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Sunday, December 11, 2016


Trump's America

by Tom Sullivan

Image by Jesus Solana via via Wikimedia Commons.

Man is a pattern-seeking animal:

We see faces in ink blots, madonnas in toast and in stains on buildings. We find animal shapes in the clouds and in the stars. We read messages in palms and tea leaves. And after a tragedy, we ask reflexively, "Why did this happen?" As if there is a why.
Sometimes, shit just happens. But for pattern-seeking animals that's an unsatisfactory answer. A month after November 8, the American left is still casting about for reasons Donald Trump pulled out an Electoral College win while losing the national popular vote by close to 3 million votes. The short answer is it was a perfect storm. A shift in any of a number of different factors might have changed the outcome and prevented Trump's election. Over the weekend, Russian interference is getting its moment in the spotlight. The media has already had its turn, and it's not done.

Neal Gabler suggests the fascination with Ayn Rand's glorification of self has corroded America's moral center over the decades. He cites a July 1961 essay in which Gore Vidal warns of just that:
She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who hate the ‘welfare state,’ who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.
They did. Since then, her acolytes have endowed study programs in business schools across the country to spread her gospel and harden even more. Over time, Rand's views on the virtue of greed and the "immorality" of right-wing guilt "became the guiding spirit of the governing party of the United States," abetted by a media that prided itself on being values-neutral. Gabler writes:
To identify what’s wrong with conservatism and Republicanism — and now with so much of America as we are about to enter the Trump era — you don’t need high-blown theories or deep sociological analysis or surveys. The answer is as simple as it is sad: There is no kindness in them.
That assessment will find lots of sympathy on the left. It might be more accurate, however, to say conservatives believe, in spite of what Jesus taught them, in the sort of moral accounting George Lakoff describes. In Jesus, you may be saved by faith, not works, but don't expect the same from me. In this life, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. This is the natural order. Salvation is earned; punishment and reward are the ways a just universe balances its books. Every human interaction becomes a transaction. Showing kindness is reserved for the deserving and/or a way of building credit for when you yourself need it. And great wealth like Trump's? God's seal of approval.

Thus goes the bizarre amalgam of Horatio Alger, Ayn Rand, and Jesus Christ that passes for Christianity among many Americans. But while the "neutral" press felt justified in focusing attention on the extremists of the Jim Crow South during the Civil Rights era, Gabler asks,"[W]hat happens when those extremists who advocate a bizarre morality that elevates selfishness and deplores altruism commandeer one of our two major political parties?" The media went silent. It "dared not question Republican opposition to anything that assisted the disempowered and dispossessed." Gabler contiunues:
Read those Ayn Rand quotes to your children as moral instruction, and you will see how far we have fallen. This is Republican morality. This is Trump morality. And the media, loath to defend traditional American values in an increasingly hostile conservative environment, let it happen. That is what value neutrality will get you.
Gabler recommends fighting back with a "kindness offensive." He even suggests building a political movement around it:
“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth,” Tolstoy said. Going forward, that could be the basis for a politics. And we must press our media to understand that they can only restore the values they once took for granted by doing what the best of them did during the civil rights era: observe events through a moral lens. Appealing to our worst selves is usually a winning strategy, as it was for Trump. The media must remind us of what it means to be our best selves. This should be their new mission: a media in opposition. It should be unrelenting, regardless of the right-wing blowback.
Gabler wraps up with a joke about how under this ascendant morality Americans are more interested in ensuring the undeserving — lower caste Irresponsibles (my term) — "get nothing than in making sure that they themselves get something." Economic experiments offer several explanations why, in political terms, people vote in ways that harm themselves. This is "Trump’s America."

What people believe is the "natural order" has had a hand in some of the most barbaric offenses in human history and helped prop up some of humanity's most longstanding and egregious prejudices. Ironically, this gut belief in the morality of the natural order has led to a political movement to kill the environment in the name of a deadly sin.

Research on infants shows that they are by nature not Randian objectivists, but compassionate little egalitarians. Two years ago, I wrote here:
What strikes me is how this research echoes something paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey said about Turkana Boy in speculating about the development of compassion in early Man:
Bipedalism carried an enormous price, where compassion was what you paid your ticket with. You simply can't abandon somebody who's incapacitated because the rest will abandon you next time it comes to be your turn.
There but for the grace of God. Compassion has an evolutionary advantage, Leakey suggests. Perhaps it is what helped us rise above the law of the jungle.

The irony is that a libertarian-leaning conservative posted the Mother Jones article on Bloom — "Science Says Your Baby Is a Socialist" — to a Facebook forum as a tweak to lefties (socialist babies, I suppose). In fact, it would seem that a movement that sneers at being your brother's keeper in organizing human society is hardly an accomplishment, cultural, political, or evolutionary.
But here we are. Resist.