Mourning Our Politics

Jonathan Deluty, Columbia University 

The words of WB Yeats capture the mood in America quite well right now: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

I want to have some honest and thoughtful insights into our politics. This generally requires quite a bit of writing and rewriting, with significant thought and planning. But what can I say after an election like this? There was so little thought that went into it. Mud slinging, fear mongering, race baiting, and tribalism are usually appendages of a campaign. They’re never the whole thing.  Yet I can’t think of a single new or interesting idea that came out of this campaign season. It was all about seizing control of the flow of hatred, and channeling it at the other side.

Did everyone on Earth forget that the President is supposed to do specific things once he gets into office? This was politicking with no politics. Hillary Clinton: e-mails. Donald Trump: hates and grabs women. That was it.

We as a country were forced to recognize, we as a country proved, that the thing we care most about, that truly arouses our passions, is our hatred of one another. It’s not immigration or trade or security. It’s the culmination of tribalism with no principle that has been festering for a long time.

The proof? I have no idea on Earth what either candidate believes. But I feel the deep hatred. President-elect Trump (and writing those words causes an involuntary pit to form in my stomach – it is still hard to believe) has never articulated strong beliefs. As Michael Weiss of The Daily Beast puts it, he is a “post-modern politician,” singularly uninterested in the pursuit of truth, if such a quaint thing even exists. Our next President was elected based on nothing but a few vague fantasies about walls and immigrants and trade wars, and a cathartic feeling he gave to voters who do not like the left.

I know this because I feel the catharsis. I held my nose and voted for Hillary this time around, and I am unhappy that she lost. To me, not only was Trump a worse candidate by any measure. He is also obviously unable to do the job of President. That is a terrifying thought. But if you are a left-wing person who has not even given the Trump voter’s view your consideration, please try to understand: for someone who leans right, watching the current collective nervous breakdown of the American left feels amazing. The left that looks down its nose at anyone with differing viewpoints. The left that calls anyone who dares to question leftist orthodoxy a bigot and a chauvinist, unworthy of a platform or a second thought. The left that demands empathy and submissive repentance for even the tiniest slights against members of its enshrined victim-classes, but gives nothing in return when opioids and heroin ravage white communities. These self-appointed moral arbiters are now outnumbered in America by those they have deemed bigots. And they look ridiculous now. Trump didn’t just win: Hillary lost. They lost.

Last night after the election, I watched the grotesque spectacle of students at Columbia University, standing in the middle of campus bawling like children. I saw the most privileged young people in humanity’s long history wailing like the world was crashing around them. I stood in the middle of the mob watching the “F*** Trump!” chants, over and over like their lives depended on it. Then I saw students demand classes and midterms be cancelled. I saw the Dean of Columbia University tell people with a straight face that Columbia Psychological Services are there for anyone traumatized by the election. Never has the term “snowflake” been so apt. As upset as I was at the Trump victory, I stood there watching these students, who constantly dismiss me and my opinions for the cardinal sin of being a white cis-het man, and I simply thought, “finally.” The thought was involuntary, only for an instant, but it was there. And in that moment I understood the Trump voter, because it felt great.

This type of catharsis is bad. Really bad. It is bad because it is based on no specific accomplishment, only Schadenfreude. It is purely destructive. The relationship will continue as before after this election – there will be no push for mutual understanding. Even now, we stand against one another.

This catharsis is based on tribalism. I have been tribalized against my will by the left. And there are no avenues in place to fix this.  Worse than the lack of substance in this election is the feeling that we have destroyed our mechanisms for solving problems in the future. Not institutionally, but culturally. We are now in for an ugly stretch, because it is getting harder and harder to tell who the real bigots in our country are. We have neutered all the terms that should matter in our society: racism, sexism, bigotry, xenophobia. The left has called everyone on the right all of these slurs. Mitt Romney, the most vanilla man who ever lived, was vilified by the Vice President as wanting to put black Americans “back in chains.” These accusations simply do not matter to people anymore. Now we have nothing to say when a real racist stands up. If there is no perceivable difference to the left between David Duke and any other Trump voter, as one would think from reading Peter Beinart or Paul Krugman these days, then how can dialogue possibly be tenable? Make no mistake, this will come back to hurt the minorities the left thought (thinks) it was (is) protecting.

The bigots are out there. They are real, and they are truly scary. Whatever this new alt-right cult is, it is drawing from the ugliest elements of European ethnocentric far-right nationalism. The new online Anti-Semitism directed against Jewish journalists and activists reveals that our society is filled with some sickening people. Trump’s casual slandering of Mexicans and Muslims is as ignorant as it is deplorable. Breitbart’s top brass now hold the levers of power.

So how do we respond? What can we do to better our situation moving forward? Luckily, our institutions still remain the gold standard for self-correcting democracies around the world, so we have the right tools. But we have a lot of work to do in our culture. The first step in moving forward must be ridding ourselves of identity politics.

Identity politics is fueled by visceral sentiment, and easily breeds resentment with little room for respect for opposition. This kind of politics renders a candidate’s true beliefs nigh irrelevant. Donald Trump is the white identity politics candidate, but he stole that mode from the left. He was simply better at it. Hillary was the women identity politics candidate. This style of politics makes it far too easy to focus on the individual persona of the candidates at the expense of their worldview, which is how we got stuck with a disastrous cartoon character like Trump. There was no conversation this election about the role of government. Only cries of racism and sexism. Only feelings. No wonder the campaign was so intellectually boring. One cannot argue with an identity. All we can argue about are ideas.

For the left, this should be a point of optimism. Barack Obama’s legacy was built uniquely around him as a person. That is why it collapsed overnight. The Obama presidency was a singular moment in America. But like all moments, it ended, seemingly as soon as it began. It will be the same with Trump. All the candidates who ran in local primaries as the “Trump” candidate, opposing establishment Republicans like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, lost handily. Trump is about Trump. And once Trump is out, he will be out for good. What comes next is up to us.

The psalmist wrote, “Do not trust in princes, in man who can give no salvation.” If we learn anything from this election, it is that a politics based on personalities will eventually burn itself down spectacularly, and carry untold victims with it. The right has fallen victim to an orange caricature of a politician with no clear beliefs, because he irritates all the right people. The left has lost its mind for the moment following the collapse of the first would-be female President, and will hopefully do a constructive autopsy, though current signs are discouraging. It will have to realize at some point that outrage and name-calling are not arguments, and it will have to clarify its beliefs and argue them persuasively to the public. We must take this election as a call to start thinking clearly again about ideas and ideals, not about identity and personality. Let’s make America think again, not just feel.