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Politics Is Primal

Politics is about power…and only the most privileged can afford to ignore the looming terror of navigating the world with neither power nor protection, of being at the mercy of ruthless others.

Donald Trump—bully, boss, and self-appointed protector of his followers—reminds us to be afraid, be very afraid. (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Donald Trump—bully, boss, and self-appointed protector of his followers—reminds us to be afraid, be very afraid. (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

It’s great to get up in the morning without having to plot your day around avoiding government thugs out to get you.  America has long been a relatively safe space for (at least) middle-class white people—we could count on being able to get our mail, go to the police for help, fight City Hall without being targeted by death squads.

But for how long? If “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” we haven’t paid up.  One can imagine some metaphorical truck of comeuppance pulling up to America’s door and repossessing our furniture of freedom, stuff we thought we owned, but was just on credit—the wall-to-wall carpeting of voting rights, the home entertainment system of free speech, the dining table of free assembly, the bedroom set of abortion access, the chandelier of “innocent until proven guilty.” 

Lulled into complacency, it’s as if we’ve treated democracy itself as an easy chair—a well-worn refuge of comfort allowing us to take the weight off and let our guard down. 

Until Donald Trump.  Donald Trump—bully, boss, and self-appointed protector of his followers—reminds us to be afraid, be very afraid.

Adult life is a more-or-less-conscious battle with existential dread. There are so many haunting precipitous terrors before us—from climate change to war to superbugs to the fact that we’re all gonna die.  Perhaps Trump’s “me and mine first” crude rude embrace of power and prejudice offers talismanic comfort to his followers.

What Trump knows—and too many of us have forgotten—is that politics is primal.  After all, politics is about power…and only the most privileged can afford to ignore the looming terror of navigating the world with neither power nor protection, of being at the mercy of ruthless others.

For me that terror snaps me right back to childhood.  I was the pariah kid with metaphorical cooties.  Whole contingents of classmates would spit spitballs at me in the cafeteria and trip me in the hallways—I ate my lunch in the girls’ room among the upchucking young drunks because it was the only place I was safe.

Daily, I’d store up my tally of taunts and attacks, then at home, sit at the kitchen table and sob as I unloaded to my mom…trying like hell not to notice that she didn’t want to listen.

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With kids so clearly out to get me, I was frantic for refuge.  And as a bright kid desperate to believe that justice will prevail, and that underdogs will have their day, I developed an especially fervent affection for democracy and civil liberties.  When my school board banned books, I helped start a local chapter of the ACLU and joined the school board as outspoken student rep.  I persuaded the local Republican Club to send my young lefty self to DC for a week with my Congresspeople.  I set siege to my high school’s American Heritage Club after its flaming right wingers commandeered the public address system for a gung-ho pro Vietnam War address on Memorial Day.

And I lived in nightmare fear of the (then) Soviet Union, not because it was Communist, but because it was totalitarian.  Big mouth that I was, I could too easily imagine visiting the Soviet Union and blurting out something so offensively true that the powers that be would lock me up indefinitely.

Today, as the world turns and tosses, I struggle to right my vertiginous self.  And I belatedly recognize my young terror of the Soviets as a fear of malevolent adults.  What do we do when those in power, namely Donald Trump and his ilk, are out to get us?

I don’t have a foolproof answer—there are too many fools and fool-generating cultural behemoths, from Fox News to Facebook.  But I am pretty sure of what not to do.

Don’t imagine the problem is Donald Trump.  It’s not—it’s that long-moldering-complacency of liberals versus the fear of Trump supporters that whatever they had (or thought they had) could disappear.

Alas, the Trump supporters aren’t wrong.  And they have no special monopoly on rose-colored nostalgia for an arguably nonexistent past.  At any given time, only some people in the United States had it good.  And those who had it good profited off those who didn’t.

Still democracy, imperfect as it’s been, remains a crucial tool for making things better.  We need to quit taking democracy for granted.  So add fascism to the top of your list of existential threats. Don’t confuse distraction (Social media! Reality TV!) with actual agency. Resist every incursion into your limited but critical ability to fight the power.  And be afraid.

Phyllis Eckhaus

Phyllis Eckhaus has written for Newsday, The Nation, and In These Times, among other publications.  She works for the ACLU, but this opinion is entirely her own.

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