Trump, or the Ultimate National Catastrophe

Around the country and around the world, the post-inaugural Women’s March was a visible demonstration of the unhappiness and disappointment of liberals. Those who participated were buoyed by their own numbers, reassured by the camaraderie of the like-minded and inspired by their own passionate declarations of resistance to the agenda of the new president of the United States, whom many proclaim not to be theirs.

The motivation for the march, according to the mission statement of its organizers, was to deliver a message to the new administration that “women’s rights are human rights.” This declaration was famously adapted by Hillary Clinton in 1995 in a speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.

Noting that campaign rhetoric had “insulted, demonized and threatened” many women—“immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault”—the march organizers’ mission was a stirring generality:

“We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us. This march is the first step towards unifying our communities, grounded in new relationships, to create change from the grassroots level up. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society. We work peacefully while recognizing there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.”

The march evolved into a global protest against the election of Donald Trump. Yet so far, the protest has no clear direction to go and no unifying objective to keep it together in the months ahead. If the purpose of the protest is simply “to protest,” then presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway may reasonably ask, what is the point?

It is a paradox of politics that protest elevates and hardens the power of that against which the protest is directed. A protest against the Trumpean worldview may have the unintended consequences of strengthening it and solidifying its supporters.

In his recent book, Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank persuasively describes how the Democratic Party has abandoned working people, its traditional constituency, and instead has come to be dominated by an elite, “well graduated” professional class.

“’Technocracy’ was the new term for describing the reign of professionalism, and its connotations were almost entirely negative. Rule-by-expert, it began to seem, excluded rule-by-the-people. It was dehumanizing and mechanical. In a technocracy, the important policy decisions were made in faraway offices that were insulated from the larger whirl of society. The people making the decisions identified far more with society’s rulers than they did with the ruled, and their decisions often completely ignored public concerns.”

It is no wonder then, that millions of working people across America find Donald Trump’s rhetoric so appealing. In his inaugural speech, the President spoke directly to “the forgotten men and women of our country” and promised that they would be “forgotten no longer.” He vowed: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” He called for unity: “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly but always pursue solidarity.” He acknowledged the feelings of many that the politicians in Washington are “all talk and no action.” His criticism was not partisan: “What truly matters is not which party controls our government but whether our government is controlled by the people.”

Trump tuned into the sense that “the people” have too long been abandoned by “the establishment”:

“The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now. Because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you.”

He promised to protect those who have felt abandoned, sealing his message with his personal bond: “I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never, ever let you down.”

Frank believes that the Democratic Party has, in sharp contrast, lately dedicated itself “to the concerns of a particular slice of high-achieving affluent people” and has severed its bonds to working people. One consequence is that the issues of work and income inequality have faded from the party’s list of concerns—despite the best efforts of Senator Bernie Sanders to call attention to these issues.

The Democratic Party, Frank says, “has failed to tackle income inequality, even though that is the leading social issue of the times” and has failed “to get tough with the financial industry, even though Wall Street was the leading culprit in the global downturn and the slump-that-never-ends.” Too many Democrats have simply lost interest in working people, or worse, blamed working people for their own predicament.

“To the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future. Take inequality. The real problem, many liberals believe, is that not enough poor people get a chance to go to college and join the professional-managerial elite.”

The professional class, which, Frank believes, has come to dominate the Democratic Party, embraces a politics of meritocracy in which educational attainment defines society’s winners. When the professional class prescribes college as the pathway to prosperity they are excusing inequality: “every time they tell the country that what it needs is more schooling, they are saying: Inequality is not a failure of the system; it is a failure of you.”

It is not enough to say “we stand against the forces of darkness.” Belief in the righteousness of taking a stand against darkness will not change the convictions of those with whom we disagree.

The protest against the Trump agenda and the march against the forces of darkness must not be a protest against anyone who voted for him and a march away from working people who feel abandoned already. It would be a catastrophic mistake to dismiss Trump voters as either “deplorable” or ignorantly “voting against their own interests.”

Protest will not begin to heal the nation’s wounds. Protest must give way to something that is much harder: freeing ourselves from the ideology of division.

Those who are disappointed by the election and who are fearful of the future might begin the healing process by looking inward. Could it be that my beliefs and hopes coincide, at least in some measure, with the beliefs and hopes of those who voted differently? Can I understand the struggles of those with whom I continue to disagree and honor the diversity of their life experience? Do I need the shield of division, or can I let that go?

I am taught a morality guided by the principle that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I am counseled to value compassion in human relations, and to raise the banner of peace, liberty and justice for all. If these are my core beliefs and not mere sweet words, then my respect for the dignity of all people must include those who disagree with me, my compassion must reach to those whose votes seem reckless and misguided, and the liberty I enjoy must be shared with those whose anger sometimes threatens my own freedom.

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