December 10, 2019

Election 2016: The Donald Trump car wreck

The results of last week’s election hit with the force of a crash. 

The car was our democracy and now there is wreckage everywhere.

Our system seems utterly broken, but not as broken as we are — and I mean all of us: those who voted for a hatemongering, anti-intellectual bully and those of us who didn’t. 

Donald Trump was a choice born of pain, pessimism and despair — what Leon Wieseltier calls a “politics of panic” — driven by the impulse of self-interest and survival.

Or he wasn’t our choice at all. He was the monster beneath the bed that leaped from cartoonish nightmare to visceral reality, cast in orange flesh and a nimbus of blond hair to haunt our country. 

How in the world did we go from our first Black president to the resident “emperor” of white supremacists? 

For millions of Americans, last week felt like a funeral for democracy. It was the death of so many democratic values we cherish and the sense of loss was profound. Something sinister and dark was occurring in a country built on the light of freedom, liberty and opportunity. In one evening, centuries of hard-won progress in the form of civil rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights and freedom of expression was being plunged back into the Dark Ages.  Hadn’t we been on the cusp of history being made? Again? 

Instead, we now face a reversal of the values and policies it took our country blood, tears and centuries to realize. The fortress of our more perfect union could collapse in the shadow of a reality TV star/real estate tycoon who has anointed himself an autocrat. 

Now, the White House is white again and the patron saint of the alt-right and neo-Nazi movement, Steve Bannon, is our next president’s chief strategist and senior adviser. The wrench in the system the white working-class voter ardently sought is worse than he could have imagined: In an interview with The Daily Beast, Bannon described himself as an admirer of Vladimir Lenin, the 20th-century Russian communist revolutionary, because Lenin “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too,” Bannon said. “I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Thank God, there is a precedent for this pending plague in the Bible, which we can learn from. In the Exodus story, a similar phenomenon as what has befallen our country plays out with dramatic effect:

While Moses spends 40 days on Mount Sinai communing with God and receiving the binding legal document that will ensure the future of Hebraic civil society, the Israelites become impatient and rebel. Not a day before he returns, they lose faith in their leader and the God who redeemed them from slavery. They replace divinity with a demigod and worship a do-it-yourself golden calf with fervor. When Moses returns and discovers this transgression, chaos ensues: He smashes the tablets into the golden idol and orders the death of 3,000 idolaters. 

How quickly divine enlightenment devolved into massive corruption.

Our rabbis teach that revelation is almost always followed by regression. In the Garden of Eden, God presents a perfect world, but Adam and Eve regress into children and break the one rule they’ve been given. Once they eat of the forbidden tree and become enlightened, they become embarrassed and hide. The path from revelation to regression is short, but it is woven into the fabric of our humanity.  

In the Age of Trump, this is not meant to be a comfort but a call. Donald Trump has told us exactly what he plans to do — shame and isolate immigrants; blame minorities for the country’s economic woes; and reverse policies such as universal health care coverage and a woman’s right to choose. He has casually encouraged countries such as Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons, and when it was pointed out that this is downright apocalyptic, he tried to deny this and reverse course. But as the poet Maya Angelou cautioned, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them — the first time.”

The people who believed Trump was exactly who he said he was during his campaign — when he insulted a Gold Star family, called for a ban on Muslim immigration, tarred Mexicans as rapists and admitted to sexually assaulting women — turned completely spineless in the face of his new power. Most spineless of all, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who teasingly held out his endorsement and refused to campaign for Trump, is now photographed sitting next to him. Even President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have called for openness — asking those who vehemently oppose Trump to give him a chance.

But I already know what Trumpism is — it is a threat to reverse social and moral progress and an endorsement of contempt for whole groups of people. There’s no chance I’ll give that a chance. Instead, I’m taking to heart the call Leon Wieseltier made to “stay angry.” 

“If the presidency of Donald Trump inspires anything,” Wieseltier wrote in The Washington Post, “it should be a fierce spirit of opposition.”

So I’m not going to conciliate. As the media begin to treat this as the new normal, I won’t. As the incredulous become credulous, I will retain my outrage and indignation. Now, more than ever, we must fight to defend and preserve the values that make this country not great, but glorious.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.