Though it is not a subject that I relish, I feel a certain obligation to say something about my personal perspectives on the US presidential election this past week. I actually started to write an essay on this last Thursday, but as if the week wasn’t going bad enough already I lost three pages worth of text on the matter when my computer crashed on me. (Jesus saves. Sometimes I forget to.) In any case maybe that is for the best; maybe another few of days’ worth of calm reflection on the matter has given me a clearer head. We’ll see here.
I don’t believe that I have anything to say which is more insightful or profound than the comments of those who actually get paid to prognosticate and pontificate about such matters, but because I have been fairly public about my perspectives on the matter I believe that I owe it to my friends and those who follow my texts to state for the record how I think and feel about the events of the past week.
To start with I really wish to thank all of my friends “on this side of the pond” who have been supportive in recognizing this event for what it is: a tragedy on par with 9/11, destined to have profound negative consequences all around the world. The primary differences are that this tragedy will take many months before people start dying because of it and it has happened because of millions of Americans chose for it to happen. Even so, my friends and colleagues here have, if anything, been in a deeper state of shock than I have, and thus they have been particularly sympathetic and supportive in this difficult time.
And in fair exchange for the moral support that they have been offering me, it is somewhat my duty to try to answer the question that keeps getting directed to me: “How the ______ did this happen?” The short answer is that the US education system is fundamentally broken, people there have not learned basic critical thinking skills, they are easily manipulated and taken advantage of, and Trump demonstrated a mastery at taking advantage of this situation. But obviously it’s more complicated than that, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. In light of a few days’ intense public consideration of the matter I think we can point out a few guilty parties in particular:
- Hillary’s enablers: After the 2008 Democratic primary, won by Obama, there seems to have been a major de facto deal between at least the Clintons and Obamas, and the other major players in the Democratic Party, saying that first it would be Barack’s turn to try to run the country; Bill and Hillary would help raise support for him and he would give Hillary responsibilities within his administration to help her look good. Then, when his turn was over, he and Michelle would do everything they could to help Hillary get the job. Along these lines there seems to have been a core group who were operating on the assumption that she was simply entitled to the position, grossly underestimating just how repulsive this idea was to millions of Americans. Nor is it fair to say that the repulsiveness of this idea was, for most of her opponents, based on her femininity, such as it is.
It may or may not have been part of that plan to enable Hillary for Bill to have reportedly spoken with Trump about his idea of seeking the Republican nomination weeks before Trump announced his candidacy, but it would have strategically made sense. Trump could be the loose cannon on the Republicans’ deck that could knock out their more capable candidates and eventually sink their ship. And if he actually got the nomination he could make such a monster of himself that any sane person (which obviously would not include the hard-core Republican base) would naturally vote for his old friend Hillary.
But somewhere along the line the Donald started thinking he could actually win and he was going to play this reality TV game using whatever brutal strategy he could find. Thus, as in all good horror stories, the monster escaped the control of his creators, eventually leading to their doom. But now this monster –– with no particular diplomatic skills, self-restraint or moral compass –– is going to be in charge of most of the world’s military equipment –– together with an economic system that, far more thoroughly than any other on earth, is based on mindless unsustainable consumption. Hillary is far from the only loser here, and those who assumed that she was entitled to be president must accept a significant amount of the blame for this situation.
- The GOP hate-mongering machine: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but sometime within my lifetime, before I was old enough to vote, Republican strategy shifted from working to maintain the privileges of “old order” industrialists to fueling resentment of those who “didn’t deserve” to have their basic human rights defended –– the sort of rights that Democrats were (again, in theory) championing. Suffice to say, a major part of Reagan’s appeal was in terms of “dog whistle” racism: sending messages at a frequency where only racists could hear them, telling people that government needed to be made smaller, because government programs were enabling “welfare queens” and “lazy bucks” to take unfair advantage of “honest, hard-working folk”, with certain unstated skin-color assumptions being inherent in each category. And if those forms of resentment against the “others” weren’t motivation enough, a new religiously oriented branch of the party, going by the name The Moral Majority back then, worked to stir people up to fear abortion-promoting feminists, “homosexual culture” and those were preventing prayer in schools.
Over the past three decades the strategy of fueling resentment for all of those things has remained a constant in Republican identity, but never has it been so explicit as with Donald Trump. Trump did not invent anything new in this regard. He merely approached the system like any strategic psychopath would approach a game he intended to win on reality TV. Trump realized early on that the active base of the GOP was old white guys who don’t like the way the world is changing, with more and more power going to women, “perverts” and various sorts of brown people. In order to win, Trump merely needed to embody their resentments and make them believe that he alone could put them back in charge of things. Alienating pretty much everyone else –– women, darker-skinned folks, those of other religions, those with minority identities in terms of their sexuality –– was an acceptable risk as part of his overall game strategy.
To get the end game to work he needed to stoke up the public hatred for his opponent with a creative combination of lies, rumors, innuendoes and exposure of embarrassing secrets (with a little bit of help from his friends in the FBI and the former KGB) so that a large enough minority would consider her to be a bigger danger to the country than him, and then broaden his appeal to those with religious justifications for their hatred through reaching out to the heirs of the Moral Majority system. It was a high risk strategic gamble, but in the end it worked for him.
Republicans are pretending to be happy with this situation because in theory he’s now their monster, but they pretty much know that they can’t control him and they’re actually not doing a very good job of pretending that they’re happy about things.
- And of course, the dysfunctional American education system: As I pointed out in my last blog entry here, Dilbert creator Scott Adams pointed out early on in the race that Trump’s “complete disregard for facts and reality” gave him a significant strategic advantage over those who, through their previous work as lawyers, were more restricted by these troublesome limitations. There is actually plenty of supporting evidence for Adams’ analysis, but it points in turn to one of two uncomfortable conclusions: either vast numbers of Trump supporters cannot tell the difference between reality and its opposite, or they don’t care about the whole idea of truth. Either way this indicates that the American system of public primary and secondary education has not been doing its job properly.
I’m not sure if I as to whether or not I would agree with the late George Carlin about this being part of a conspiracy to keep the workers/consumers under the control of those who own the system: “They want obedient workers […] people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs…” But it might be.
Is that why so many couldn’t tell that Trump’s campaign had nothing to do with facts and reality, or why they didn’t consider facts and reality to be particularly important things for a US president to have a clear grasp of? Whatever the case regarding factors of racism, sexism, hate-mongering and bigotry of all sorts that Trump used to appeal to the GOP base, to me the problem that the election of Trump as President most disturbingly demonstrates is that over the past 60 years there has not been an education system in place that would equip people to critically listen to truth-challenged people like politicians and salesmen, and determine whether or not their speech is constrained by “facts and reality”.
I find it mildly encouraging that the younger and more highly educated voters were, the less likely they were to vote for Trump this time around, but that doesn’t solve the basic problem that so many of all age groups still can’t draw these sorts of distinctions. But, I must admit, part of that is the school teacher in me talking.
It’s hard to say which of the above groups, if any, will learn anything from their mistakes in this process. This is where the steps of grieving need to come into play for all of them: All of them are in some level or another of denial still at this point, at least when it comes to their own culpability for what is about to happen. Anger is being thoroughly expressed by protesters who presumably voted for Democrats already; Republican anger at not being able to control their monster and watching him destroy their country will probably show up sometime next spring. Bargaining, the stage where they will begin to accept part of their culpability and start making promises to be better if the new reality is undone, will be seen in the mid-term elections at the latest. Depression, feeling as though there’s no point in even trying to fix things, won’t be far behind. Constructive acceptance of the mistakes collective mistakes which led to this tragedy, and the need to correct them and move beyond them, might come rather soon thereafter, or it might take many years for the US. That far ahead I don’t think anyone can see yet.
But are things really that bad? With all of the constitutional checks and balances and the bureaucratic momentum of Washington being harder to turn than the Titanic, how much damage can one reality TV character do as president? Obama wasn’t able to get very much of his agenda through. Why should we be afraid that Trump, a total political novice, will be able to make bad changes where Obama was not able to make good ones?
I respect the optimism of many of my friends who take such a position, and in many regards I share their hope for a less dismal future than how things now look. I also believe that, regardless of how this plays out, most of the world’s population, and most people in the United States for that matter, will survive and keep going with life as usual regardless. I also recognize that some sorts of damage that Trump will inevitably do will not be easily quantifiable for many years to come. So while his administration’s contribution to the increase of greenhouse gasses globally, for instance, may be the final straw in the death of the Great Barrier Reef, or the cause of storms that finally make Florida unlivable, directly proving the case against his administration will not be possible for the current generation of researchers; it will fall to his victims in generations to come. But while some things will be fine, and others will appear to be fine for quite a while, I believe that Trump’s presidency, even in the most optimistic scenario, will lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of unnecessary deaths around the world in the short term, together with an intensified denial of basic human rights for many of those whose lives are impacted by American military and economic power. Lest I be justly accused of melodramatic exaggeration (what Trump likes to call “hyperbole”), let me unpack the ways in which I see this happening.
- The end of the ACA: It is fairly self-evident that “Obamacare” will be repealed by a Republican president, senate and House of Representatives within hours of their coming together. If they don’t they will be political toast. It is equally obvious that replacing this program with some adequate means of ensuring that poor and even middle class people have regular access to health care, regardless of “pre-existing conditions” won’t be happening under any Republican administration. It is a fantasy at best; an outright intelligence-insulting piece of absurd propaganda at worst. Exactly how many lives the Affordable Care Act has been saving annually is uncertain, but it is clearly in the 5-digit range. Therefore it is somewhat inevitable that in cancelling this program a Trump presidency will cost hundreds of thousands of American lives in the area of healthcare alone.
- Escalating the War on Terror: Trump’s rhetorical tactic for addressing the challenges of dealing with ISIS, Libya, Al Qaeda and the like has basically been to get people excited about “bombing the shit out of them” and then torturing suspected militants and their family members. For those terrorist leaders trying to motivate young people to sacrifice their lives for the cause of fighting against “the great Satan” represented by the United States this is music to their ears! It reinforces everything they’ve been telling kids about the US being an inherently warlike people who are out to destroy Islam –– a threat worthy of sacrificing their lives to stop! In other words (David Bowie’s words, to be precise) intensified military attacks based on de-humanizing Muslims globally amount to “putting out the fire with gasoline.” If there was any way for Americans to help motivate Muslim young people to join radical extremist movements, it was electing Trump as president. If he actually starts following through on his anti-Muslim campaign promises it will throw still more gasoline on the flames.
In truth this is an area where Obama and Clinton don’t exactly have clean hands. During the time of the Obama presidency drone strikes have actually killed more people than died in the 9/11 attacks. The difference is that if Trump were then to stick with his campaign rhetoric by scaling these programs up, rather than scaling them down as the Democrats have been suggesting –– no longer being so “surgical” about it –– we might be talking about mere hundreds of extra deaths per year to start with. But once again the US would be (in the words of David Petraeus this time) “making new enemies faster than we can kill them off”. It wouldn’t take long for the death rates from this sort of conflict to snowball into the thousands, or higher. Nor will escalating the conflict bring down the number of people being continuously killed and displaced in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and the surrounding territory, if anyone is still under that sort of illusion.
- Freeing Putin (and other non-Muslim global aggressors) from fear of retaliation: It should no longer be a secret that Vladimir Putin would like to see himself as the restorer of Russian greatness to what it was during the peak of Soviet power during the Cold War era. The idea of being the new Stalin doesn’t seem to bother him one bit; in fact he seems to relish it. Nor does Donald Trump seem to be bothered by this prospect. In fact he seems rather eager to compare himself with Putin, whom he sees (or claims to see) as a better, stronger leader than Obama. And for Trump from there to call into question how far the US, under his leadership, would be ready to honor its obligations to NATO certainly didn’t help matters.
So how far will Putin be able to get in trying to rebuild the Soviet empire before NATO, with or without the United States, starts to react? Once he is done chewing what he’s already bitten off –– making sure that Russian influence is secure in Syria –– Ukraine and Georgia are likely to be the next items on Putin’s shopping list. For those of us farther north along the border this is good news: it is likely to take longer than four years before we have a serious risk of a shooting war with Russia around the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile it remains to be seen how many in former Soviet republics end up dying because of Putin’s emboldened aggression on account of having his would-be soul mate in the White House.
It also remains to be seen how many other right-wing nationalist strongman wannabes will start popping up around the world in this sort of atmosphere. If they are Muslims, if they have strategic assets that American businesses want, or if they smell too socialist for the American right then Trump might spontaneously decide send in the Marines a few times. But as long as they are lighter-skinned non-Muslims, saying that they just need to expand their “room to live” into neighboring countries (Hitler’s term, but with echoes in 19th century American history), perhaps killing off or pushing aside a local tribe or two which they consider to be in the way, the US will probably have little to say about it. Not that the US should always be the world’s self-declared global police force, but when it comes to working for peace in the world there’s a lot to be said for standing for principles and honoring treaties. Then again, Trump never promised to work for peace –– quite to the contrary in fact.
- Upending the global economic order: Besides the directly military industrial stuff Trump could try to escalate, his brash talk about re-negotiating trade deals in itself could get massive numbers of people killed. Unlike all of the private sector bankruptcies that he has been through, when you gamble with a nation’s financial management and lose it’s not just a matter of the bank coming and taking away some of your favorite gold-plated toys. He doesn’t seem to realize this.
The worst case scenario is that the smell of protectionism and Trump’s refusal to honor standing international agreements could lead to a breakdown in the way international trade is monetized. Uncertainty over if they will ever get paid for the stuff they are making for Americans could make our current trading partners simply stop making that stuff, and/or boycotting the US Dollar as the contract currency of international business. That could easily snowball into a full blown global recession, if not a catastrophic depression. If that happens it doesn’t take long before vulnerable people stop getting necessary food and medicine. Guess what starts happening from there. Massive numbers of people start dying, with no news cameras there to capture it.
Is Trump the new Hitler? In terms of the ultimate war and destruction that he is likely to cause, probably not. The historical situation is considerably different now, and as has been pointed out by some considerably more leftist than me, no one does Hitler like Hitler. But that being said, I believe the similarities between Trump’s campaign and the rise of the Nazis share enough similarities where any scholarly analysis of the dynamics of the latter will inevitably be quite applicable to the former; and no one who has been involved in the former has any grounds left morally critiquing those who were involved in the latter.
But as I was saying, even if Trump’s presidency does result in millions of unnecessary deaths around the world, most of us should be able to survive this troubling time in relatively good shape. I am hopeful that, all things being relative, the human cost of Americans’ disturbing choice will still be minimal. There is also a fairly strong hope that all of the policy ideas that he floated to get the support of the GOP base actually, like his boasts of having committed gross sexual harassment, have no truth value to them whatsoever. The KKK plans to do everything in their power to hold him to his campaign promises, but they are unlikely to succeed at it. Trump’s word of honor has never been particularly binding in any of his other ventures, so why should he suddenly start worrying about it now? Maybe he will turn his back on all his supporters, get some serious professional help, and try to actually govern sensibly. I’m not counting on it, but it is a possibility. And so long as that remains a possibility I’m not panicking.
What bothers me most is the number of white professing Evangelical Christians who ignored the warnings of leaders like Russell Moore and Albert Mohler and dived into supporting Trump’s hateful message anyway. This was especially disturbing when some who I really want to respect went as far as posting things that they knew were out and out falsehoods or blatant expressions of racism, but they posted them anyway out of blind enthusiastic support for “their team”. (The clipping that this link exposes in particular kept showing up on the home pages of acquaintances that I would have thought were more intelligent or would have more integrity than that.) While it has been pointed out that, besides being perhaps the biggest electoral upset of all time, this election will go down in history as the one time when the results of a US election were influenced through the combined efforts of the FBI, the (former) KGB, the KKK and the NRA. Yet the acronymed group which may have had the greatest influence in this matter, and the one most likely to go through a crisis of legitimacy if/when things start going south for the Trump presidency, is the NRB: America’s National Religious Broadcasters’ association. After this debacle it will be hard for them to claim that they stand for any other principles than staying as much in power as possible at any cost, finding “sinful” scapegoats as a simple approach to complex problems, and believing that Jesus can magically fix things for them when they mess them up.
Does that mean then that I consider all Trump voters to be “deplorable” people? No. I’m quite sure that my own mother, who I still love very dearly, voted for Trump this time around, and as grieved as that makes me, I certainly don’t deplore her for it. What I would say is that anyone who voted for Trump this time is necessarily suffering from some combination of hopelessness, willful ignorance, a lack of basic critical thinking skills, a lack of moral commitment to the concept of truth, a tendency towards naïve nostalgia, some form of old fashioned bigotry and/or a tendency towards scapegoating. How many of those they are suffering from, and to what degree with each of these disturbances is obviously an individual question. But whatever the individual case may be, I don’t believe that anyone could have voted for Trump without suffering from more than one of these disorders, and I consider all of them to be deeply problematic as matters of political judgement.
But rather than labeling them all as monsters the point is to consider how they got that way, how widespread these problems are in the rest of the world, and what can be done to fix them. Maybe they can’t be fixed, but those of us who still want to leave a better world for our children and grand-children, and other members of future generations that we care about, are duty bound to try at least.