Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Two weeks after the Apocalypse

Yesterday morning I spoke on the phone with Rogelio, a mellow, slow-talking childhood friend from Cuba who after I mentioned Donald J. Trump raised his voice several decibels and erupted into a torrent of expletives not suitable for a family blog like this. He said he hadn't slept the night of the election and had felt nauseous the day after, before skidding into nearly a weeklong depression.

His reaction was typical but probably the most extreme was that of a friend who said she was so upset she ate a whole pecan pie right out of the box. She is still cursing Trump, two weeks after the election.

To say we are all just sore losers is a false and unfair equivalence. I was disappointed when George Bush Sr. defeated Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, particularly after the racist Willie Horton ad aired by the Republicans; dismayed when the U.S. Supreme Court handed the election to George W., in 2000 even though Al Gore had won the popular vote; and doubly dismayed when Bush was reelected in 2004, with the catastrophic, multi-trillion-dollar Iraq War already thundering in the background. I'm sure Republican friends were angry too when the Kenyan-born Barack Obama was elected and reelected. But we all accepted the results and moved on.

This is different. For all the faults and misjudgments of the Bush father-and-son team, and later Obama, they were basically honorable people with political agendas we didn't agree with. Now we've turned the presidency to an out-and-out racist, xenophobe and misogynist, who lies almost as often, and as casually, as he breathes. It feels as if he is about to desecrate the highest office and the White House, bringing along, for added insult, a former topless model to pose as First Lady.

Michelle and Barack, whatever your faults, we're going to miss you.

The first reaction Stew and I experienced after the election was the usual stage of grief—denial. Not that we didn't believe Trump had won but that we could shield ourselves against that reality by not watching or reading any news. We even abandoned the PBS News Hour, then headed by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, our favorite news team. To worsen matters a notch, Ifill died unexpectedly a few days after the election.

Then, for a moment, I embraced the "accepting the things we cannot change" fatalism proposed by some. But I don't buy that. I like Rogelio's rage much better—if only a bit more focused than yelling at friends on the phone, and seasoned with some historical perspective and even optimism.

Indeed, both Rogelio and I came to the U.S. in the early sixties and since then have witnessed this American democracy that is now our home go through some awful, seemingly catastrophic crises that would have plunged a lesser country into dictatorship or civil war.

Think of it: Today is the fifty-third anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, which was followed by the killings of his brother and of Martin Luther King, and attempts on two more presidents. The political fabric of the country was ripped by race riots, wars, domestic terrorists, and seemingly unbridgeable political chasms. All this may seem like distant history but should reassure and help us get through this latest low point.

A starting point is a searching, bipartisan post-mortem of how our political discourse has turned so poisonous and illogical. How did working class Americans, who for decades were well served by labor unions embrace a Republican party—think Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—that has set out to undermine or destroy labor unions? Or how did Democrats—think Bill and Hillary Clinton—join hands with Republicans to become shills of Wall Street interests that led directly to the economic debacle of 2008 that punched middle-class Americans right in the gut? Why do Republicans, historical supporters of open markets and free trade, now talk about walls and trade wars? And hey, didn't Sen. John McCain and liberal Democratic paladin Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsor a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005? And didn't Ayn Rand—libertarian goddess and guiding light of Rep. Paul Ryan—vehemently defend personal freedoms, including the right of a woman to choose whether to have abortion?

It's a screwy political era we live in, no doubt, in which winning at any cost trounces reason, principles or comprehension of other points of view. As Toni Morrison eloquently wrote in The Nation, "...when the political discourse is shredded by an unreason and hatred so deep that vulgar abuse seems normal, disaffection rules. Our debates, for the most part, are examples unworthy of a playground: name-calling, verbal slaps, gossip, giggles, all the while the swings and slides of governance remain empty."

To pull political discourse from the present swamp we'll need new leaders, probably some unknown to us right now. I wouldn't dare to propose any Republican candidates except there has to be a better lineup than the cavalcade of clowns we witnessed during the primaries, like Texas vacuum tube Gov. Rick Perry and others who just refuse to go away. Republicans need candidates who can articulate an economic and political platform that stands on something other than attacks on groups of Americans deemed to be different—be they immigrants, gays and lesbians, blacks or Muslims—that promote the discord that has led us to the present conundrum. If the emerging Trump cabinet is any indication, Republicans are a long ways from that ideal.

The Democrats too, need to find some new leadership and quit pretending that a jigsaw puzzle of special interests equals the national interest. Clinton, smart and capable as she may be, was no such inspirational figure. Instead she was a bruised and battered warrior with a sense of entitlement that it was "her turn." Millions voted for her with resignation rather than enthusiasm. To paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and Hillary, you're no Jack Kennedy."  Who the new Kennedy might be isn't clear. The Democrats have just four years to find him or her.

But perhaps the most essential but challenging ingredient to a political renewal is a sense of individual and communal compassion. The coal miners in West Virginia are not "deplorables" or white trash, but working folk desperately clinging to the only way of making a living they know. Mexican immigrants, even those who are undocumented, are not rapists or criminals but people who work to bring you the cheap and wonderful fruits and vegetables that you demand at Whole Foods. Muslims hanging on to sinking boats in the Mediterranean are not all fearsome terrorists but the latest image of souls trying to survive a horrible situation, just like the boat people from Cuba, Haiti or Vietnam, or the Ellis Island hordes that included Stew's parents from Norway.

If the rage, disgust and exhaustion most Americans feel after the recent presidential cycle is channeled into compassion for each other and a faith in the proven history, it can pull us out of this mess, I'm sure. We've done it before.

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