Keeping the Faith

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun a discussion about politics, usually about Donald Trump and the enabling Senate, only to have friends say: “Please.  No more!  I can’t stand it!  I want to shut out all that noise so I can live my life.”

Often enough, they invoke the privilege—or the earned vulnerabilities—of age to shut off conversation.  Their arguments range from plaintive to enraged.  On the mild side, it might go like this: “I just want some peace in my old age.”  Some are more indignant: “I only have so much time left.  I’ll be damned if I’ll let that jerk dominate it.”

Almost everyone seems a little taken aback by my passion, and I’ll admit that I lack emotional distance when it comes to the high-jacking of my country by a narcissistic, greedy, ostentatious, ignorant, child who has the compassion of a stone and the inclinations of an autocrat.

My persistence seems to go against the cultural grain.  At my age, my observations and reactions should be leavened by my hard-won perspective.  “This too shall pass,” I should intone.  I should have turned my full attention to philosophical and spiritual pursuits.   Or to amusing myself. I should tend my garden and mind my own business.  What’s wrong with me?

The polling data are clear.  They tell us that, generally, the older you get, the more conservative you get.  Psychologists explain; We draw inward when we age: “…when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are more likely to engage in protective or defensive behavior.”

But, of course, I’m not a general idea.  I’m an individual and my mother’s son, to boot.  Let me give you just a tiny example of her spirit.  At the age of 87, in the middle stages of dementia, and imprisoned in a “memory unit,” my wife, Franny, said that she had to get home to vote.  “Is that jackass Bush still there?” she snorted.  There was no let up from her.  I loved it when Franny first told me the story and feel buoyed by it now.

In my family, politics defined character.  When my parents described someone, they would first say: “She’s Left” or “She’s Right.”  Not that the person was nice, generous, stingy, smart, talented.  The core of a person’s identity and values could be found in their political views.  If you were Right, you were probably selfish, unwilling to share the national largesse with the majority of people.  If you were Left, you were generous.  This language might have been cryptic to outsiders, but to us it was crystal clear.

I have gained some sophistication over the years, reading extensively in political theory and psychology, working with scores of people, sympathetically practicing therapy with every kind of person, and living through many decades; but, truth be told, just like political researchers tell us, I haven’t wandered very far from the proverbial family tree.

Politics was like religion in my family.  As deeply as some people held their belief in God and the prophets, my family worshiped our nation’s ringing declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident:  that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”  We were patriots in that very literal way.

Admittedly, we practiced our patriotism in a form that others considered unpatriotic—we were socialists in the 1940’s and 1950’s, during the ‘red baiting’ fury of the McCarthy period.  We never doubted that ours was a truer representation of the American faith.  Others did. We were censored and ostracized.  But the experience of being outsiders simply fortified our commitment to “the Left.”  We would be damned before caving to the convenient and conventional views of the majority, whose interests, we believed, had been appropriated and then discarded by the 1%.

To this day, I have no inclination to grow mellow or to acquiesce to what we then called “the power elite.”  The idea that the Trumps and the Koch brothers and even Democratic-leaning bankers and hedge fund managers should tell us what’s best is no more palatable to me now than it was to my parents.  I’d prefer a rejuvenated labor movement and the continued growth of grass roots activities.

At times of upheaval or before then – when change is in the air – liberals invoke the curative effects of moderation and political centrism. Bill Clinton, for instance, is famous for, downplaying poverty and disparities of wealth, and the increasing corruption of our political system.  He helped to dismantle important parts of the welfare system. Democrats and Republican moderates have long soft-pedaled environmental degradation and other key issues of our time.  In other words, they sacrificed the greatest good of the greatest number for their own victories, and convinced enough people that they were right.   We the American people need to do better.  We need to risk defeat as we aspire to a better world.

There are a slew of contemporary politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC, who will compromise on strategy but won’t readily compromise their core values.  And because of their utter sincerity, and the trustworthiness of their values, they may capture the American imagination more vividly than the appeasers.

I know that victory over Trump and his bigoted authoritarianism is paramount.  But isn’t it possible that those who sincerely stand for values, not just victory, stand a better chance of winning in 2020?

I know that people of my vintage tend towards moderation and what some would call wisdom.  But I don’t believe centrism is wisdom.  I believe that it is wiser and stronger to take a stand.  At this great historical crossroads, much like the times leading up to the Civil War, we will be measured—and need to measure ourselves—by our moral stamina.  So many of the people now in their 70’s stood up for Civil Rights and against the injustice of the Vietnam War.  Even as we worry about the costs of retirement, even as we want quiet and calm, we must stand again.

As I look back over my years and over our history, it is clear to me that wisdom doesn’t always trend towards moderation.  Sometimes it trends towards a stark, clear, and immoderate vision of doing the right thing.  Now is one of those times.

 

A Pledge to Renounce Trumpism

The cowardice of Republican politicians who refuse to renounce Donald Trump is appalling.  We know and they know that Trump is both despicable and dangerous.  Yet they are silent.  Some actually cheer for him.  Others hold their nose or avert their eyes.  Some mumble, hoping that their cowardice and hypocrisy go unnoticed.  Some bury their heads in the sand as deeply as they possibly can.

We well know the best placed and most egregious of these cowards, people like Paul Ryan, John McCain, and Mitch McConnell, but there are thousands more.  They know that Trump has gone too far.  They probably know that some of their own radical rhetoric,  disregard for truth telling, and lack of good grace has set the scene for his immoral megalomania.

These Republicans should be repudiated.  The best way to do so is to defeat them.  Mainstream and Progressive Democrats, working together, should leverage this display of moral lassitude into a reversal of the long, Koch Brothers-fueled trend of Republican victories in Congress and throughout local and state constituencies.  These are the victories that make it possible for Republicans to win major government positions even as they lose popular elections.  These victories have permitted them to gerrymander districts to minimize the capacity of people of color and progressives to give full voice to their concerns.

The current conflagration flared because of the contrast between Trump’s crude, defensive bombast and the dignified, principled, and highly articulate way that Khizr and Ghazala Khan—parents of a Muslim solider, who had died in an act of heroism, defending his buddies and his country—had the temerity to criticize him.  With Trump, no criticism goes without a childish insult in return.

But as we know, this is only the latest among innumerable and inexcusable insults hurled by the Republican candidate for the United States Presidency.  We probably don’t need a reminder but here’s a brief one.  He accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists, whores, and violent criminals, even though we know that crime among immigrants is lower than that of ‘native’ Americans.  He proposed monitoring Muslim communities (what some might call a police state), then banning all Muslim visitors, refugees, and immigrants.  He published an anti-Semitic slur by linking Hillary Clinton to the ‘money interest,’ an old Nazi tactic.  He embraced Sadam Hussein’s methods and Putin’s leadership, and invited Putin to help him defeat Clinton.  Treason?  Embracing these immoral dictators is egregious in itself, but even worse is that it points the way to Trump’s leadership preference.  Given the opportunity, Trump might well jettison democracy for strong-armed dictatorship.

Any one of these pronouncements should be enough for all Americans, Republicans in particular, to reject Trump.  For the most part, the Republicans have not, including those like Marco Rubio and John McCain, who he has personally insulted.  The question is: what should we do?  Surely not campaign as usual.  Trump represents a danger, a crisis, and we should respond with enough passion, persistence, and acumen to defeat him and all that he stands for.

I believe that the Trump candidacy offers Democrats and Progressives the keys to the electoral kingdom.  Maybe the presidential contest will devolve into a runaway for Hillary Clinton; and maybe many in congressional and local elections will follow on her coattails.  That would be great.  But I don’t think we should just hope for this kind of vindication.  It is unlikely to happen, and we need to take a much more targeted approach to highlighting the moral and psychological cowardice of Republicans who do not denounce their candidate.

Here is my proposal:  First, we identify every vulnerable office holder or aspirant in local, state, and national elections—those who have not repudiated Trump, that is.  This is how the Conservative activists succeeded following Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.  Second, we need to “out” them, make very public their failure to disown Donald Trump.  Third, we should require a pledge from the vulnerable candidates that they will not support him.  Fourth, we should hold these candidates and office holders accountable.

Here’s a precedent.  Just before the 2012 elections, Grover Norquist put Republican office holders on the spot with his “taxpayer protection pledge,” threatening to “out” and build opposition to any who failed to sign.  In response, 238 out of 242 House and 41 of 47 Senate Republicans signed.  Some were in agreement, some were just frightened; almost no one dared oppose.

Why can’t we do the same: demand a pledge against racism, autocracy, and vicious political tactics?  Why can’t we publicize those who refuse?  Why can’t we keep a highly visible and running list for those who violate or condone others who violate the our basic human and American rights and values?

Let’s call it the Democracy Protection Pledge.

What Can a Man Do

A while back, I read an article, “I Slept With the Enemy,” by Sonya Huber.  Not only does it offer a compelling explanation for Trump’s appeal to men but it does so with compassion.  Without both, there’s not much hope to change the way the men are seen and how they respond to the condescending, demonizing glares headed their way.

I appreciate the article’s focus on the need for rebellion, the need to “flip a bird” to the establishment. It’s the rebellion that counts for them, not any particular ideology.  Huber is right to emphasize the growing isolation of this group of men, particularly from sources of education, support, common cause, and direction that labor unions had once provided.  The union movement had provided an alternative narrative, in which rebellion, persistence, and courage are essential to organizing and to strikes, where a channel for anger and aggression is sanctioned, even applauded

What Huber doesn’t emphasize—and I would like to—is that the rebellion we need is against the proper people: the Koch Brothers, Wall Street, the Republican Party, which has nurtured a racist culture for decades, with its “southern strategy,” its absorption of the Dixicrats, and its Regan-inspired union busting tactics.  These are the people who have captured large swaths of the American narrative, trumpeted by the right wing marketing machine and long symbolized by the Willie Horton ad.  That ad, as you know, was for George HW Bush, a president that current Democrats have decided was a good Republican.

I imagine that Huber went light on the idea of emasculation because it would take away from the article’s compassion.  But in my view, the social and economic emasculation of working class men is one of the main reasons that the rebel narrative is so appealing.  And if we were to go further into the theme of emasculation, we would also have to turn to the gender revolution that has been taking place for a half century.  White men of all classes have not only lost pride of place to outsiders, like Blacks and Latinos—to the “other”—they have also lost position to insiders: their sisters, wives and mothers.  And while there’s a way to at least try to distance themselves from African and Latin Americans, there’s no place to hide from the women in their lives, who are earning more money.  Or even the same amount.  And demanding that their voices be heard.

It is as easy to make fun of such men as it is to simply condemn the “yahoos” and their Confederate flags.  I saw many, many such men in marital and family therapy.  They didn’t want to come.  They kicked and snorted fire about that stupid girl’s stuff.  And once they appeared in my office, it was clear that they felt anxious and diminished on the foreign turf.  They had no real language to express their diminishment because it was an emotional language they didn’t speak.  Even worse, speaking of diminishment aloud was dangerous, forbidden.  To say you feel like less of man, to complain, to whine, to cry, means that you are less of a man.  So you bear the daily losses, the indignities, the insults in private and in silence, except through explosions and apparently “random” acts of violence, acts that you don’t really condone, against your own wives and daughters.  Or you simply run off with another, preferably younger woman.

There have been efforts to heal these masculine wounds but, in my view, most of the men’s movement has been almost completely ineffective.  It has been apologetic, which feels like more diminishment to me.  It has tried to inject “female” values and styles into the male psyche.  That often feels foreign, even alienating.  The various men’s movements have done almost nothing, other than re-introduce loin cloths and drums on weekend retreats, with the aggression that seems to be hard wired into the male species.  It has provided none of the exuberance, the meaning, fun and rage, nor even the sense of common cause and comradeship that, for example the union movement of the first half of the twentieth century and  the 1960’s Civil Rights and Anti-War movements had for men.

I want to emphasize the sense of belonging and common cause, of having a team to identify with.  There is almost no more powerful and defining experience for many boys than their athletic teams.  Being a member of a team, going crazy with joy when you win, having your pals around you when you lose.  That is a place where you can express your agony, even cry.  And there is virtually no substitute for it once they leave school.

Once you leave school, you become a loner, a Man, as defined by working class culture—or by almost any male culture.  You learn to suck it up when you are lonely or upset.  You can’t take it out on “the man”—you’d lose your job, if you have one; and your woman doesn’t quite understand, even though she keeps asking.  You are alone much too often.  “Bowling Alone,” as Putnam would say.  And, as post World War II sociologists made plain, it was that condition—thousands, millions of men separated from the people and institutions that had structured pre-war life—it was under that condition that people were readily mobilized by demagogues, like Hitler and Mussolini.  We stand too close to that flame right now.

So I stand with you, Sonya Huber.  I stand against the most obvious solutions to the loss of manhood, voting for Trump, Cruz, and the others who thumb their noses at the establishment only to offer cruel, often elitist alternatives.  We need to affirm the hurt, the loss, the anger, and the need to rebel against its causes.  We need to help to build an alternative narrative.  It is no surprise that both Trump and Bernie Sanders made such great strides this year.  They are not accommodating.  They don’t like the establishment.  They give voice to rage.  They don’t back down.  They fight.  They are rebels.  And Bernie Sanders, at least, is a rebel with a cause.