The Devil Incarnate—Again

On September 15, 2016, I published “The Devil Incarnate: The Devil Within Us.”  It argued that Trump has held a mirror up to our own self-centered and narcissistic inclinations.  I meant it as a warning, too.  At that time, I still didn’t believe that Trump would win.  Of course he did.

I believe the Covid-19 pandemic has given us a glimpse of the altruistic and communal instincts—narcissism’s opposite—as well as the courage and stamina that we will need to fight this terrible war.  When I reread my article the other day, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to be reminded about the social and psychological barriers that we, ourselves, may have to overcome in order to triumph.  Here it is.

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The Devil Incarnate; the Devil Within Us

I have sometimes been accused of having intemperate political views.  With this in mind, I generally try to moderate my passions and to adopt a reasonable tone of voice.  But I identify so closely with America and its values that the possibility of a Trump presidency has strained my resolve. I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I’m frightened and angry, and not just at him or at “those people” who favor him, but also at myself and at all of the liberal and Progressive people who are so appalled yet have allowed this to happen.  So, in this essay, I need to let it rip.  Here goes.

Donald Trump is, without doubt, the Devil incarnate.  He tempts and taunts, seduces and destroys.  He seeks out good people and bad.  But, and this is my main point, he is not an isolated phenomena, crawling out of the dark swamps of con artists and circus performers.  He only succeeds because of the fertile ground within us.  If we look honestly, Trump, holds a mirror up to the worst in ourselves.

First, he reflects our culture’s retreat into self centeredness.  All those gurus, psychologists, and marketing mavens telling us that we, each one of us, is the most important person in the world.  We need to take care of number one.  And, even if we have an altruistic impulse, it won’t be effective, it won’t be authentic, if we don’t take care of ourselves first.  A culture of encouraged narcissism if I ever saw one.  We have swallowed too much of the encouragement.

How do we know that we’re number one.  The polls tell us.  Twitter and Facebook tell us through Notifications and Likes.  People tell us that we’re “awesome.”  Really?  I’ve been good, effective, kind at times but I doubt I’ve often been awesome.  Most tellingly, parents tell their children that they are number one.  They watch and comment on their every move, photograph and film every event, virtually eulogize their children when they graduate from grade school.  Those speeches about the accomplishments of young children are bizarre.

The laser-like focus of parents doesn’t stop there.  They help with term papers and exams.  Sometimes this “support” goes on right up through graduate school.  Food is provided at a distance.  I have heard numbers of university professors talk about parental calls to argue grades.  “This will ruin my child’s life…”  How else could they guarantee that their children get the right start, the competitive edge in life.  How else could they avoid unnecessary pain.  Is there necessary pain in growing up?  I think so but it doesn’t seem to be part of the contemporary agenda. Helicopter parents are there on cell phones at a moment’s notice, trying to help their children avoid an anxious moment.  They guide, criticize, assist.  Everything their children do matters to them.  Everything positive and negative tells their children just how important they are.  Attention tells the story.  No man I have ever observed craves attention more than Donald Trump.  Yet there may be more like him on the way.

Since the children are so important, it is vital that they don’t make mistakes.  If their grades aren’t up to snuff, it must be the teacher’s fault.  If they get hurt, it must be someone else’s fault.  If the perpetrator isn’t obvious, parents and children, together, will find someone to blame.  Taking responsibility for flaws and faults is no part of their Trumpian agenda.

In contemporary society, certainly in contemporary politics, we refuse to admit our mistakes or accept losses.  When confronted, we begin with denial and misdirection.  If that doesn’t work, we attack the critic or we sue the sources of our pain.  We sue those who actually hurt us, and those who might.  For justice sake?  I don’t think so.  To get even, yes; but that’s not justice; it’s vengeance.  To line our pockets.  Sure.  You can earn a good living by suing people.  To intimidate, of course.  Trump’s love affair with litigation and bullying grows right from the ground of our litigious culture.  We have created a litigious society that has more people covering their rear ends than standing courageously for what they believe.

We sue and blame so we don’t have to deal with pain.  Pain is not supposed to be part of the equation for important people.  And when we see pain in others, it makes us uneasy.  To relieve our uneasiness, we blame or isolate them.  We blame victims.  We blame disabled people.  We blame “losers.”  We pump ourselves up by putting others down: immigrants, people of color, the disabled.  This approach seems to be reaching a crescendo in contemporary culture.

We have other ways to pump ourselves up, too.  We build larger and larger houses, wear more fashionable clothes, spend inconceivable amounts on hair “treatments.”  Can you even imagine what Trump pays to keep his hair looking like a horizontal yellow facsimile of his obscene towers.  This is the new gilded age, garish and full of self aggrandizement.  It is very much like the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Vanderbilts and Jay Gould fashioned castles in homage to their egos.  How has it gotten lost that Trump Tower, Trump Airlines, Trump whatever is just a hilarious and exaggerated caricature of the mcmansions  and malls that now fill the American suburbs.

We are narcissists, loving or trying to love our own image and trying to stay young forever.  We are social, national narcissists.  The social form of narcissism is nativism and racism.  These bigoted extensions of self love are just kissing cousins to America First, American exceptionalism, and making America Great Again.  Never mind that democratic ideals, practically applied, are what really make us great.  Give us a good carpet bombing or a Gucci bag to make us feel strong and beautiful.

Trump believes that sensational gestures, Hollywood come to politics, are what makes the difference in our political life, and we reward him by paying avid attention.  All of us.  Those who love him and those who hate him.  This is nothing but free marketing for him.  It’s a betrayal of American democratic ideals for us.  But we have grown accustomed to sensationalism.  We need it the way others need drugs.  We need our fix of Fox-generated drama.  We thrill with identification or humiliation to the angry crowd screaming to put Hillary in jail or even to kill her.  The media are ecstatic and we are their prey—or their mates.

We have lost the sense of what is real and what is not.   We have learned to watch carnage on TV, as if it is a video game.  We play video games that aren’t very different than the drones that bomb far away villages.  We are numb.  We have lost our sense of agency.  We are so consumed by our own lives that we want someone else to do it for us.  If that means a dictator, so be it.  He’ll be our dictator, like our Jedi.  There are many times when Donald Trump sounds almost exactly like Benito Mussolini.  Some alert journalists have pointed this out but it has not awakened us.  I suspect the image arouses many of his fans.

The Devil, with all of his excitement, has lulled us to sleep.  We are numb to his lies, numb to his reversals, numb to his bigotry, numb to his ignorance, numb to his immaturity and name calling, numb to the vile way he treats people.  We are almost literally in a trance.  Why are we so numb?  Because, the Devil is us.  We don’t want to hear that we are flawed, angry, bigoted, and self-centered.  And I mean all of us, not just the conservative right.

We the people of the United States need to wake up, cast off the Devil’s potions, accept responsibility for what is wrong, begin to redress those wrongs, and thrill to the opportunity to do so.  If we don’t, the Devil within us will win.

 

American Reckoning

A couple of years ago, a French friend sympathetically wondered how I felt about living in a country, once great, and now so clearly in decline.  I was insulted, couldn’t help but remind her of our many virtues, and expressed my faith that we would soon rebound from our loss of moral focus and moral leadership.  But she had struck a nerve, an ache had been long brewing. How could our great country tolerate so much poverty?  How could it let go of our once unparalleled educational system?  How could we accept, how could we harbor, the institutional and cultural racism that has persevered, relatively unabated, for almost 300 years?

The Trump presidency, supported by Congressional sycophancy, and a rabid 40% base of the American public has now exacerbated all of these trends.  And the COVID-19 pandemic has brought our darkest currents into stark relief.  I can no longer answer my friend with much conviction.  It looks like this great democratic empire may have reached its tipping point.

For the last few Covid-dominated months, I’ve tried to be of good cheer.  I keep myself busy and seek out ways to be helpful to others.  There’s entertainment to be found with friends, old colleagues, volunteer work, reading, writing, and TV.  Much of my schedule looks very much as it had four months ago when I was simply retired, even as the pandemic-induced malaise chills the atmosphere.

I was born in a New Deal home and I remain a steady member of the club.  My lifelong attachment to what Jill Lepore has called “These Truths,” to Progressive values and aims, has remained intact, even passionate.  But the Progressive expectations that have been my life blood, that our society would grow more and more equal and just if only we put in the effort, are now hanging by a thin thread.  Instead I wonder if the gains of this last half century — the begrudgingly acknowledged rights of Black and Brown people, of women, of the LGBTQ, of people with disabilities — have also hidden the omnivorous triumph of selfish capitalism, individualism, and oligarchy.

These days I try to stay focused on the love, courage, and heroism brought forth by the COVID-19 crisis. I’m heartened by the acts of solidarity. I’m gladdened by the way that the Democratic Party is pulling together to defeat Donald Trump and the great threat that he poses for the future.  I want to say with Rahm Emmanuel that we should never waste a crisis, even one as devastating as this one.  Why can’t we expect that, like the Great Depression, begun in 1929, this one will bring into disturbing relief how much we need to find common ground, to pull together as a nation, and to demand that government once again act as our servant, not as our neglectful tender.  And of course we can hope for a second New Deal, a Green New Deal.

Even as I hope, though, it is hard to avert my eyes when I see fully armed militias in Wisconsin and Michigan opposing elected officials who are trying to keep people safe from the COVID-19 assault.  I’ve watched their growth. I’ve watched our president encourage them.  I’ve watched them arm themselves under a false notion of the 2nd Amendment, and as the false saviors of liberty.  I had wondered if they’d come out of their caves and into full view, and they are here now, brazen and defiant.  Will our police forces stand up to them?  Will we have to call out the National Guard?  Is it just alarmist to see us easing toward an 1850’s moment, when our nation slipped ineluctably toward civil war?

I’ve watch President Trump define his opponents as “criminals.”  Isn’t that what dictators do?  And what about Kushner’s “slip of the tongue,” in suggesting that the election might have to be delayed?  At best, I take this to be one of Trump’s feelers to see how much purchase it has with his base.  And, like every other remotely sentient citizen, I’ve watched in horror as Trump subverts our best chance of limiting the COVID-19 disaster by debunking scientific expertise with his own idiotic hunches— for the sole purpose of enhancing his chances at re-election.  That cowardly narcissist, that cold-hearted flimflam man, would happily sacrifice us all to boost his ratings.  And maybe to make his lawless ways unchallengeable.

Of course, Trump may be primarily the torch that lights the bomb.  The decline of small “d,” democratic processes has been building since at least the time of Ronald Reagan and the conservative ideologues, intent on tearing down our government in the name of liberty.

Last week I read an article reporting that 70% of nursing homes are owned by for-profit, equity firms, who hire management companies to operate them as cheaply as possible, neglecting standards of good care for the simple purpose of optimizing shareholder profits.  So, too, many prisons, hospitals, and other formally public systems  The article caught my attention not just for its own sake, but for how it speaks to the short-sighted, selfish forms of capitalism that have increasingly gained power in the United States.

I can recall, years ago, consulting with major American corporations and watching, with alarm, as they managed to their quarterly profit report, even at the expense of building strong organizations, or paying the majority of employees a decent wage.  They wanted to look good in order to increase the attractiveness of their stock — not be good.  When I questioned the practice, they looked at me as though I were an idiot, or a danger.  Didn’t I know that shareholder value was the goal?  Was I some kind of socialist?

In this sense, Trump hasn’t so much as led the charge; rather, he personifies the willingness to let organizations and governments grow weak in order to look good.  Apparently, our entire nation needs better tanning booths.

And his signal “achievements” — amplifying tax structures that favor the rich; vilifying and victimizing people of color, especially those from outside our borders; supporting voter suppression in order to guarantee the continued rule of an increasing minority of White men; privatizing institutions like prisons with burgeoning populations;  appointing judges who support the increasing disparities of wealth — continue the downward spiral of American democracy.

There are moments when I fear that our Reichstag moment is nearing.  My fear ramps up when he joyfully imagines locking up his opponents.  When he hints that he won’t abide by elections.  When he claims to be entirely above the law.  When his followers scream with delight at the fascist posturing at his rallies.  When he fires all the experts who challenge his version of reality.  Isn’t that Orwellian control of information a perfect prelude to authoritarian government?

Are we the proverbial frog who fell into the frypan?  He could escape when the heat is low but, would have to act immediately, otherwise, as the heat increases, he would grow lethargic, and end up stuck to the bottom of the pan.  His refusal to act becomes the inability to act, and leads to his death.

I know that I sound extreme to many people.  Three and a half years ago I wrote my first articles about Trump, with his untrammeled narcissism and the hints of fascism that already peaked out of his so-called populism.  And I see nothing in him during the years, nor in our national response to him, to quell my fears.

I invite you all to share my anxiety as a prod to act.  We must vote in record numbers.  We must protest in record numbers.  We must support candidates who can beat Trump and his Republican enablers.  We must rise up to demand a new New Deal – to build roads and bridges and manufacturing plants and parks, solar and wind energy plants, hope for a better future.   We must mobilize in force to win elections, downstream and upstream.  I believe we represent the sane and worried majority that sees what’s going on.  We can do this, and we must.

 

Reclaiming Our Lives During the Pandemic

Each day we learn more about the havoc Covid-19 has wreaked on our age mates, how individuals 65+ make up about 15% of the total US population but account for about 30% of corona cases and 80% of the deaths.  These stories—filled with fear, outrage, sympathy, and concern—also highlight the efforts many make on our behalf.  People we know and people we don’t are risking their own health and well-being to sustain ours—our neighbors, our children and grandchildren, druggists, grocery store cashiers, nurses, and “first responders,” to name but a few.  I am stunned and humbled by their generosity and grateful for their help.

I’m afraid to say that the focus on our disproportionate suffering is appropriate.  It helps direct resources where they are needed, and it highlights breaches, too long ignored, in health care system treating the elderly.  But the portrait of older people that draws forth the support also makes me uneasy.

The portrait of extremely vulnerable elderly people, incapable of taking care of themselves—and others—doesn’t ring entirely true.  The vast majority of elders, at least so far, is fine.  The corona virus is concentrated among individuals 80 years old and older, and this group represents only about 25% of the elderly population (aged 65+).  Even among this group, the virus mostly claims those with “underlying” medical conditions, and they are mostly seen among the over-80 population.  It goes without saying that the suffering each person and each families who have endured the pain and loss caused by Covid-19the disease terrible; and it is tragic, since better national preparedness would have saved many of them from it.  But my point here is that it is only a relatively small percentage of us who are that significantly “at-risk.” The devil is in the denominator.

The great majority of us remain healthy because we comply with prescriptions for physical distancing and for stay on top of our health, quickly reporting worrying health concerns and symptoms. Yet if you get your covid-19 news from the popular media, you might not know that.  Baby boomers, in particular, have been portrayed as counter-dependent, fiercely resistant to being helped, even scofflaws.

We’ve all read stories about the exasperated, sometimes condescending efforts by adult children trying, to curb the headless and reckless behavior of their parents.  Sounds like parents with children, doesn’t it.  No doubt the attention is well-meaning and partly sympathetic.  I’m pretty sure the exasperation is partly an expression of their own sense of futility, their fear of not being able to protect us.  They are also stretched themselves – home-schooling their children, working in unsafe environments or attempting work at home, concerned about their own health and financial stability.  And we need their help, however difficult it is for us recently independent sorts, to find ourselves in this position.

At the heart of matters for us is  that we want to believe this generational reversal is a necessary but momentary shift.  But we fear that it might not be.  The pandemic may have precipitated a broad and lasting shift between generations; and most of us are not prepared for it.

Experts admit that they don’t know how the pandemic will affect the way our society treats its elders in the long run.  Will it dramatically gin up the demand for better resourced elder care facilities?  How long will “elderly people be encouraged, even required, to limit their social interactions and movement, essentially living their lives indoors?  Will this current generation of older people be ushered, in one fell swoop, into an entirely new stage of life?  The pandemic may well be a bridge to a future we can’t predict, don’t want to imagine, and frankly, don’t want.

The vast majority of us—those with means to do so—are working hard to maintain our health, vitality, and optimism – to place us in the best possible position for full participation when the pandemic eases. To the extent possible, we are managing the crisis in a disciplined way.  We have been reading and writing, playing music, and doing puzzles.  We’re taking long walks, doing yoga, and meditating more than ever.  And finding diverting TV shows. Where we can do volunteer work virtually, we’re doing it.  We’re waiting eagerly for warm weather but have taken on wintry days as well.  We have been Zooming, finding new ways to connect with one another – virtual cocktail hours, dinners, discussion groups.   That’s been a particularly enjoyable corona byproduct for me — I’ve been happily engaged with more non-work-related people during the last couple of months than during any other period I can remember.

I’ve asked friends whether they expect to contract the virus.  Almost all say no, because they accept the strictures of physical distance.  No, because they eat well and otherwise take care of themselves.  They have moments of lethargy and despair but, for the most part, they remain more defiant than yielding in the face of the pandemic’s assaults.  They regret not traveling, not getting to play out their retirement plans, but none that I know of has done so with bitterness.  No one voices concerns, at least out loud, about hurrying toward what is called “functional decline” – what researchers suggest often happens, anyway, with elderly people in isolation.  Some, with extra room in their homes, have taken their children and grandchildren in, to join them in quarantine.  Others, many of whom do miss their grandchildren acutely, nonetheless make do with virtual encounters, patiently waiting for the pandemic to subside.

Those of us on the “outside” – in our own homes — know that there is love and generosity in those who want to protect us.  And we need their help – with shopping, with transportation, with technology.  But we worry that we might grow too passive and weak if we accept all the help offered us. Up to this moment, many of us have felt generally capacious and strong — if not physically, then psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually.  We have spent lifetimes taking care and supporting, and even now and into the future, we believe we can still be capable and steady, ready to come forward in times of crises.  We can still be present for others when they are anxious or frightened.  We don’t want to leap—suddenly, grossly—across a great chasm into that moment when we ourselves will need a great deal of support, and will be viewed as having little to offer.  Taking such a leap might precipitate an internal transformation from independent to dependent.  We are not ready for that.

I suppose that there’s a bottom line: We can and must accept our age, with all its pleasures and limitations, though that was as true in January before COVID-19 as it is now.  At present many of us need extra support and help of various kinds–mostly instrumental but some psychological and social.  We can and must accept them as long as they don’t feel like a short path to a distant pasture–an ineluctable course that ends with feebleness and invisibility.  We can and must gratefully acknowledge the help we receive, as long as it comes with respect and care; we can and must develop and implement strategies to help in return.

Reclaiming our lives or the lives we had imagined for ourselves might be the most challenging pieces of this puzzle.  But I have two thoughts about that puzzle.  First, I am pretty sure we’ve learned something about ourselves while in quarantine, and we need to integrate that new learning into our vision.  Maybe something about timelessness and the value of the present moment.  It’s what we’ve got.  Second, the shifting of generational lines has probably opened new possibilities in our families, and they too, should be added to the mix.  I, for one, am pretty sure that Franny and I and our children will be building our future in a closer partnership than the one we had before.