Reflections after the ElectionPrint
Counting the worry beads
By Phillip Lopate
November 18, 2016
A week has passed since the most disastrous United States election in memory. My first response was to feel sick—literally, I wanted to throw up. The repudiation of all one’s most cherished humanistic, social-justice, and planet-protecting values in one fell swoop cannot help but be taken personally. At least I took it personally. But I am starting to feel calmer. In that beneficent calm—may it continue a bit longer—I have been reflecting on certain errors or distortions in my thinking.
The first error had to do with relying overmuch on the damage ostensibly done by Donald Trump’s racist, sexist, xenophobic, lying, or simply ignorant statements and actions. I would recite to myself his denigration of climate change, his dissing of John McCain or the Khan family, his slandering of Mexicans as rapists and the Hispanic-heritage judge presiding over the Trump University case as biased, his taped boasting of forcing himself on women, his insistence that all the women who came forward to testify to his unwanted advances were liars, his virtually inviting someone on the NRA’s side to shoot Hillary, his leading rallies in chants to “lock her up,” his vowing to bring back torture or waterboarding, his mocking the disabled journalist, his outrageous promise to bar Muslims from entering the country, or to build a wall on the border and make the Mexican government pay for it, or to depart two million undocumented immigrants, or to vacate treaties with our allies unless they paid a larger share of the bill, his refusal to accept the results if he lost, or to disclose his income tax records, and so on and so forth. These were my worry beads, which I stroked every morning and evening. Surely, the accumulation of these bigoted, horrendous, un-civic positions, combined with the support of unsavory groups like the KKK, would result in Trump’s defeat.
On the contrary: what I failed to take into account is that it is not a scandal if enough people refuse to find the seeming offense scandalous. All these could be waived, especially by voters who shared some of the same racist, sexist, bloodthirsty prejudices. Just so, these same Trump supporters were able to promote into odoriferous “scandals” what were really minor matters (see Hillary’s connection to the Benghazi affair or her emails). Hence, the very nature of scandal was borne in on me as something much more fact-free and subject to manipulation than I had ever appreciated. Live and learn.
Again and again, Hillary Clinton appealed to Americans’ higher nature—we are kinder, better, more tolerant and so on—only to discover that many of her countrymen had no better natures. She would say “Love trumps hate”; it was all like a church sermon, and as often happens with sermons, it turned many voters off. It wasn’t “fun.” She was arguing that being president was serious business, we had to make the responsible decision, we couldn’t turn the office over to someone who was an amateur in governance, or give such an impulsive, intemperate, and self-serving individual the ultimate control over the nuclear button. Why not? said these voters.
The liberal-progressive commentators all blamed themselves afterward for failing to take into sufficient account the “anger” of the “forgotten, disenfranchised” white working-class voters who had turned the tide. Now, anger is a very sexy notion for commentators to latch onto, but I think it has been overstated. I am sure it may have factored into some rural or working-class pockets in their decision to vote as they did; but given that Obama has rescued the economy from its deep recession and that millions of jobs have been added in the past eight years, and given the record of businessman Trump in stiffing American workers or campaigning against raising the minimum wage, it would seem puzzling that anger should be seen as the motivating factor swaying them to vote against their economic interests. Rather, I would say what mattered more was the desire to have fun, to be entertained, to do mischief and see chaos break out—what the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called the “carnivalesque” turn. Electing a rogue who had never put in a day of public service in his life, who admitted to not paying taxes, was rather like the time the normally staid Minnesota voters swept the clearly unprepared ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura into the governor’s mansion. Boredom and spite, more than righteous anger, were at the wheel. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man argues that sometimes the only way to feel free is to spite our best interests.
And there is also the excitement of hating. In his great essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” William Hazlitt writes:
Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions, of men. The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all round it as dark as possible, so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud. Is it pride? Is it envy? Is it force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction. Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bitter-sweet which never surfeits. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference and disgust: hatred alone is immortal.
The dreaded Stephen Bannon’s recommendation that Republicans needed to stoke up the hate in order to win the national election proved to be more realistic in the long run that Hillary’s wishful slogan “Love trumps hate.” Her advocacy of programs for women and children, minorities and college students was seen as insipid, especially by white working class males. Trump kept promising to DO things for these disaffected working men, like bring back manufacturing and coal-mining, and keep out the immigrants who might compete for these same jobs. So what if he cannot reasonably accomplish any of these promises—at least he seemed to be addressing their concerns. Trump the mountebank paid them the compliment of pretending to have their interests at heart by conning them. Just as a woman will sometimes allow herself to be seduced by flattery she knows to be false, so the Rust Belt voters accepted Trump’s empty promises as minimal but necessary tribute, while probably suspecting in the end that nothing would change. Hillary, on the other hand, was too honest to promise what she could not deliver, and it cost her.
So I am back to counting my worry beads, but this time the litany is anticipatory. It goes something like: suppose he appoints a rightwing judge and Roe v. Wade is nullified; suppose Obamacare is scrapped; suppose the international climate agreement is canceled and we will accelerate the rate of pollution to the irreversible point; suppose Putin takes over Syria and Lithuania without a peep of protest from our president; suppose I have to look at Rudy Giuliani’s ghoulish face for another four to eight years … This list-making is not nearly as much fun as was the reiteration of Trump’s boneheaded remarks, but anxiety requires that I keep doing so, if only as a superstitious primitive ritual to ward off evil by imagining it.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.