This spring will make it nine years since I left the United States, which gives me a level of disconnect from the conditions on the ground that both qualifies me to having a less-invested perspective of it from the outside as well as disqualifies me from having any understanding of what the country has become since I got on a plane to Taiwan in 2012. Speaking earnestly, that America I knew is very gone from my mind and what has replaced its image can only be called the other side of a sculpture I did not understand was this disfigured.
On a personal level, I have felt like I have suffered the consequences of a decision I didn’t make for four years. Since interacting with non-Americans is as normal to my life now as drinking water is, 2017 will stand out because of how often I would be accosted by a stranger within ten minutes of meeting them for allowing my country to elect a reality-TV star as heinously underqualified as him to be president. This criticism was fair but the exasperation of having to so regularly explain so demonstrably a monster of this proportion is a task that outlived its novelty after about a month.
Yet at the same time, having weathered the storm I am also thankful to have dodged the bullet of Trump’s Zeitgeist in the US. The consensus that he was so unequipped to do his job competently in the international circles that I mingle in meant I never had to very personally interact with his most ardent of fans on the daily basis I know many back home have had to. In this way, I am thankful that the distance of those I know and love back home that do support him have maybe not been as strained to the point of deterioration like it may have been for others. On my island of isolation I have been reflecting on the lessons I can take away from these four years of fire and fury. I can name three big ways my ideology has changed in any meaningful way as of January 22nd, 2021.
I. Beware of False Equivalences
There is a certain vein of political thinking referred to as “horseshoe politics” that says there are four groups on the political spectrum; the far-left, the center-left, the center-right and the far-right. In this, the far-left and the far-right are essentially similar (like a horseshoe almost meeting at the tips) in that they are both ideological terrorists by way of the means they are willing to use for achieving political goals. Using this framework, video compilations distributed in circles on the left and right showed how few supporters could name America’s second president at both Trump and Clinton rallies, acting as a red-herring for how dumb the other side of the spectrum truly is. I treated these videos dismissively, knowing they usually represented a small but vocal minority of people in both camps and also understanding that the media gives an outsized voice to many of these people because it helps drive their ratings. Subscribing to this theory of politics most of my adult life, I have been reflexively tentative to practice any sort of orthodoxy because I personally knew those people and they were very simply not like that when I knew them.
The Trump presidency has stretched that maxim so thinly that I will admit it has now broken. The horseshoe still exists but it has been warped dramatically on its right. America’s two-party political system actually makes it more difficult for demagogues to rise to power in comparison to a multi-party parliamentarian system like most places in Europe. The problem is that the two-party system is also a double-edged sword once a subsection reaches critical mass within one of those parties. Once radicals reach the threshold of 26%, the capitulation of the other 24% becomes likely and that goes far in explaining much of what we’ve seen happen over the past five years with professional Republicans. The reach and radicalization of a major US party has only increased since taking office, picking up even more adherents between 2016 and 2020. This conversion of moderate Republicans into, not terrorists themselves, but enablers and collaborators of a stochastic terrorism borne of Trump’s delusions and flamed by cynical professional Republicans like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley has consolidated a good measure of the American electorate around a baseless conspiracy theory and a Lost Cause-level lie to carry foward into the future. The shameless hypocrisy of Republicans after RBG’s death, moving the goalposts from the last election cycle once again to replace her within a week of the election was the last straw for me. There is no game. There is no decency. There is only power and there is only the institution of law and government to battle for power through. That is all these people understand and really care about and it is all I will care about now too. Two vital historical analyses have lead me in getting to where I am now.
First was to draw on the history in the lead up to the American Civil War, a time in which every single decision was functionally made for the purposes of power and centered around slavery. States were added only if it benefitted how many states could be free or slave states and thus help their balance in the Senate. Their justifications were about plenty of things that did not mention slavery, much like you would hear any politician make the case for today. Yet at the end of the day, their reasoning was a smokescreen to their deeper sympathies of wanting white people to hold Black families captive and in servitude in perpetuity. Government is very basically a game that both sides agree to play in order to practice power. We focus a lot on the process and the levers that power is practiced through because its role in upholding democracy (a organizational process for avoiding violence) does hold importance in sustaining peace. But letting that focus cloud any judgment about the deeper motivations behind how those levers get pulled is truly just symbolism taken to a disgusting degree. I once asked my professor in a constitutional law class why we needed to learn the law when people will just lean on what they want to draw out of a given text, he very simply replied, “Because we’re a country of laws and even if it’s not genuinely held, the idea itself is important to its legitimacy.” I’m no longer afraid of being biased in my jockeying to end the electoral college or the filibuster, adding statehood for D.C. or stacking the Supreme Court. The system is so bent in favor of a power-wielding minority of American thought that it is impossible to ignore the inequality until the game is more equally just.
The second analysis comes from the words of Hannah Arendt in an interview from 1964. Arendt, a German-Jewish intellectual accused of being alarmist as Nazi Germany slowly ramped up anti-semitic measures during the 1930s, spoke of how even her intellectual colleagues succumbed to Nazism in a process known as “Gleichshaltung” (coordination), saying:
In the wave of “Gleichschaltung” which was relatively voluntary — in any case, not yet under the pressure of terror — it was as if an empty space formed around one. I lived in an intellectual milieu, but I also knew other people. And among intellectuals “Gleichschaltung” was the rule, so to speak. But not among the others. And I never forget that…I still think that it belongs to the essence of being an intellectual that one fabricates ideas about everything. No one ever blamed someone if he “coordinated” because he had to take care of his wife or child. The worst thing was that some people really believed in Nazism! For a short time, many for a very short time. But that means that they made up ideas about Hitler, in part terrifically interesting things! Completely fantastic and interesting and complicated things! Things far above the ordinary level! I found that grotesque. Today I would say that they were trapped by their own ideas. That is what happened. But then, at the time, I didn’t see it so clearly.
Arendt’s recollection of this process was an earthquake in my imagination. The new paradigm of authoritarianism was so disorienting for many scholars that they simply could not trust their intuition and confront Hitler for what he was. Or to say that in modern parlance; they first tolerated, and then normalized Nazism as its antisemitic pressure was amped up, eroding any consensus about decency and what counted as within bounds for discourse. For Arendt’s colleagues, their own intellectual rigor became a tool against their own better judgment. The lesson for me was that sometimes my intuition can be trusted and perhaps that’s the reason so many writers living in extraordinary times used words like grotesque, unsavory or disgusting to explain a moral reaction to what their own stomachs could explain so simply to them.
If you read enough history you learn that the common theme amongst those most vocal was their radicalism. There is a danger that sometimes that radicalism could leave you with egg on your face and that there’s potential in the now for you to choose the wrong side of history more ardently than others if you practice too much moral clarity. I used to have that fear and I’ve wrestled with it a lot in this time but the calming factor of Donald Trump is that he leaves me with so little doubt about being on the right side of history.
When it comes to Trump’s intelligence, there is little evidence that he possesses even a shred of the humility necessary to learn and grow and lead. No amount of debate of that topic, rational or otherwise, is worth consideration. This is the central vexation of my frustration during the Trump years. The rationalizing of the absurd by people just plainly unwilling to believe that’s it’s possible they were sold a lie. A deep and intentional subversion of rationalism with people that have absolutely no regard for it themselves. It’s playing chess before your opponent changes the game to checkers once they start losing. You are annoyed but you try to compromise for the sake of finishing then game only to find the board tossed in the air and your opponent shouting they won after you start to take the advantage once more. After so much of this happening one starts to feel like a dunce for letting it happen so many times. You discover you are not mad for believing your opponent is not genuine even as half the country tells you you are actually the one being unfair. At this point there is no point in playing because there is zero honesty from anyone about the circumstances that have come to be.
These years have made me feel like a French soldier rationalizing with a German soldier that Hitler is bad only to hear the German soldier respond “I don’t agree with everything Adolf says but I think we should occupy your country.” If I respond that he’s functionally on the wrong side despite his reservations about his leader, I am met with being chastised for not being more open-minded to the idea. How is your objective even remotely not up for consideration by myself as morally atrocious? War and occupation and trauma is all so messy because the soldiers that fight in it are grayer in motivations than those leading the cause. Yet the inertia of Trump on normal Republicans leaves me with the uncomfortable position of having to push back against only what I can; which is family and friends.
Simply stated, Trump does not pass the smell test and his success at changing the Republican Party’s center-of-gravity to one that allows for permission to question the legitimacy of an election in which he lost has moved me to take a much harsher stance against his anti-democratic bloc of supporters. For those like Mitch McConnell, that have cynically protected and then ultimately used Donald Trump like a tissue only to abandon him now that his electoral might is dissipating, I hate you. Yet I only hate you the way I hated Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney — a normal hate for politicians you disagree with in a democracy. I reject with full force of will any unity with those that would give oxygen to the idea of overturning democracy in a free and fair election. I will also continue to do so from the convenience of a foreign land until their outsized voices return to being hushed in corners of the room rather than ones standing on the beer hall tables shouting to a crowd of fevered nihilists. These people have no place in Washington because they are not normal.
II. Trumpism Was, at its Core, About Race
It gives me no pleasure to say I counted myself amongst the subsection of progressives that assumed liberals sometimes overemphasized race as a factor in modern America. This was undoubtedly reinforced by both a flawed conflation of personal and systemic racism as well as the lived experience I have had throughout most of my life to now. Growing up in rural, white Nebraska only to live in two countries that are overwhelmingly ethnically homogenous in their makeup; I can see now that many of those conversations that may have compelled me to realize this sooner were either delayed or under-appreciated because they didn’t happen frequently enough.
I was, of course, irrevocably wrong and in some ways I owe Trump’s presidency a debt of gratitude for waking me up to the disgusting underbelly of American race relations. Viewing Trump’s presidency and American politics in any other light outside of race now is to ignore the central tenet of Trump’s “Whitelash” politics. Veering into a politics of white greivance reflects how the Republican Party has morphed into one that is both politically dependent on fighting against their quickly diminishing white majority and economically dependent on using race baiting to consolidate wealth into fewer and fewer white people at the top. Trump’s presidency is a last ditch effort to assert white supremacy in the same manner as the Jim Crow South did after Reconstruction and their political tactics have only marginally changed since that time. Despite white political power waning, they still enjoy an outsized share of power in their favorite tool of creating impasse, the Senate. Using both the filibuster and the imbalanced nature of the Senate to maintain their grip on power despite being unable to do so through actual democracy. The soon to be “split” Senate will see the 50 Democrats that make up its chamber account for roughly 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republican senators inside. Couple this with longer election day voter wait times in communities of color on average, heightened scrutiny of ballots with names that aren’t white-sounding, gerrymandered districts to dilute Black voting power and an electoral college system that overvalues states that are whiter and you have a party that is dependent on ensuring that institutions that were formulated when white supremacy reigned stays as-is rather than adopting policy positions designed to appeal to those communities (literally the way democracy was intended to work).
This has coincided with a massive wealth distribution that also skews overwhelmingly white. In 1960, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed the government should guarantee jobs and a minimum standard of living to those who wanted one. By 1964, that number had nearly dropped by half because the public became aware that the beneficiaries of that position were about to begin crossing the color line. From Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the complete gutting of FDR era programs throughout the 1980s, what began as a race-baiting strategy on the public level and a plutocratic one for keeping material wealth out of the hands of the poor and people of color has been internalized so completely that their progeny continue to uphold the system even when it harms them themselves. Is it any coincidence that wealth has been concentrating to a smaller and older minority of people in America just as the prevalence of young, white people has also diminished to pass it on to in the same time? FOX News still runs infographics using photographs of Black people anytime they discuss any government expansion of benefits. The message is implicit— do not give money, healthcare or benefits to people that don’t look like you. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric was just a new spin on a very old trick and the US has internalized that racism so deeply that it still cannot confront its fundamental racist past in any proactive way. America is not yet done grappling with race and it will be our generation’s responsibility to work to move the posts of progress further by removing these stiflers of a multiethnic democracy.
III. The Trump Years Have Irrevocably Damaged My American Imagination
To the uninitiated, I will educate you that Americans are often accused by those abroad as being optimistic to a fault. Considering the country’s history, I don’t find it hard to imagine why that might be. Not once in living memory has it domestically suffered a firsthand miscalculation of its ideals and as a result barely any of its reckonings have been induced from a harsh, outside arbiter of justice. Instead, half-measures from domestics prioritizing peace over a clean break with whatever moral calamity had just enveloped the nation. That’s not to say there wasn’t a necessity to this peace. When the country is shared the need to look forward rather than behind is vital to continuity. Yet, justice is dramatically slower to win-out in this setup and lessons are forcibly papered over in the name of cooperation.
I believe part of America’s optimism is a self-induced amnesia that has been internalized for coping with the disappointment of her experiment on occassions. While some forces are focused on looking forward, others unattended and with motivations self-preserving are calculated in their effort to rewrite the recent past. America’s own story and history is essential to the public’s understanding of where it is in history and so is imagined in order to enact another mistake with a clear conscience. This sanitized consensus becomes a necessary function of the democratic mechanism itself. Only sometimes does the consensus break, and those breakers are the young.
The only truly neutral force in democracy capable of holding society to account are the young. Capable of wielding both the stakes of living in the society they yearn to change as well as the unmarked personal experience of living through recent history in a way that can sully one’s bravery to fight; these disruptors of the story are often the last bastion of hope for progress. America has for too long bred generations of an undefeated. Triumphant public memory that has failed to expose the fragility of our most human and fallible of institutions that Trump has exposed to a frightening degree. The U.S. Constitution was brilliant in its endeavor but half of its genius was also from Washington’s norm-setting presidency. It is dramatically inadequate for limiting populism and presidents that treat norm-breaking as sport and a whole host of changes must be made in order to ensure a safer democracy for the future.
I am not optimistic about that project anymore if I’m completely honest with you. The multitude of crises at the fore right now seem beyond the scope of what the new administration is willing to confront and “being on the right side of history” seems like another cheap, symbolic victory that progressives love to pat themselves on the back about while the rug is pulled out from more and more people’s feet. “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” may ultimately be true, but it seems more plausible than ever before that my lifetime could bear witness to only malaise and regression. Many right now are eager to move on into the post-Trump era but I am terrified at what that era holds and I believe we will be back here soon if little is done to restore trust in government in the two years Democrats have. I hope I am wrong but I have been chastened beyond sanity these years.