Lasting Damage to the Republic

I want to write this post as a rebuke to myself.  I want to look back on the day I wrote this and say, “This helped me avoid making a really bad mistake.”

Here is the mistake: “At last, the frightful Trump era is over and we can go back to normal.”

OK, that’s three or four mistakes, but the one I wanted to pay most attention to is that the Trump era inflicted grievous losses on the Republic and we may never fully recover at all.

This is a thought I have been getting ready to think for awhile.  Then, on November 11, Jonathan Gienapp offered this observation to Thomas Edsall:

Trump’s refusal to concede and his congressional allies’ refusal to object to what he is doing is indeed most dangerous. If it continues to be given oxygen, it’s hard not to think that there could belasting damage to the republic.

And this during a COVID 19 pandemic where a lot of people get sick and never fully recover.  There are long-term implications, in other words, and according to the CDC, these include:[1]

  • Cardiovascular: inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Respiratory: lung function abnormalities
  • Renal: acute kidney injury
  • Dermatologic: rash, hair loss
  • Neurological: smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, memory problems
  • Psychiatric: depression, anxiety, changes in mood

These, according to current thinking, result from losses of function in these systems.  We don’t “get over them” the way we get over a cold.  These are permanent liabilities for further loss of function and permanent reductions in the quality of the life lived.

When I say that I have been getting ready to think this thought, it is the confluence of these two ideas I have in mind.  What if the Trump era has caused permanent loss of function?

Somewhere, in some classroom, I picked up the acronym PERSIA [2] to refer to a set of categories that are useful in looking at how societies function.  It is a list very much like cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, dermatologic, neurological, and psychiatric.

There is no natural place to begin because when things go wrong, every deviation  from sustainable practices reinforces every other deviation.  I, myself, am inclined to begin with the economic effects, because the social effects seem to be taking an undeserved priority.

So let’s start with the economy.  The continued maldistribution of the income and wealth produced by our economy has changed the time horizon of many Americans.  In the traditional immigrant experience, for example, the parents suffered great economic hardship in order to provide the foundation for the success of their children. [3] That is a time horizon.  But what if it doesn’t work for the children?  Or for the grandchildren?  What if a permanent underclass forms, from which there is no realistic hope of escape for most members of that class?  That is also a time horizon.

There are real rewards, now, for making do with poverty (I am defining that as living paycheck to paycheck in an economy where jobs simply disappear) as a condition.  You don’t aspire to what you used to call “success” anymore for yourself or for your children.  You raise your children to succeed in the conditions of your life because their lives will be like yours.  Giving up on “success” for your children allows you to deny or revile the people your children will never become.  They will never become, professionals, administrators, cultural elites.  So you are free to unleash the venom against those people and their culture which you have been withholding because your children might join them—eventually.

These are not conditions that make the present culture war inevitable.  Economic deprivation and stagnation are bad, but they don’t cause alienation at the current levels.  What the economic failures do is make the question of cultural status always relevant.  It is always on the table.  It is always an irritant.  A lot of what we call “cultural problems” would go away if economic despair could be dealt with.

That’s why I want to start with economics.  A more just distribution of our wealth wouldn’t solve the conditions that wind up on the front pages of newspapers and blog sites all over the country, but they would allow other things to become more relevant.

It is easy to stoke permanent distrust among people who feel they have been denied a fair chance.  It is even easier when networks of social media make the display of this distrust rewarding.  It has become a team sport.  But what happens of “our permanent disenfranchisement” begins to show signs of weakening?  What if there are more important things to talk about?  Will we be willing to let go of knee-jerk animosity just to live better?

This is a simple point, really.  The divisive cultural answers—the QAnon-style answers—are answers to questions that are kept permanently relevant by the system’s economic failures.  We move right away to attacking the answers because they are so abhorrent, but this argument—the COVID 19 analogy—is that they are symptoms.  We become permanently more vulnerable to social dysfunctions because of the economy and there is no hope of addressing it without addressing the economy.

The cultural alienation is hateful, but the economic deprivation is fundamental.  Robert Reich says there is an old Russian story about a peasant whose neighbor is finally able to afford a cow, something the peasant could never afford. He prays to God is great distress and God promises to grant this peasant one wish.  The peasant’s wish?  “I want my neighbor’s cow to die.”

This is a malevolent social hatred, but once upon a time, it was economic.  We can urge the peasant to be nicer to his neighbor, but when his economic deprivation in the midst of plenty is always on the table, no other answer can be expected in the long run.

These economic and social interactions will provoke political reactions in a nation that relies on voting.  The Trump Era, and the Tea Party movement before it attest to that.

Let’s consider the long-term intellectual effects before time runs out.  The COVID 19model I am using as a principal analogy suggests that even in people who have “recovered,” there will be lingering vulnerabilities.  Trump’s revulsion against news sources—the origin of “fake news”—has grown into a denial of facts as a category of argument.  It is a denial of facticity itself. [4]

How do we get that back?  Are we going to be permanently lamed, now, in our public discourse where nothing is more or less true than anything else?  If persuasion is really impossible. is power the only force left to enable an orderly society?  There must be—soon—a rejection of mere assertion as an adequate ground for public debate.  Assertions unrelated to what is demonstrably true need to be rejected.  If they can be called an artifact of an earlier illness (Trumpism) that might make it easier.  But real trust cannot begin to grow back before this debasement of public discourse has been healed.   Then maybe.

Let me close with Jonathan Gienapp’s point: “there could belasting damage to the republic.”  I think he is right.  There is a great tendency for people like me who have tried to hold their breath during the whole Trump presidency, to feel that finally “it is over” and we can breath again.

I know that is wrong.  We will be feeling the effects of this for generations to come, even if the crisis passes and we are formally “out of danger”  The permanent loss of function I am pointing to means that “it” will never be over and that we need to learn a new way to be a democracy and to affirm neighbors who are not like ourselves.

[1]  If this list had been put together by a congressional committee, it would certainly spell something.

[2] Political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and aesthetic.  I routinely skip over the aesthetic category because I really don’t know anything about it.

[3  Joan C. Williams, in her book,Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.  gives a powerful case for this effect.

[4]  Trump’s use of “fake news” in his 2015-16 stump speech wasn’t that bad.  “It’s fake news,” he said, “They don’t have any sources.”  I am no fan of unsupported claims myself.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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