Politics in the age of magical thinking.

It seems to be a human failing to think that trying times call for a redoubling of purity of principle. We see it time and again in history: the trial of Socrates after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Inquisition in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Self-strengthening Movement in the faltering Qing Dynasty China, the Cultural Revolution in the same country decades later, the list can go on ad infinitum.

And here and now in America, amidst the deepening political crisis, we hear calls to fundamentalist purity from the left.

It has never worked, throughout history, and it won’t now.

Let’s say you’ve got squirrels in the attic. They got there because your house has needed major renovations for quite a while, but you got by with stop-gap measures, because the renovations would involve temporarily opening up the house to the outdoors, and you have to live there while the work is going on.

Now you discover skunks have moved in under your deck.

Do you think it’s sensible to choose this moment to drop everything and start gutting the house?

Politics as usual?

With Trump in the presidency and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, liberals, or progressives, if you prefer, are apparently in a rout. We’re certainly behaving that way, with Democrats quibbling over the direction the party has to take in order to win everything back by the next election, temporary Democrats back in their old roles as independents or third party provocateurs, and the legions of newly, if vaguely, defined remnant left posting stern lectures on social media.

The gist of these last is that Democrats have lost control because they have drifted too far from their principles, and what is needed is retrenchment, a purge of whatever the self-appointed Guardians of the Left consider apostasy. They point to the Tea Party as a Republican movement back to the fundamentalist right, and see this purge as the reason for the party’s success in last year’s election. It worked for them, they say, so we should do the same.  Yet how many of us engaged in this lofty debate have actually read the 2016 Democratic Party Platform?  Certainly not those people claiming that there’s no difference between the two parties, the two candidates.

But is it even true that Republicans prevailed because of a purification of ideology? The truth is that most people couldn’t care less about ideology, or if they do, they fear it.  They are political pragmatists, and this explains the otherwise incomprehensible shift of many voters from Obama to Trump.

Today’s Republican party is actually a loose coalition of theocrats, libertarians, corporatists, and outright fascists. These groups have very little in common except a fear and hatred of the left, yet they voted, all of them holding their noses, for Donald Trump, a man who not only lacks a coherent ideology, but very likely doesn’t even know what the word means. A demand for ideological purity by any one of these constituencies would have resulted in a rout of Republicans instead of Democrats.

Yet, we hear from the Sanders wing of the Democratic party that that is exactly what we must do in order to win in the future, that what we need is to purge all that is not leftist dogma. Throw out the doubters, the apostates, go with an unabashedly socialist program, and “the People” will rally round.

It is not at all clear why “the People,” who went in unexpected numbers for the Republican party, would suddenly decide socialism was a great idea. Fear of socialism, or what they thought was socialism, was pretty much the glue that held the right-wing coalition together long enough to vote. We love to cite the fact that Clinton got over 3 million more votes than Trump to show the bankruptcy of the system, but neglect the obvious conclusion that the Democratic coalition, yes, the current Democratic coalition so abused by leftist purists, was sufficient to beat Trump if the vote had not had to be filtered through the electoral college.

If the United States were a parliamentarian democracy, like the vast majority of European nations, retrenchment would make sense; go with a pure (and therefore exclusionary) message, get as many votes as you can, then join a coalition to have a share of the governing system. But we’re not. Like it or not, the US is a kind of hybrid beast, a republic in which the executive and legislative branches are elected separately.  The only possible result of a less than plurality vote is a loss, and therefore coalitions must be made before the elections, not after.  If we want to prevail in the next elections, we have to find ways to draw in as many of the electorate as possible, not ways to exclude as many as possible.  And we have to find a common denominator for decent people to rally around, a glue.  Donald Trump is doing his level best to give us that.  Not only are his actions so far unacceptable to most Americans, but he’s exposing Republican cadres as spineless sycophants.  Let’s not sacrifice this gift on the altar of ideological fundamentalism.

Guilty

How will you plead at the judgment of history?

If you support Trump’s attack on the constitution, you’re guilty.

If you voted for Trump because you agreed with what he said, you’re guilty.

If you voted for him because you wanted to shake up the status quo, you’re guilty.

If you gave in to your fear, and thought you could be saved by victimizing others, you’re guilty

If you thought he wouldn’t do what he said, you’re guilty.

If you cut down Clinton because you didn’t get Bernie, you’re guilty.

If you voted for an incompetent third party candidate as a protest, you’re guilty.

If you thought only your favorite ideology merited support, you’re guilty.

If you didn’t vote at all because you thought your cool cynicism excused you, you’re guilty.

If you think you’re excused from culpability because it’s all beneath you, you’re guilty.

Above all, if you approve of what’s happening right now, you are guilty, and that’s how you will be judged.

 

The king is dead! What king?

In 1478 BCE, give or take a year, Hatshepsut ascended to the throne of Egypt, her recently deceased husband, the Pharaoh Thutmose II, leaving as heir only his infant son, Thutmose III. Thutmose II, the son of Thutmose I by a secondary wife, married Hatshepsut, the daughter of the same Thutmose I (bear with me here) because she was T. I’s daughter by his primary wife, and thus had a stronger claim to the royal lineage. T.II thought, apparently, that this would cement his position permanently.

It worked, sort of. The only thing is, Hatshepsut was a much better leader than her husband, and when he died after a decade or so, she took control and refused to let go, even after T. III got old enough to rule on his own. I always thought of Thutmose III as being kind of like poor old Prince Charles, whose mom refuses to step down so he can be king.

In any case, Hatshepsut finally kicked the bucket around 1458 BCE, having had an illustrious career as only the second female pharaoh that the Egyptian chroniclers would admit to, and Thutmose III finally got his shot. But his Aunt Hattie’s reign must have stuck in his craw, because eventually either he or his son Thutmose IV (AKA Amenhotep II; are you still with me here?) set about obliterating as much of the record of her accomplishments as he could. This was no mean task, since royal memoirs in those days were literally carved in stone.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and the Republican Congress (nice transition, eh?). It will not do for a man of Trump’s boundless ego to succeed someone who, well, succeeded. So, in cahoots with the congress, which has been doing its level best to make Obama a failure, and failing at that, Trump will try to see to it that any vestige of Obama’s success be obliterated.

The process has already started with an executive order cancelling unspecified parts of the health care act, and will soon continue with more executive orders.

Care to take any bets the congress will suddenly stop whining about the “imperial presidency?”

We well might ask how effective this kind of exercise is. Did it work in ancient Egypt? Ironically, two and a half millennia later, Hatshepsut is not only remembered, but honored as one of the most effective pharaohs Egypt had.

I suspect Obama’s reputation will be restored much sooner than that.  His accomplishments may not be carved in stone, but I predict it won’t be long before people start pining for the good old days when he was in charge.

It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.

Trumped up

So now it appears that Mr. Hyde is hidden, and Dr. Jekyll has come out.  It’s hard to know what to make of that.  Trump has completely reversed his opinion of both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, both of whom he’s warmly complimented in the last two days.  It is, of course, completely opposite what he has said about them during the campaign, but contradictions have not exactly been unusual for him.  In a way, it’s reminiscent of his meeting with  Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, during which he was all smiles and conciliation; he seemed cowed by the presence of a head of state.  That didn’t last 24 hours; by that evening, back across the border, he was his old obstreperous self again, apparently to the extent of lying about what was discussed during the meeting.

Many people who supported Trump, and presumably voted for him, are holding out an olive branch, saying that what Trump said during the campaign was just rhetoric, and he’ll calm down now that he’s been elected.  I can’t help feeling that if we don’t fall in line, we will feel the sting of that olive branch, converted into a whip.

I caught the tail end of an interview on the radio with a CEO who supported Trump.  Her take was that, yes, Trump is a jerk, but he has a talent for hiring competent people to actually run his businesses, so his personality is irrelevant.  I’m not sure reducing his unprecedented gall to merely annoying is justifiable, but there is a ray of hope, albeit small and not very satisfying.  If Trump appoints normal Republicans to his administration, and goes off to play golf, his administration will only be a normal Republican disaster, that is, slightly mitigated rather than unmitigated.

The big question for the rest of us is, what next?  The Democratic Party is in disarray at the moment.  I doubt that will last, but we’re between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  Does the party move to the right, to try to accommodate moderate Republicans, or does it move left, and offer its own brand of populism?

I doubt very much that ideology played any part in the election of Donald J. Trump.  We brought, as they say, a knife to a gun fight, and now we’re licking our wounds and arguing about what kind of knife to bring to the next one.

There are almost as many reasons given for his victory as there are pundits, desperately trying to salvage their reputations, after failing miserably to predict almost everything about the election.  There is, however, one factor which I find the most disturbing.  NPR reported on All Things Considered yesterday on a new app-centric polling company called Brigade, which found in results from election day that as much as 40% of registered Democrats crossed over to vote for Trump.

In a campaign full of ingenious imagery, the one that sticks with me is that people just wanted someone who would tip over the table, reset the process to point zero.

We can only hope that Trump is a one-off, and when people see his policies in action, they will be disabused of their illusions, and we can pick it up from there.  Right now, I see neither hope nor despair, just a long wait.

Diverging paths: an allegory

Say you’re walking down a dangerous path in a forest, overgrown with thorny vines, progress is difficult.  You’re increasingly fed up with hacking at the vines to eke out a few steps at a time.  Someone has told you this is the path that leads out of the forest, but you’re no longer convinced it’s true.

Suddenly, the path in front is suffused with light, and there’s an easier looking path splitting off to the left.  The first light you’ve seen in days of wandering, so tempting, but on examination, you see that it just leads to a small clearing a few feet away, surrounded by the same thorny vines on the path you’re on.  A nice enough place to rest, but it won’t help you out of the forest.  Still, you’re utterly exhausted, tired of slogging away, unsure you’re any closer to being out of the forest than when you started. Could you be going in circles? You think, I could just live in that clearing, give up trying to find a way out altogether.

Then you notice that all of the light doesn’t come from that side; on the right is another, narrower path leading away.  It is small, but straight, so you follow it for a few steps, until you see that it leads straight over a precipice to jagged rocks below.  It’s a long way down, you think, but a person might just survive the fall, and it’s definitely out of the forest.

Shuddering, you return to the path you started on, with considerable dismay.  It hasn’t gotten any less thorny, has it.

What to do?