Reflections on our National Sanity

What happens after the elections?

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Questions I have about a post-Trump world

I would describe the Trump presidency as a national trauma. The trauma has involved humiliating loss, one of the most potent and destructive of human emotions—and an emotion, many have observed, that tends to give rise to deep clinical depression.

Among those who didn’t support him, Trump has attacked our narcissistic pride. Our pride in being American, in believing Americans were immune to such low-rent, third-world demagoguery; our pride in believing ourselves, deep down, to be serious and responsible people, people who could be trusted to possess atomic weapons; our pride in our system of governance—which wasn’t supposed to create results like a Trump Presidency. 

For Trump’s supporters, the trauma is different, but will very much be a real trauma. Many of his supporters have entered the President’s narcissistic delusions with him. They are living vicariously through him. For others, he seems to be some kind of idealized parent figure. To challenge Trump is to attack them where they are weakest.

But at some point, they’ll be forced to confront the truth. The emperor has no clothes. It will be devastating. They will be devastated.

I’m not sure what revelation it will take for them to realize this—so far, nothing has; but perhaps a very strong electoral rebuke will do the job.

Or maybe it won’t. 

For them, the narcissistic injury will come from the realization that the President made fools of them. This, too, is a humiliating loss.

And so, together, we will be a wounded country, psychologically, no matter the results of the election. 

We will be bitterly divided, sicker, poorer, permanently disabused of our cherished fantasies about ourselves, and confronting a hostile world—with very few friends left.

Nor will Trump go away. He may no longer be the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful military with the sole power to launch nuclear weapons on command—and that day can’t come soon enough—but you better believe he’ll keep sucking up all the media oxygen, feeding off the attention of his cult devotees, doing everything he can to undermine the Biden presidency and any initiatives it takes to try to make the country whole again. 

What are the precedents for something like this in history? There is of course de-Nazification, but the US under Trump did not become Nazi Germany; it became something sui generis, more suicidal than homicidal, more pathetic than terrifying—and we are not an occupied, defeated country.

Still, other countries have defeated charismatic populists with a large cult followings. How have they reintegrated, afterward?

What works? 

Something I don’t understand—and haven’t been able to understand—is why it is still not obvious to every single American alive that Trump is laughably, demonstrably, extravagantly unfit to be the President. That he’s a nut. How did it happen that such a significant fraction of the usually sober American public lost their minds and entered into a shared narcissistic delusion with, of all people, Donald Trump?

As I’m sure you’ve noticed—if you’ve exchanged comments with them on social media—the 42 percent of the American public who support him no matter what he does have experienced a break from reality. No rational argument can persuade them that the President is not making America great again. They cannot be convinced by any evidence or statistic that in fact, Trump is a dangerous charlatan who is rapidly eroding every essential aspect of American democracy—and even its sanity—and that nothing like greatness awaits us on this path. Only ignominy and shame.

There had to have been a deep sickness—a psychological sickness—to begin with in our society for so many people to have been susceptible to a near-psychotic break, at scale. What made us so vulnerable? Was it the role of entertainment in our culture, and particularly reality TV, coupled with the infinite realities of the Internet?

Or would it be more useful to look at the breakdown or the American family?


Baby mamas on a trash daytime show

The most inadvertently revealing sentence from a recent description, by JV Last, of the Trump-Biden debate was this: “Trump treated the debate like he was trying to win an argument between two baby mamas on a trash daytime show.”

Part of our problem is that every American understands that sentence. And they shouldn’t.

Americans collectively decided, at some point, that it was fine to have “trash daytime shows” featuring “two baby mamas.” This primed us for Trump. Obviously, it did. Behavior that should have been stigmatized (and situations that were inherently tragic) instead became entertainment. 

Well-off people understood perfectly that the screaming women on those shows were objects of derision and mockery. But the women in question did not.

The normalization of single motherhood and family dysfunction was catastrophic for the poor, and pushed a good chunk of the middle class into poverty, too. “Changes in family structure” (as the prim, well-off, educated class calls this transition) fueled the rise among the uneducated of childhood poverty and family dysfunction, which became adult poverty and dysfunction. This effect has been documented over and over again.

Since the 1970s, everything—culture, the economy, policy—has militated against stable, working-class family formation. Uneducated men have seen a decline in real wages. They’ve experienced longer periods of unemployment. Women don’t want to marry men without jobs. We made marriage less appealing by offering better welfare benefits to single women than to families. The sexual revolution eroded the norm that marriage was a permanent arrangement and childbirth out of wedlock unthinkable. 

The same people who thought it would be hugely entertaining to see baby-mamas duking it out on trash TV drowned the public in romantic love stories, too, which were arguably even more destructive. The ideal of romantic love raised expectations for marriage to the absurd and the unachievable.

Then we put men in prison at historically unprecedented rates. Everything worked against the formation of permanent marriages, which are essential to stable societies. (As you’ve noticed, ours is no longer stable.)

Not only is the institution of the nuclear family critical for creating and transmitting wealth, it’s absolutely essential if children are to have stable attachments to both parents. And if they don’t, they grow up with a few screws loose. If the missing parent is the father, it makes them unusually vulnerable to male demagogues.

Upper-class Americans, despite their rhetoric, behaved as if they understood this. But lower-income Americans didn’t. The consequences were catastrophic. 

Single motherhood and divorce are events that range from “bad, but manageable” to “catastrophic, financially and emotionally,” for kids. The Left reliably mocked anyone on the Right who said, “Traditional, two-parent families are important” as a sex-hating, homophobic hypocrite. The Right was reliably comprised of sex-hating, homophobic hypocrites.

The Right foolishly spent years inveighing against homosexual marriages—as if that was the problem. It wasn’t the problem. The problem was heterosexual divorce, on the Right and on the Left, but who wanted to inveigh against that? You might need a divorce yourself.

Kids who grow up without both biological parents in the home are overwhelmingly less likely to thrive. Stepfathers kill their kids more than 100 times more often than biological fathers do. Preschoolers living with a step-parent are 40 times more likely to be abused. Children living with a single mother or a step-parent are at vastly higher risk of physical or sexual assault than children living with two biological parents. No matter your race, if you’re a child of a single mother, you are four times more likely to grow up in poverty. So the children of those “baby mamas” were vastly more likely to be poor, beaten, abused, addicted, and uneducated

On the Right and the Left alike, the real divide was class. Upper-class and upper middle-class Americans stayed in school, got married, stayed married, and enjoyed the economic and emotional stability that obtained. 

Everyone else fell deeper and deeper into the mud as their families grew more unstable. Rather than stigmatizing family dysfunction openly—and doing something about it—we stigmatized it covertly, by putting it on television, for everyone’s entertainment. 

Educated Americans were in on the joke and knew these women were not role models.
But uneducated Americans were not in on the joke. And so we created a culture in which the dysfunction of the Jerry Springer show seemed, to uneducated Americans and potential Trump voters, perfectly normal. And a culture of fatherless children who grew up to look at a figure like Trump and wondered—are you my daddy?

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What will it take to break the spell?

I can’t help but remember a conversation I had with my grandfather, when I was much younger, about the firebombing of German cities. I asked him whether he thought the Allies should be reproached for targeting civilians.

He said—I remember this well—that there was no alternative. The bond between Germans and Hitler was so strong that nothing short of the sight of seeing their cities razed and burnt to the ground would have dissolved it. They had to see, before their eyes, the complete, physical destruction of Germany. They could not otherwise have been persuaded to abandon Hitler and what he stood for. 

That comment, as you can imagine, has haunted me these past few years.

Trump will declare the elections illegitimate no matter the results. I wonder if 42 percent of America will agree with him? What does this portend?

Supposing we manage to have a peaceful transfer of power. What will we need to do to bring Trump’s supporters back from the fantasy world they’ve entered and re-tether them to the sane, boring, ultimately unsatisfying, and certainly not especially entertaining world of normal democratic politics? 

What would de-Trumpification look like? 


The core of the problem?

So says Anne Applebaum:

This and something else: Does anyone have friends or family who want Trump to be the great president they hoped he would be, and have therefore decided never to read the news? Do you hear phrases like, “For my mental health, I just can’t watch it anymore?”

Or, “Who can even figure out what’s true anymore?”

Peter Pomerantsev has written well about this—about the way autocratic demagogues like Trump ensure the zone is flooded with so much crap that ordinary people give up, turn cynical, and decide, “To hell with politics.” Or, “They’re all just as bad as the others.” Or, “Why bother voting, it’s obviously all hopelessly corrupt.”

This serves the demagogue, obviously.

I see the effect this strategy has on people to whom I’m close, and I have no idea how to counter it—not without getting their dander up. Which is counterproductive. 

Seriously, does anyone know what to do? I consider it a civic obligation to vote. To do everything I can to end this un-American nightmare. That means getting as many people as I can persuade to do likewise.

But I don’t have to ask people who already agree with me to vote. They’ve already voted. I have to persuade people who don’t agree with me.

This isn’t like persuading someone that you’re better off taking the subway at rush hour, given that it will take twice as long to get home if you drive. So many strange things are taking place, psychologically. What do you say if your interlocutor clearly, for some reason, wants to vote for Trump, or wants not to vote at all, but doesn’t have any good reason for feeling this way? What if he or she has stopped following the news, and so just doesn’t understand why you feel so strongly about it? 

What if they think the mainstream news is so biased that it can’t be trusted to report anything truthfully? Then it does no good to appeal to it. 

What if they think Biden will usher in a socialist revolution? How do you get them to weigh that fantasy, for which there’s no evidence, about the future, against the reality of a President who says, right now, and very openly, that he wants to “get rid of the ballots, that way there won’t be a transfer of power?”

If I say what I really feel, which is, ‘My God, how can you possibly be neutral about this? How can you not be paying attention? How can you just sit this one out?Americans drowned and died at on the beaches of Normandy to protect American liberty, but you can’t be bothered to watch the news because it makes you feel depressed? 750,000 men perished in the Civil War and and you can’t be bothered to vote?”—well, that may be what I feel, but I know better than to say it. It would come across as self-righteous. Nagging would only harden them in their views. 

If anyone has any tips about how they’ve managed to persuade someone who doesn't want to know what’s going on that perhaps they should start tuning in—I’d welcome them. Because if they don’t vote, this time, they may not get another chance.

I haven’t been able to find a way to get through to the people who’ve entered an alternate epistemic reality, or those who’ve just, somehow, checked out and decided they want nothing to do with politics.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter—the election won’t hinge on the handful of people I fail to succeed in persuading. But it does hinge on the thousands of people we collectively succeed in persuading.  

It’s frustrating. 

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I’ll tell you one thing honey ….

Well, we may have lost our dignity, our democracy, our leadership of the free world, our ideals, our moral authority, our innocence, and hundreds of thousands of American souls, but man, did we put on a show.

The greatest show on earth. 

No other country—none—could have produced the Trump Presidency. No other country—none—could have merged the skankiest of low-brow low-production-values entertainment with white-knuckle high-stakes brinksmanship in the nuclear era and turned it into the most compulsively watchable, internationally-broadcast, 24/7, four-year television soap opera ever made.

Only in America!

We may no longer command the world’s respect. We’ve brought disgrace on every soldier who ever laid down his life in the cause of liberty and left the next generation poorer, sicker, weaker. No one will ever take us seriously again. We’ve made ourselves pariahs and the object of punchlines the whole world round.

But man, did we keep ‘em entertained.

I’ll tell you one thing honey, you sure did put on a show.

Because you had to be a big shot, didn’t you
You had to open up your mouth
You had to be a big shot, didn’t you
All your friends were so knocked out
You had to have the last word, last night
You know what everything’s about
You and to have a white hot spotlight
You had to be a big shot last night ….