Monday, October 24, 2016

Talking About a Revolution?

There have been both contentious and contentious elections before.  U.S. history is full of very nasty campaigns.  During the campaign of 1870, a prominent supporter of the incumbent, John Adams, said that if Thomas Jefferson were to be elected, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution,” and a newspaper in Connecticut opined that the country, under a Jefferson presidency, would be one in which, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”  Adams was described as both a “repulsive pedant” and a “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”  Somehow, compared to that, “nasty woman” seems sort of quaint.

And one need only say the words “hanging chad” to conjure up memories of the 2000 election.  The results in Florida (which would determine the overall outcome) were so close, that counting and recounting continued throughout the month of November, with legal battles mounted be both sides as to which ballots to count.   A month and a day after the votes were originally cast, the Florida Supreme Court mandated a statewide recount of the ballots, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the call for a recount.  (It was a paper thin 5-4 vote.)

Quarrelsome campaigns, with questionable results, are not something new.

Yet Donald Trump has been saying is new.  He’s been saying that the process itself is “rigged,” and that the system is inherently untrustworthy.  (Unless he wins, of course.  And then he will “totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election.”)  We have seen throughout this campaign that there is a swath of not only discontent with, but disbelief in, the systems and structures of society.  If Donald Trump loses the election, it is clear that no amount of "reassurance" that the process was, in fact, "free and fair" will convince this portion of the electorate.  The only thing that will convince this portion of our society that there was no foul play is for them to win.  Any other outcome will be further proof of the corruption that is one of their complaints.

Michelle Cottle wrote an article in The Atlantic, “Trump’s Fans Have More to Lose Than Trump Himself," in which she argues that, "if the Republican nominee loses, the millions of Americans supporting him will feel more isolated and disillusioned than ever before."  

I’m thinking of the sad state in which Trump will leave his followers. Because, make no mistake, no matter how badly he behaves, Trump will end this race with his world more or less intact. Sure, he may lose some money and some friends and some invitations to Upper East Side dinner parties. But he will remain rich and privileged and more famous than ever, and, as a result, he will be largely insulated from the fallout of his latest exercise in self-promotion.

The same cannot be said for the millions of Americans who have looked to Trump to save them. These folks, at least the ones frequently reported on—the angry, , blue-collar workers who are outraged or terrified that America has become some topsy-turvy multi-cultural nightmare where a hard-working man cannot make a decent living anymore—will emerge from this circus worse off than before.

They will likely be angrier -- and more certain -- that they are being dismissed, if not outright screwed, by a self-serving establishment.

Cottle's essay elicited a level of empathy I had not felt previously for "Trump supporters," who no longer seemed such a monolithic group.  Like so many liberals, I had allowed myself to focus on the misogyny, the racism, the wanton ignorance, the anger that characterized those who were allying themselves with Trump's campaign.  I'd lost sight of the humanity, and the very real losses and pain, that had nothing to do with any of those easily dismissable dimensions -- the "basket of deplorables."

My sense of understanding and empathy deepened as I read David Wong's colorfully titled piece, “How Half OfAmerica Lost Its F**king Mind,”  which he wrote for the website, Cracked.

As someone who grew up in "Trump country" he understands this group from the inside, noting, "I was born and raised in Trump country. My family are Trump people. If I hadn't moved away and gotten this ridiculous job, I'd be voting for him. I know I would."

Yet Wong not only helped me to better understand the issues at stake for folks in "Trump country," he also opened my eyes to the extent of it.  He wrote:

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:

The country is lava.

Holy cockslaps, that makes it look like Obama's blue party is some kind of fringe political faction that struggles to get 20 percent of the vote. The blue parts, however, are more densely populated -- they're the cities. In the upper left, you see the blue Seattle/Tacoma area, lower down is San Francisco and then L.A. The blue around the dick-shaped Lake Michigan is made of cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. In the northeast is, of course, New York and Boston, leading down into Philadelphia, which leads into a blue band which connects a bunch of southern cities like Charlotte and Atlanta.

Blue islands in an ocean of red. The cities are less than 4 percent of the land mass, but 62 percent of the population and easily 99 percent of the popular culture. Our movies, shows, songs, and news all radiate out from those blue islands.

He also notes what I'll call an irony -- those movies, shows, and song he mentions often have as a dynamic that battle of the hard-working heartland against the evil and corrupt elite.  He writes:

There's this universal shorthand that epic adventure movies use to tell the good guys from the bad. The good guys are simple folk from the countryside ... while the bad guys are decadent assholes who live in the city and wear stupid clothes.

 In Star Wars, Luke is a farm boy ... while the bad guys live in a shiny space station.

In Braveheart, the main character (Dennis Braveheart) is a simple farmer ... and the dastardly Prince Shithead lives in a luxurious castle and wears fancy, foppish clothes. 

 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. That tense divide between the two doesn't exist because of these movies, obviously. These movies used it as shorthand because the divide already existed.

He also references The Hunger Games, where life in the Capital was as different as another universe would be from that in the Districts.  And in all of these movies -- and we could think of countless other examples -- the people in the heartland who feel oppressed, looked down on, dehumanized, and, often, defeated, rise up against that "other world."

On Saturday, October 22nd, NPR's Michelle Martin interviewed Thomas Schwartz, Presidential historian at Vanderbilt University.  He noted that there have been, as I wrote earlier, bitterly contested elections, but (and I'm paraphrasing here) the only time the legitimacy of the outcome was ever really denied was the election of 1860, in which Southern states maintained that Abraham Lincoln's election was not a true reflection of the will of the people.  He said:

[T]he other candidate, particularly John Breckinridge from the Southern secessionists, saw in Lincoln's election an illegitimate seizure of power. And they refused to accept it .... And they proceeded to secede even before Lincoln was inaugurated as president.

I find that I am becoming increasingly worried about what will happen if Donald Trump loses the election.  In fact, I think I am becoming more concerned about that than if he were to win.  Don't get me wrong.  I believe that if he wins he will not only do perhaps irreparable harm to our society as a whole (and cause real suffering to the groups he has demonized in the campaign).   I also believe that a Trump Presidency is potentially dangerous for our world.  Yet I also truly believe that he would be at least seriously hampered by the various checks and balances built into the system.

But if he doesn't win ...  If he doesn't win I wonder, I worry, about the response of those people who have found in him a voice for their dissatisfaction with the way things are and their dismay at what appears to be a fact that no one really cares about their concerns and that their losses are not only permanent but mounting.  I find myself worrying about a new secessionist movement, the advent of a new civil war.

I don't know what form it would take.  I feel confident that Donald Trump would not be its leader.  In fact, he might quickly become a prime target once it becomes clear that he is not the savior he'd positioned himself as (and never really was).  But if the Black Lives Matter movement, and the so-called Arab Spring, not to mention the fictional examples of Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and William Wallace teach us anything it's that there need not be leader (in the traditional sense) to ignite a movement.

I call this blog “A Minister’s Musings” for a reason.  I am not making a pronouncement here; I don’t claim to have any answers.  But I am wondering …

Pax tecum,


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ben said...
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ben said...

I always enjoy your blog. (But let a Canadian be the first to politely mumble that your fingers may have meant 1800 (not 1870).