So there is this election happening in mere days, and it feels like a crucial choice point for the country. If we re-elect Trump, that means something very definite for the story of the US and for the American character, to the extent there is such a thing. And if we don't, it means something else. The choice is stark, the outcome uncertain. It's a collective choice, made by this weird group mind constituted by the biannual mechanism/ritual of aggregation we call an election. To the extent there is an American character (or mind, or soul) this is a key part of how it works, how the whole is constituted out of its parts.
In most past elections, I've had feeling of apathy (not always dominant, but always there). Neither of the major parties represented me or my thinking, such as it was, and I always felt like I was choosing the lesser of two evils. "If voting could change the system, it would be against the law" – that's a funny radical bumper sticker but also encodes an important truth. In a sense voting is supposed to be unimportant.
But during the same decades that I was growing older and thus more conservative (at some level this is inexorable, the interests of the old are not those of the young), the nature of the mainstream parties shifted, until Democrats are the true conservative party (in that they want to preserve the existing institutions of society) and Republicans are the radical wreckers.
So now I find myself in the position of supporting whole-heartedly the kind of mainstream Democrat I disdained in the past. I mean, with every fiber of my being! That feels really weird! But these are weird times.
Maybe I'm kidding myself. It's just politics and politics is just theater, not where the actually important work of the world takes place. Maybe I've bought too far into the media narrative of good and evil. Besides, there is little I can do other than vote and give some financial support to key campaigns. I can of course flame on the internet, which is not exactly nothing, but I can't delude myself that it makes a ton of difference.
Still, history is unfolding, and we are all drawn into the drama, like it or not.
It's important to understand what Trump is, what his role is in the national drama. He's not an out-of-nowhere abberation, no matter how abberant his behavior. He didn't come from nowhere and if defeated, what he represents isn't going away; the 40% or so of the country who supports him isn't going away. Jamelle Bouie wrote a really good piece on this:
For many millions of Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump has been a kind of transgression, an endless assault on dignity, decency and decorum. They experience everything — the casual insults, the vulgar tweets, the open racism, the lying, the tacit support for dangerous extremists and admiration of foreign strongmen — as an attack on the fabric of American society itself. And they see the worst of this administration, like separating children from their families at the border, as an unparalleled offense against the values of American democracy.
… Trump is transgressive, yes. But his transgressions are less a novel assault on American institutions than they are a stark recapitulation of past failure and catastrophe.
…For as much as it seems that Donald Trump has changed something about the character of this country, the truth is he hasn’t. What is terrible about Trump is also terrible about the United States.
So from that point of view, maybe the election is not that important, we are going to have the same history and character regardless (Bouie doesn't say this, but it's an obvious inference).
But it feels like something important is at stake here, that somehow we as a country are putting everything on the line here for a chance at redemption. If we elect Donald Trump twice, it's clear that he represents not merely an unpleasant facet of the American character, but a dominant one. The gross, boorish, bullying, and fraudulent part. The ignorant part, the shortsighted part, the jingoistic part, the cruel part. The part that cares only about strength and knows nothing of justice, love, honor, beauty or caring. The proudly stupid part. And of course the racist and patriarchal part.
That is, of course, not all there is to the American character. There is the inventive side, the pragmatist side, the heroic side, the frontier side, the decent side, the helpful and compassionate and welcoming side, the creative side, the visionary side. The side that held out hope to refugees and immigrants like my parents. Those virtues are just as real as the vices that Trump has brought to the foreground.
It feels like this election is going to say whether those virtues are strong enough to defeat the forces that Trump represents, or whether we give into our worst version of ourself as a country.
Regardless of how the election goes this is going to be a different country than it was before. Same problems and resources, different collective narratives. We are either in an ongoing catastrophe, or we will have pulled back from the edge of one.
My old friend John Redford (who has a fine blog of his own) said the other day that we are in the early days of America 4.0. That is, there have been three fairly different versions of the US:
- version 1.0 runs from the founding to the Civil War
- version 2.0 is from the Civil War until depression/World War era
- version 3.0 is from the end of WWII until just about now
(Although on reconsideration maybe 3.0 ended in 1989 with the cold war and the years from then to now have been part of an ongoing transition)
In each of these transitions, the nation faced an existential crisis and managed to reinvent itself, often through violence. We may be going through that again, or we may be going through death throes. But it's pretty clear that the current version of America isn't working at all and something new had damn well better get put in place and soon.
What will America 4.0 look like? I really have no idea, although I sure hope that it at least uses technology well. The election won't decide that, but it will determine whether the tentative gropes toward a viable future can start now or we have to have another four years of destruction of the old order before the new one can be born.
[ title due to Warren Zevon: