Echoes of Narcissus

In a modern take on Ovid’s tale, America has begun to craft a myth of its own.

The American left has become isolated from the political realities of the rest of the country.  Social media has become a convincing echo chamber for any number of artificial realities of our own creation.  We habitually expose ourselves only to a small circle of like-minded individuals and manage to fool ourselves into believing that our anecdotal experience is indicative of a larger trend, or even a consensus.  We “de-friend” those with different opinions not because we find them off-putting or even repugnant, but because we receive fevered congratulations from an  agreeable hive-mind when we announce that we’ve done so.  If instead we decide to keep detractors within our social circle, it’s only for cheap political argument fodder.  This is misguided pride and smug self-superiority at its worst.  Of course this behavior isn’t limited to either side of the divide, and we’ve all managed to intellectually distance ourselves from an empathetic understanding of other American lives.  Whether or not you find another citizen’s viewpoints untenable is irrelevant.  This is a Democracy, and their vote counts just as much as yours.

What so many have feared has already begun – reports of hate speech and attacks on citizens are flooding in.  Trump’s behavior has encouraged and emboldened the far-right racists in this country, but it’s very important to remember that not all Trump supporters are racist, sexist, homophobic, or misogynistic.  You may argue that simply voting for Trump makes them all of those things at once, but the issue is decidedly more complex because they don’t see themselves that way.

In any case, it’s becoming clear that many Trump supporters are angry and feel disenfranchised by establishment politicians.  As always, this is a class battle at its core.  Can we really expect a rural voter without much exposure to a minority population and their issues to be concerned with race relations instead of jobs?  Can we expect them to be concerned that their president is a racist or a misogynist when they’re struggling to find work or feed their families?  Can we expect them to care at all about a minority population if they feel equally let down by the government?  What motivation would most Americans have to vote for a radical change in leaders if they were content?  Whatever objective moral judgement you may feel the need to levy on Trump’s supporters, it’s important to remember that this will not change the political reality we’re facing; we need to bring more into the fold.  These are precisely the types of people that the left are supposed to care about.  To be clear, I do think even reasonable Trump supporters are lacking a substantial amount of empathy and awareness as well – they must come to understand the outrage that comes with being gay, a minority, an immigrant, a Muslim,  a woman, or some combination thereof – and seeing a man who has openly said or done awful things to those groups – propelled into the highest office in the land.

And again the mistakes in Hillary’s campaign – from its inception – pushed people into the waiting arms of Trump and Johnson.  Her comment about “deplorables” was gleefully celebrated at the time, but is now another regrettable moment on par with her lack of visits to key states.  You may argue that Trump said much worse – and he did – but this isn’t a contest anymore.

I haven’t yet decided on how dangerous Trump himself will be as a president in terms on what he’s actually able or willing to do.  I know that the current of hate he rode in on is incredibly volatile and will affect our country for many years.  We are bound to see increases in violence, hate speech, and vile anachronistic politics on every level.  Part of me, not a small part, thinks that Trump wanted to use his presidential candidacy as as credibility for his new network and never actually expected to win.  Unquestionably, Trump is an outstanding political talent and exceedingly perceptive in terms of reading both a crowd and a constituency, but it’s fairly clear that he doesn’t have a plan.  Many of the more frightening initiatives and timelines he’s suggested – like mass deportations – are mathematically impossible, but the mere mention of the idea smacks of internment or  much worse.  We all have an obligation to challenge these types of initiatives simply because we are in very real danger of repeating some decidedly dark history.  Garrison Keillor writes with a disgust that I understand and an apathy borne of a weariness we all know, but Trump must not go unchallenged.  We cannot afford the alternative.

What’s most disturbing is that the parallels between modern America and Weimar Germany are becoming undeniable.  In 2010, Noam Chomsky commented on the perilous state of America with eerily prescient accuracy:

“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen,” Chomsky went on. “Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.”

The American left itself is fractured, confused and muddled and the ultra-right has capitalized on a system chock-full of disenfranchised and disillusioned constituents.  As in Weimar Germany, if the left fails to unify, we all stand to lose, some worse than others.

Chomsky has advocated for a LEV – lesser evil voting strategy, and being in a safe state (DC) I strongly considered an abstention or a write-in.  But what’s the grander strategy for the future?  There’s quite a lot of blame going around for voting against the party line, or voting for a third party, or for the forty percent of eligible voters who didn’t bother to go to the polls – but this view is limited.  There is much more to consider when all of these things are happening concurrently and when our popular vote choices amount to casting our ballot “against” someone and not necessarily “for” someone else.  This election did not occur in a vacuum and outrage will not win hearts and minds.  We need to start considering ways to get the electorate involved and interested, we need to consider a more diverse range of common interests, and we need to have the foresight to make a strong pivot away from a binary system, or we risk everything.  I believe that Americans still have much more in common than they think they do.


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