A thoughtful and passionate contributor to the comment section of this blog wrote a response to my last post (“Paul Ryan And Sarah Palin Officially Usher In The New Year—1984“) that included the following statement:
We live in a nation so intolerably stupid that people actually look up to Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions and yes, Sarah Palin.
Part of my response:
There are few people more distraught—and fearful—over what has happened to our country, with the election of the Orange Menace, than I am. As I have said many times, he is an existential threat. He is compromised. He is dangerous. And I will never recognize him as our legitimate president.
Thus, I want to scream at everyone I see driving a vehicle with a Trump-Pence bumper sticker on it and tell them how such a display is an advertisement for their stupidity. I want to knock on the door of homes still displaying Trump signs in the front yards and ask the people inside just exactly WTF is wrong with them. I am viscerally and visibly tempted to do such things to the point it scares my wife. But mostly I keep the worst comments to myself. I have never, in my writings during and since the election, referred to Trump voters, or the population who didn’t bother to vote at all, as “stupid,” intolerably or otherwise. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to. I still do. I want to lash out that way. But whenever I go down that road of thought I get the feeling that it is counterproductive and morally perilous.
Sure, there are bigots and racists and sexists and xenophobes (the deplorables) who voted for Trump. In fact, there are more of them than even Hillary estimated. We can, and should, loudly call them what they are and attack them mercilessly. And there are some really affluent folks who saw in Trump a way to further enrich themselves, either through tax cuts or through other means. We should severely criticize and excoriate these people, as they will likely never see past their greed. And there are some religious zealots who championed Trump because they believe he is an answer to their apocalyptic prayers, who think God sent Trump to either restore fundamentalist Christianity to its “rightful” place or to usher in a deadly Armageddon. These folks should simultaneously be ridiculed and pitied for being poisoned by jihadist nonsense.
That leaves some really ignorant, low-information or misinformed working-class or poor people who would, reluctantly or enthusiastically, run over you on their way to the polls to vote for a man who would cut their economic throats for an extra dollar, a man who will, eventually, sign on to his party’s policies and “reforms” that will hurt those unfortunate people. The worst in me wants to write them off, wants them to get what they deserve for being duped by an obvious grifter and charlatan with more than one personality disorder. But I can’t bring myself to write off those folks or wish ill upon them. Ultimately, if I want to maintain my emotional ballast, if I want to remain morally stable, if I want to retain the highest ethical ground, I don’t want such people to get screwed by the man they ignorantly trusted. I don’t want them to get hurt, if only for the simple and sound reason that so many similarly situated folks who didn’t vote for Trump would get hurt along with them.
This latter group of Trump voters I speak of comprises folks I grew up with in southeast Kansas, some in my extended family. Others are now my neighbors here in southwest Missouri. Some, for God’s sake, are in my labor union. I want to shake them and tell them how stupid they are. Alternatively, I get angry at their ignorance. I get pissed that they are so militantly pro-Trump and, more often, so militantly anti-Obama. Thus, I know the emotion you felt when you wrote about living “in a nation so intolerably stupid that people actually look up to Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions and yes, Sara Palin.”
The difference between us is that I cannot unreservedly use the phrase “intolerably stupid” to describe that latter group of folks I mentioned. I want to, but if I did I would feel like I had given in to cynicism. And I believe cynicism is our biggest enemy as a nation. I believe cynicism will, if left unchecked, lead to the failure of our American democratic experiment. It may be too late already. I don’t know. But part of the fight against Trumpism is a fight against the temptation toward cynicism, toward disillusionment and distrust of democracy. An ancient Jewish proverb (found in early rabbinic commentaries on the Book of Genesis) goes like this: “Physician, Physician, Heal thine own limp!” It’s hard to command others to walk straight through this propaganda-filled, “fake news” world, if we ourselves are crippled by cynicism.
I want to quote something FDR said at the end of one of his Fireside Chats in April of 1935, right in the middle of the Great Depression:
We have in the darkest moments of our national trials retained our faith in our own ability to master our destiny. Fear is vanishing and confidence is growing on every side, faith is being renewed in the vast possibilities of human beings to improve their material and spiritual status through the instrumentality of the democratic form of government.
There is no other way we can survive, as free men and women, except to keep “our faith in our own ability to master our destiny” and to believe that we can improve ourselves “through the instrumentality of the democratic form of government.” It is quite possible this faith is misplaced and useless. It is quite possible the “instrumentality” of democratic governance is broken beyond repair. If it is, what we say to each other doesn’t matter. But if it is broken but reparable, what we say to—and about—each other matters a lot. And that’s why I can’t join you in your cynicism, no matter how tempting it is to do so.
I have to believe that what plagues us can be fixed. After all, many more people voted against Trump than voted for him. I therefore hold on to the hope that the sickness we see around us can be healed. I cling to a tenuous secular faith that says we can be well again. And from an admittedly wobbly soapbox I will wage rhetorical war against the sin of Trumpism—itself infected with cynicism—without, in some special cases only, waging war against the sinners. I will be part of the resistance while resisting a deflating despondency. I will express my gloom without embracing democratic doom.
It’s a fine line, I admit. But for me at least, it’s good enough to get me out of the foxhole to advance the fight—and the light. Otherwise, the foxhole will become a grave—and the darkness will surely win.