(and why it will recover its soul)
by Tim Connor
Earlier this year a survey by the Pew Research Centers reaffirmed an unspoken boundary in American politics: being an atheist essentially disqualifies you from being elected President of the United States.
However unfair this is for atheists, the barrier rests upon a deep-seated expectation that those seeking the nation’s highest offices ought to embrace virtues deeper than a hunger for power. And to enjoy the benefit of the doubts, he or she must at least publicly identify with a church and a deity. To admit to being godless is tantamount to political suicide.
So how is it that the same nation that effectively disqualifies atheists for high positions of public trust just elected a habitual liar and provocateur? How is it that we’ll soon inaugurate an unapologetic racist who ranks and treats women as sex objects, mocks people with disabilities, refuses to apologize for anything, and spends an inordinate amount of energy excoriating and seeking revenge upon his critics? This is no mild case of cognitive dissonance. It’s a deeply disturbing reflection of our nation’s moral deflation.
Just hours after the election results became clear, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote:
“The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy.”
Two generations ago, thanks in part to CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, the nation repudiated Sen. Joe McCarthy, a dangerous demagogue and conspiracy-theorist. This time we put the dangerous demagogue and conspiracy-theorist in the White House, unless of course he chooses to work at home from Trump Tower.
In Dublin, a decade ago, I struggled to apologize to an Irish cab driver about George W. Bush, and he seemed embarrassed for me when I went on record as having voted for Al Gore. W. was tragically inept and had, by then, been outmaneuvered by his vice president, Dick Cheney, who’d taken the country to “the dark side”—to use Cheney’s immortal words. But at least W., on the way in, was preaching “compassionate conservatism” and not openly fomenting racism and misogyny. Trump is an altogether different character, a deeply offensive human cluster bomb who unabashedly traffics in lies and divisiveness.
I don’t know what I would say to the cab driver in Dublin today. I think I’d just silently shake my head in shame. If I had something to offer it would be that my country has lost its mind.
Abe was putting his socks on when I strolled into the locker room on the Thursday afternoon after the Tuesday election. He asked how things were going and I made the mistake of assuming he was as shaken at Trump’s election as I was. Without raising his voice, he abruptly corrected me; told me he was actually feeling very pleased. He’d voted for Trump.
I understand some of it. I understand why David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan celebrated Trump’s election. Then there was this exultation from neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin: “Our Glorious Leader has ascended to God Emperor. Make no mistake about it: we did this.”
I also understand the as-yet unidentified vandal who, a few days later, spray painted the word “nigger” on the siding at Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center. There are hateful, angry people at loose in our country, and Trump welcomes them into his movement.
During the colder months I swim indoors. One of the people I’ve gotten to know in the locker room at the pool is an unfailingly gentle, funny, and thoughtful guy. Let’s call him “Abe.”
A couple winters ago I was wading through a difficult personal struggle. If I sometimes looked like I was on the verge of tears, it was because I was on the verge of tears. Abe noticed. He approached me one day and, in a whispered voice, asked if I was okay. I conceded I was having a rough time, thanked him for his concern, and we’ve kept up a pleasant, chatty acquaintance ever since. It turns out he’s a retired mental health counselor.
Abe was putting his socks on when I strolled into the locker room on the Thursday afternoon after the Tuesday election. He asked how things were going and I made the mistake of assuming he was as shaken at Trump’s election as I was feeling. Without raising his voice, he abruptly corrected me; told me he was actually feeling very pleased. He’d voted for Trump.
It took a few seconds for that to sink in, and then I asked him why. What was the difference? He told me he voted for Trump because he found Hillary Clinton “inauthentic.”
To be sure, there’s a long, credible list of reasons not to be enthused about either of the Clintons, and Hillary’s painfully hollow efforts to sound like a populist is one of them. But how do you put the sin of being “inauthentic” on the same scale as blatant race-baiting and the like?
I remembered Abe was a professional healer, so I asked him about torture, about Trump’s vow to reinstitute waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.”
“Are you saying you support that?” I asked.
“Well, no,” he replied. “Trump said a lot of things that shouldn’t be taken literally,” he explained, and the torture statements were in that category.
Well, this is interesting. Hillary is “inauthentic.” But we’re not supposed to take Trump seriously when he says he’ll bring back barbaric practices that violate international law.
There was another dizzying element to this exchange. I chose journalism as a profession because I believe it to be an important public service. I have faith (albeit a tenuous faith, now) that if the media delivers solid, factual reporting people will be empowered to play their part in our democracy. Abe is not a low information voter. He was aware that Trump advocated torture. He just didn’t care.
It was at that point that a young man wearing a bright red Trump t-shirt came around the corner. He’d obviously been listening in. He simply grinned, reached down to grab the bottom corners of the Trump shirt, so as to straighten the message. He didn’t feel the need to say anything. And it was funny; funny in a locker room sort of way. Trump had won the election. There was no need to apologize or explain. You either get it, or you don’t get it.
I get that there is a deep-seated anger that wealthy elites in both parties seemed deaf to the frustrations of middle Americans.
I get that Trump (who just paid out $25 million to settle a fraud suit against his fictitious “Trump University”) was able to persuade enough of these folks that he was speaking for them, that he was channeling their rage.
What I don’t have much patience for is the whisker-stroking political analysis that attributes Trump’s victory to Hillary’s private email server or how out of touch she and the Democratic National Committee were with white, working class voters. I accept that they were out of touch, just as I accept that it was as wrong for Clinton not to disclose her speeches to Wall Street bankers. But these failings are so out of proportion to the base depravity of Trump’s campaign that it’s akin to debating the merits of herbal cold remedies during an Ebola outbreak.
Trump’s blaring entry into Republican politics was his calculated, dishonest “birther” campaign to challenge Barack Obama’s legitimacy. His ignoble successes, such as they are, involve not paying his debts or his bills, using his celebrity and power for unseemly sexual intrusions, (to say the least) and spinning the argument that since he is so experienced in buying political protection and favors, he’ll be superior at fighting government corruption.
We should all be so gifted at marketing our vices.
It’s hard to understate how deeply affected people in my circles are by Trump’s rise to power. The gut punch reaction came with a pronounced element of revulsion because of the way Trump offered cover for people to act with animus toward blacks, Muslims, Latinos, Jews, and women. I don’t know the immigrant woman who called into Tom Ashbrook’s radio program a week after the election, her voice trembling with fear. But I’m among those who won’t forget, nor forgive, the way candidate Trump routinely made scapegoats of non-white immigrants and made them targets for angry, mean spirited whites.
A young man wearing a bright red Trump t-shirt came around the corner. He’d obviously been listening in. He simply grinned, reached down to grab the bottom corners of the Trump shirt, so as to straighten the message. He didn’t feel the need to say anything.
The Washington Post’s Robert Costa marveled during a recent television appearance that, in his march to the Presidency, Trump “shattered” every political norm by repeatedly doing and saying things that, in earlier years, would have disqualified him from being taken seriously as a candidate for public office. Yet, as David Remnick predicted on election night, the media culture and practices that enabled Trump’s rise would now work to “normalize” his behavior, not because the behavior itself is any less egregious, but because it has seemingly been validated by the “innate wisdom” and “essential decency” of the electorate.
This sense of disbelief and betrayal best explains the deep pain, and tears, among my friends and peers in the days following the election. What the long election day clarified, perhaps for good, is there really is no safety net of decency or innate wisdom in the American electorate.
More so than the disgust with Trump there is the crushing sense that we lost the benevolence of our neighbors to the siren songs of a demagogue. It really wasn’t that America lost its mind, so much as it lost its soul.
The stakes for our future are nearly overwhelming.
Among many other things, those of us who accept science will have to confront Trump’s laughable dismissal of climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. If we can’t, it will likely end any international cooperation to deal with an already unfolding global environmental catastrophe.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the question of whether we can respond to an existential environmental crisis will be answered as part of a much broader conflict over values. The crossroad is clearly marked. We will either follow Trump to become a more fearful, dystopian and authoritarian society, or we will rise to reject hate and ignorance, and recommit to the virtues of human rights, tolerance, equality and diversity.
I’ll admit to what I don’t yet understand about why so many Americans legitimized Trump with their votes. Perhaps I never will.
But what I don’t think Trump and his supporters understand about us is they’ve only just awakened the giant that actually does make America great. The pain and tears on election night were a broad reflection of the depth and quality of our collective conscience. In young and old alike it is an awesome force that will, in time, rebuild and redefine our nation.