Ignorance and Understanding

There is a terrible feeling of helplessness when others deny your undeniable truth. There are no good choices. You can withdraw and deflect to keep the peace; though how do you sit silently by as the voices blaring on the television screen or bleating in line at the grocery store contradict your reality? You can viciously attack the intelligence and motives of those in opposition, yet how does that persuade or provide the self-reflection necessary for open-minded reevaluation when confronted with new information? If you gently offer your pointed critiques in a civil give-and-take—the usual prescription—stifling your screams of indignation is a monumental task.

It’s really no wonder that electoral politics is marked by two distinct phenomena: self-sorting and withdrawal. Unlike cultural or lifestyle choices, political opinions have an inherent urgency. It’s easier to comfortably disagree with someone about a band or a restaurant. It’s harder to argue that a particular healthcare policy could save thousands of lives and then casually shrug when your fellow citizens make a different choice. The latter debate is emotional. It takes caring. And often, when the world seems—to your mind—disgustingly indifferent to the basic truths central to a fair and just society, dissent is too much to bear. This is the root of the partisan retreat to like-minded media or the comforting self-assurance of those who insist elections don’t matter or both parties are the same. There is no dilemma when no one disagrees with you or if you don’t care that they do.

All of this is true in every election season. In 2016, however, as the absurdity reaches a crescendo, dealing with unfathomable disagreement seems more fundamental. Because if there’s one defining feature of this presidential election, it is the staggering amount of pure, unbridled ignorance on display. There’s the false equivalence of the press. There are the half-witted Trump surrogates who spout defenses of their boss that defy logic and history. And there’s the hopelessly simplistic analysis of even modestly informed voters, who throw around buzz-words like “Benghazi” and “Goldman Sachs” to support an aura of corruption and dishonesty, despite being unable to explain what those alleged scandals even are. Perhaps most disquieting are the howls of protest from disaffected voters that Trump’s malevolence doesn’t mean they’ll be cowed into supporting the only one who can beat him, or their infuriating hedge that Trump’s admitted awfulness is normal or can be checked by Congress.

Ignorance is everywhere, and it is breathtaking.

And so here we are with 40% of Americans pledging their allegiance to a man who reminds us hourly of his fundamental lack of knowledge and unsuitability for public office. No matter the pulls of partisanship documented by political scientists or how unprecedentedly unpopular he is, it is simply inconceivable that anyone would support Donald Trump. This space devoted a June post to over eighty disqualifying statements or actions in the first year of his campaign; the last two months have offered at least forty more. Even for a race-baiting, anti-intellectual, norms-breaking demagogue, he’s shockingly un-presidential, incompetent, and unhinged.

Let’s be clear: this is a shameful, shameful moment in our nation’s history. Not because Donald Trump is close to becoming our nation’s leader. He’s not. Yes, it’s partially because one of our two major political parties decided to hand him the reins to their respected institution, while the vast majority of its members degrade themselves in defending his daily indignities. It’s much more than that, though. It’s that we as a country have to sit through day after day of this farcical and depressing campaign and pretend that Trump is a serious candidate and his pronouncements are worthy of repetition and consideration. We’ve all just marched right along with the news cycle, acknowledging this campaign’s abnormality but nonetheless remaining within the strictures of standard campaign coverage and analysis.

Trump says Obama was the founder of ISIS. Well, that’s just not a legitimate opinion. Not just because it isn’t supported by facts and because it is deeply offensive, but because it doesn’t make any sense! Trump then said that he was being sarcastic, a day after saying repeatedly that he meant what he said quite literally. It’s preposterous and insulting. Words have meaning. Treating these comments simply as hateful positions to debunk with facts give them—and him—far, far more credit than deserved. And so we amble on, listening to Jason Miller, Jan Brewer, and Katrina Pierson defend the indefensible and torture the English language in new and (previously thought to be) unspeakable ways. We listen to Rudy Giuliani debase himself anew and shrug. If previous elections felt a little too much like a reality TV show, at least they were more “Survivor” than “Real Housewives of Atlantic City.”

Meanwhile, our national discourse has coarsened. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently reported on disturbing scenes from small town Oregon, where American-born Hispanic children on their way to school are now confronted with chants of “Build a wall! Build a wall!, “Go back where you came from,” and “Trump 2016.” Nor is this a one-off event. In March, two minority students in Wichita, Kansas were assaulted. They were called “brown trash” and told they would be “thrown over the wall.” There is a real, documented rise in openly bigoted behavior inspired by the Trump campaign. A column in the Washington Post earlier this year described third-graders taunting their Latino counterparts by saying that they would be deported when Trump won. This is all hateful stuff, and not something that can be washed cleanly away even by a fifteen-point rout in November. Kristof correctly observes: “Trump’s harsh rhetoric tears away the veneer of civility and betrays our national motto of ‘e pluribus unum.’ He has unleashed a beast and fed its hunger, and long after this campaign is over we will be struggling to corral it again.”

Which brings us back to the beginning. There’s no room for reasonable disagreement about Trump. But disagreement is there nonetheless. What do we do about it? As with many of life’s problems, the best solution is the hardest one. Although we should never accept Trump as a normal presidential candidate or allow anyone to create a false equivalence between his degradation of our liberal democracy and a few donations to the Clinton Foundation, we have to accept that a vote for Trump is not necessarily an endorsement of him or his most loathsome characteristics. A New York Times article titled, “Alienated and Angry, Coal Miners See Donald Trump as Their Only Choice,” recently drove home that point. Among the many West Virginian miners the author quoted were those dismayed by Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims. Yet, as once middle-class mining towns have fallen apart, many view Trump’s non-traditional rhetoric and behavior to be their only chance at survival. “I know Donald Trump may not be the best man for the job,” one man quoted in the piece said, “But he’s the lesser of two evils.” That may not be correct—and, as the article makes clear, it may be a view informed as much by racial mistrust as economic distress—but in the context of communities unraveling, it is understandable. We have to keep trying to understand and then respond, not retreat within our own enclaves.

That will be the challenge for Hillary Clinton come January. Whether in the midst of hate and ignorance and insults, she can respond calmly but forcefully, with both logic and love. Even if those hearing her won’t listen. That’s the challenge for all of us.

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