2016 has been a good year to be cynical. We’ve seen breakdowns in American politics, policing, and public opinion. We’ve seen furious demands by some for xenophobic demagoguery or others for socialistic rearrangement. We’ve seen the impromptu videos of police brutality. We’ve seen gay and transgender activism topple the delicate social balance of liberal and conservative beliefs. We’ve seen a new wave of terrorism brought from the distant desert lands to the concrete jungles of Europe and America. We’ve seen political correctness become a rallying cry for freedom to be intolerant, disguised as first amendment rights or an all-encompassing battering ram for social justice but stained by self-righteousness. We’ve seen fear, distrust and a rise of “otherness”, placing us all in a state of anxiety while being forced to choose sides.
Maybe it’s always been like this. Maybe the media, with its 24-hour cycle, clickbait headlines of terror, and the relentless supply of bad news provides us with more than enough fodder for our daily dread. Maybe it’s human nature, a result of thousands of years of tribal warfare, to pick a side, a side that looks like you, talks like you and acts like you. Maybe our technology evolved faster than our dinosaur brains could handle. Maybe the freedoms of modernity moved faster than the regulations of religion. Maybe it’s just the beginning of true globalization and these are the growing pains, the revolution of respect for one another. Or, maybe, things really are different. That there is no chance of escaping the growing pains; that this version of Earth, the Anthropocene, is doomed to end in a worldwide suicide. That is the creeping cynicism that has been harder to explain away by cheer-up positivity or humanistic benevolence.
It was over a year ago. Donald Trump came down the escalator of doom waving his little hands and sneering his greasy smirk. I remember being embarrassed for the escalator. Trump slowly glided down the steel stairs in a faux gold haze, Melania behind, gleaming like a statue with eyeshadow. Doesn’t that memory haunt you? Don’t you remember thinking how silly it all seemed? Do you remember being happy that Jon Stewart had someone to jab for his last month? Well, it didn’t last one month. Little by little it dawned on those blue states by the water how much his disdain for decorum represented an ideology never given voice by a plethora of flyover country. Those living in Palin’s America were seething in their hatred of Obama, frustrated by the lack of representation from government and watching their parents’ America fade away in a sea of Mexican immigration, mosque construction, gay parades and non-gender pronouns.
The non-college, working class white man is losing his traditional role in America. He built the cars that drove us, he dug the coal that kept the lights on, he made the factories across America hum with production. That was the “great America” Trumpets want to “make again.” Things made sense in that fantastical whitewashed world that never really existed. The Victorian England illusion of collective happiness localized in American nostalgia. The postwar American culture was not some flawless moment of racial harmony, political prudence or familial coherence deserving of nostalgia. There were lynchings, assassinations, over-hyped red scares, wars, gender imbalance and of course, lots of advertising pushing the portrayal of the White American Dream in washing-machines, Marlboro cigarettes or crispy pie crusts. Jon Hodgman, the deranged millionaire, podcast host, and overall know-it-all put it wonderfully: “Nostalgia is at best, unproductive, and at worst, poisonous.”
There was never a time when America wasn’t great; there was never a time when America wasn’t sinning. It was and is a radical experiment, yet since day one, it’s been and continues to be wholly unbalanced in race, gender and class. However, the beauty of our country is that we move forward, embracing, albeit slowly and sometimes painfully, all who enter the wide, bounteous shores. It would be a shame to stop now.
Trump proposed a view of immigrants that was myopic and fearful. The soundbite of the campaign announcement was: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…they’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” It was the last part, the assumption that some might be good that surprised me. Like some of them are good enough, by implication, to mow a lawn or trim some hedges. Some of them are good enough to cook a burrito bowl or clean hotel lobbies. Some of them are good enough to pick fruit or act as low-wage caregivers. It seemed like a random thing to say, a weird tangent off into drunk uncle territory. Yes, some Mexicans, by simple law of numbers, must be drug dealers, criminals or rapists; in the same way that some German, Irish, Italian, Chinese et al. immigrants of the last century were criminals. It’s a non-starter sentence. It’s true of some, but not factual for all. Like saying pizza is the best food.
It was the first of so many gaffes, that in hindsight, were actually campaign platforms and Trumpistic platitudes to garner the support of the baser brained folk. I’ve watched with bemused amazement over the past year, digesting his anti-charm, listening to the pundits’ prognostications and shrugging my brain shoulders in awe. Here’s a man with a bizarre list of verbal diarrhea, running for president, gaining more Republican primary votes than anyone else in history, pushing imagined fallacies on the gullible, eager and most importantly—furious voters—of the “blame it them” camp. Not despite, but because of those times when he has insulted war heroes, the handicapped, women, immigrants, Muslims, journalists, politicians, and babies that he is the Republican nominee. His appeal is possible to understand when you look at current trends affecting his fans. There are many circles, some overlapping in a Venn diagram of foolishness: “new poor”, anti-government, pro-‘Murica, gun activists, pseudo racists, full-on racists, anyone but Hillary, and many more drifting among the hostile morass of his cult of personality. This Trump fantasy didn’t begin in a bubble.
Rates of suicide and preventable disease are up among poor whites, Muslims face daily prejudice, African-Americans struggle against discrimination in every area of their life, while distrust in government grows as incumbents continue to win 90% of their elections. Everybody is struggling. Trump and Sanders’ success laid in their proposing a change to more of the same. If Hillary is elected, the presidency appears driven by nepotism. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Clinton. America isn’t the only place affected by turmoil. There are multitudes of dispirited and outraged in the world right now. We’ve seen the problems of austerity in southern Europe, lifelong dictators destroying African populations, sweatshop labor proliferating in Asia, radicalism in the Middle East, financial turmoil and corruption in South America. Trump’s hard rhetoric unites those struggling and promises, with empty slogans and tough talk, to “Make America Great Again” and “Build a beautiful wall.”
The history of America, rooted in a deep, unspoken, but palpable class system where money is king has grown into an unsteady, wobbling beast of influence. The 1% is highly visible today. Their conspicuous consumption is sickening to the 50 million in poverty, frustratingly distant to the new poor of the “middle class” and basically unattainable for most despite ambition or hard work.
Trump has capitalized on those feelings. He’s trying to hold a mirror to the corruption, by showing his own reflection in the tainted pond of D.C politics. He’s banking on his tough guy image as someone who is SO cool, he could fire “celebrities!” He is so strong, he can tell the aristocrats of American pop culture, the pretty faces of the big screen, the sexy reality stars, the hunks and vixens of the glitterati to take a hike.
Fame is the cherished currency today. Trump has been famously infamous for decades. Trump has 33,000 tweets of varying indecency tweeted to 11 million followers. His pithy nicknames work well with Twitter savaged brains. His dim Hemingway terseness captivates the dictionary deprived. His “You’re fired” catchphrase was the power line for the powerless dreaming of making their own jerk bosses redundant. Unfortunately, this isn’t TV. It’s international politics, where a certain level of intelligence and sympathy is a job requirement instead of an impediment.
We cannot force our racist cousins, fearful grandparents, or indoctrinated Fox & Friends to think, read, listen, debate and then decide. Trump is the candidate of feelings, not facts. Anyone who’s said, “He tells it like it is—” you’re wrong. He tells it like you think it is. The problem is that half the country bought his sour, combed over, straight talkin’ Kool-aid. Who can blame them?
People were duped and lost their houses; the banks were bailed out. People work hard every day; the CEO’s get the bonuses. Kids go to university; they find jobs gone missing on graduation day and a letter of debt in the mailbox. Working class folks go broke when factories close down; then see immigrants driving bigger, better trucks. Most of us can’t understand the larger trends driving all these problems, but we sense the inequality. We don’t know the facts, but it feels pretty shitty.
In comes Hillary 2.0, a relic of the Democratic party, a shapeshifting, blindly motivated, suspiciously innocent, demonstrably intelligent, overtly capable candidate who wants us to make her dream come true, when much of America wakes up in a nightmare every day. Alternatively, we get The Donald, an awkward, impolite, uninformed, unenlightened B-side reality show star, tabloid quoting, self-tanned twit. Who are we to trust to save our country from the brink of unending debt, civil war, or financial collapse?
The truth used to be both parties were two arms of the same twisted, shady body. The Dems fought off the onslaught of Bernie Sanders’ socialist influenza and now the Republicans are trying desperately to distance themselves from the pancreatic cancer known as Trump.
Here we are, the two most despised candidates in history, third parties relegated to obscurity, and we get to vote for a leftover or a bigot.
It’s easy to think, “things will get better.” It’s easy to blame the other side. The brave choice is to understand that only by giving up all we know and understand, expanding on wisdom, rebuilding the system and establishing parity will we get a glimpse of the communal ideal. I doubt we could ever be brave enough or unified enough as a country to actually do that. I doubt that the wealthy elites would ever allow us close enough to the gates to tear them down.
The populace tried to send a message this year with the outpouring of support for “outsider” candidates. Unfortunately, politics in D.C. is crammed into a tiny clown car of collusion, with no room for “outsiders.” It doesn’t matter if they claim to “build a wall” or “break up the banks.” Nothing will happen unless the moneyed interests steering that clown car decide to do it. But that clown car is their ride to the bank.
That is the general cynicism I take away from this absurd election season: powerful money and the illusion of choice. Although this year we have an actual choice between bigotry and status quo, we’ve allowed money behind the scenes and force fed two choices for so long, regardless of our choice, it only results in the same stationary inactivity and partisan disputes that drove us to look to irrational outsiders incapable of fixing an intractable situation.