The Awful President America Needed

(I hope you guys like ten-page essays. That seems to be all I’m capable of writing these days.)

So: Trump, huh?

You’ve probably noticed, but I’ve been mentioning for a while on this blog, implicitly and explicitly, that I’m pretty confident the US will at some point collapse. Perhaps those of you who have been skeptical might now be a bit more willing to consider my assertion?

If you consider yourself progressive, a Democrat, or even just a decent human being, it may very well feel like it’s the end of the world right now. Get some marshmallows while you still can, and when it comes time for it, spend the last few days you have left of life in a decent world roasting them while you watch it all burn. The day after the election I overheard housemates saying, “It’s not okay. I’m not okay.” A friend of mine wrote on the internet that hearing the news of Trump sent her into a form of panic attack, a real and all-encompassing physical reaction akin to a war flashback. I read that suicide hotlines are seeing two to eight times their usual call volume.

I hope feelings like these haven’t seized you. Because it’s not the end of the world. No, it really isn’t. I promise.

For one, I stand by the post I wrote a few days before the election—where I said that, whether Clinton or Trump got elected, the net direct effect to your everyday life would probably have been roughly equal. After all, it’s our everyday lives that really matter to us. What happens in Washington is, on most days, no real material concern to us.

This is of course not always true, nor equally true for everyone. Some days you’re forced right up face-to-face with the workings of Obamacare. Some day in the future a loved one of yours may go off to war because of the machinations in the capital. If you’re from another country and living here, an ICE raid may someday make your life and your family’s lives a lot more miserable. All of these are real things. My point, though, is that for most of us, most of the time, if we clear our minds and let our preoccupation with the DC drama fall away like so many autumn leaves, we can focus in on the present moment and appreciate what we have that is good.

This, of course, is nothing more than a beginning Buddhist could tell you. Moreover, it’s not helpful on the days when the government does matter to you in a big way. But to close that gap, there’s something else I want to say: I believe there are some real, solid reasons for hope in this time, reasons that are far more tangible than the Buddha’s philosophy. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible, even probable, that we’re going to end up better off than we would have been if Clinton had been elected.

Now that I’ve just pissed off a sizeable number of the people who read this, I had better explain.

First, I need to tell you some good things about Trump. Don’t worry, I’ll have plenty bad to say later on, too. If you’ve just experienced an immediate impulse to dismiss the rest of this post as Trump apologetics and click away, please resist it. It’s important. For now, just bear in mind that this is all coming from me, and I, at least I hope to think, am a generally decent and empathetic person.

I have to back up a little bit further before I can say these good things, though, because there’s some context that’s necessary. That context is that the vast preponderance of Trump’s voters did not, in fact, vote him in because they’re bigots. Really they didn’t. At first, if you’re liberal like most people I know, it’s hard to accept that this might be true. Aside from how it was constantly stated by most news outlets that Trump was going after the bigot vote, there also seems to be straightforward logic: “Trump is clearly bigoted. I’m against him because he’s bigoted. So the people who are for him must be for him because he’s bigoted just like them.” If you reason like this, you have created a very scary world for yourself indeed, as well as committing a grave logical error. What’s much closer to the truth, in this case, is one of the logical possibilities overlooked here: Trump’s supporters are, for the most part, not particularly bigoted, and they voted for him even though he says bigoted things.

The numbers support this interpretation:

Trump made gains among blacks. He made gains among Latinos. He made gains among Asians. The only major racial group where he didn’t get a gain of greater than 5% was white people. I want to repeat that: the group where Trump’s message resonated least over what we would predict from a generic Republican was the white population.

Nor was there some surge in white turnout. I don’t think we have official numbers yet, but by eyeballing what data we have it looks very much like whites turned out in equal or lesser numbers this year than in 2012, 2008, and so on.

This is from an excellent article by a writer named Scott Alexander. The article also goes into great detail about how repetitively and singlemindedly the press kept itself stuck on the “Trump is racist” story. It was a story, interestingly, that never had that much to go on, though I don’t hope to convince you of that here; you’ll have to read that article, and I hope the idea that Trump might not actually be all that racist is interesting and provoking enough to make you read it, because it’s an extremely good article and a breath of fresh air. (And don’t skip it because you suspect it’s full of Trump puffing: Alexander’s big takeaway is that the racism angle was a “a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him.”)

Well, if they weren’t racists, who were they? Now, I’m not going to write an article trying to answer that question; it’s been done, and done well. (Since I’m sure it’s also been done poorly, here’s a link to an article that I consider to have gotten it pretty much on the money: “Trump and the Revolt of the Rust Belt”.) Really the answer is pretty simple: they were mostly poor people from small towns and the country.

Yes, those people still exist. It’s easy to forget about them if you live in a city. (And believe me, they’re well aware of that.) And these people, for the last several decades, have been getting bled dryer and dryer every passing year, as factories pull up stakes and move to China, as global trade drives down the price of grain and drives up the price of the machinery a farm needs to stay competitive, as the nation moves itself into the cities. I live in a city, and I don’t see any of this stuff: life looks fine to me. But to these people, life hasn’t been fine for a long time.

Another thing I’m not going to try to do here is describe these people’s lives, for similar reasons: because I don’t know what it’s like first-hand, and because it’s already been done well. Just before the election, I linked to “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind”, a bawdy humor article peppered with middle-schooler dick jokes, but which also happens, underneath that, to be one of the best introductions to the desperation of the country that you’re likely to find on the internet. If you’ve never lived in a small town that’s gasping for air, you should read it.

And these people aren’t stupid. They have a very good idea of what the cause is: mechanization, trade agreements, involvement in foreign wars—all the consequences of globalization. Which is also exactly what Hillary Clinton and the rest of the neoliberals have been telling us all should be humanity’s highest goal.

But to give you one more piece of this puzzle, consider John Michael Greer’s observations in his solid-Trump town in Maryland. He evidently made a point of talking politics to a lot of people this election season, and what he found was that Trump supporters were casting their vote for these reasons:

  • The risk of war. People in poor areas, where the military is a big employer, would rather not see their sons come home from a desert in a body bag.
  • “The Obamacare disaster.” People out there are in the magical middle land of income brackets, where they don’t get much subsidy but they sure have to pay (and even then their deductibles are too high for them to manage).
  • Bringing back jobs. Like I mentioned: it’s depressed out there.
  • Punishing the Democratic party. This one coming from a different demographic—Bernie Sanders supporters who are now fed up with the Democratic party.

Reasons that no one mentioned, he says, included “the email server business, the on-again-off-again FBI investigation, … hatred toward women, people of color, sexual minorities, and the like.”

Simply put, Trump’s support was never about race. Not in any meaningful numerical sense. It was about people electing someone who might, just might, help them stop living in squalor.

With that cleared up—and if you don’t consider it cleared up yet, please read some of the articles I linked to, chew on them a bit, and come back, after which please feel free to disagree—I can get back to how I was going to tell you something good about Trump. It’s this: a lot of the policies that he (claims that he) intends to put in place would actually be quite good steps toward reversing the trends that have drained the lifeblood out of the hinterlands (and also, by the way, caused middle-class wages in both city and country to slump and stagnate steadily since at least the Reagan era).

I’ll give you the policies in the man’s own words. It’s helpful to read what he’s been saying to his followers directly, instead of relying on the news to filter what’s important to hear. It’s great that we have a free press and all, but since they were able to be so consistently wrong for so long on this election, I have to question their accuracy when they try to do a post-mortem on it.

So let’s start off with a few gimmes that I think nearly anyone could agree with: fixing our government’s problem of too many people who get into office, stay there, and do practically nothing but get themselves wealthy and re-elected.

What follows is my 100-day action plan to Make America Great Again. …

  • FIRST, propose a Constitutional Amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress;
  • SECOND, a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health);
  • THIRD, a requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated;
  • FOURTH, a 5 year-ban on White House and Congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service;
  • FIFTH, a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government;
  • SIXTH, a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.

Okay, the hiring freeze is perhaps a bit dodgy, especially because he tosses in several loopholes later in his list for things like law enforcement (aren’t we policed plenty?). The rest, well, I have to say they seem, strangely enough, pretty reasonable. Fewer lobbyists? More turnover in Congress? Well alright!

Then, more relevantly to what I’ve been talking about, there’s this:

  • FIRST, I will announce my intention to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205
  • SECOND, I will announce our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership
  • THIRD, I will direct my Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator
  • FOURTH, I will direct the Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers and direct them to use every tool under American and international law to end those abuses immediately

Aside from the one about China (which I’m not really sure what to make of), I’m pretty sure I like all of these. These are motions in the direction of shrinking the US’s influence. They’re ways of decreasing globalization. And that’s a good thing.

The world’s governments have been integrating and centralizing a lot for the last seventy or so years. The European Union is the most famous example. There’s also ASEAN in Asia, and NATO and NAFTA closer to home. The US has also undergone its own internal process of centralization, and is now far from its original conception as a series of loosely federated, fairly sovereign nation-states. And we’ve mostly taken that as a good thing; after all, it allows us to have strawberries flown in from Chile in January. But that’s the superficial benefit that allows a massive iceberg of problems to grow.

Globalization can be seen as a process of removing the baffles that keep wealth from concentrating. If you live in a village of a thousand people with a subsistence economy and not much trade, the wealth you can aspire to is on the level of a very well-built homestead with good harvests. If you live in an semi-isolated city-state like Ur or Athens, you may manage to become the opulent king, though it’s more likely you’ll be a peon. A global society can produce someone who is globally wealthy, indeed many such people. But the larger the pyramid, the more stones are in its base—and the more thoroughly they’re crushed. To support the lifestyle of those Americans who can afford to buy nice cars and each new iPhone, our economic systems wreak devastation on the people and land of other countries and our own, and the amount of damage is commensurate with the wealth we gain by it. Everything you have comes from somewhere.

A country’s size and degree of centralization, as I see it, are not a side concern. They are perhaps the most important factor in determining its citizens’ quality of life and the population’s relationship with the planet. Likely the book I should be citing here is E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, but unfortunately I haven’t read that; I have, though, read The Overdeveloped Nations, by Schumacher’s forerunner, Leopold Kohr. It is a simply and elegantly reasoned argument that the more a country is centralized, the worse things get, in not-so-obvious ways that run from bureaucratic gridlock all the way down to individual quality of life, and I recommend it.

Kohr looked very closely at the effects of globalization but, to my memory, didn’t really look at the causes. Once we look at those, we see that backing down from the frenzied race to centralization that we’ve been playing is not just a nice idea, it’s absolutely necessary in order for us to start creating the culture we’re going to need desperately very soon.

Because the cause of globalization is: cheap energy. And that’s exactly what the world is starting to run short of.

It takes energy to globalize. With each new layer of governance, you have that many more middlemen to pay. But if you suddenly find that you don’t have the energy to extract the resources that feed and clothe and warm these people, things get ugly fast. And that’s the point we’re reaching. That’s why it’s important to decentralize. If Trump follows through on that, it may be looked back on a hundred years from now as the most important thing for the US to have done at this time.

Now, whether or not he’s going to do any of what’s in his list is an open question. And that’s what’s going to make these next four years—and their reverberations through the decades to come—ve-e-e-ry interesting.

So I’ve gotten through the good things I wanted to say about Trump. Now we get to the bad. And let’s be clear: there’s plenty of bad. Again, let’s just go to the most direct source to find it: what Trump said himself. Here are a few more of his bullet points.

  • FIFTH, I will lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars’ worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal.
  • SIXTH, lift the Obama-Clinton roadblocks and allow vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline, to move forward
  • SEVENTH, cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and use the money to fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure

This said while there are thousands of people, both immigrants to this continent (like you and me) and Natives from most of the tribes on Turtle Island, gathered in tepees and tents on Dakota land at Sacred Stone Reservation, where the Cannonball River flows into the Mississippi and either peculiarities of hydrology or spirits tumble the rocks into spheres. The people are there to stop the continent’s pillagers from sending their black snake of a pipeline to burrow through hallowed land that one observer has described as the Dakota equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery, as well as under the Missouri River where its toxic blood would one day poison the water for thousands of miles downstream.

Or take this:

8. Restoring Community Safety Act. Reduces surging crime, drugs and violence by creating a Task Force On Violent Crime and increasing funding for programs that train and assist local police; increases resources for federal law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors to dismantle criminal gangs and put violent offenders behind bars.

So, in the midst of public outrage at how many people are getting shot by cops, the solution is to double down on having the cops treat everyone as violent criminals, and to hire more of them.

And that’s just to look at a few of the things he said explicitly he’d like to do. It’s impossible to predict what else he’s likely to do, but one possible way to guess is to assume that he wants to be re-elected, so as to really prove beyond any doubt how great he is. If he wants that, then he’s going to have to make things happen for those people out in the country and the small towns. That’s the message of his entire “100 days” list that I’ve been quoting; if you read it straight through it sounds less like a coherent list of policies and more like a compilation of everything that anyone who’s been called “white trash” would put on their Christmas list if it suddenly turned out Santa was real. If they win big from that list, who loses?

Well, for starters, undocumented immigrants. A lot of them are already living in fear that ICE will raid their houses at five in the morning and haul them off with all their children. Now Trump says he wants to cancel all federal funding to the Sanctuary Cities, a group of cities where the cops aren’t allowed to do that, and wants to step up deportations drastically.

Relatedly, there’s anyone who wants to immigrate to the US from, well, most places that are likely to have people who want to move to the US. Say for example Syria. Your apartment in Aleppo is now smithereens, and even if there’s a ceasefire there, the city is still going to be a ruined hull for years. You have no home and no prospects of one. Greece has closed its borders. Maybe, maybe, an aid organization will fly you to America. Nope, not while Trump’s president. It would be hard not to give up on life.

Closer to home, another interesting loser is the urban middle class; if Trump succeeds in stopping all the offshoring, those iPhones are going to get a lot more expensive—as will everything else that’s made in China (i.e. over half of what you own). I’m not so sure I count it as a bad thing if the price of consumer electronics goes up, though, being as how that might mean that some people who work to assemble them in a factory might actually get something closer to a living wage, and be able to eat more than just rice.

Less trivially, there are the people who benefit from Obamacare. There are many people who have gotten coverage for treatment that they couldn’t have gotten before, and may not get afterward. There are people who will literally die if Obamacare is discontinued.

This list is partial because I’m not a soothsayer. The bottom line is that the policies Trump is proposing would be unequivocally awful for a lot of people (human and non-).

But even that gives me cause for optimism. And for a reason that, I think, has the potential to bring more positive change than any of the other things I’ve discussed.

Here’s the thing: all of those bad things that I just listed? All of them are already happening. Chew on this fact for a moment: Obama has had more people deported than any other president. More than all the presidents of the twentieth century added together, in fact: two and a half million of them. And all these civil rights abuses by cops that we’re protesting against right now? They’re happening under Obama’s aegis. Obama has also welcomed in a whole new form of killing innocent people: unmanned drone strikes. And remember how much he talked in 2008 about closing down Guantánamo? Now that I’ve mentioned it you do, but you let yourself forget for eight years. Don’t take that too hard; I think most of us who claim to be progressive have too. Because we had a Good President in office. He has a big smile and a mellifluous voice and he plays basketball. And have you noticed he’s black, which means it’s impossible for any minority individual to be treated unfairly by his administration?

In the words of an Indigenous Action Media columnist: “For those of you surprised at the results of this tumultuous spectacle, welcome to the ‘America’ that we have always known.”

The vast majority of us—I should probably include myself—decided to pay functionally no attention to these issues. Or to any issues, really. We didn’t need to. Obama had our backs. He was up there making the good decisions so we could live our lives.

It took something unthinkable to make any of us sit up and pay attention. It took the election of Donald Trump. Suddenly, shit is real.

But you know what? Even though it’s absurd that it took this bad of a president to make us wake up, people are sure as hell waking up now. Last week I asked Misty how they were doing, and they said, “Well, I was slipping into my usual fall depression.” (This usually involves several months of heavy Netflix usage, in my experience.) “But then after I found out about the election, I suddenly had a rush of energy. ‘I have something to fight against! I have something to live for!!’ ” My housemate Emily says that the more she reads about Trump the worse it seems, and she realizes that the only sane response is to start fighting. “I really just want to do something every day.” My inbox has been filling up with letters from every organization whose newsletters I’ve been tolerating, all of them headlined with some variation on “This is what we have to do now: we’re going to fight like never before.”

Earlier this week Misty and I were inside in the morning when we heard drumbeats coming down the street. We ran outside and found a hundred people filling up the big street outside our house and marching down it. An indigenous Mexican dance troupe headed the procession, spinning around in their enormous quetzal-feather headdresses and their rattling pants. Behind them were people announcing that enough was enough, the Dakota Access Pipeline cannot go through, the treaties need to be honored. We walked with them to the end of the march at the Minneapolis American Indian Center and listened to people with spirit letting their spirit speak. And as we walked home, we spotted first one, then another, and finally three bald eagles low overhead, flying straight toward the people.

People: remember this feeling. Remember this passion. Remember that the fight is not over. Because it’s actually only just beginning. Don’t let the feeling fade away into nothing, like the people who profit from the status quo hope you will. We’ve finally grasped that there are important things worth fighting for in the world. The election of Trump may be what it takes to tear us away from our blipping bleeping devices and start doing things that will actually change the world.

This is the most important thing to keep in mind. Remember to fight, and if you do, Donald Trump will not determine the shape of the future, you will. Because politics doesn’t shape culture; politics follows culture (or isolates itself from culture—until the culture stops letting it). Create a culture that’s worth following.

Lastly I want to say a couple things about what this could look like.

If Trump actually does begin de-globalizing this country, we’re going to be in for something of a shock. The US is the world’s number one exporter of problems. We here can imagine that the world is free from want, but that’s because we’ve exported all our want, in the form of extractive industries that bring us resources from the ruined lands of ruined people abroad, and in the form of pennies-per-day wages for the people who make practically everything in our lives. Something that Trump may not realize is that the process of de-globalizing is going to involve bringing those problems back home where we can see them.

But this, like so many things I’ve mentioned, is also counterintuitively a good thing. First, it means that in a lot of countries we rarely think about, foreign-run sweatshops and plantations would have a good chance of gradually turning back into farms run by locals. Second, it means that we would be forced to see what our way of life does to the Earth, and we would be appalled. I read an anecdote once, and I forget where, about a first-worlder who was visiting some much poorer country. He noticed that there was trash all over on the streets, and pointed it out to his host to ask why they didn’t clean it up. His host said that it seemed that in his own country, people lived more honestly: if we’re generating all this garbage, shouldn’t we live among it so we realize what we’re doing?

Only if you live with the consequences of your actions will you start to take responsibility for them. The US has created the most elaborate and effective systems in the world for moving the consequences of its actions somewhere else so we Americans (or the ones of us who are important) can have a well-decorated house for entertaining the neighbors and a Nice Place to Raise a Family. It’s worked out well for us, but it’s been the shits for much of the rest of the world; that’s why there is a third world.

So if Trump tells the Saudis to pack sand and tries to bring home all our oil production to the US shale fields, people are going to actually notice. It’s easy to ignore rainforests being destroyed for our beef and soy in Brazil, or banana plantation workers enslaved to companies across Latin America, but if our problems are here in our home, we’re going to see them, and we’re going to be motivated to do something about them.

The other thing I want to note is that it’s important to realize that you don’t win a chess game by only reacting to your opponent’s moves. That means your opponent controls the game, and it’s almost a certainty that all your moves that seem brilliant to you are playing directly into their hands.

Trump probably doesn’t play chess, but the same thing applies. Over these next four or—dare we breathe the word—eight years, don’t let your actions to make the world better be limited to holding up signs that say NO. When you hold up that sign, your opponent has already won. Holding protest marches is fun but it’s questionable what it achieves. Several of my housemates have been involved with the Coalition for Justice for Jamar—Jamar being Jamar Clark, who was shot dead by cops a year ago in Minneapolis for no adequate reason. The Coalition has organized some marches, but to my mind its true strength lies in how its members have come together, people of all different colors, and ages from middle school to our elders, and become allies and good friends.

If you want to create a society that respects all races, by all means insist that police be held accountable. But at least as important as legislating racism out is erasing racism from the ground up by introducing people of different races to each other. The concept of gay marriage went from inconceivable to obviously fine in no small part because so many people knew someone who was gay, and that person was fine. Racism has somewhat more of an uphill battle because so many of us are still so geographically and socially separated from people of other colors—but if we keep moving the way we have been, it’s well down the right track.

Similarly, if you want to help out the environment, for fuck’s sake don’t do what Al Gore did. Al Gore gave a PowerPoint presentation that amounted to a sign saying NO, but meanwhile all his actions said OH HELL YES, from the private jets to the multiple luxury homes. The environment doesn’t care about symbolic actions. It cares about the amount of carbon you put into the air; it cares about the amount of rainforest leveled on your behalf. Lead by example: like I said last week, grow your own food. Turn your heat down, or even better, install a super-efficient woodburning rocket stove mass heater.

To me, actions like these are not only more useful but also immensely more satisfying than walking around with a sign. Because they have an effect! Your governor is absolutely free to ignore the signs you wave. The environment can thank you immediately for cooking your rice with a haybox or a Wonderbag instead of leaving a burner on, and when you make friends with someone you wouldn’t normally talk to, you both benefit immediately by having a new friend. Today I helped chop and chuck an enormous pile of firewood that’s going to go to warm the tents at Sacred Stone, and I knew that I was helping in a real, material way.

So the only thing left for me to do is to challenge you, and challenge myself: what real-world, tangible actions can you take that make the world a better place? Misty came up with an answer last week: they’ve taken to going out of their way to say hi to people who are a different color than them. Already one person has been surprised to hear Misty say hi, and when the two of them talked politics a little, the person said, “I thought all white people loved Trump!” Imagine if everyone did that: it would be a start. Imagine if a few people did that the first week, then thought of something else to do the second week and did both things, and at the same time introduced this idea to a few new people they’d never talked to before, and went on to do something new each new week. The momentum would be practically unstoppable. Getting to that point isn’t nearly as simple or straightforward as the pyramid-scheme way I just described it, but it is possible—especially if, instead of focusing on the whole country, you focus on your community first, and let the rest work its way up. But it’s only possible if you take the first step. If you stay at home and post your outrage on Facebook, your spark falls onto bare concrete. If you do take that step, the next one will be revealed to you before you know it, and your flame will kindle.

And let me know, in comments here or on Facebook (whichever works for you), what you’re going to do. I’ll let you know what I’m going to do. And then we’ll both do it.

File under: politics, deep thoughts


Anonymous

History

From Mom…another fineky written and eloquent post. Should be published elaewhere. Thinking along the line× of Berry and even more eloquent if that's even possible. I will let you knoq what i will do though i'm alsready doing and have done many of those things already.

Reply

Hit Enter twice for a new paragraph. You can use asterisks to make *italics* and **bold**, and you can make links like so: [link says this](and goes to this address). Other fancy formatting possible via Markdown. (More)