A crack in everything

by Katalin Balog

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”)

*This essay, on the personal in politics, is written in lieu of the final instalment of The Brain’s I, a series I have been publishing here on the subjective/objective divide in our lives and thought. The Brain’s I, Part 4, will appear here after the holidays.

UnionSquareCaptionNewI am so glad this mess was not Leonard Cohen’s last impression of the planet. But the rest of us are left to grapple with the same thing that occupied much of his work: how to affirm living in a broken world. The world was not quite whole on November 7th but we could still pretend, could still hope; November 8th has made it official. A giant crack has appeared – though not at all the one we have expected, and the country and the world has jumped with two feet into the abyss.

It is impossible to write or think anything about the causes of Trump’s victory and the nature of his support that is not hopelessly one-sided and has “particular point of view” written all over it. Right now, what we see divides us. But beyond all the sound and fury, the one inescapable fact is that the election is the expression of the will and soul of a significant portion of America. No amount of rational analysis or soul searching can blunt the message this sends. It hurts.

I. Rebellion

Early in the day of the election I thought of the pain and confusion Trump supporters would feel upon his loss. I could anticipate their reaction because I knew I would feel the same if my candidate lost. I was nervous and a bit uncertain but still expected Hillary to win. Later, when anticipation turned into dread, disbelief, and a growing sense of defeat, I did not think of the joy of the victors with sympathy. A chasm has opened; they were now the enemy. I was consumed now with a flood of sadness, fear and anger and revulsion I could not imagine just hours before. I was gripped by the same emotions many of Trump supporters, apparently, have felt for years, maybe decades… Was this the bitter medicine we needed to wake up? Was it poetic justice for festering inequality as some on the left suggest? Should we simply tone down the blame, and outrage, recognizing in our newly kindled primal hostility the mirror of the negative emotions we condemn in our adversary, as Martha Nussbaum suggests? There is something to all of this. But it’s all so much more complicated.

There is no sugarcoating this. This is not an ordinary disappointment about the wrong policy, the wrong candidate, things not going my way. It cannot be overcome by more tolerance and commitment to social justice. Whatever the motives and struggles of many of Trump’s voters, his election is an epic cultural, moral and intellectual collapse on the collective level. Crudeness, racism and ignorance has won.

It is his soulless conniving – clearly on display for all to see – that makes the idea of the Trump presidency, and a country that elected him so depressing. An unscrupulous racist, misogynist conman whose only commitment is to himself, whose main strategy has been to cheapen democratic institutions and spread lies about his opponents, Trump will do immense damage as president. As a commentator on MSNBC has put it, Trump’s election amounts to a hostile take-over of the American government by the Trump Organization. But none of this could have happened without the sizeable minority of the electorate that has, by and large, passionately endorsed his candidacy.

Trump has been, as far as I can see, rightly described by Mark Singer in a 1997 New Yorker profile as having “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul”, a person so superficial and vapid that one might question if he has what is ordinarily thought of as an inner life. He has not only objectified and used others; he has managed to objectify himself through an identification with the gaze of others, and by extension, the camera – the symbol of the public eye. Trump thinks of himself primarily as a character to be promoted no matter the cost. He personifies the worst and most superficial in the dominant culture: its obsession with fame, success and celebrity, its translation of all value into monetary terms. He embodies its dominant emotions: greed, insecurity and envy, at the expense of other sentiments and values more suited to a decent human life. And now these values will get a platform in the White House.

Trump is not only superficial and narcissistic, he is also grossly immoral, a conman, a man without any respect for major segments of our citizenry and the institutions of our democracy. How could so many people go along with him? Part of the answer lies in a crisis of fact based discourse and critical thought. This is not a new feature of American culture, but a number of factors have come together in a perfect storm. The spread of fake news on social media came at a moment when trust in mainstream media organizations had been already significantly eroded both on the right and the left and when critical thought on politics and public policy has been largely driven out by entertainment and sensationalism. Academia, and the intelligentsia has remained passive and complacent as the country reached new lows and ever laxer standards for public discourse. Some serious media organizations have upheld standards in reporting and commentary, and called out the dangerous spread of fake news. But much more urgency is needed if the full profundity of the problem is to break through to mainstream media and public consciousness.

Fact based, critical discourse should not remain a partisan, “elite” concern. Lacking a commonly agreed on base of facts, and the inclination and opportunity to think about these facts, a large part of the electorate seems to have simply accepted manufactured narratives – often tailor-made to fine-grained segments of it in so-called “dark posts” – that stoked their fears and pandered to their prejudices. Even more consequential than lies about politicians is science denial. Climate change, which a sizeable portion of the electorate still thinks is not happening, will bite our collective behinds with a vengeance unless Trump and his ilk reverse course on calling it a “hoax”. Lie-filled propaganda is of course nothing new in politics. Media in totalitarian countries always delivered a steady stream of whoppers. As East-Europeans liked to say after the war, you couldn’t even rely on the opposite being true of what the newspapers say. As for science, Stalin and Zhdanov determined back in the day that computer science and genetics are a “bourgeois pseudo-science”, and Hitler’s Germany dubbed relativity theory “Jewish physics”. The truth has a way of winning out in the end but not before the deniers have their day. And the ones holding the bag are usually not those responsible.

After this election, outrage and indignation are natural. But rage is a double edged sword. While it is necessary in order to keep up the fight in the coming cultural-social-political crisis, it can also do damage to the one who wields it, and the cause itself. Outrage is harmful not only because of the isolation it creates, the hopelessness it leads to, the stereotyping and demonizing it fosters but also because of the phony self-righteousness it drives one into. Like Ivan Karamazov in his rebellion against creation, one can easily imagine oneself above it all. But the fact is, I am part of the world, and I am tainted, compromised and imperfect. It is very easy for me to see that sexism is really pervasive and stubborn and survives even in people who do not hold sexist views. I am probably not the best judge, however, of how deep my opposition to racism is. If I want to be perfectly honest I will realize that it is a work in progress.

The task is then two-fold and difficult to pull off. Liberals who think we should soften the tone of condemnation because it is just one more example of the elite contempt rural Americans so rightly resent – are wrong, if what they suggest is more tolerance and openness for offensive views and attitudes Trump supporters espouse. In the near future we need to stand more, rather than less firmly on principle. But they are right that one should be careful to avoid hating the “enemy” (though I realize in some cases this might pose an unrealistically high standard). The principles we will be forced to defend in the coming years require that we willfully, with the aid of reason if necessary, extend concern and care to all of humanity. Hate is incompatible with concern. It breeds tribalism, the very enemy we are supposed to fight – the feeling that there are people who are simply not worth considering as human beings, who then become mere obstacles, undesirable objects to manage or eliminate.

II. Recognition

I grew up in communist Hungary. During that time, and before, for generations, politics had been a constant presence in everyday life. I am not saying that it dominated everything; there was life beyond, beneath, and above politics, but still the political was unavoidable. It provided the rank, oppressive, at times humiliating, at times ridiculous mise en scène of our lives. Living under communism, with still fresh memories of fascism around me – many in my extended family perished during one or the other – I learned to be wary of ideological extremes. I grew up knowing that there is an alternative: the democracies of the West which struck me, on my visits as an impoverished tourist from Eastern Europe, as obviously, vastly, and exhilaratingly superior to the places on my side of the iron curtain.

When I immigrated to the United States, after spending my youth in the slightly decadent democratic opposition scene of the 1980s in Budapest, it felt like an escape from politics and history altogether. Like a good enough mother, guarding inconspicuously the safety of her children, American democracy seemed to me – from the admittedly privileged vantage point of academia – the constantly humming background of a normal life unmarred by the intrusions of a power hungry political regime. The newspapers by and large reported the facts, instead of the tendentious, strangely formulated distortions and outright lies I grew up on; and there seemed to be a certain, minimal level of common decency in our public affairs, so I didn’t feel I need to be constantly on alert. Sure, it didn’t function this way for everyone throughout its history; it has been a work in progress. But now things are about to change for the worse. Politics is again in the foreground in America. Common decency is under siege.

The parallel with recent events in Hungary is striking. After 1989, Hungary transitioned from communism to capitalism, and was a functional Western style liberal democracy for about 20 years. In 2010, it elected the right-wing, nationalist party FIDESZ with a more than two-thirds supermajority. Its leader, Viktor Orbán, a xenophobic and deeply patriarchal nationalist demagogue came to power in a climate of growing corruption, mass unemployment, rising inequality, and general disillusionment about democratic elites. What prepared the ground for the autocratic turn in Hungary was not the propagation of a coherent and persuasive right wing ideology; but rather the gradual breaking down of the norms and forms of civilized discourse. It was the loud and swaggering disrespect for human rights, democratic institutions, and reasoned debate, a continuous vulgar abuse of political opponents, coupled with the carefully staged theatrics of the strong leader babbling about “saving the nation” from the enervating “liberal-Bolshevik influence”, making Hungary great again.

It took Viktor Orbán less than two years to dismantle the institutional system of liberal democracy. After passing a new constitution without much public debate or input, he overhauled the judiciary, limited the power of the Constitutional Court, curtailed press freedom and starved opposition media, all amid an unparalleled concentration of administrative and economic power in government hands, creating a “mafia state”. By 2014, Viktor Orbán proudly declared Hungary an “illiberal democracy”. This is how democracy was lost in Hungary; it started with a profound transformation of political discourse.

Could something like this happen in America? There certainly could be an erosion of the freedoms and the institutional framework of democracy most Americans take so much for granted that they have forgotten how special and precious they are. Trump could be the first president without compunctions using the immense powers of the presidency at his command to erode the freedom of the press, weaken the independence of the judiciary, intrude on civil rights, and a freely functioning civil society. Trump’s deviant rhetoric may portend a ground attack on democracy.

Nevertheless, the prospects for democracy are better in the United States than they are in Hungary in many crucial regards. America has strong and long established democratic institutions, and more than half of the country stands in opposition to Trump and his party. Moreover, and this is the strangest thing of all about the unlikely rise of the unhinged billionaire: he doesn’t seem to have an interest in politics. Of all the dictators and autocrats of history, he seems to be the only one to have sought office primarily as a business venture. In fact, all the talk about separating his business empire from the business of the country is mere fantasy. He can’t and he won’t do that no matter what. His in-your-face mafia style governance consequently might lead to problems beyond his control.

Americans have an instinct to accommodate, to normalize, to not get hysterical. Obama, Clinton, and of course virtually the entire Republican establishment, seem to want to outdo themselves to show and “open mind” to the racist bully. But accommodation and flexibility are virtues for some later time; cultural sensitivity will make no impact whatsoever on the Trumpista/alt-right echo-chamber, and reasonable compromise will remain unpopular with Republicans. What is needed now is unwavering opposition. Racism, intolerance, autocracy tends to grow unless it encounters pushback.

But power is a remarkable aphrodisiac. I have apprehensions about how much of the public that opposed Trump in the election will gradually, bit by bit come to accept his new politics. I am also not confident if the political and media establishment is up to the task; heroism and resistence has not been part of their repertoire, but it might need to become now. Masha Gessen, a veteran Russian-American journalist and activist in Putin’s Russia provides a useful survival guide for autocracy here.

III. Revelation

There is a crack in American democracy. But that’s how the light gets in.

What has been the inconspicuously humming background – democracy working, however imperfectly – has been called into question. From background it has become foreground. Could this be a good thing? I think there is some reason to think it could.

The Belle Époche of liberal democracy in the West, stretching from the end of the Second World War, through the heady days of the liberation of Eastern Europe in the end of the 1980s, has ended in reckless wars, mass migration, economic decline and anti-elite resentment during the first decades the 21st century. Once a revolutionary ideal many considered worth dying for, liberal democracy became hard to get excited about because of its utter ordinariness, its inherent imperfection, and the frequent folly of its ruling elites. Its defenders have long been less passionate than its detractors on the left and the right. Eastern Europe, after a brief flirtation, is turning its back on it again; and for the first time in more than 70 years, it is under attack in the West. But it is possible that the thought of losing it will concentrate the mind; that its virtues start shining more brightly as a result.

Trump’s victory has made it necessary to articulate the values of liberal democracy in a way that people can rally around. Coming up with better economic plans to address inequality and joblessness is not enough. For one thing, no serious person could promise a “fix”, at least in the short term – though certainly things could be improved, through universal healthcare, better family leave programs, a higher minimum wage, and free public colleges. The structural changes behind the dislocation – globalization and technological change – demand long term responses, mostly massive education and training programs. In any case, Republican voters, in every election in recent memory, have gone for right wing rhetoric against their economic interest.

So it might be worth a shot to make the Democratic Party the party of universal values as well as economic justice; to make democracy exciting again. Ross Douthat argues in an election post-mortem in The New York Times that the universal values liberals stand for “are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet…” He seems to think that the ultimate values that give meaning to human life lie in local solidarities as opposed to the universal ones that lie at the foundation of liberal democracy: in family, church and nation as against the “abstract” allegiance to human rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. He sees the rise of identity politics on the left as a proof of this.

But a commitment to human rights, as well as the civil rights and institutions that have been created to safeguard them, is as old as the United States, and as American as apple pie. It is not necessarily in conflict with identity politics as long as that means various groups fighting for and articulating the requirements of their equal place in society. It is the proper foundation of a multi-cultural, multi-racial democracy such as we are.

Universalism is a matter heart as well as reason. It is not a cold and procedural conception of human affairs. Accordingly, racism and prejudice, the constant companions of nationalism, are a failure of heart as well as reason. They go against the central teaching of Christ – a universalist if ever there was one:

But to you who are willing to listen I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. (Luke 6: 27).

Loving your enemies in this way might be too much to ask. There will be much conflict and discord in the near future. But refusing hate in the more realistic, minimalistic sense of refusing to think about others as objects, and recognizing instead their shared humanity and worth, is possible, and it is what democrats need to aspire to. It is the way to live in the broken world.