In less than two weeks, voters in this badly divided nation will decide who shall be the president of the United States for the next four years. “Will we win or lose?” is the question asked by nearly everyone. That is misleading. In the very fabric of the campaign, with its race to the bottom of vulgarity and vituperation, we have lost the vitality of our political culture, and are beginning to lose any claim we had to real democracy.
Last week, a former Republican said that Donald Trump’s candidacy was “an indictment of our character.” In an op-ed that was made into a four-minute animation, I offered a friendly amendment: it’s an indictment of our culture. We have somehow drifted into a culture of back-biting and competition — a culture of violence. The demoralizing quality of this campaign and the rise of that disastrous candidate did not come from nowhere. The only thing surprising about Donald Trump’s rise to prominence is that anyone should be surprised.
Draw a line from the disgracing of the presidency by Richard Nixon to the two-term reign of President Reagan. One of the most profound comments on him was made by Rosalynn Carter when Reagan was running against her husband: “The trouble with that man is, he makes us feel good about our prejudices” — neatly echoed in an op-ed by Abby Norman recently in Medium Daily Digest: “People like Trump because he gives them permission to no longer suppress their intolerance. He promotes pride in prejudice.” (The op-ed was entitled, incidentally, “Be not afraid of Trump; be afraid of the people who support him.”) Trump gives many an excuse to not deal with, but in fact take pride in, a debilitating characteristic; but he could never have done this by himself.
But again, this is not an indictment of our character — Americans can be generous, thoughtful and caring — but of our culture. In fact, of certain trends in our culture that are relentlessly exaggerated by the commercial media. Case in point: The latest edition of The Economist refers this age of “post-truth politics” quite casually, as though this were not a prescription for disaster. Well, we are exposed to thousands of advertisements every day, every one of which subverts truth to create urges to buy — mostly stuff we don’t need. On the political level, we get so used to being lied to that eventually a candidate for office can lie to us brazenly and expect to get away with it.
But worse, on the cultural level, we buy into the really “big lie” that we have to depend on an endless consumption of things to be happy — which not only fails to deliver, but entangles us in competition and violence, including toward the planet.
Similarly, this admiration for self-promotion that gave Trump his backing — does it not sound like the “me generation” created by modern advertising?
The GOP has created this monster, and they will have to deal with it. But not they alone. We have all participated (at least passively) in the promotion of self-centeredness and untruth that made a person like Donald Trump seem appealing, until — surprise — we discovered that he’s been crudely selfish and prejudiced instead of keeping it within “acceptable” limits.
What can we do about this now? Clearly, one thing we can do as individuals is try to shut out the cultural miasma of commercial mass media. What goes into our heads matters as much, if not more, than what we take into our gut. This is no longer hard to do: There are many alternative sources of news, online and in-hand. Remember, too, that to a large extent, we’ve lost the habit of sociability, and it’s not too hard to be more personal when you set your mind to it.
Finally, we will have to reach out people who see things differently; yes, even Trump supporters. Many of them are feeling bewildered and looking for a graceful out — not only of the political corner they’ve been backed into, but the cultural forces that did the backing.
It took time to get us into this mess, and it will take some time to get us out — but I bet not as much.