Like you, I have watched in shocked disgust the ascendancy of one we shall call DT in the Republican Party’s primary elections. For some this means delirium tremens. You know what I mean. It has felt like the fascination of drivers slowing down to catch a glimpse of a terrible accident on the highway. And, of course, the usual words rise to our lips: the classic demagogue, a playground bully, a five-year old with a billion dollar spoon in his mouth, and so on. Like insomniacs with a bad dream, we hope it will disappear in the morning fog by Thanksgiving Day.
But then, we begin to ponder not only what we can do to stop this bully from breaking more of our nation’s diplomatic and domestic furniture, but also why we have come to this abyss and what it means. Here are some of my thoughts. You can add your own.
First, it represents a further collapse of our public realm of civil argument, negotiation, and compromise for the sake of the common good. Instead of the common good we have nationalistic arrogance. Instead of the public welfare we have stark racism and xenophobia. The core ‘republican’ values of public persuasion, mutual respect, and rational debate based on common and scientific knowledge are jettisoned. Even members of the Republican Party must question in what way they are any longer “republican.”
Much of our anger and anxiety revolves around the use of speech and the way it is mediated in our society. Politics is above all a world of speech, of rhetoric, as Aristotle and Cicero envisioned it. In its debasement, genuine politics becomes impossible. With DT we see speech’s utter debasement as a tool of humiliation, exclusion and irrational contradiction. What is said today has little to do with what was said yesterday or will be said tomorrow. In a world of broken promises, promises themselves become meaningless. With the loss of promise comes cynicism, despair and reliance on the whims of The Great One from day to day.
Over the past weeks, the image of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown returns again and again to my mind. In Schulz’s famous cartoon, she always takes the football away just as Charlie Brown puts all his effort into kicking it…and landing in renewed despair flat on his back. Lucy will not only remove the football again, but indeed, claim she was never holding it in the first place. It wasn’t even a football! This is the future for people who have suffered real economic loss as they run after DT’s show of vainglorious “Greatness.”
Just as DT has reached an almost certain victory over his Republican rivals, the country is riveted by the bizarre law hastily passed in my own state, North Carolina, to force (how?) people to use bathrooms according to the sex listed for them on their birth certificates. Would we all have to undergo strip searches to enter a public restroom? Somehow, this captures, in a very strange way, the “exposure” to which DT’s rhetoric has subjected people, stripping away all the conventions of civility that protect public argument from our inner passions. As Hannah Arendt claimed years ago, the public requires a realm of privacy, but even more it requires the exercise of self-discipline that does not reduce public concerns to private interests and the murky passions that haunt us all.
Many have been mesmerized by the outbursts of personal passions and chicanery that have dominated our mercenary media. We now have the task of rebuilding, conversation by conversation, the public world that can rightly deal with the profound challenges to the welfare and existence of our societies and our very planet.
While the next six months will reduce our struggle to a political war to overcome the threat of the most ill-equipped presidential candidate in anyone’s memory, we also must continue to nurture the civil polities where people are actually trying to address the causes of our present DTs. I see it in churches like my own where roundtable and circle conversations are taking place. I see it in town and city councils where people come together around specific problems affecting their common life. I see it in the few places in the mass media where civil discussion and debate is being led by thoughtful moderators. There are pockets of it everywhere. Wherever you are, I hope you are nourishing and caring for these places of civility and common concern. It is from these seeds that we must replant our gardens after the elephants have passed on with their rampage.