John Steinbeck, Kate Tempest, Abraham Lincoln, and making sense of Donald Trump a year later

A few weeks before the election last year, I predicted that Donald Trump was going to lose, but that we'd still have to face the people we knew and loved who had voted for him. I wrote:

He’s so fundamentally terrible that, when friends or family members support him, I’ve started to think things I’ve never thought before: “Are they okay? Is voting for Trump a good litmus test for basic human decency?”

Because it’s hard to see a Trump supporter and not see a person who appears to be callously, casually lobbing grenades into the homes of the women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and democracy enthusiasts in their lives.

The morning after he won, someone who had read that article emailed me at 6 in the morning telling me to kill myself. Facebook had erupted. Friends who were trying to process what had just happened, who were shaken to their core with grief, were using social media as a support group, all while being sniped at by their Trump-supporting friends and relatives, whose rage had not seemed to dissipate with their victory. 

The overwhelming feeling was one of despair, and it was most electrically, most heartbreakingly expressed in a poem by British artist Kate Tempest, that started making the social media rounds post-inauguration, set to a deeply disturbing, deeply moving video. 

I am quiet, feeling the onset of riot
Riots are tiny though, systems are huge
The traffic keeps moving, proving there's nothing to do

'Cause it's big business baby and its smile is hideous
Top down violence, a structural viciousness
Your kids are doped up on medical sedatives
But don't worry 'bout that, man. Worry 'bout terrorists!

The water levels rising! The water levels rising!
The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying!
Stop crying, start buying
But what about the oil spill?
Shh, no one likes a party pooping spoil sport.

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John Steinbeck on America's fundamental disconnect

I could not -- and cannot still -- fully grasp the decision to vote for Trump. I know the platitudes that the American left has come to parrot, that Trump voters were driven by anger and ignorance and fear, that Russia rigged the election, that it was a fluke brought on by James Comey, but none of these excuses have ever felt sufficient to me. See, I know Trump voters -- they sit with me at holiday dinners and treat me with kindness and decency. They buy me drinks, they take interest in my life, they give me hugs instead of handshakes. They are people I love.

The biggest challenge for me has been reconciling the people I love with the rage I feel towards their actions. Recently, we held a baby shower for our daughter, who is due to be born a few days before the one year mark of the Trump Inauguration. A room full of family and friends -- many of whom I know voted for Trump -- showered us with gifts and generosity that, frankly, we really needed. 

But seated in a pile of gifts, I found myself ungraciously wondering why, if so many of these people were so invested in my child's future, they'd voted for (and still supported!) a dangerously unstable man who was threatening the world with a nonsensical nuclear war that literally no one wants. Why they refused to accept the science of climate change, or at least were willing to ignore it for a modest tax cut that would only marginally improve their lives in the short-term while drastically worsening our daughter's in the long term. Why kindness, generosity, and compassion could be extended to us, but not to anyone outside our small little group. 

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Over the course of the past year, this disconnect, this chasm between belief and action started appearing in everything I looked at, on the right and the left, in my friends, in my family, and in myself. Our values, I came to suspect, were not something by which we lived, but something to which we merely gave lip-service; psychic lullabies which, through repetition, would help us get to sleep at night.

 This disconnect, it seems, is nothing new: In his 1945 book Cannery RowJohn Steinbeck wrote a passage that could now be applied explicitly to Trump:

“It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” 

The problem, it seems, is not that we have the wrong values, it's simply that we refuse to live by them, or failing that, to even examine what living by them would mean. We fail our values constantly. And when we fail our values, we open ourselves to claims of hypocrisy, claims which those of us on the left simply cannot shelter ourselves from.

To have integrity means to not be divided against oneself. How many of us can say we have integrity? How many of us can say that we live what we believe? If we are to truly believe in things like kindness, generosity, and honesty, we may have to radically reimagine what the world should -- and could -- look like. We may have to radically reimagine what we ourselves should -- and could -- look like.

Solzhenitsyn on the line separating good from evil, and Lincoln on the end of America

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet dissident and writer of The Gulag Archipelago, wrote:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil. 

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person."

The work, it seems, must start at home -- in ourselves and in our communities. It is in this, a year on, that I have found a glimmer of hope -- where I live, here in New Jersey, a year after the election of maybe the worst person in America to its highest office, we elected we locally gave both of our town council seats to Democrats, we flipped our conservative district's State Senate seat away from a long-standing GOP incumbent, and we elected a governor who is in favor of public banking, treating immigrants like actual human beings, smart gun control, and marijuana legalization.

I have still not figured out how to handle the rage I feel at Donald Trump's election, but I have done a better job, over the course of the year, at figuring out how to spread the targets of my rage around more justly. His election does not fall exclusively on the people who voted for him. It falls on the people who, like myself, were complacent with an unjust system because it benefitted them. It falls on the people who, like myself, failed to fight racism and bigotry in their own homes and communities. It falls on the people who, like myself, chose to dismiss the suffering of others as inevitable, rather than choosing to do something about it.

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In Abraham Lincoln's 1838 Lyceum address, he discussed what could possibly bring down the United States.

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

We shall see which we end up choosing.

Featured photo by astoller.