Hail to the Chaff

It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump is a genuine threat to American democracy. But I think a lot of us are responding in the worst possible ways.

I recommend supporting Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight organization, which is working to ensure “free, fair, and secure elections.”

I also recommend listening to the Majority 54 podcast hosted by Jason Kander, which is devoted to this topic and ways we can effectively engage with politics like responsible cooperative adults.

For as long as I knew her to be vocal about politics, my mother was a steadfast, Rachel Maddow-watching Democrat. Even as the rest of the state shifted from blue to red — or, if you include Atlanta, purple — she remained convinced that the Republicans were on the wrong side of most issues. And she was definitely not a fan, to put it mildly, of the fetid sack of garbage currently calling himself president of the United States. (My words, not hers).

But she was also adamant about one thing, which was that she refused to let someone that awful get in the way of what was important.

And that’s the idea I’ve been trying to keep forefront in my mind. As we see “politics” get more and more divisive; pundits continue to spew increasingly indecent nonsense; common-sense issues of basic human decency continue to be treated as if they were somehow controversial; online discourse filled with nonsensical noise and blatant lies; and political “leaders” continue to show themselves to be belligerent, shameless, and classless; it’s difficult not to feel like the country has been overrun with millions of degenerate people, every one of them complicit in selfishness and evil.

But I try to always ask myself: who’s profiting from my feeling isolated and angry? When I see people who’ve been treated far worse than I have still able to spread a message of unity and hope, what right do I have to feel despair? And ultimately: why would I allow people for whom I have absolutely no respect get in the way of my relationships with the people that I do respect?

It’s a quandary that a lot of people have been wrestling with over the last three years: the man who’s acting as president just straight-up sucks. It’s no secret. There’s no denying it. So how could so many people vote for him?

I mean, let’s just agree to stop humoring the idea that there’s still any question of whether he’s racist, misogynist trash. We knew he was in the 1980s. We knew it in 2015. It’s not as if there were any mystery before the election, so acting as if his behavior in office has been surprising is insultingly disingenuous. And now, any accusation of “he’s gone too far this time!” is nothing but performative nonsense, since he’d already done a dozen inexcusable things that should’ve made him unelectable long before he even became the nominee. It’s hard to believe that anyone is still wasting our time denying that he’s racist, considering he started his political “career” by accusing the first black President of not being born in the US. Nobody should act like we didn’t know he was trash, especially since he was caught on a live mic during a presidential campaign, bragging about sexual assault.

Still, people have spent the past three years trying furiously to normalize it. We’ve all heard various attempts to offer a rational explanation for something that should never have happened. For a while after the election, the media tried to convince us of the “economic anxiety” story — we were sold an image of strong, hard-working Americans in coal mining towns and farm towns throughout the heartland, who’d all spent years being ignored by Clinton-era elitist Democrats. The only problem was that these stories just didn’t hold up to the facts. The actual demographics of Republican voters didn’t have much in common in terms of economics, but a lot in common in terms of race. But it’s not tactful to just admit that millions of people voted for a racist piece of shit to be president of the United States, so we’ve been expected to pretend that it’s all reasonable and normal.

In the 10,000 years since January 2017, it’s been a never-ending cycle of the White House doing the stupidest, most corrupt, most irresponsible thing; pundits and Russian troll farms making increasingly batshit claims to defend it; news channels pushing click-baiting video clips with their pundit delivering some devastating take-down of someone who should never have been given a national audience in the first place; late night shows building a new industry of comedy-outrage, asking “can you believe what he did this time?!” as if any of us are still capable of surprise at this point; and the rest of us left wondering what happened to all the sane grown-ups in the country. And in my case, wanting to get some kind of justification from his enablers to explain why they chose to put us through all this.

But they just shake their heads and lament that “we’re more divided than ever,” even though they’re the ones who voted for someone who led racist pep rallies chanting about building a wall.

This week, after seeing the colossal, inexcusable failure of this despotic clown car of an “administration” in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and then the police brutality protests — protests not just in all 50 states but around the world — I think I’ve finally got a theory: this whole time, I’ve had it backwards. They don’t enable him; he enables them.

In case that seems shallow for a life-changing epiphany, hear me out. I feel like a lot of the assumptions I’ve been making over the past four years have been exactly backwards.

What prompted my “wait a minute… we’re in The Bad Place!” moment was seeing that in the middle of this complete vacuum of leadership during multiple crises, he’d ordered peaceful protestors to be tear gassed so he could stand in front of a church and wave a Bible around in front of a bunch of cameras. I was livid. Almost without thinking, I found myself back on Facebook, posting a link to it with my thoughts. I wanted to ask “can you believe this?!” I wanted to find someone who’d voted for him, and I wanted to rub their nose in this. After all, this had to be the turning point! How could anyone possibly see this and endorse it? How can anyone support this blasphemous perversion of everything Christ taught and still call themselves a Christian?

Keep in mind that this was after I’d already pledged about a dozen times over the years to stop giving him any attention. Stop fanning the flames and instead, help starve them of oxygen. Instead of indulging in more performative outrage, concentrate on doing something that will actually make a difference. I don’t know if the blatant pandering worked on his “base,” since even though I keep hearing about his “base,” I haven’t actually seen them in person. I have no idea how many of them there actually are. The only thing I know for sure is that it worked on one person: the guy who got so angry that he went on Facebook to complain about it.

I could’ve acknowledged that we’re at what feels like an unprecedented turning point in America, in which we finally recognize our responsibility to each other and begin making actual changes to dismantle centuries-old systems of white supremacy and unjust law enforcement. Instead, I chose to complain about the one person in the country least capable of and least willing to actually make a difference. As he threatened to send the military to attack American citizens, then ran to his bunker to hide, it was clear to everyone that there’s a leadership vacuum at the federal level. But really, it’s not simply a vacuum, but a black hole. It destroys everything it can, absorbing everyone’s hate and outrage and despair.

Now, people have been warning us constantly about the “distractions” of this administration. But it’s always taken a form like “While all of you were distracted by some outrageously offensive thing, what was really happening was some sinister new policy.” There are a few problems with that:

  1. It’s pompous and condescending. It’s almost as infantilizing as when liberals suggest that Trump voters were “tricked” into voting for a con artist. No, most of them were adults who knew what they were doing, and they should take responsibility for it.
  2. It ignores the fact that we can be upset about multiple things at once. A real President is more about policy but sets the tone for public discourse. So when this asshole goes around spreading conspiracy theories, making up stupid and/or racist nicknames for his opponents, and lying on the public record, that’s actually harmful and shouldn’t be dismissed as pure spectacle.
  3. It assumes an agenda that is far too competent to come out of this administration. Sometimes people talk as if Trump is secretly a mastermind for absorbing the attention of the media, but I’ve seen zero evidence that he has any actual skill or talent at anything at all.

Attributing any conscious motivation to Trump’s outrage-absorbing properties is a bit like, well, attributing a motivation to a virus. I’ve seen the suggestion that since Trump is too incompetent to be an actual leader, he’s more of a puppet figurehead for some Cheney-esque shadow government. Except puppet Presidents are supposed to be charming and not so blatantly awful; even George W Bush understood how to be civil. And puppet Presidents aren’t supposed to throw so many people under the bus before they’ve had the opportunity to profit from their corruption — poor James Mattis had to be complicit in the evil of this administration for three whole years, and now he’s got nothing to show for it except multiple book deals. If Trump were a construct of the right wing, he seems less like a puppet and more like ED-209.

As far as I can tell, no one actually likes Trump, and it’s mutual. Nobody supports his ideology because there really isn’t one other than trying to destroy as much of the progress of the Obama administration as possible. I suspect that the chaos is the whole point. Selfish and evil people can keep taking advantage of the system to do whatever they want to do, and as long as Trump is absorbing all of the attention and the outrage, they don’t have to worry about trying to keep it secret.

That’s what’s happening on a grand scale, and I think it’s happening on a personal scale as well: Somebody’s frustrated that people keep yelling at her for saying the wrong thing? Trump gives her a pass to complain about “political correctness.” Somebody’s frustrated that they pay taxes and never see visible results, and then they hear about bureaucratic waste? Trump gives them an excuse to assume that all taxes are wasteful, and so it’s not selfish to want to pay less. Somebody’s frustrated that politicians never seem to get anything done? Trump gives him an excuse to say the whole system is corrupt, so it’s not lazy to just throw up your hands, call yourself a “realist,” and say that nobody else genuinely wants to fix the system, either.

So when I start to wonder, “how could so many millions of people support Trump?” I have to remind myself “they don’t.” From what I’ve seen — and I’ll admit I could just have an extremely skewed and sheltered impression, but I doubt it’s that far off — very few real people are actually cheering on or even defending this guy. I don’t see millions of Americans rallying around a trusted leader; I see a bunch of people using a loud, attention-grabbing asshole as their own Portrait of Dorian Gray. He absorbs their flaws, so they don’t have to confront them. He’s not just the president for white supremacists and self-interested multi-millionaires; he’s also the president for the type of people who said just between you and me, don’t you think the Obamas seem a little preachy and full of themselves?

Maybe that’s an even more cynical take on the state of America, but it actually gives me a bit of optimism. For one thing, because it’s the first explanation that makes any sense to me. I tend to assume the best of people, but even so I think I can recognize the difference (eventually) between sincerely good people and rotten people who are just putting up appearances. And it’s never made sense to see people — who I know are good people — choose to support putting children in cages, or mocking disabled people, or disparaging women, or undermining the free press, or any of the other 10,000 inexcusable things this jackass and the rest of the national Republican party have done. I’m not going to be so condescending to say that they were “duped,” but I do believe that they mistakenly thought they were choosing the lesser of two evils and never believed that it could get that bad.

In other words: I can’t even imagine being a responsible adult in 2016 and choosing to vote for Trump. But what I can imagine is a couple decades without seeing much change in local politics despite Democrats or Republicans being in charge, or all the promises of “Hope” at the beginning of the Obama campaign turn into years of impasse and obstruction, and being convinced that federal politics just don’t matter all that much. And if the counter-argument is my liberal relative posting photos on Facebook comparing Trump to Hitler, I’m probably not going to be swayed by that. (Even if this is one of the rare cases where Godwin’s Law isn’t actually that much of an exaggeration).

The other reason it gives me hope is because I can see parallels in my own behavior. I’m so often tempted to use “Trump supporter” as a litmus test because it’s just simpler, faster, and easier than the alternative, which is waiting for them to actually cut through all the qualifiers and excuses and “I don’t defend Trump, but…”s and “I’m not racist, but…”s and actually explain their views. There are so many people who are just making noise, arguing nonsense as if it were a rational position, refusing to argue in good faith, and just wearing us down until we’re too exhausted to care anymore. We may think that it’s easy to spot troll posts or propaganda — and it often is — but it doesn’t need to be convincing on its own. It just needs to be loud and pervasive enough to wear us all down and make it difficult to distinguish signal from noise. So I want to have a shorthand to use, so I’m not caught wasting my time trying to engage with someone who just wants to waste my time.

If I can say “you might not be racist, but you’re complicit in racism,” and use that as grounds to cut somebody off, it’s a real time- and energy-saver. And to be clear: that is absolutely, 100%, a valid stance for some people to take. We’ve seen repeatedly how systemic racism is about more than just the overt white supremacists, but is perpetuated by people who prioritize their own needs and their own comfort over social justice. But we’ve also seen how social media — and especially attempts at activism via social media — will repeatedly show us the violent, unrepentant white supremacist, and the clueless or careless person caught saying something inappropriate in public, and present them to us as equivalent. Some people are just trash, and there’s no point wasting our time on them. But most people are pretty complex and generally try to do the right thing but inevitably screw it up sometimes. For whatever reason, social media hates that kind of ambiguity, and needs to have a shocking exposé that proves somebody was a latent asshole this entire time, we just knew it. Everybody’s got to draw their own lines, and I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m positive that false equivalencies and “cancel culture” isn’t it.

I should be clear that I’m not in any way trying to undermine or belittle the damage the Trump administration has caused to the country. To be clear: this has been, objectively, a disaster. And I genuinely believe that Trump being re-elected would mean an end to American democracy as I understand it — that’s not exaggeration. Even if you don’t include the lives unnecessarily lost to a disease they initially dismissed as “no worse than the flu” although they had ample proof otherwise; even if you don’t include the environmental protections that have been arbitrarily and vindictively rolled back; even if you don’t include all the civil liberties and basic human rights violations committed against immigrants; even if you don’t include the blatant attempts to undermine the free press and replace it with state-run media; Trump’s actions would be inexcusable. If only for the degree to which they’ve lowered our public discourse, destroyed our trust in each other, and degraded our belief in America. You don’t have to be one of those pretentious historians who describes American democracy as an “experiment” to recognize that this is a violation of the ideals we’re supposed to stand for.

I should also be 100% clear that I’m in no way suggesting that we excuse, forgive, or ignore casual racism or continue to treat it as inevitable. Anyone who was disgusted by the murder of George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Trayvon Martin, should be forced to acknowledge that these aren’t just one-off events, but the inevitable result of centuries of white people treating black people as “less than” or even “other,” and slowly building systems into our society to reinforce that. I’ve no doubt that at least 90% of the people responding with “All Lives Matter” aren’t saying it in good faith, but instead are using it as a time-wasting deflection. Still, I’m sure that there are people who do genuinely believe that we’re close to living in a “post-racial” society, because they’re not forced to confront it every day. That should be something we can fix. We should all be forced to acknowledge that we’re not one community yet — we can be, but we will never be until we make a real effort to overhaul the thousands of ways our community works to make sure that non-whites are at a disadvantage.

So my goal isn’t really to excuse, explain, or forgive Trump supporters at all. Because that’s really not my job. If people were actually gung-ho about voting for this fool, there’s not much we can do about that now. Let other people decide for themselves how they feel about 2016, and let’s devote our energy to moving forward and figuring out what we can do now to actually fix things.

I don’t know what the answer is — but I can link to smarter people than me who are trying to make things better. And the first step is to reject any notion of despair, laziness, or division. Don’t act like good people are outnumbered in the US. Trump was already lying about how much support he had on inauguration day. We have been shown over and over that both US political parties and foreign “agitators” have been creating loads of fake online accounts to make it seem like offensive, nonsensical ideas have more support than they actually do. We’ve seen that he was impeached, and is only still in office because of 50 self-interested senators, few of whom would even make a statement defending him. We’ve seen that there is no genuine loyalty among Trump and the people he enables, and they turn on each other and abandon each other the moment it’s politically convenient. We’ve seen Trump get increasingly hysterical, spreading increasingly outlandish bullshit via platforms owned by white billionaires who profit from the controversy — these are not the actions of a party that’s “winning” and has genuine grassroots support.

The thing to remember is that Trump not only lost the popular vote in the 2016 election, he lost by a lot. Greater than the populations of Wyoming and Vermont combined. By almost as much as the entire population of the United States when the electoral college was introduced. And not only did he lose, he came in third. Second place went to Hilary Clinton. First place was a tie between apathy and complacency.

We’ve already seen that Americans — especially white Americans — put too much emphasis on “we’ve elected a black President!” as proof that we’d moved into a new post-racial age. Now we’re seeing some Americans insist that it was all a lie, and that we’re no better now than we were before the Civil Rights Act. Obviously, neither of these are true. Even after three and a half years of an incompetent racist president, things are better now than they were 50 years ago. Better than even 20 years ago. It’s inexcusable how slowly we’re advancing, but we are advancing. Just like voting for Obama didn’t fix everything — ask all the gay couples who had to wait for his opinions on marriage equality to “evolve” — voting out Trump isn’t going to fix everything, either. It’s an essential first step for us to survive at all, but it’s still just the barest minimum a responsible human being can do.

Biden was my second-to-last choice for President, but he doesn’t have to be President just for me, but for about 330 million other people too. Of the 10,000 things that make the Trump “administration” illegitimate, one of the most damning is one of the least directly harmful: he doesn’t have any sense of obligation to serve anyone who doesn’t keep him in power. Even Republicans should recognize that that’s not how America is supposed to work. A system where Democrats get their own private President for 8 years and then Republicans get theirs for 8 years is not sustainable and is definitely not progress. It’s been disheartening to see so many people who are ostensibly progressive talk as if any dissent were betrayal. As if reducing the needs of 330 million people down to a choice between two candidates were ever going to be anything other than a compromise.

It’s understandable that in an increasingly noisy environment, where malicious actors are spouting extremist nonsense that no decent human could actually agree with, that we’re all wary of sacrificing our integrity. Few of us want to be unwittingly helping perpetuate a system that periodically promises progress and then does nothing. But I feel like healthy skepticism often gets corrupted and turns into apathy — where someone actually believes that the whole system is corrupt, and the people trying to do good are just as bad as the people openly abusing and exploiting the system — or it turns into its own kind of absolutist self-righteousness — where someone actually believes that dissent and compromise are the enemies of progress, instead of the tools of progress. When I heard that Pete Buttigieg was running for President, I expected that a well-educated gay Christian from the midwest would meet with a lot of resistance. What I didn’t expect was that the most virulent attacks on him would come from people claiming to be Bernie Sanders supporters.

There’s a meme going around that says, paraphrased, that we can have political disagreements about things like tax rates, zoning, appropriations for schools; but not about questions like “are gay people human beings?” and “are Nazis bad?” and “are black people bad?” It seems straightforward enough, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve spread it or similar in the past. But if you think about it for a minute, it’s not really saying that much — all you’ve done is pledged to reframe the way you treat other people around the most extremist, and likely most deliberately divisive, way to describe important issues. I’m a strong believer that the easier it is to say something, the less valuable it is to say it. So if you find yourself arguing for a statement that should be trivially true, you should consider whether that’s actually the argument that’s being made. It doesn’t do much good to yell “racism is bad!” to someone who doesn’t believe they’re being racist.

With so much noise and so many people acting in bad faith, it’s especially worthwhile for us to take a minute before we respond to anything we see. Are we responding to a real person, or are we being fooled by a troll and just adding more noise to the conversation? Are we responding to actually share some information or shut down something genuinely harmful, or are we just trying to get in a sick burn of a takedown? And most importantly: is the person actually saying what I’m accusing them of saying, or have we just both reduced each other’s viewpoints to the most absurdist and extremist shorthand? Are we actually making progress, or are we just playing into a long-running attempt to keep us focused on all the things that divide us, instead of all the things that bring us together?

There’s a reason I started this post the way I did. Back at the beginning of the year, I realized that we’re in the world for way too short a time to be wasting any of that time on the things and people that don’t matter. And I realize I keep letting my perception of what matters get skewed by spending too much time in an environment filled with performative, divisive noise. At a minimum, I need to pledge — hopefully for the last time, until it’s time to help drum up the vote in October — to stop giving any attention to Trump. We need to be listening to competent people with actual answers, and a genuine desire to help us get through this pandemic and work towards real social justice, and any time spent being angry at an idiot is just a waste of time. And after that, I need to remember that disagreements aren’t just unavoidable, but necessary for a democracy to function. Instead of concentrating on our differences for the sake of preserving my imagined “integrity,” I need to concentrate more on the things that we all have in common. There are a lot of people who want to tear everything down and keep everything for themselves, but there are a lot more of us who genuinely want to make things better, and simply disagree on how to do it.