It's been an enraging few weeks to live in the land of Trump. First, the President told the people of Puerto Rico, whose home had just been crippled by a massive hurricane, that should feel lucky that they hadn't suffered a "real catastrophe" like Katrina. Then he picked a fight with the mayor of San Juan, who had simply been begging for more assistance, while explaining that it was impossible to effectively help them because Puerto Rico is “an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Then he tried to do a Puerto Rican accent. Then he tossed paper towels out to survivors like they were t-shirts at a Minor League Baseball game, and later bizarrely bragged about how soft those paper towels were, and how much the crowd of disaster survivors loved him.
And that's just Puerto Rico: he also picked a fight with athletes who have been protesting the murder of innocent people at the hands of the police, saying that they should be fired for exercising their right to free speech. His administration went so far as to stage a ludicrously expensive counter-protest featuring his empty shell of a Vice President, and he later tried to use the death of former NFL player and veteran Pat Tillman (who was known for his liberal politics, corresponded with Noam Chomsky, and supported war resisters) as a reason why players shouldn't be allowed to kneel during the anthem.
He repealed the Obama-era clean power plan, which could potentially do enormous harm to future generations through added carbon emissions. He pushed a tax plan that would give him, personally, a billion dollar tax cut, while trying to cut healthcare for the poor and decrease women's access to birth control. Then he pushed an immigration agenda which is just naked white supremacy.
Oh, and he's single-handedly taken us to the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, who literally no one thinks we should go to war with.
It's been an enraging few weeks.
Take a second. Take a deep breath. In. Out. Okay. Let's move on.
If you've got a conscience, have been paying attention, and have been living in America for... Jesus Christ, it's been nearly 10 months of this shit, you are likely very tired and very angry. It is understandable. It is the natural response. But I'm going to need you to let go of that rage for the rest of the article. Here. Here's a dog who loves his stuffed animal.
Right. The thing about all this rage is that it may actually serve Donald Trump more than it harms him. There are undoubtedly positive side effects to all of this anger -- the newly mobilized left that has arisen post-election seems to be moving the Democrats leftward, and organized democratic movements like Indivisible may have played a large role in the fact that the GOP, despite having both Houses of Congress and the White House, have not been able to pass repeal and replace.
But we're still angry, and we're still working primarily in response to Donald Trump. There is an excellent quote from Ursula K. LeGuin's brilliant book, The Left Hand of Darkness:
To oppose something is to maintain it.
They say here “all roads lead to Mishnory.” To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.
In his epic masterpiece, Dune, Frank Herbert puts it differently:
What do you despise? By this you are truly known.
This idea -- that the things we hate are simply the other side of our coin -- is a centerpiece of Daoism. If we did not know light, darkness would have no meaning. If we did not know sound, we would not be able to fathom silence. Good could not make sense without evil. You are, to some extent, defined by the things you choose to be against. So you must choose carefully.
Donald Trump, the Internet, and the Attention Economy
Let me put it in a less mystical way.
I've worked in the internet writing business for almost half a decade, and I know most of the tricks for how to get something to go "viral." A piece about sex is just naturally going to get more clicks than a piece about something drab like books. More people will click if you appeal to emotion than if you appeal to reason. Short, catchy posts with lists and multimedia are more appealing than long blocks of text. Distraction, emotion, simplification, and humor are valuable; context, nuance, reason, and balance are not.
The key is to get people emotionally engaged enough to click, and then to keep them on your webpage -- by whatever means necessary! -- for as long as possible. The turning point in any internet writer's life comes when they realize that people hating their piece is just as valuable as people loving their piece.
Anger, rage, hate, righteous indignation -- these are all just as big emotional click-drivers as happiness, humor, and love. You know what gets people to click on a garbage headline? Indignation. You know what keeps them on the page? Long, angry comments. If it is your attention that I want, I will be much more likely to get it if I can teach myself not to care whether it's positive or negative attention.
Donald Trump is the undisputed master of the attention economy. This isn't to say he's a genius: most of the tricks I've mentioned can be figured out by any intuitive 5-year-old. The only real brake on someone using these tricks to the fullest extent is integrity and a basic moral code. And if you have neither of these, if the only thing of value is attention -- well, then it's very easy to get.
Donald Trump's attention machine is almost beautiful in its simplicity. When he Tweets something outrageous, liberals attack him (fie! shame! disgusting!) and his supporters attack the liberals (hypocrisy! political correctness! frog memes!). It's a nightmare firestorm, but Donald Trump loves the fire, as long as it's swirling around him.
Meanwhile, the island of Puerto Rico languishes, but our attention is on the tossing of paper towels.
How do you fight someone and ignore him at the same time?
If those of us on the left do not want to be defined by Donald Trump, we will have to stop playing his game. We will have to stop giving him the attention he wants. And this will be hard to do, as he is the President of the United States of America, and, unfortunately, plays a pretty central role in our news cycle.
But there's a simple question you can ask yourself every time you read the news:
Who deserves my attention?
Is it the Puerto Ricans who are trying to rebuild their homes and lives? Is it the women who won't be able to afford birth control, the people who will lose coverage under repeal and replace? Is it the children whose lives will be demonstrably worse as we continue to turn our planet into a slow-cooker? Is it the tens of millions of people who would die in a nuclear exchange, including the innocent North Koreans who have been oppressed by their government for decades?
Or is it Donald Trump?
Undoubtedly, there are times that he will attack people and we will need to defend them, but instead of making the story about his inadequacy as a human, you can make it about the humanity of the victims of the things he does.
There is someone who's doing it right
I mentioned Trump's "feud" with athletes earlier in the article: Trump has tried to make this issue about himself, but he's largely failed. This conversation was started by a single soft-spoken person.
Last year, the only NFL player to take a knee was Colin Kaepernick. When they asked him why, he said, "I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there's significant change and I feel that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand."
It did not go well for him. He was ridiculed, he was booed, and it may have contributed to him losing his job. But a year later, after Trump threw his little tantrum about Kaepernick, he forced people to choose: are you with me, or with Kaepernick?
The two have very different records over the past year: Trump has spent months attacking the most vulnerable people in our society and serving the mega-rich (a kind of anti-Robin Hood), while Kaepernick has spent the past year giving money to oppressed communities. He's given to the Coalition for the Homeless and United We DREAM, an organization that helps undocumented immigrants. He's given nearly $1 million, all told, to charities over the past year, in spite of losing his job. He's also held "Know Your Rights" camps for kids. And he's tried, for the most part, to stay out of the press. The two could not be more different.
The NFL picked its side. Huge swaths of the league knelt during the anthem. The tide on the issue may well have turned, and all because a single man quietly took a knee in honor of the many people who have needlessly, unjustly been killed by the law enforcement that is supposed to be serving us.
A Guardian headline on September 24th read: "Colin Kaepernick has won. He wanted a conversation and Trump started it."
Quiet dignity defeats rage.
Fighting the right fight
We get to choose the our enemies, and we get to choose our allies. There are 7 billion people on this struggling little planet, and there are so many people and so many things more deserving of our attention than a sad little manchild sending out early morning Tweets on his toilet. We could be fighting against poverty, climate change, racism, sexism, loneliness, ignorance, and war. We could be fighting for justice, dignity, freedom, equality, and humanity.
If it's what we despise that defines us, then it's time for us to find worthier things to despise.