It’s taken approximately this long for my thoughts to coalesce to the point where I feel comfortable calling them a semi-ordered mess. I’ve jotted down notes in notebooks, textbook margins, napkins, post-its, and old bank statements – half finished pieces litter both physical and virtual desktops. I’ve written scattered thoughts on Trump’s Cabinet appointments, the future of science under the Trump administration, and how best to find common ground in a world filled to the brim with polemic, among many other things. But I never felt like I had the perspective I needed, at the time, to write something honest or true, and I balk at the idea of adding another voice to a frothing sea of confused and angry noise. I want to respond, not simply react.
Today, 19 December 2016, the Electoral College will cast its votes to affirm the decision of the National Election – I have little doubt of this. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we must each consider how to respond individually and also we need to consider, very carefully, how others will react.
Calls for electors to “Dump Trump” are, I feel, misguided and extremely dangerous. I’m genuinely fearful of a violent response should the Electoral College fail to affirm the election results. The discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college aside, Trump won fairly – insofar as procedure is concerned – and to challenge that at this point would do irreparable harm. We must find the wisdom to know when to leverage mechanisms afforded by our Constitution and when to accept a reasonable loss. Should the results of the election be overturned, the Democratic Party would lose generations of voters who, already easily convinced of the corruptness of establishment politics, would see it as proof positive of a vast Neo-Liberal conspiracy that requires a more unpredictable response. It comes down to ballots or bullets, as it so often does.
Objective reality, in this case, is irrelevant – appeals on both sides are emotional, opinions are informed by mood and disposition, not facts. This is what we must realize if reason is to ultimately prevail. Russian hacking, which Trump seems wildly unconcerned about, troubles me for a wide variety of reasons, but what the leak ultimately revealed about the DNC troubles me substantially more. Hillary lost the election for such a wide variety of reasons that to point to the Russians as the singular cause is not only wrong to do, but extremely foolish. If an earnest assessment of election strategy isn’t considered and the left in America continues to stubbornly refuse to accept reality, America can expect more of the same.
The real tragedy in all of this is how the least fortunate Americans were fooled into thinking Trump had any of their best interests at heart. As his cabinet fills with his millionaire and billionaire donors, I try to stress – as I so often do – that the common man has nothing in common with these elite other than perhaps a biological need for food, oxygen, and water. Trump’s stated aim of “draining the swamp” has already turned out to be an effort to replace one mire with another and we can expect to see his campaign promises fall through one by one, starting with the wall. Or fence.
But this won’t matter in the near term. Trump’s word, to his most ardent supporters, is more than enough. We’ll hear how his own inaction and back-peddling isn’t his fault, but instead – somehow – the liberal media’s fault instead. Even with Congress stacked in his favor, Trump won’t be held accountable for his failures and his words will continue to have a messianic effect. What’s perplexing, it seems, to quite a few on the left is how anyone could believe any of this, and while the answer isn’t simple, it is clear. What’s more, this genuine confusion is indicative of a larger problem with some unique roots in the digital age.
When the American election is viewed within the scope of Western populist movements, xenophobia readily surfaces as a commonality. In the US, Mexcians and Syrians (or Muslims, even more broadly) are the primary source of worry. In its own way, this is the same as it’s always been; wild fears, hysteria, and discrimination has always surrounded different minority groups in the US at different times, including notably Mexicans, Africans, Chinese, the Irish, et al. In many ways these fears self-assemble and are more than the sum of their parts. Politicians, most notably on the American right, have used these fears for political gain even when they knew they were unfounded.
A few notable twentieth-century instances of the political leveraging of xenophobia and fear are especially telling in this regard. John Ehrlichman, a former Nixon advisor, spoke candidly to journalist Dan Daum about the war on drugs:
I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Similarly, the Southern Strategy of the Republican party, leveraged the racism of Southern voting blocs, but using language that was murky enough to ensure the GOP wouldn’t paint itself with the wrong brush. Lee Atwater, a campaign strategist, explains in an interview:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The American left, I think, isn’t immune from this type of political strategy, but strangely I do think it may be more diffuse, organic, and possibly unintentional. The left’s xenophobia is not directed outward but rather inward toward American conservatives. It’s with a rabid, intellectual scorn that the American left shouts down opinions that smack of anything that doesn’t fit in precisely with any specific progressive agenda. The “establishment” right, has for quite a long time been complacent in thar respect:
For years the conservative movement has tried to appeal to its media talking partners by smoothing the movement’s rough edges. It has tried to find common purpose with the liberal establishment by avoiding any appearance of extremism. Its affluent spokesmen have separated themselves from those who seem more “conservative” in their principles than the goal of bridge-building might render acceptable. Mainstream conservatives, especially those identified with foundations, have pursued this course not only to reassure liberal media colleagues but increasingly in recent decades to improve their place in the Republican Party. Since the 1980s, the conservative movement’s association with the Republican Party has grown so tight that it is hard to imagine the movement surviving in the Washington Beltway without it.
Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, Paul Edward Gottfried (pg x)
To many on the left, conservative voters are hillbillies, flyover state rednecks, racists, homophobic, backward and deplorable. Very little consideration is given to issues specific to those voters – on either side of the divide – and like it or not, there is truth to be found, if it is only subjective. Like it or not, there are reasons why Trump was elected and they need to be examined, even if they are uncomfortable. One of these reasons, and I think this is likely the one liberals have the most control over, is that of facilitating reasonable and rational discussions about issues involving race, wealth, and gender, and to not halt these discussions at the point of discomfort or because someone might become offended. A fact that will be important to embrace in the future is that “offense” is not a reasonable metric for ethical considerations, nor is it a necessary indicator of objective truth.
In a recent podcast during a discussion with Brookings Institute fellow Shadi Hamid, Sam Harris pointed out that if reasonable, objective discussions about difficult issues are entirely unavailable or effectively inaccessible because of omnipresent taboos, people will naturally tend rightward – often to extremes – to feel secure. It is time to have some very difficult and uncomfortable discussions about a wide range of topics (race, income disparity, Islam, immigration) or else we risk losing more good people to the mania of extremism.
A perfect example of this is yet another resurgence of Scientific Racism, fueled by speculative works by Nicholas Wade (MY REVIEW FORTHCOMING) and the “human biodiversity” movement whose major players include Steve Sailer and Razib Khan. The human biodiversity movement examines, and often concludes, that micro-evolution has created separate human races with differing abilities influenced by their environments, which in turn can influence and impact civilization, science, learning, and social progress. The movement makes a strong pivot away from the idea of race as a “social construct” – which is the widely accepted theory in most academic circles. This is a prime example of the necessity to have open discussions about race and science. If you hypothetically accept that there are different “races” of humans on the earth with differing abilities, this can lead to some uncomfortable conclusions. But, is it better to have this discussion now and determine how to ensure equal treatment for all humans under a hypothetical scenario, or will our collective silence and tut-tut-ing of fringe opinion continue until it becomes a commonly accepted idea? For reference, in the past Scientific Racism was highly influential for decades, often centuries, in strengthening the rationale for imperialism, eugenics, state-sponsored oppression, and genocide.
The major difficulty we all face is an overwhelming, never ending torrent of information from sources the world over. Our brains, as humans, simply have not evolved to process this amount of information effectively. The result: human fallacies and inferential errors are magnified and exacerbated. A negative interaction on social media with a person holding opposing views leads to a hasty generalization about “the others”. Humans are still very tribalistic in that way; xenophobia and quick judgments were an effective survival strategy in the past, but are difficult to reconcile with circles of social interaction that are orders of magnitude larger than they’ve been at any other point in history. What’s more, with everyone able to speak their mind so readily and with perspectives so varied, it’s no wonder that category mistakes abound.
I will say again, that we ignore all of this at our peril. American Democracy is hardly as robust as it seems. People seem to have quite a lot of faith in the strength of our institutions, but to suggest that political upheaval couldn’t happen here is absurd. Unfortunately, this is a common attitude. On 10 November 2016, a Muslim Trump supporter wrote:
Days before the election, a journalist from India emailed me, asking: What are your thoughts being a Muslim in “Trump’s America”?
I wrote that as a child of India, arriving in the United States at the age of 4 in the summer of 1969, I have absolutely no fears about being a Muslim in a “Trump America.” The checks and balances in America and our rich history of social justice and civil rights will never allow the fear-mongering that has been attached to candidate Trump’s rhetoric to come to fruition. [my emphasis added]
It’s this type of deluded complacency we should all be acutely aware of and adamantly argue against. Fascism has sprung up elsewhere in “stable” regions. Our country is not perfect, nor is it immune from a grand and terrible fall. In some ways, this type of attitude will never go away; generational memory only lasts for so long. Ancestors removed from struggle will never fully understand. To some extent, we all take our freedom for granted. Understanding our history is the only key here, and history clearly indicates Democracy may be in danger.
So how should we begin to branch the divide? I, for one, believe that liberals have a firm responsibility to become more pragmatic and less rabid in the defense of a progressive agenda. We’ve got to be willing to have discussions about difficult topics without immediately decrying opposing viewpoints as bigoted – because they aren’t necessarily so. By all means stand up for yourself, but pick your battles and call out hypersensitivity when you see it, again, because this is not a valid contribution to an argument about the way things should be. Finally, find other ways to get what you want or find a better way to agree. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote an absolutely fantastic piece on global warming that sets aside climate change and instead makes an appeal to health, economics, and common sense.
That might be the best thing about Trump as a president: he’s a businessman. For him, the bottom line is what matters, meaning that this can be leveraged. For instance, Trump made some surprising remarks regarding transgender bathrooms:
Asked if the Trump organization employs any transgender people, Mr. Trump said he truly did not know, but added, “I probably do.” And in response to a follow-up question, he said that if Caitlyn Jenner were to walk into Trump Tower and want to use a bathroom, he would be comfortable with her choosing any bathroom she wanted. “That is correct,” Mr. Trump said.
“There’s a big move to create new bathrooms” for transgender people alone, Mr. Trump said. “First of all, I think that would be discriminatory in a certain way. It would be unbelievably expensive for businesses and for the country. Leave it the way it is.”
In addition, Trump will have trouble ignoring the falling costs of alternative clean energies and the drastic uptick in alternative energy investors. The question then becomes not “how do we leverage the bottom line” but rather “how do we leverage the bottom line before it’s too late”?