Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Manifest Destiny or 'If Donald Trump is the answer, what is the question?'


You will look back at my blog and wonder: Jeez I knew my grandpa.  What was he thinking when that reality TV star became U.S. president after Barack Obama?

Well, three things.  The first is this idea of the message vs the messenger.  We have that great saying, don't shoot the messenger.  But it seems to me Americans have something very backwards. They pick a president like Barack or Donald and think that with the right message - "Hope + Change" or "Make America Great Again" - that they'll be able to get things done.  When nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is: they have a country now where the messenger will determine the audience before a word is said.  McLuhan said the medium was the message.  Well, in a world built on appearances, the messenger is louder than the message.  Anyone who thinks that Donald Trump is going to unify anything, make the majority of the country that didn't vote for him listen after everything that he's said already, would do well to remember how his much more careful and considerate predecessor fared attempting the same thing.

So America seems to have abandoned the idea of unity.  They pay lip service obviously - it sounds good.  They put E Pluribus Unum on their money, after all.  But the melting pot?  Shared American values?  What would those be?  If decency was one of them, I mean, they just elected Donald Trump. This summer I watched Team USA basketball get the United States. If Americans can't uniformly cheer for an Olympic national baskeball team...

The messenger is more important than the message.  When I last checked politics was about shared interest and communication.  But America is defined by self-interest and messengers.  The cult of celebrity that has worked its way into every facet of their lives, is now complete.  A man got elected president because of his ability to entertain.  Will the quality of those who put their name in the hat going forward improve or degrade?

They've had two elections in 20 years where someone had less votes that the other person and became president.  The first was decided not by counting all the votes but instead by the Supreme Court.   So in addition to giving up on unity, giving up on decency, giving up on the importance of the message and policy, they've also seemed to abandoned the idea that a mandate comes from getting more votes than the next guy (or gal).  So one wonders what they'll abandon next?

The second thing is: there was a lot of talk about how Donald Trump couldn't win an election appealing just to white people.  Again, I think that Americans have that backward.  Obviously white people are as unified a group as black people or any demographic entity.  But America is a white country, the same way Japan is a Japanese country.  Trying to win without actively catering to white anxiety and fears would be like trying to win a Japanese election without appealing to the concerns of ethnic Japanese.  Non hispanic whites are 2/3rds of the country.  If you win them by enough it really doesn't matter what else happens. 

I think people tend to think of America as the world in microcosm, as representative of humanity.  We get this notion that the melting pot is a kind of gulash or gumbo. When in reality its clam chowder with some other stuff added for flavour.  America isn't nearly as diverse culturally, intellectually or racially as anyone thinks.  There are huge swaths of that country where the percentage of non-white people plummets into single digits.  There are not huge swaths of the country where the percentage of white people is in single digits.  White nationalism is a thing and a very potent thing especially when voter turnout averages around 50%.  A one-percent uptick in white participation will tip any balance, no matter how comfortable a statistical model.

And finally, something I've been mulling around in my head for a while but can't be bothered to really explore further. There is this unresolved tension at the heart of every American.  The rest of the world cheers them on, wanting the best and assuming their best is best for the world.  But they have a big problem.  It's like a rot in the foundation and it cuts across other more visible difficulties of class, gender and race..  It's built into the country's DNA as it is in no other country the world, so there really isn't any other situation to compare it with.  And it is this.

Contrary to the beliefs of, I would say, a solid majority of Americans, the city named after George Washington isn't some foreign entity.  It isn't a foreign power, it isn't an invading force, it isn't a overbearing occupier.  Washington, D.C. and the elected officials that work there is nothing more or less that a concentrated version of the country in miniature.   Americans have this sense that Washington D.C. has to work independent of the opinions and disquiets of the people, because they honestly believe that Washington is something fundamentally separate from a steel worker in Mississippi or a Oil rig worker in Alaska.   To them its just a broken machine, like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey that needs the right mechanic to fix it.  But the undeniable truth, to which most of their people are completely oblivious, is that the politicians of Washington D.C. and the sum total of the work that does (or doesn't) happen there are just a reflection of the people who send them, just a reflection of the country at large.  It isn't that Washington D.C. doesn't work (and that would be a pretty bad problem if that were all it is).  It's that Washington D.C. doesn't work because the country doesn't work and the parts of the country that they send to Washington won't work together any better than the whole from which they are derived.  The parts of the country don't fit together (easily) anymore.

If anyone took one American from each state and put all 50 of them in a room and asked them to get something important or substantial done, they'll end up in just as much gridlock as does the House and Senate.  They would find that they had a lot less in common than is suggested by the word 'nation'. Some of them will argue that they shouldn't try to solve the problem collectively but rather individually.  Some people will ally with people that look like them.  Some women would stick together against predatory loners.  A third of them in the room would have a gun and the other two-thirds would be weary of that first third.  They honestly lament Washington as an outside problem to be solved by an outside agent - Barack or Donald.  They see the problem as something separate from themselves.

How could this be?  How could they not see that Washington is literally a pulsating symptom of a disease at the heart of the country?  To my mind, it is for two reasons.  The reality is that there are two diseases at work, an old, chronic one and one of a recent making...a philosophical one and a social one.

The philosophical affliction is that wide swaths of the populace know that government is bad and shouldn't be trusted.  Which is fine if you live in a dictatorship...but in an elected democracy that has a two century old history of free and fair elections that fundamental distrust of government is a fundamental distrust of your own people: your neighbours, your partners, your allies.  I'd love for someone to explain how they can have it both ways but near as I can figure a line can't be neatly drawn between the government of a country and its people when the government is made of the people, by the people and for the people.  Distrusting a government made up of citizens, by citizens, for the benefit of citizens = distrust of citizens.  That is simple logic.  The rhetoric tries to tease out and separate the two - put good guys on one side, bad guys on the other.  Some times the good guys are unions, some times the good guys are corporations.  But the bad guys are always in Washington. 

And you can't have it both ways.  Either you have a democracy, and a government made up of regular folks, and the will of the people is expressed every two years and every elected official devoting their life to public service is a patriot and its the BEST.THING.EVER. and your government is the envy of the world OR the government is a foreign parasite siphoning the energy of its people in order to feed a bureaucratic machine that breaks the backs of its citizens through taxation and over-regulation, enriches itself, encourages corruption and reduces the hopes and dreams of free man and womankind to rabble.  

It can't be both of those things at the same time.

The Founders took their distrust of foreign control and the understandably romantic image of themselves as rebel liberators realizing freedom through violent revolt past its logical conclusion and applied it wholesale to the relationships between Washington and the states, into the very blueprint of the country and its spiritual sense of itself.  And 240 years later, surprise, surprise, it simply isn't helpful from a standpoint of unifying a nation. Americans elect people to federal office by the will of their neighbours and then spend 2,4,6 years distrusting that will until the next election.  But this is simply distrusting your neighbors over and over again until you get to the point where the distrust is the only thing that you can agree upon.  And that is precisely where they are now.  An American in L.A. (Los Angeles) is not likely to agree on a lot of public policy (if they are even familiar with it) with an American from LA (Louisiana).  But they both agree that they agree that Washington is full of worthless bums.  

Heh, no.  Washington is full of people like the one that stares back at you from the mirror...who do the exact same things that you would if you were in Washington. 

The social disease is more well documented, has even more consequence for the digital age, and is more overt.  It is simply the conscious effort by certain politicians for the short-sighted and reprehensible benefit of a political party at the expense of the republic (a word that must seem foreign to most Americans) to redraw congressional districts and basically render voting counties the equivalent of concentration camps of like-mindedness: echo chamber ghettos that combine with the emergence of the web and social media to give people a sense of access to information, a sense of being informed, while rendering themselves more ignorant than ever before by continually, willingly and eagerly exposing themselves to increasingly clever, trite, meme-like, faux-outrageous and entertaining expressions of their own beliefs.  The double-whammy is that this is the convergence of both an analog and digital process.  The counties were made into physical echo chambers of the real world.  The Web and network meeting places like forums and Facebook serve as virtual echo chambers and amplifiers of the chatter in the cyber world.  They filter out disagreement, contrasting viewpoints, nuance, cosmopolitanism, and diversity in the same way that a canopy of leaves starve the underbrush of a forest of sunlight. 

Combine these four things: a political heritage of mistrust of the very place and people that most represents their unity, a spirit and identity that deifies violent revolt, a logistical electoral map drawn to create even more borders and division between people but this time borders not of space but of thought and ideology itself, and a cyber world that makes it easier than ever before to never have to revise or revisit the merits of any opinions of public consequence...what chance do any mere heartfelt words or best intentions have when pitted against those four things?  It's like trying to redefine gravity.  It's like trying to change the course of a hurricane with an electric fan.  They're just mere words pitted against culture, heritage, technology and institutionalized decisions, lines consciously and deliberately drawn in ink on a map.  The percentages of states won in the electoral college may change but that popular election count is crystallizing near the 50/50 stalemate.  And this is the worst outcome of all.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, people don't want to win.  They think they do, but they don't. What they want is certainty.  What they want is to have people respect their win, recognize it and bend the knee.  They want people to recognize their superiority.  They want to have the answer, have the faith of others and lead.  Respect and obeisance without victory will always be taken over victory without respect.  The Cavs won the title over the Warriors and you'd be hard pressed to say that the Cavs were clearly the best team in basketball, when they eeked out the title in 7 games over a Warriors team that dominated the season, won more games than any other team in history and won the stronger conference against harder opponents.

But to squeak out the win...does Donald Trump have a mandate?  He has the power but does he have a mandate, when more people voted for someone else?  Does he have some claim to being the leader of all Americans when there are whole cities in his own country that he'll never feel comfortable visiting?  Crowds in front of which the best he could hope for is to be booed?  How much progress can America hope to make if each successive administration simply wipes clean the efforts of the last?  The 50% win is meaningless.

And that is the real, real danger of President Trump.  Not that he'll be too influential.  But that ultimately he was the true turning point, the true realization of a Do-Nothing-America, living in the hopes of a return to an idealized illusion of the past, entering into the twilight of its significance, paralysed by being literally of two separate minds.  If neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump, a statesman and a salesman, two people more different than imaginable, can do anything of lasting importance to and for the United States, what American can?

- Grandpa