By Leon Wieseltier
This is a country of wildly different destinies, and the belief in equality does not make people equal: The unprecedented pace of change, the daze of historical acceleration in which we live, produces a sensation of insecurity, a terrible volatility, that often results in fear. Trump battened off working-class panic and white panic. He practices the politics of panic. He is not the first: There is a tradition of such politics in America. In the wake of its victory, we must attend to its causes. Why all this American panic?
It is unforgivable not to know one’s own country. Yet the expansion of our understanding does not absolve us of the responsibility for judgment. To understand is not to forgive. Let us study the roots of populism and ponder the nature of ethnonationalism, but let us also maintain our disgust at the low and malign politics that have just prevailed. There is no economic analysis that can extenuate bigotry.
The scapegoating of otherness by miserable people cannot be justified by their misery. Resentment, even when it has a basis in experience, is one of the ugliest political emotions, and it has been the source of horrors. Trump’s road to power was manifestly a foul road, even if it was supported by millions of people. Wisdom is never to be found in numbers. Trump’s success vouches only for his strategy. It says nothing about his probity or his decency. Those Americans who are ashamed that we have elected as our president a man bursting with prejudices and lies are right. Their shame makes America great again.
But Trump’s victory, we are told, was owed mainly to the hatred of Washington, which is plainly dysfunctional. It is indeed hard to say a kind word about Congress, which could not even find a way to act against Zika when it mattered most. But this, too, is rich. Republicans contribute significantly to the breaking of the system, and then they thunder to the country that the system is broken. They refuse to govern, and then they denounce government. They seem to confuse governing with having their way. And more to the point, how does this vast alienation from Washington excuse this vast contempt for whole groups and races and genders?
The same question must be asked of the anti-elitism upon which Trump based his campaign. Never mind the bad joke of the billionaire from Fifth Avenue and Palm Beach pretending to be an outsider, a man of the margins. The real issue is the relationship of social status to decency. There is no such relationship. It is not elitist to respect Muslims and Mexicans and African Americans and women and immigrants and Jews, and a blue collar is not a moral pass. A college education is not a requirement for, nor a guarantee of, a moral compass: There are educated members of the American elite who spectacularly lack one, such as the man who was elected president Tuesday. And there are “poorly educated” Americans who abundantly express kindness and solidarity for Americans unlike themselves.
Difficult times are giving way to dark times, and dark times require a special lucidity and a special vigilance and a special ferocity about principle. We must not lose our faith in moral progress and in social progress, but we must remember that moral progress and social progress are not linear and unimpeded and inevitable. There will always be reversals and setbacks, because change rattles the world that preceded it. If you demand justice, prepare for instability, and for the exploitation of instability by political reactionaries who weaken the wounded with nostalgia and fantasies of exclusiveness. The struggle for reform is often succeeded by the struggle to repeal reform.
Trumpism, insofar as it is coherently anything, is a great promise of repeal.
If Trump succeeds in his repeal, then the fight for the repeal of the repeal must begin. There is nothing Sisyphean or cynical about this. It is the abiding condition of a democracy comprising conflicting ideals. The fight is never over.
Thanks to young people on the street shouting about their emotions and wishes for America. Although some of you did not vote, your voices will always be heard by young and old in America.
It is not late. Call/write to your state local officials and let your voices be heard for progress, decency and democracy with no fear, no hate, only equality, justice, truth, responsibility, work ethics, and love.
Obama gave many poor people health care they could afford. He tried to enact a stimulus package to get the country working again. He tried to prevent future corporate inversions and to do something about tax cheating. Under Obama, no new wars were declared that put our troops in harm’s way.
This: If our allegiance to the ideals of justice and equality and tolerance leaves us shocked at the persistent vitality of their opposites, then our idealism is parochial and naive.
Question: Of the 47% of the eligible electorate that didn’t turn out to vote on 11/8 I ask you, are you satisfied with the result? Do you distain justice, equality, and American exceptionalism?
And now, how will you fight back against a man who in his first post election interview explained that he is going to create a special force to forcibly remove 3 million undocumented people, denied everything he said on the campaign trail, called for the elimination of the free press, and said he had no choice but to fill his transition team and cabinet with establishment politicians, lobbyists, and his family? He’s not going to keep a single promise to those who supported him, because it’s still only about him. He’s installed a person who has called for a race war as his policy specialist who will ensure that only divisive, racist, and hateful pieces of legislation and ideas reach the oval office.
Feel duped yet?