November 9, 2016 § 2 Comments
I’m not sure why but as I sit here writing, it somehow feels like a Sunday morning. Perhaps I’m a little disorientated from lack of sleep last night. Although I never left the house it is as though I spent the night driving along a chaotic contra-flow both fascinated by and despairing of the pile-ups taking place around me. If I had been driving, my shoulders would ache from the constant rubber-necking. It is not Sunday though, it’s Wednesday morning after the US election.
As day turned to night in the States, realisation started to dawn on the other side of the Atlantic and Europe awoke to a Trump presidency. For all my horror I could not help be both curious and fascinated by what lay in store.
Within us all lurks a vestigial evolutionary instinct, apparently dormant but all to ready to unexpectedly burst like a diseased appendix. Our primitive instincts ensure that when we see a threat or something that generates anxiety, we fix and focus on it. If we see a snake we are transfixed, almost hypnotised by it. The problem with the instinct is that it makes us focus on the threat rather than the way around it. One of the most important things that anyone who has ever ridden a motorbike has to learn is not to look at the approaching corner but to look past it. Our instinct is to look at the corner and drive straight into it. It is commonplace in the Australian bush to drive along a straight flat road for a 100 Ks, come across a dangerous corner and see at the apex of the corner a couple of cars wrapped around an old gum tree.
Our instinct to look with fascination at accidents is the same instinct that contributes to us causing the accident. And so it was with the election of President Trump last night. It may have been a shock and one with catastrophic consequences but should it have been a surprise? The media is already awash with explanations, condemnations and dire warnings but given the context in which the election was framed, surely the result shouldn’t have been altogether unexpected.
One of the convenient delusions that neo-liberalism and democracy share is that the markets and voting are both a function of rational decision making based on objective information. What nonsense! What the election of Trump demonstrated (as too would have Clinton’s election) is the significant role that subjectivity plays in decision making. Okay, we are all subjective but given Trump’s tenuous hold on honesty, decency or ability, surely subjectivity does not trip so easily into the collective madness of the almost half of adult Americans voting for him? Yet it does. Imagine two middle-aged white American men who both see the same debates and receive identical information; one looks at Trump and says: “My, what a misogynistic, racist, innumerate and illiterate bigot, no way will I vote for him.” Whereas, his fellow patriot says: “My, what a misogynistic, racist, innumerate and illiterate bigot, I can’t wait to vote for him.”
While it may seem like an oxymoron for dispirited, alienated white voters to turn to the most discredited and unqualified candidate in American history to represent them, within their paradigm of angry hurting it makes a strange sense. When we feel powerless, too often the only way left to express our frustration is through destructive negative power. Like dispirited, disenfranchised teenagers huddled together in a decaying bus shelter on the edge of town we end up pissing on the floor and breaking the windows. Sure, it may effectively make our life even less comfortable but at least we are doing something even if it is just lashing out. Trump played to those feeling. Although himself one of the absolute, privileged elite he fuelled many Americans’ anger at the injustice of their perceived betrayal by the “establishment”. And again like teenagers who feel let down and cut adrift by authority, they begin to define themselves not by respecting authority but by the stance they take against it. So easy then to support the, however implausible, candidate who claims he will “drain the swamp.”
When we feel our trust is betrayed by those in authority or those we loved or trusted we can act in contrary ways. I guess at some time in our lives it happens to most of us, particularly on a personal level. Someone we loved, trusted, believed in absolutely, lets us down and we go through the whole denial, anger, rejection bit… no way are we ever going to trust again! We turn our angry sceptical back on it all, even as we secretly yearn for another truth to replace the one we have lost. Therein though lays the paradox of overcoming our betrayal, our loss of trust. Too often we attempt to rebuild trust not by listening to the honest but by being beguiled by the most implausible of liars. Honest people are often uncertain and hesitant; they know they don’t have all the answers and can come across as unconvincing. The betrayed need the certainties and absolutes that only the plausible, smiling sociopath can provide. We may know the sociopath is a liar and cheat but if they are truly skilful they make us believe that somehow the lies and the deception will not apply to us and the very implausibility of our belief in them seduces us even further.
So, after eight years of a presidency inhabited by one of the wisest, most empathic and decent men to have graced the world stage, America went to bed believing that their next president would break the glass ceiling, albeit as a somewhat dull but competent and hard working Washington insider. Instead, they awake to the chaos of uncertainty seeded by the possibility of a long day’s journey into night. Such are the fine margins of collective decision making and madness. Like Gore in 2000, Clinton actually won the popular vote but lost the presidency to the vagaries of the Electoral College. We know where it ended in 2000, particularly as the consequences continue to rumble around the world but where will 2016 end? Yes, it’s scary but we should remind ourselves that the actual electoral shift was minimal (even though it had maximum consequences) and the fundamentals of American society have changed little, even if those fundamentals now need to be negotiated through the dystopian vision of a neo-conservative dominated Congress. Still, every cloud and all that, just imagine the vicarious excitement we will get as we watch the crashes pile up as the incompetent but supremely lacking in self awareness new administration get behind the wheel in January. Just imagine … no, better not.