In the midst of this awful year, and after four awful years of Trump and his enablers, we are, I think, on the verge of something hopeful, potentially transformational. But in order to move forward, we have got to acknowledge fully who we are and where we are at.
Someone said of Trump a few years back: “he’s like a toddler with a gun.” My partner Katherine’s response: “I see him more as the nation’s drunken, abusive spouse, insisting we put the kids in the car and go for a drive with him… Trump is literally killing people on 5th Avenue now – and he seems to be getting away with it.”
Our violent, oppressive history is embedded in our economic, political and social institutions. Trump is the revolting and (alas) spot-on personification of a dark, toxic but essential part of “America.”
We watch Trump and wonder: “How is this guy President? How can this happen in America?” We can pretend that it was Russian hackers or James Comey or Hillary’s complacency about Wisconsin. Maybe. But 63 million Americans voted for this brazenly ignorant racist bully. And still – after nearly four years of mind-boggling incompetence and cruelty – 43% of Americans (including most white Americans) “approve.”
The Trumpian tragedy is doubly tragic because it makes so much sense. We can decide that Trump is an anomaly. But, in fact, Trump looks and acts a lot like America.
Trump is… Loud. Arrogant. Ignorant. Entitled. Racist. Violent. Misogynistic. Homophobic. Orientalist. Self-centered. Self-important. Idiotic. Punitive. Full of shit. A glutton who whines that he is not getting his fair share. An assaulter who insists that nothing happened (in fact he is the real victim!). A liar who has no interest in uncovering or facing the truth. A liar who vilifies anyone who tells the truth. A perpetrator who effortlessly and shamelessly engages in denial, erasure, and the re-writing of history. A victimizer, and a victim-blamer. Grandiose and vacuous. He’s gotten rich on the un(der)paid labor of disempowered workers – human beings he sees as disposable “takers” and “losers.” He claims credit for things he hasn’t done. He’s megalomaniac who uses his power to expand his power and wealth. His relentless pursuit of his interests requires no justification. He is a rapacious accumulator of wealth who happily and insistently works people to death. A money-grubber who happily sends disenfranchised workers into the meat packing plant, because our sausages (and the meat industry’s profits) matter more than the lives of people of color we can’t see. He is indifferent to the deaths of 225,000 people. “Freedom and prosperity,” after all, comes at a price.
Like America, Trump is sure that he is #1 at everything. Like America, Trump insists that “no one” has “ever” done what he has done. Trumpian Exceptionalism. That’s why the rules don’t apply to him.
Trump has incited and defended white supremacists and bragged about sexual assault. He has separated kids and parents and put the kids in cages. He has pardoned his crooked friends and demanded that his critics and political rivals be imprisoned. He has lied a million times – often with shocking brazenness. Nearly a quarter of a million US residents (and over a million worldwide) are dead from Coronavirus, and he doesn’t seem to care. Cruelty and cruel indifference are his brand.
This is from the obituary of Professor Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist who - before passing away on September 30 - studied psychopathology, among other things. Professor Lilienfeld and his colleagues, the New York Times reports, identified “three underlying personality features that psychopaths share: fearless dominance, meanness and impulsivity. The psychopath does what he or she wants, without anxiety, regret or regard for the suffering of others.”
It I had to describe Donald Trump in two sentences, these would do. If I had to write a biography of America, these sentences could be part of the first chapter.
This dark, violent and essential part of America has been “hiding” in plain sight every second of every day for 400 years. When, every so often, it becomes undeniable – the murder of George Floyd, for example – our national narrators insist that it is a deeply troubling anomaly. A shocking - and, perhaps, unprecedented! - example of precisely what “America” is not.
Trump is, in some important ways, unusual and extreme. But 43% - including most white voters - “approve” of Trump.
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Beside, inside and despite our dark past and present, the US is overflowing with love, creativity, generosity, empathy, solidarity, humility and possibility. And it has the power to change everything.This is dark, violent, exploitative history is - of course, and thank goodness – only part of the story. There is also the part of the American biography that has given us Toni Morrison, rock and roll, Bob Dylan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Walt Whitman, Black Lives Matter, W.E.B. DuBois, Jack Kerouac, Joe Hill, James Baldwin, Dr King, Aretha, Howard Zinn, Julius Erving, Woody Guthrie, and Star Tavern in Orange, NJ. There is the part that has given us millions of heroic healers, and millions of heroic organizers and activists for voting rights, fair housing, economic equality, environmental justice, work place safety, affordable education, LGBTQ rights, accessible public spaces, de-militarization, and educational opportunity, and against war, racism, sexual violence, police violence, border violence, and the destruction of the planet.
Beside, inside and despite our dark past and present, the US is overflowing with love, creativity, generosity, empathy, solidarity, humility and possibility. It’s all here, in plain sight. And it has the power to change everything.
Our violent, oppressive history is embedded in our economic, political and social institutions. The arc of history has to be bent toward justice – that is, it bends as the result of energetic, fearless, heroic struggle. This struggle is grueling and, often, disheartening because there are, of course, some very well-funded people who are determined to bend the arc of history toward oppression. And 43% approve.
Let’s vote. Let’s recognize and reckon with our dark history. And let’s struggle heroically and humbly, and let’s collaborate in inspired and inspiring ways, to bend the arc of history toward justice.
This land was made for you and me.