Acting Well in an Absurd World

I write this essay on the morning of the Clinton-Trump debates.  As the possibility of a Trump presidency grows in strength, sounds of confusion and the stink of fear have begun to fill the air.  How could a man who lies like a psychopath, who bullies and mocks and finds common cause with White Supremacists be our president. It makes no sense.  We must be living in an altered state of consciousness.

We have been lied to before.  Think back to our entry into the Iraq war, the Iran contra affair, Watergate, and the torture chambers that we transferred to foreign soil, lest they infect our own.  We have had presidents who have torn down what we thought was almost sacred—the New Deal safety net—Reagan, Bush, and Clinton readily come to mind—and helped to build a world in which the 1% own 50% of our wealth and god knows what percentage of the decision-making power.

What I want to talk about today, though, is the impact of the presidential campaign on us, moderate, liberal, and Progressive Americans who wonder how this could be happening to them, feeling like bystanders to a process that is out of our control.

I have studied the European climate during the rise of fascism and Nazism.  It was fed by extreme poverty and loss of life during World War 1, which, in turn, fueled the rise of Nazism and the concomitant anti-Semitism that almost wiped out the entire Jewish people.  For me, just behind the actual death and destruction, the worst part was that so many people just stood by and let it happen.  I don’t mean the time-worn and erroneous way that later anti-Semites described Jews as passively accepting their fate like lambs to slaughter.  I mean the millions of people who did not believe in fascism or didn’t wholly  believe in it, who were offended, but who did nothing to resist.

Now I am afraid that we are standing by.  Almost 70% of Americans dislike Trump and much of what he stands for but—and this is the point—I don’t believe that we are taking the threat seriously enough.  If we don’t, it may not be the “basket of deplorables” who are most to blame, it will be us.  As Albert Einstein famously warned, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

In the face of our own fear and confusion, it is hard to know what to do.  Many in the middle and on the left seem dispirited, depressed, just short of giving in to despair.  Genuine hope seems an illusion.  Others are in a state of denial.  Hillary Clinton will surely win in the end, they say, however timidly.  We are Americans.  We will come to our senses.  We can’t be this lax, can we?  This is just how political contests go.  They tighten up at the end.  The forces of good will come through in the end.

Alternatively, we whisper that Trump may not turn out as badly as he seems.  He’s just saying all those terrible things to win the votes of the Republican base.  Look at the influence of beautiful Ivanka and her new childcare proposals.  Maybe these “denials” will prove out and Clinton will win or Trump will turn out to be better than he seems.  Maybe, but are we willing to take that chance?

I know that this article will seem alarmist to many, extreme to some.  But shouldn’t we raise the cry, just in case?  We do need to organize.  We do need to fight our own despair and impotence.  We need to fight our way out of this nightmare.  The question, then, is how do we do that.  I know that the Democratic Party will organize.  I get several fundraising emails every day.  The “ground” troops are hard at work.  The ads are ubiquitous.  But that hasn’t worked so far.  The harder the Clinton troops work, the more they seem to be losing.  Trump continues to gain; and he is now tied.  When you continue to try one strategy—characterize Trump as an immoral lunatic who can’t be entrusted with the keys to the kingdom—and that strategy does not work, you can’t keep repeating yourself.  You will lose.

We need to be heartier and more creative in the coming weeks.  We need to shake our confusion and despair.  Before we strengthen ourselves on the big stage, we have to raise our spirit, one person at a time.  Here are some thoughts about breaking loose.

When I start down that road to despair, I generally try to make sense of what’s going on.  I’ve been trying to do that for months and months now, and I can’t.  It makes no sense that Trump’s popularity grows.  I have written more than ten essays about the subject, trying to understand and not just condemn White working class voters, but I have failed to clarify things even to myself.  The political situation just seems absurd.

So I have begun to turn to the master absurdity, Albert Camus.  Camus, who wrote in the face of fascist and communist totalitarianism, simply began with the premise that the world is, in fact, absurd.  The absurdity that we face in the present day is not an aberration, it is our shared reality.  We cannot grasp it logically.  Theological explanations are not helpful: no amount of sin or the need for cleansing, for example, could explain the rise of Hitler.  Our moral compass just seems to spin.  As Camus would say, we live in a godless universe and Trump exemplifies that universe.  Sociology and psychology also bring us to a kind of dead end because explaining the horror doesn’t stop it.  What to do, then, in the face of this absurdity.

Camus’ philosophy is complex but here’s the simple version from his The Myth of Sisyphus that has sometimes kept me going.  Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again.  This sometimes characterizes the experience for those of us who have tried year after year to build upon progressive values.  We push the rock up the hill for a generation, then it comes tumbling down. Why, we ask, should we keep trying.

Camus tells us that Sisyphus is only freed from his despair when he recognizes the absurdity of his situation.  I suppose that goes for progressives like me, who might call ourselves realistic but who have in mind an idealized future just beneath the surface of our policy proposals.  What I feel when I fully acknowledge that the Trump surge may well win out, when I give up hope, even for a moment, is first terror that is soon, paradoxically, followed by relief.  I can stop trying to push the rock to the top.

By pushing and pushing, I had become robotic.  I had lost all creativity and, maybe even compassion for the people I want to help.  It was as though I had been closing my eyes and holding my breath, hoping that the nightmare would go away.  When I give up, when I stop pretending that the world is other than it is, and that includes a world with Donald Trump in it, I can breathe again.  With breath, there comes relief.  For a moment, I relax, as though the worst is past.   Relief is then followed by a sense of freedom.  There is no rock.  I can do as I please.  I can choose my future.

What do I choose?  I still choose to push the rock of progress up the hill.  But now, no gods are making me do so.  And maybe, free from the constant struggle, I can find more creative ways to get that rock up the hill.  A lever?  Jet propulsion?  I sustain my effort because there is nothing else that I can do that fits my values, that gives me a sense of meaning, that sustains my integrity. My struggle for social justice is selfish in this way.

Giving up the robotic struggle leads to freedom and freedom leads to possibilities for a better future because—and this I believe even if logic won’t verify it—the world demands that we strive towards freedom and decency, respect and equality for all.  It urges us forward like a mighty river.  It is the only path that is worthwhile. So we take it.

Do Working Class White People Vote Against Their Self Interest

I can’t count how many times I’ve scratched my head—no, begun to pull my hair out—trying to figure out why poor and working class people ever vote for contemporary  Republicans, no less Donald Trump.  My puzzlement—and yours, I imagine—persists no matter how many times the apparent contradiction is explained to me by observers as shrewd as Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?).  And even I know that the question of why people vote against their self-interest is a terribly narrow way of framing the question, because it focuses almost exclusively on economic concerns instead of all the social, class, racial, and religious concerns that people have.

Since Thomas Frank and others have already been so insightful, why write about a contradiction that isn’t a contradiction.   It is simply that I want to get this straight in my mind, straight enough to move beyond my frustration and anger at all of those “ignorant” people, and to think productively about how to build the type of alliances that make democracy viable.

Let’s begin with some of the most familiar drivers of “voting against self interest.”  Social issues include: opposition to abortion and gay marriage; a preference for school prayer (and a Christian country), gun rights and the need for self defense against a government just itching to steal the rights of loyal Americans; and opposition to immigrants who steal jobs from those same loyal Americans.

According to Arlie Hochschild’s new book, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, “…white Americans … have worked hard and believe themselves to be waiting in a long line for their chance at the American Dream, only to see others—African Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women, gays—cutting ahead of them.  And the line cutting, they believe, is enabled—encouraged!—by the government, the very government they support through their too-high taxes.  To add insult to injury, the cheaters consider them ignorant and backward.”

It is easy to dismiss this as an illogical and misinformed argument.  For example, haven’t African Americans and Latinos been here for a long time themselves, and haven’t they been even more disempowered?  But let’s leave the comparison for another time.

What is indisputable is that these White voters get highly skewed information from TV,  radio, and politicians.  They were told that the United States Army’s exercises in Texas were prelude to a federal coup.  They are led to believe that climate change is a myth, that crime is on the rise in our cities, that immigrants are far more dangerous than native-born Americans—even though scientists and social scientists have demonstrated otherwise.  It doesn’t matter that pollution is worse in poor communities – White, Black, and mixed.  As Arlie Hochschild tells us, poor Whites remain loyal to local corporations and indignant about the incursions of the federal government trying to diminish to pollution.  Local politicians, dependent on funds from fossil fuel corporations, create this story line.

What is also indisputable is that the media who publish this misinformation—in the spirit of a nation at war—are mostly run by Republican businessmen with a powerful interest in lower taxes, continued use of fossil fuel, and support of the arms industry.   Are the voters to blame (or to be pitied) for acting on this information?  That’s a complicated question, also to be debated at another time.

As the current presidential campaign has brought even more glaringly to the surface, race and racism play a role in White people’s choices. Many White voters certainly see it as in their interest to limit Black and Latino (and Asian) voting rights, access to quality education, and union jobs.  We know that race affiliation is often stronger than class, and shapes the reality that people believe. As Chauncey DeVega has argued, “Poor and working class white people possess much more wealth and assets than do black and Latinos who are nominally ‘middle class.’…   Nevertheless, it is the perception of white insecurity and suffering that matters, not empirical reality. Those who have historically been privileged will feel like equality is oppression.”

Racial resentment has been central to American politics since its founding.  The Constitution, for example, enshrined slavery.  The Democratic Party and the Dixiecrats long dominated Southern governments that made Black Americans second and third-class citizens. Beginning with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Republican Party (yes, the party of Lincoln), has taken up where the Dixiecrats and George Wallace left off, cynically playing on the fears of White folks.  The George HW Bush-sponsored Willie Horton ads epitomize the cynical scare tactics that have pervaded the Republican strategy for the last half century.  White people want to stick with their own kind.  They want to vote for those who will promote their interests and not the interests of the “other.”  Is this voting against one’s self interest?  It may be regrettable, but it makes a kind of sense.

I still shake my head, when I realize that poor and working class people vote against funding for health care, education, and environmental protection, and roar their approval for political spokesman who vote in such a powerful block against the incursions of the Federal government.  But I understand the logic: Take your finger out of the dike, let the feds in just a bit, and they will take over.  The feds will favor people of color.  These fears may be emotional but who said that emotions—voting the way that your gut tells you to—are less effective than voting according to the thoughts of Eastern elitists.

There’s another reason Tea Party voting habits make sense.  Beginning with Bill Clinton, the Democratic leadership can be seen as betraying and abandoning the working classes of all races and religions.  Many “liberal” policies favor financial interests.  The imagery that accompanies the policy is often more damning.  It is not hard to think of all those Wall Street interests in back rooms advising the President.  Most damning of all, Democratic politicians court the suburban middle class.  They hardly even mention poverty or working class people anymore.  Bernie Sanders’ popularity and the rebirth of the term progressivism speaks loudly and eloquently to the need for an alternative to the current form of liberalism.

Just for fun, ask yourself who is the more conservative presidential candidate this year.  It’s hard to identify Trump’s interests as anything but self-interest and resentment of others, but he is disruptive; he is anti-establishment.  So a pretty good case could be made that Hillary Clinton is the conservative in the race.  We might see her desire for reforming the health care, child care, education, and workforce reforms as a focus on change, but it’s easy enough to see her as trying to shore up things as they are, which in turn, means defending the status quo.

This country simply has almost no sustained and organized effort to reach out to poor and working class Whites.  We have not created or recreated institutions like the unions and political “machines” of old to provide progressive answers to the truly vexing problems that dampen their hope and depress their energies.  Here’s hoping that the Sanders movement does have some staying power, which means that it develops local power throughout the country.  I seriously doubt that poor and working class White people will believe that there is a genuine convergence of their felt self-interest with Progressive policy unless, in fact, there is such a convergence.  And that will not come from the media and the corporate-dependent politicians.  It will likely take decades of ground level, grass roots activism.  It’s time for the long game.