Our national disease is not healing itself

There are two pieces in the Times worth reading in tandem today: Michiko Kakutani’s look at the reinvigoration of the “indigenous American berserk” in the age of Donald Trump and social media, and Astead Herndon’s dispatch from Trumpstock, a gathering of various far-right extremists and criminals who are motivated and enabled by the president’s bigotry and conspiratorial mindset.

The characters in Herndon’s story are a motley bunch, easy to write off as fringe crazies. And yet they are increasingly influential in Republican politics. It is, Herndon writes, a “blend of insider and outsider, of mainstream and conspiracy.” It is “how Mr. Trump has reshaped the Republican Party in his image, and the core of his presidential origin story.” Some members of this core group claim to be stockpiling arms, in case Trump loses the 2020 election.

I’m reading these articles and writing this from my childhood home in Washington State, where GOP legislator Matt Shea recently made national news when his ties to far-right Christian dominionist groups came to view. He distributed a document delineating the “Biblical Basis for War,” which states that there is one solution to those who support abortion, same-sex marriage, idolatry and communism: “If they do not yield — kill all males.”

Shea is a particularly prominent example of how views we write off as “fringe” are not quite so on the right. There’s a knee-jerk media tendency to “both sides” this issue, pointing out that there are leftist extremists, too. But the difference is that no extremist on the left sits in elected office — the most “extreme” people we have are a handful of mostly-young and mostly-female politicians who want the American healthcare system to look a little more like Denmark. Even the lefties on the pages of magazines like Jacobin who swear their allegiance to Bernie Sanders pretty much just want to tax billionaires into millionaire status, not fling the nation into armed militia warfare (and any who do certainly don’t have the ear of the Democratic Party).

We only get here, to this point where a solid third of the American public can look at Donald Trump and conclude that guy should be in charge, when something more fundamental is broken. The problems pre-date Trump; the stage was set by a GOP that has always been willing to cater to the anxieties of aging white men enraged over any perceived loss of status. The Republican Party knows that these cultural battles are particularly salient to their base, that if they can froth up white rage at perceived enemies — black people, Muslims, feminists, socialists — they can sustain their political power and fleece the public in favor of the already-wealthiest. Without decades stirring the waters of resentment, there could be no Donald Trump.

But still, Trump was a tsunami, and as Trumpism has washed over the country, it seems clear that the devastation will be lasting. We can rebuild, but some of what has been broken will never be fixed. We can rebuild, but where do you start when so many of your countrymen look around at our gutted nation and say, “what’s the problem?”

What Trump has done in office, Kakutani writes, is “familiar behavior among authoritarians and would-be dictators, who resent constitutional checks and balances, and who want to make themselves the sole arbiters of truth and reality.” Trump has been “nihilistically trying to undermine public faith in the efficacy, the professionalism, even the mission of the institutions that are crucial for guarding our national security, negotiating with foreign governments and ensuring the safety of our environment and workplaces.” How can a government function when the people don’t trust the government — when one party has systematically eroded that trust, and when the Fox News propaganda apparatus has designated itself the single arbiter of truth (no matter what your lying eyes tell you)?

What worries me nearly as much as Trumpism and its wholesale consumption of the Republican Party is seeing the left, perhaps unwittingly, adopt some of the premise. Populism has never been a solely right-wing endeavor, and on today’s left, there is a growing backlash against the same things Trump’s base also hates: Internationalism, professionalism, expertise, worldliness, intellectualism. Some seem to have accepted the premise that intellectuals, the “professional managerial class,” the cosmopolitan city-dwellers, the egg-headed atheists, the “global citizens,” the so-called experts who have spent decades studying and learning, are the collective enemy of real, authentic American people.

This is dangerous.

Trumpism demands isolationism — not just from the imagined outsiders who would do us harm, but from intellectual rigor, from expertise, from the very idea that maybe your experience is not universal and you don’t know everything and your way of living is not the one and only true and good way. If we are going to counter Trumpism — and on my darkest days I wonder if this is even possible or if we are too far gone, but what option do we have but to give it our best shot? — we can’t begin from the same starting point. We can’t concede what should be basic liberal values: That education is good. That expertise matters. That a good and happy life is one rich in experience and knowledge. That making connections across culture, borders, religion, race and place is powerful and necessary for our shared humanity. That openness is what makes us great, and freedom means not cowering in fear. That all Americans are Real Americans — even if we live in big cities.

We are at a precipice, and perhaps we have already tipped over; perhaps we are too deep into the berserk conspiracy theories, the unreality, the worship of a strongman, the cult of guns and America First to pull ourselves out. But if we are going to get out, the only way is by owning our values, not apologizing for them or shunting them aside ostensibly for a progressive future. Trumpism demands we stay small and hateful, ignorant and resentful, angry and afraid. We only defeat it by choosing to be expansive and welcoming, inquisitive and humble, determined and confident. We act with kindness — and know that kindness requires much more of us than niceness. We strive for compassion — and know that compassion means drawing to mind those who are the least powerful, the easiest to forget, the people who aren’t in the room or at the decision-making table. We choose to be brave.

xx Jill