Monday, November 14, 2016

Some First Thoughts

I'm slowly recovering my mojo after the election, and as I would do after a losing jury trial, I'd move past my emotional bender and begin to perform an autopsy. What went wrong? What should I have done differently? Why didn't I anticipate X? Why on earth didn't those morons agree with me! (With the last statement I realize that I have to back off into clinical mode.)  It's a slow, painful process, but a necessary one. In fact, my reading and thoughts will be mulling over this election and the reality surrounding it for some time. The good news? If you don't care about this stuff (or my take on it), you can stop reading. Relief is just a click away. 

The following is a Comment (which I rarely post) on a blog post entitled "It's Not About Hillary." The blog is provocative (to me), written by a Brit ex-pat I've met here in Bucharest. What follows is my first serious reflection on events after the election, following commiserating with friends and relatives. (I've changed just a few words; I can't resist endless tinkering with my prose.)

You're right: it wasn't about Clinton. Regardless of her perceived faults, from full-blown Clinton Derangement Syndrome to her patent mistakes and faults, anyone with any modicum of political judgment knows that she was a landslide loser in the faults category. The president-elect is a liar, a bullshitter, a tax-and-draft dodger, a misogynist, and a racist who promotes violence. He has the temperament of a spoiled, petulant little boy, the character of a huckster, and the experience of a used car salesman. (He is a terrific salesman. He sells baloney and people buy it. Once.) He has no real friends, only toadies and cronies. Who admires Donald Trump? (Envy? Yes.) He is a man of low character, without a moral compass, a sociopath. I wish none of this were true! If this had been a loss to Mitt Romney, character and moral compass would not be the topics of discussion. Trump is sui generis in American politics. 

The sui generis aspect of Trump is that U.S. electoral college system (not the voters) have elected a classic demagogue. A nation that followed FDR and refused the blandishments of Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and other crackpot demagogues in the Great Depression now succumbs to this? A nation that put aside Joe McCarthy and George Wallace surrenders to this huckster? This is like a second fall, a loss of innocence, the end of American exceptionalism.  

How do we account for this? Going back to the original point, it's not about Hillary Clinton. She’s a Methodist do-gooder who developed political savvy and power through mastery of the material and the system--surely intimidating to the weak-minded males. The smart, hard-working girl who left behind the lackadaisical boys like Donald Trump. But Trump had inherited wealth and privilege, but his voters, especially the less educated white males that voted as a minority group (which they increasingly are), don't have this cushion. The class clown and bully just beat the smart, ambitious girl for class president--and that's about how seriously many voters thought about this election. Clinton had to have grave character faults--A liar! A crook! Benghazi! Emails!--because Trump voters needed justification for their license, their willingness to set aside tradition and civic decorum to vote for this monster from their damaged ids and egos. 

But why take this reckless risk? That’s the deeper question. I agree with those who see this vote like Brexit, only this choice will have more tangible, significant consequences. But the common thread is that the herd is spooked. What is making them so restless, so willing to trample the Establishment? Voters act as if they were young French radicals eager to "Épater la bourgeoisie!" But these people want the good life, the middle-class--if not fabulously wealthy--life. The establishment has made mistakes and has ignored the festering problems of working class America, but this willingness to risk the political order to express grievances is classic, but not rational. The cost of the balm will very soon exceed the temporary satisfaction. The hangover will become apparent soon. 

If you think that the media was unfair to Trump, you're wrong. The media created Trump—a classic television "celebrity.” He received a free ride early because he drove ratings higher by his antics. Only later--much later--did conservatives who take political principles seriously raise a hue and cry, and they work mostly in print. Only two general newspapers endorsed Trump, and many prominent conservative intellectuals spoke out against Trump. But who was heeding them? The degree of Establishment (elite) unity opposing Trump was impressive, but the voters were out to goose the elites, come what may.  

I’m headed back into the books, deeper into history and political thought. Arendt, Niebuhr, Lukacs, Lippmann, Ophuls--those who've lived and written about dark times. The American body politic is ill and needs serious and sustained attention. But first, we must know the disease and follow the lead of the those who have identified the symptoms and chronicled the outbreaks. 

In response to the Reply, I wrote the following: 

Despite the fact that I'm an older white male from small town Iowa, I have a hard time picturing myself the member of an oppressed minority. However, I do understand that much of middle America has been left behind for a variety of reasons, and that elites, Democrat & Republican, have been negligent in addressing these simmering problems. The Republicans, the worst offenders, but that's an apparent point. See, e.g., Kansas.  

Neither Krugman or I really care that whites (however defined) become a minority. Defining Americans by race or ethnicity is a habit, but not a good one. Nativism is an atavistic response by the ignorant (sorry, I can't sugar-coat this) to perceived loss of status. (Read Richard Hofstadter). It's true that too much immigration taxes the ability of society to incorporate new arrivals, and the U.S., is--perhaps more than any other nation--"a nation of immigrants". 

The tribalism that Trump plays upon is truncated, small-minded form of community. Christianity and Islam met their success--and for the Catholic Church, continues to have surprising success--because of their universality. The liberal tradition inherited and seeks to expand this outlook. The American experiment has extended the idea of universality with its "novus ordo seculorum", but it regresses at times. My only hope that the election of this demagogue, this man with all the markings of a would-be despot, doesn't ruin the noble experiment. 

And in response to another Reply that asked "Atavistic and ignorant are just insults. Please can you explain why nativism is bad?", I wrote: 

"Nativism is an atavistic response by the ignorant (sorry, I can't sugar-coat this) to perceived loss of status."  

No, these are not intended as insults, but as descriptions, although I realize that the connotation of each is negative. 
Nativism, in U.S. history & in U.S. political discourse is anti-immigrant sentiment. I suspect my Puritan ancestors may have opposed my Irish Catholic ancestors, but these tides come and go as assimilation occurs and economic circumstances vary. Nativism is not based on reasoned argument about the effects of immigration, but the perceived need for scapegoats based on social and religious prejudice. Immigrants are different, and different is hard for most folks to deal with. Nativism is atavistic because by definition atavism is appeal to a more primitive form of social allegiance, the tribe of native born Americans (excluding, of course, the first native born Americans (i.e., American Indians). While civil society is a must, tribalism is a regression on social and political organization and belief.  

Ignorant has a pejorative connotation, and I intended that, but the plain truth here (and I'm revealing my conservative bona fides here) is that most of the electorate is ignorant--lacks knowledge of and about--what goes on in the political economy. They feel those effects exquisitely, but they look for scapegoats rather than causes (of which there are many). Of course, this is true for all of us (I'm one who believes strongly in the reality of human finitude), but we are not all equally endowed to comprehend different aspects of the world. E.g., don't ask me to fix your car. Indeed, a pressing problem, one long known (centuries?) is that most of the voting public is abysmally ignorant about government and political affairs and are prone to believing the ridiculous. (Obama a Muslim or foreign-born, the most recent manifestations.) 

The U.S. has for for all of the 20th and 21st centuries placed limits on immigration, which have been difficult to enforce, mainly because the American southwest has always been marked by Hispanic culture and families. Culturally and ethnically, the Rio Grande has never been a real divider. The net flow of immigrants is in recent years turned back south, but it's a problem that the U.S. can (and has) lived with for decades. 

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