Campaigning in a Traumatized Nation

Trump has damaged our country in ways too deep to fix with an executive order or an act of Congress. The campaign against him needs to reflect that somehow.

Two rounds of Democratic presidential debates are behind us now, and everyone I know was dissatisfied with them. We’re all casting about, looking for somewhere to assign blame. There are plenty of places to look.

  • Maybe it was the overcrowding. Spreading twenty candidates over two nights didn’t give any one of them a chance to put forward a coherent vision of what the country needs.
  • Maybe it was the moderators. Both CNN and MSNBC wanted to see conflict rather than thoughtful discussion, so questions often ignored the forest of beliefs all the candidates share, and focused instead on a few contentious trees of dubious significance.
  • Maybe it was the candidates, none of whom managed to overcome the format, the time limits, and the competing voices to deliver the clarion call we wanted to hear. The heavens did not part, and no ray of light illuminated the Chosen One.

All that is true, and yet I think my disappointment has another cause. Candidates standing behind lecterns, arguing about funding mechanisms and timelines and the meaning of whatever one or another of them did or didn’t do decades ago — it all seemed so ordinary. It’s exactly what Democrats would be doing if it were 1976 and we were hoping to replace Gerald Ford, a nice conscientious guy who happened to be wrong about a few things.

It’s not that I’m disappointed with the policy proposals of any particular candidate. But any set of policies seems inadequate as an answer to the Trump phenomenon.

My regular readers know that I think Trump has terrible policies. On climate change, for example, he seems to be working to bring on disaster as fast as possible. His trade wars are stupid. He loves all the world’s bad guys (Putin, Xi, Kim, MBS, Duterte, Bolsonaro …) and does his best to piss off all the good guys (Trudeau, Macron, Merkel …). His immigration/asylum policies are largely illegal, not to mention intentionally cruel. He’s been trying for years to take health care away from millions.

And yet, the real impact of Trump strikes much deeper than any of that. He both reflects and exacerbates something horribly wrong in our country. All forms of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism have become more acceptable on his watch. Lying has gone off the scale. All sense of fair play has vanished from our politics. Countless norms and practices that were supposed to protect us against corruption and tyranny have been scrapped. We used to worry about how lobbyists would influence government officials, but now we just appoint lobbyists to high office and eliminate the middlemen.

Raising the minimum wage or canceling student debt isn’t going to touch that.

I thought George W. Bush was a terrible president, certainly the worst of my lifetime up to that point. And yet, a change of policies seemed adequate to put him behind us. If Obama could have succeeded not just in avoiding the Depression Bush had set us up for, but also in ending Bush’s wars, closing Guantanamo, and reversing the tax cuts that had put our nation in such perilous fiscal shape, the negative legacy of the Bush years would have been almost entirely sealed off. Wrong-headed mismanagement had been the problem, and good management could fix it.

That’s not true this time. Something deep and dark is happening to our country. If we are fortunate enough to elect a Democrat in 2020, the new president will have to deal with a traumatized nation.

Bush told a few big lies, but Trump has damaged the very notion that we can find common truth. Any fact he doesn’t want to face is “fake news”. Any criticism is met with wave after wave of conspiracy theories against whomever has had the effrontery to call him to account. All inconvenient expertise is painted as corrupt, and countered with opinions “I heard” or “a lot of people are saying”, even if those opinions contradict each other.

Trump doesn’t just oppose anyone who looks into his actions, he dismisses their right to do so. Congress has no business overseeing his administration at all. The courts owe him deference that no other president has received. Investigating his misdeeds is “treason”.

America has always debated where the common good might be found, but Trump destroys the entire idea of the common good. He does not speak at all to the 54% of the electorate who voted for someone else. He stereotypes entire races, religions, and ethnicities, offering them as scapegoats for whatever afflicts his followers. If you are the wrong color or speak the wrong language, you can either support him or “go back where you came from”, even if you are a citizen, even if you were born here, even if the people of your district have overwhelmingly elected you to represent them in Congress.

And it’s not just him. He has a following. People don’t just like him or his policies, they like the fact that he insults and abuses other Americans. He has done little or nothing to help most of the people who voted for him, but they love how mean he is to the people they resent. The Republican Party as a whole now doesn’t even pretend to favor democracy. Elections are simply about winning, and it doesn’t matter whether you win via massive amounts of corporate cash, by making it hard for people to vote, by gerrymandering districts so that you retain power in spite of being opposed by a majority of voters, or even with help from foreign enemies.

If Democrats win in 2020, they can change a lot of those policies: restrain corporate political influence, end gerrymandering, guarantee the right to vote, and so on. But the Republican willingness to subvert democracy will still be there, as well as the belief that some people’s votes should count more than others, or that a loss is not really legitimate if it is based on votes from someone other than white Christians.

The crisis in this country goes way beyond the usual policy discussions, to the point that debating how fast to phase in universal health care or whether crossing the border without a visa should be a civil or criminal offense … it almost mocks the sense of trauma I feel, and that I think a lot of people share.

That’s why many of the most memorable lines of the Democratic debates have nothing to do with policy. When Kirsten Gillibrand said her first presidential act would be to “Clorox the Oval Office“, she was speaking to that sense of a deeper wrongness than can be fixed by an executive order. The White House needs an exorcism, not just a new resident.

But the candidate who most often points to the deeper trauma is the most unlikely candidate: Marianne Williamson. She has no qualifications for a high executive office and her policy agenda has a lot of holes, but she speaks the language of spiritual transformation rather than ordinary politics. In an otherwise critical article, Tara Isabella Burton sums her up like this:

Williamson, a self-help spiritualist (and sometime adviser to Oprah Winfrey), preaches a gospel of “love” and “oneness,” blending a chipper New Age sensibility with progressive politics. In the Democratic debate Tuesday, she condemned the “dark psychic force” of hatred that she said Trump has unleashed, saying it could be combated only by “something emotional and psychological” — which only she could bring forth — accompanied by a dose of “deep truth-telling” on the subject of race. She’s called for a “moral and spiritual awakening” in the United States.

NYT columnist David Brooks claims that she “knows how to beat Trump” via an “uprising of decency”.

Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.

He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.

We are all subtly corrupted while this guy is our leader. And throughout this campaign he will make himself and his values the center of conversation. Every day he will stage a little drama that is meant to redefine who we are, what values we lift up and who we hate.

The Democrats have not risen to the largeness of this moment.

I haven’t risen to the largeness of the moment either. But I sense the need, and I’m struggling to figure out what it would mean to address it.

Remember 1980, when conservatives were not just hurting politically, but felt that America was slipping away from them? Vietnam, Watergate, double-digit inflation, bankrupt cities, gas shortages, rising divorce rates … they also felt a sense of crisis that went beyond policy. From this remove, we tend to remember the policy agenda of the Reagan administration: low taxes, deregulation, strong defense, free trade. But 1980 was also the high point of the Moral Majority, which called the country back to the old-time religion of fundamentalist Christianity.

1980 wasn’t just about political change. It was about spiritual transformation. That’s how it changed the country in ways that we’re still dealing with today.

The Left also has an old-time religion, but it’s not the liberal Christianity Pete Buttigieg wants to invoke, or any form of institutional religion. It’s the hippie idealism whose wisdom found its way into countless songs: All you need is love. Everybody come together, try to love one another. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden. Give peace a chance.

There’s a power there, and I’m not sure how to tap it. But I hope somebody actually qualified to be president figures it out soon.

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  • Roger  On August 5, 2019 at 11:03 am

    “Addressing the nation from the White House in the wake of two weekend mass shootings, [he] said the El Paso mass shooter was consumed “by racist hate,” and the nation must “condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy.”
    He called for measures aimed at addressing mental illness, hateful ideologies spread on the Internet, and violent video games, and repeated previous positions on taking some gun control measures.

    If I believed that he actually BELIEVED any of this, I would be encouraged. But I don’t.

    • weeklysift  On August 5, 2019 at 12:07 pm

      I suspect he’ll start backtracking very quickly.

      • Nana Thompson  On August 5, 2019 at 1:31 pm

        He wants to leverage harsh immigration laws by pairing them with background checks. He is holding America’s safety hostage to his agenda.

  • Ron Zoscak  On August 5, 2019 at 11:29 am

    “But 1980 was also the high point of the Moral Majority, which called the country back to the old-time religion of fundamentalist Christianity.”

    Shouldn’t you have a sarcasm tag at the end of that sentence?

    • weeklysift  On August 5, 2019 at 12:09 pm

      Maybe. In context though, fundamentalist Christianity is being paired with the “liberal old-time religion” of hippie idealism.

      Seriously, though, that’s what a conservative of the era would have said they were doing.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On August 5, 2019 at 12:22 pm

        Wasn’t the Moral Majority based on nothing more than the conservative ideals of opposition to abortion, hatred of LGBT, and white supremacy? There was very little “spirituality” involved.

      • weeklysift  On August 6, 2019 at 2:34 pm

        I’ll give you that. What I meant was that the Moral Majority saw the problems of America in a broader context than ordinary politics. According to them, the nation didn’t just need a Human Life Amendment, it needed to return to God.

  • rbshreve2  On August 5, 2019 at 11:46 am

    Doug, you have nailed it (again).

  • Nana Thompson  On August 5, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    Andrew Yang said, “We’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president.” He is qualified to lead the way to a higher perspective. His campaign motto is Humanity First!

    • Patricia Ferschke  On August 5, 2019 at 11:28 pm


      • George Washington, Jr.  On August 10, 2019 at 6:28 am

        They all have great ideas, but none of them are remotely qualified for the job.

  • Mike Flanagan  On August 6, 2019 at 9:58 am

    Amen Brother! Keep on Keepin’ on.
    Mike Flanagan

  • bigrivergal  On August 6, 2019 at 11:43 am

    Although I am not a Christian, I find some of Jesus’s words are a good guidepost for living. “As you treat the least of these, so you treat me”. Dr. William Barber, a Methodist minister from North Carolina, can give us all some guidance as to how to lead us out of this morass. The hate-filled dialogue has to stop. The lying, corruption, and dismantling of government has to stop. Let’s start with that.

    • weeklysift  On August 6, 2019 at 2:37 pm

      The thing that scares me most is the loss of Truth, even as distant goal. If you tell a Trump supporter that Trump lies, most likely they’ll just tell you that everybody lies. I mean: What about when Obama said you could keep your health insurance? (BTW: I kept my health insurance.)

  • jh  On August 9, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    We need to stop pretending that Trump is the instigator. He’s not. He’s an incompetent boob who got lucky. This is a zeitgeist that has taken roughly 30 years to come into being. It was subtle at first. It was “fair and balanced” news. It had to give some lip service. But now, look at the spin and the line up. What are the stories that are emphasized? What is the most popular “news” show on a channel where entertainment and news are blurred? TV and visual sources of information are dangerous in many ways and I don’t think the human species has evolved to cope with it. When we read, it uses more of our brains. But listening and watching… our brains shut down and we become sponges to whatever we hear consistently.

    Trump isn’t some evil mastermind. He merely capitalized on liberal stupidity that allowed conservatives their freedom to exist in a bubble. From radio to TV and now, to the internet, we’re seeing what conservative culture brings to the table – fascism, racism, violence, authoritarianism, exploitation, and a moral relativism that is intent on “But Hillary… ” arguments rather than saying “Yeah, that’s wrong”. White conservatives were given the grace with the implicit assumption that they were speaking in good faith. And all this while, minority communities have been calling out correctly, this virulent nonsense. But white = right and that is an implicit assumption in US society.

    And part of this is democrats who pushed for a neoliberal capitalist structure which helped accelerate the economic decline. They played into the republican economic policy that was implemented based on a drawing on a paper napkin.
    ( A paper napkin. How absurd.) Sure, it looks like we’re rich but we aren’t. Things are getting more expensive and we don’t see opportunity when we wake up. We stay in our desperately sad jobs because we got bills to pay.

    This economic problem combined with conservative classical white racism (yeah, white racism is as American as apple pie. Read the US Constitution and you will see that white racists were dividing this country long before MLK Jr or Obama with their “racial politics” as conservatives like to call it.) is toxic. It’s a lethal combination because.. blacks, latinos, native americans, women … we’re still waiting at the bus stop. White men still need to be catered to … Now, we need to start working at interventions to help at-risk disenfranchised white males cope with life. We need to help them handle the trauma of a Captain Marvel who happens to be a woman and has super strength. And once again, the rest of the people are waiting for a chance to sit at the back of the bus. But every time, economic calamity, religious nonsense, conservatives, Trump… we have to tell those groups… I need to focus on the greater problem and help appease the white male. (And of course white males won’t accept that. It’s all affirmative action’s fault and diversity. It’s feminism and the gulags according to Petersen. It’s gays and trannies. It’s always black people’s fault. There’s always an excuse for why a white male won’t take responsibility and pay up. When you try to explain that just because you came in the 1950’s and never owned slaves doesn’t mean that you are innocent of the institutional racism that makes our systems run. Just existing in that dirty fishbowl makes the fish contaminated. But white males push that “I’m independent” idea when it’s convenient because it allows them to dismiss their own complicity as part of the system of oppression. And this is also why they hate feminism and other academic disciplines that analyze reality through the lens of a minority eye rather than the white “rational classical liberal” male eye.)

    *I like you Doug. Of course it’s not all white males. But at the same time, it is. It’s a case of Schrodinger’s cat. You’re both simultaneously innocent and guilty at the same time. I’d liken it to a contamination that everyone, but especially the ones who benefit most from the system, have. And the ones who benefit the most typically have the most contamination. The contamination is in the ideas that are subconsciously formed that see a world that was created by slavery and sexism and violence and cannot see that this didn’t have to be. As a fantasy/sci fi genre reader, a big thing is world building. You can tell a white male author… because their settings are vaguely European, the mindset is authoritarian. It’s usually a swords setting so might = right. There may be one or a few token women of power but they are not players in a real sense. They’re more like idealized versions or caricatures. (Here’s looking at you my beloved Honor Harrington.) But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s fantasy. In a world where you have light sabers and the force, is it so incredible that a sentient species might have evolved where the female was physically as strong as the male counterpoint?

    And in contrast.. look at Lois McMaster Bujold. Her hero is not the stereotypical hero. Sure, he’s white. He’s also been damaged and he looks more like a Tyrion than a Superman. He makes mistakes. Big ones. And he listens to the women in his life. He’s consumed with his own issues of identity in a world that is very masculine orientated and hyper solder. It’s not his “man strength” that defines him, but his humanity and his personality and his intelligence. (yeah, he had to be a genius. But that’s what makes him so fun to read about.) And in that world, women feel real in a way that I don’t consider Honor to be real. The setting is similar to the David Weber Honor Harrington series (great space battles btw), but you don’t have perfection and such a clear black and white world. And characters grow and fall and pick themselves up again.

    Another great series is Ursula Guins’ Earthsea series. Again, you see it is different from the standard white male perspective.) And I like loads of authors. I like David Weber and John Ringo. I like Robert Jordan. I like Martin. (Okay, I lied about the last one. For some reason, I just can’t get into his stories. I flake out within 50 pages. )

    And if I can easily tell things about the author from merely reading the story, we should ask ourselves what other stories have been told to us? Manifest Destiny? America is the land of the brave and free? We went to fight the Nazis because we were the good guys who decided to save the world from them? What else is merely a one sided self-flattering white male portrait of white male American excellence that denies other people their own stories. This is why you inevitably will have a moron who says “What have blacks given to the US?” I dont’ know.. jazz? the blues? Frederick Douglass? Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. George Washington Carver. Harriet Tubman general badass who needs to have a movie made about her. Maya Angelou. Langston Hughes. I don’t know. how can any person assume that black America were just passive characters in the story of the United States of America? Maybe it’s the stories they listened to.

    Trump is merely a symptom. The illness is like the HIV virus.. it’s hiding in white blood cells waiting for the opportune moment to expand and destroy and reproduce itself at the expense of the host. Trump is just a point in the disease progression.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On August 9, 2019 at 7:11 pm

      I’m afraid you’re right. In one sense, Trump is a master manipulator who sold a bill of goods to the people of the heartland. But he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if those people weren’t already primed for his message. We’re living through an era where it’s no longer taken for granted that straight white men are by default entitled to special treatment, and as Doug has pointed out before, the loss of privilege is often felt as oppression. I don’t think Trump appealed to that sentiment because he’s a brilliant strategist who studied the American psyche and crafted an approach tailored to this particular time and place. He’s more like Chance the Gardener, just being himself, and purely by accident, reflecting the rage and resentment that many people feel. Whether his shtick is enough to win the next election or not remains to be seen, but what concerns me is that the Democrat currently leading in the polls is just about the safest and blandest candidate we could have come up with, and none of the other ones have come up with a vision that can inspire more than a relative handful of people.


  • By Desperate Fear | The Weekly Sift on August 5, 2019 at 11:59 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Campaigning in a Traumatized Nation“. […]

  • By Suggested Solutions | The Weekly Sift on August 12, 2019 at 11:57 am

    […] kind of speech was what I had in mind last week when I wrote “Campaigning in a Traumatized Nation“. Democratic candidates need to recognize that the reason to vote Trump out isn’t just […]

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