What Makes Politics Unendurable
Governor Bill Weld’s dire verdict on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been taken as an implicit endorsement of Hillary Clinton and made into another sound bite in the horse-race coverage of the election. Regrettably the content of his warning has been largely ignored. Weld describes Mr. Trump as “a candidate who might in fact put at risk the solid foundation of America that allows us to endure... the normal ebb and flow of politics.” This warning is not about xenophobia, an impossible wall, or even nuclear codes. It is about a society going off a cliff.
During Trump’s visit to Mexico, a Mexican professor said that “Franz Kafka must be playing some role in the U.S. presidential election.” He may have thought of Kafka’s unfinished novel, “America,” in which an election is pictured as a grotesque street carnival show.
He was getting at what many of us know too well: our politics is often grotesque, political clowns and barkers abound, and the notion that voters make meaningful choices may be an illusion more often than we want to admit.
But amidst all the clowning and barking, many of us believe that at least sometimes our choices do matter; that at least in some cases the system does work; and that if we try long and hard enough to fix it, it just may become a tiny bit fairer and more meaningful for a few more of us.
That’s why some people wear “I voted” buttons, stand in line for hours in cold and heat to cast their ballots, or volunteer to go across the country to knock on doors for their candidates, even when chances of winning are slim to none. They do so because they believe that ordinary people can take responsibility for the destiny of their communities and their country.
Mr. Trump comes across as a sociable, even chummy person with a flare for straight talk, with whom many ordinary voters would probably want to have a beer. His presidential campaign, however, no matter what he says or means, has been an assault on their ability to make informed, responsible choices at the ballot box. He dismissed the idea of persuasion as a way of winning people’s minds and replaced it with carefully timed spewing out of verbal junk, calculated to tap into the anxieties, fears, and anger of his audiences. He dragged his Republican rivals into a buffoonery contest, made the proportions of his anatomy a debate subject, and presided over rallies turning into brawls.
Unlike career politicians, Trump does not hide the circus of politics under the veneer of respectability. He embraces the circus. The motto of his campaign should have been this: “The whole thing is a joke. And you are the butt of it.” He made his point by putting on the most grotesque, buffoonish, and insulting farce of an election in modern history.
During one of presidential debates, I had a chance to see a couple of stand-up comedians doing a live commentary on the debate. I could tell they were having a hard time competing with Mr. Trump. Woe to comedians when a presidential candidate eats their bread. Woe to citizens when an election campaign is a cynical, though admittedly hilarious, joke at their expense.
But perhaps it is not a joke after all. For we know what happens when too many anxious, fearful or angry people feed for too long on quick-to-digest slogans, easy-to-blame targets, and titillating political stunts: they forget how to digest the rough food of facts, how to think for themselves, and how to follow their consciousness. They turn into pliable masses of pawns in games played by maniacs. They become a mob.
This affliction struck many a nation before, and no people on earth has yet been proven immune to it. But there are elements that fuel the spread of this disease: anxiety, fear, and anger on which the Trumps of this world can work their dangerous art. They cannot be conjured by a Trump out of the underworld. They are bred by years of marginalization and powerlessness. Enter the rule of elites, the corruption, the greed, the inequality.
None of these will change on Election Day, no matter who wins: the candidate who, deservedly or not, embodies the forces responsible for our anxieties, or the candidate who ruthlessly exploits these anxieties for who knows what purposes.
Some voters compared this choice to a stickup in which the elites hold Mr. Trump’s candidacy as a gun to the head of the public. If there is any truth to this analogy, some of us will choose to hand over our wallets and hold the culprit to account later. Others will reply with a swagger “Go ahead, make my day!” Still others will convince themselves that maybe the gun is a toy and bet their life on that.
Whatever we choose to do, at the end of the day we, the anxious, fearful and angry people, insulted by our politics, will have to face our ailments. The alternative is to head toward a point where citizenry becomes a mob and where politics, as Governor Weld would probably put it, becomes unendurable.
The above is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, the Libertarian Party ticket, or any other political candidate.