal industry with what he regarded as excessive environmental regulation. Like most Trump voters, he considered Obamacare a scourge, and since he selects insurance policies for Mine Lifeline’s forty-odd employees…”
There are no immigrants in West Virginia. But the residents of the county resent refugees because they appear to receive entitlements that these third and fourth and fifth generation Americans do not. They do not resent them because they are Muslims or because they fear they are terrorists. They believe strongly in community and home; they are convinced that strong borders define a home. But they were not interested in sending the immigrants who had arrived illegally back home. They simply regarded Trump’s statements on this issue as opening bargaining chips in making a deal. His pomposity and arrogance were also regarded as devices to distinguish Trump from the other 16 candidates trying to become the Republican standard bearer. Further, Trump promised to support the coal industry; Hillary Clinton promised to bring clean renewable energy to West Virginia. They trusted Trump and the old ways rather than bet on empty promises of politicians. They also did not want monies spent on foreign wars, money that could be used to help West Virginia recover.
There was also the difference in the way they saw Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton. Obama was a leader who began by getting inside their head space and then worked to reconcile that position with his own. Hillary Clinton, who called Donald Trump a promoter of division, was herself a divider. “Clinton, on the other hand, always describes herself as a fighter, and it is her style to draw sharp lines between right and wrong—between people who are being oppressed and the people doing the oppressing. This style can make it sound as though she thinks people who disagree with her on immigration are probably racists.”
Further, Hilary relied on a swarm of talent. Donald Trump seemed to present himself as primarily relying on his family. And the people of Logan County loved family. Brandon Kirk, a historian, focused on local life. Further, he came from a family of Republicans but was thinking of registering as an independent. Traditional political ties were becoming unknotted all over the place. But Kirk still planned to vote for Trump, primarily because of all the poverty around and how it has been ignored by Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Why not bet on a wild card, someone who comes to politics entirely from the outside? The four were not ignorant, were not racists, and were not appalled by the idea of a female president or a black president. Though they wanted the immigrant and refugee intake controlled, they were not suspicious and frightened of immigrants and Muslims.
So what does this tell us? Other than the broad strokes about groups more oriented to Trump rather than Clinton – white males without a college education (by 50 points), white females without a college education (Trump had 23 points on this group ahead of Clinton), it seems that the Trump supporters are varied, though more support comes from rural areas and small towns than big urban areas, from the less educated compared to the college educated. Trump forged an energetic enthusiastic mass movement of Trump Democrats.
David Wong, Executive Editor of Cracked on 12 October wrote a very insightful piece: “how Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind.” (http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-trumps-rise-that-no-one-talks-about/) To him, Trump supporters “voted for the brick through the window. It was a vote of desperation.” “You’ve never rooted for somebody like that? Someone powerful who gives your enemies the insults they deserve? Somebody with big fun appetites who screws up just enough to make them relatable? Who only get shit done because they don’t care about the rules?”
Let me offer a few additional quotes.
The theme expresses itself in several ways — primitive vs. advanced, tough vs. delicate, masculine vs. feminine, poor vs. rich, pure vs. decadent, traditional vs. weird. All of it is code for rural vs. urban.
See, political types talk about “red states” and “blue states” (where red = Republican/conservative and blue = Democrat/progressive), but forget about states. If you want to understand the Trump phenomenon, dig up the much more detailed county map. Here’s how the nation voted county by county in the 2012 election — again, red is Republican:
Every TV show is about LA or New York, maybe with some Chicago or Baltimore thrown in. When they did make a show about us, we were jokes — either wide-eyed, naive fluffballs (Parks And Recreation, and before that, Newhart) or filthy murderous mutants (True Detective, and before that, Deliverance). You could feel the arrogance from hundreds of miles away.
If you’d asked me at the time [when David Wong lived in a small town], I’d have said the fear and hatred wasn’t of people with brown skin, but of that specific tribe they have in Chicago — you know, the guys with the weird slang, music and clothes, the dope fiends who murder everyone they see. It was all part of the bizarro nature of the cities, as perceived from afar — a combination of hyper-aggressive savages and frivolous white elites. Their ways are strange. And it wasn’t like pop culture was trying to talk me out of it.
It’s not just perception, either — the stats back up the fact that these are parallel universes. People living in the countryside are twice as likely to own a gun and will probably get married younger. People in the urban “blue” areas talk faster and walk faster. They are more likely to be drug abusers but less likely to be alcoholics. The blues are less likely to own land and, most importantly, they’re rural.
Cities live in the future; small towns live in the past.
Terror victims scream in the street next to their own severed limbs, and the response from the elites is to cry about how men should be allowed to use women’s restrooms and how it’s cruel to keep chickens in cages.
Basic, obvious truths that have gone unquestioned for thousands of years now get laughed at and shouted down — the fact that hard work is better than dependence on government, that children do better with both parents in the picture, that peace is better than rioting, that a strict moral code is better than blithe hedonism, that humans tend to value things they’ve earned more than what they get for free, that not getting exploded by a bomb is better than getting exploded by a bomb.
Or as they say out in the country, “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”
Rural jobs used to be based around one big local business — a factory, a coal mine, etc. When it dies, the town dies… they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying.
These are people who come from a long line of folks who took pride in looking after themselves. Where I’m from, you weren’t a real man unless you could repair a car, patch a roof, hunt your own meat, and defend your home from an intruder. It was a source of shame to be dependent on anyone — especially the government. You mowed your own lawn and fixed your own pipes when they leaked, you hauled your own firewood in your own pickup truck.
Step outside of the city, and the suicide rate among young people fucking doubles. The recession pounded rural communities, but all the recovery went to the cities. The rate of new businesses opening in rural areas has utterly collapsed… hopelessness eats you alive.
Hopelessness eats you alive. So what do liberal Hillary supporters tell one another. Keep your hopes up as they experience hopelessness as well. Langston Hughes in his 1935 poem, “Let America Be America,” wrote: “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart. I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. . . I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek — and finding only the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
Why did Democrats not know this group better, appeal to them more directly, offer policies that would actually improve their lot as well as touch them? Why did these Trump supporters give the intellectual and policy elites the middle finger?
This is how Michael Brenner summed it up in an email to me:
What follows are just a few tentative suggestions on how to proceed once we get our bearings.
1. This should not be a surprise – except in the sense that the final outcome was not predicated by the pollsters. Being off by a few percentage points in nothing compared to having missed the signs of the bigger phenomenon. The causes of the American political system’s unravelling are multiple and tangled together.
The failure to pay them due attention was itself symptomatic of a political culture that has degenerated progressively over the past few decades. Public discourse lost coherence, norms that set boundaries of the permissible in content and language were erased, the media lost their way in the maelstrom of the wider, celebrity-focused pop culture, and the leaders of institutions – private, professional, and public – abrogated their responsibilities as de facto custodians of intellectual and political integrity.
2. America’s political elites betrayed the people. Republicans shredded the post-WW II consensus on the parameters of public policy and governance; they abandoned the basic civility that is a critical part of the software of democracy; they indulged the haters and racists of the Tea Party by entering into a merge-and-acquisition deal; and they embraced fully the emerging plutocracy. Democrats ignored the magnitude of the challenge; appeased it out of meekness, lack of belief in their own traditional values, and the promotion of superficial careerists to positions of party leadership; selling out their natural constituents for access to big donors; and then tied their fate to a fatally flawed candidate.
3. America’s elites and political class generally either encouraged or passively acquiesced in the transformation of American society from one characterized by openness, opportunity, economic fairness and decency, and legal equality into one whose distinguishing features are gross inequality, social rigidity, economic insecurity, and privilege for that stratum with the financial means and clout to game the system. Thereby, they discredited the so-called “American Dream” – the package of beliefs so central to both individual self-esteem and the civic contract.
4. America’s elites and political class have worked overtime since 9/11 to sow fear and anxiety among the populace. That has exacerbated greatly the emotional insecurities stemming from the other socio-econ-cultural conditions noted above. The country has been living in a state of collective psychosis associated with the “War On Terror.” That has helped to prepare the psychological ground from the irrational behavior that reached its climax yesterday.
Why was it anticipated that it was the Republican Party that would have to be patched up and put back together when it appears that this applies to the Democratic Party? I believe that I, for one, was wrong about Bernie Sanders – not about who he is and what he stands for, but on the need to rely on him to run a more populist program that could defeat Trump? I was part of the complacency and arrogance that resulted in a major misjudgement.
Now defeated, Democrats and liberals want to rely on hope, on the spirit that they can win on another day. What can you do except rely on hope, except rely on the checks and balances system of the American government, except rely on the return of hope with the dawning of a new day? Marc Fisher in The Washington Post wrote, “Every chapter in the American story so far has resolved into hope. The Civil War birthed Reconstruction. The riots and generational strife of the 1960s settled into sweeping social and cultural change.” But with the rapid acceleration of climate change and the growth in power of the deniers, the sliver of hope is closing fast and darkness is once again on the face of the deep. If Donald Trump could show he could thumb his nose at his Republican colleagues, if almost all, one by one, came crawling back, if not to join his movement, at least to accede to his new authority, what will these supine power-hungry men not do now? The world has a high-risk gambler running the United States after 22 January 2017. Unlike our ex-mayor, Rob Ford in Toronto, there is no evidence that The Donald takes drugs. He does not even drink or smoke. Therefore, we cannot even hope he will simply implode in his first two years.
Donald Trump remains unfit, unfit in terms of experience, unfit in terms of his personality, and unfit in his lack of principles. But look at the logic of the eternal hopers that Americans constitutionally are even when they elect a man like Donald Trump as their president. After all, if the prognosticators were wrong about Donald’s chances, if they were wrong time after time about his possibility of winning, and if he proved them wrong once again on election night in America in 2016, are they now wrong in questioning their assessment of what kind of president Donald Trump will be? To hope that he will be other than who he is makes Americans not only optimists but fools.
Because Donald Trump, whatever his faults, only tried to repress his faults for a very few weeks in the campaign. Now he is totally free of the constraints of his handlers. And anyone who believes that the instruments of checks and balances in America will hold him are deluding themselves. The Republican-controlled Congress has show that it is made up largely of supine supplicants. Even John McCain, a man of outstanding courage, folded well before the end.
And what about the members of the chattering class? Because Donald Trump is “now our president-elect, he has now our initial support.” What madness! Because Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto, how does it follow that he should have any reasonable person’s support? “We continued to believe he will have to change in same fundamental ways,” wrote Foreign Affairs. Thomas Friedman, as far as you can get from being a slouch among media pundits, in yesterday’s NYT wrote, “Donald Trump cannot be a winner unless he undergoes a radical change in personality and politics and becomes everything he was not in this campaign. He has to become a healer instead of a divider; a compulsive truth-teller rather than a compulsive liar; someone ready to study problems and make decisions based on evidence, not someone who just shoots from the hip; someone who tells people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear; and someone who appreciates that an interdependent world can thrive only on win-win relationships, not zero-sum ones. I can only hope that he does. Because if he doesn’t, all of you who voted for him — overlooking all of his obvious flaws — because you wanted radical, disruptive change, well, you’re going to get it.”
Not just them, Tom, all of us! And if you can only hope that he does change, your hope is fool’s gold. Donald Trump has shown unequivocally that he does not have to change at all. It is he who has and will change America. “He will need to put the nation’s interest ahead of his own,” wrote Foreign Affairs. Why? Has he ever? He deeply believes his interests are America’s interests. It was an urban myth that Charlie Wilson, formerly the head of General Motors and then Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, had said that, “What is good for General Motors is good for America.” (In fact, he said that the interest of government and the private sector were mutually reinforcing.) But it is Trump’s belief that what is good for Donald Trump is good for America.
To suggest to such a man that, “He will have to study policies more and polls less.” Why? He has shown that he could trust his instincts more than any of the conclusions of pundits. In any case, he has shown that he is incapable of studying. Further, he never studied the polls. He railed against them as part of a rigged system. And on that he was, to a degree, correct. To hope that he will listen to people who disagree with him is to mistake a man who surrounds himself with supplicants and sycophants for an intelligent and considerate leader.
He can and will be suave. He can be personally charming. And he will work across the aisle, but on his terms. He is, after all, the subject matter of the art of the deal and its pretended author. He can and probably will unify Congress, but only because there are many supplicants on the other side of the aisle as empty of principles as he is. Asking him to reach out!!! Are you kidding? When he reaches out it will be to glad hand and pat another on the back while suggesting that if they do not cow tow, he will reach out with a clenched fist and an irascible voice.
Why would he now reach out to the foreign policy experts from all parts of the political spectrum when they spurned and disdained him? And he disdained them in turn. He will get enough of them to come on board as window dressing, but it is not they who will determine the direction and conduct of foreign policy. Donald Trump will.
Foreign Policy wrote, “We hope the Trump inner circle will reward competence and experience, and not just enthusiastic loyalty. And we hope our friends will heed the call.” Bunkum! More misplaced hope. Donald Trump will only reward those with enough competence to do his bidding. The reality is that Americans have chosen a president who is a regressive strongman, much like what is taking place in many countries across the planet. And it is not because we or Americans are under hard times. The American economy, if not roaring ahead, was not sputtering either. And the average Trump supporter was not in dire straits. He or she earned an average of $72,000 a year. Now that Trump is elected, the only thing we should follow about Trump is his dystopic view of the world because he will bring about what he already professed to see.
Trump, as one pundit perceived correctly, is a man of “factious tempers, of local prejudices and sinister designs,” using the words of one of the founding fathers. That kind of soothsayer and snake oil salesman was precisely the man the founding fathers feared might rise in America. And all their brilliant efforts to prevent that outcome did not work. Donald Trump is president-elect. He washed the floor with his Republican opponents. He beat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College decisively against all predictions, even his own.
Donald Trump remains a pathological liar, a delusional narcissist, an exemplification of high risk and erratic behaviour. Don’t allow the optimistic belief of Americans that hope springs eternal to pull the wool over your eyes once again. The reality is that America is a democratic monarchy. It elects its kings (or queens). It looks to its leaders for strength in governing and not for wisdom or intelligence. Strength is what they have always wanted. And strength is what they have in spades from a man who has never served in any legislative or government administrative position, who always managed to avoid rather than serve in the military. He may praise veterans for their valour and sacrifice, he may praise generals for their dedication, but he would only boss the military not serve within it. For to do so involves a willingness to make sacrifices.
David Remnick wrote the following in an op-ed piece for the online The New Yorker when Donald Trump was declared winner of the election. In an article entitled “An American Tragedy,” he wrote: “In the coming days, commentators will attempt to normalize this event. They will try to soothe their readers and viewers with thoughts about the ‘innate wisdom’ and ‘essential decency’ of the American people. They will downplay the virulence of the nationalism displayed, the cruel decision to elevate a man who rides in a gold-plated airliner but who has staked his claim with the populist rhetoric of blood and soil. George Orwell, the most fearless of commentators, was right to point out that public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually. Sometimes all they require is a leader of cunning, a demagogue who reads the waves of resentment and rides them to a popular victory.”
“The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”
Hillary Clinton, pushing back tears, tried to normalize events. Whereas Trump had announced that the contest was only worth it if he won, Hillary lost and insisted that “fighting for what’s right is worth it.” But she too fell in line with standard rhetoric and urged everyone to get behind our president, Donald Trump. Nevertheless, she urged her supporters to fight on, rise to fight another day, stay together and work together. The ideology of hope and hard work was still a fundamental trait of the American body politic. But how is this possible when the American electorate has chosen, through a majority of votes in the Electoral College, Donald Trump?
Tom Friedman wrote, “Unlike the Republican Party for the last eight years, I am not going to try to make my president fail. If he fails, we all fail. So yes, I will hope (my italics) that a better man emerges than we saw in this campaign.” But he will fail. The question is what can be done to try our best so that the rest of us do not go down with the ship of state? We can blame the media for turning an election contest into entertainment, for exhausting us with repeated attention to the insignificant. We can blame ourselves for not seeing more, for not trying harder, for not recognizing the necessity of Bernie Saunders. We can despair and become convinced that Western civilization is nearing collapse and, therefore, this earthly ecosystem is beginning to collapse. The resentment, fear and anger of Trump’s followers have now shifted. It now fuels the demonstrations of the young across America.
Will hope do the job? No. That is more claptrap coming out of the same mindblindness of the pundits. They deluded us then with hope. I do not intend to allow hope to delude me now. Though I desperately look around for answers, I will not pretend that hope can save us from drowning.
With the help of Alex Zisman