Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Trump cabinet

I am certainly not the first to express my dismay at Trump's selections to head the different agencies of the Federal government.  Here is a rather lucid reflection from Bill Maher on various aspects of the Trump presidency that foreshadows a few things I'd like to talk about in this post.

Maher describes Trump's appointments as being from opposite land, and I agree, but I would like to dwell a bit longer and explore more deeply the cynicism informing these selections.  Trump has shown no desire to compromise, to even symbolically signal that he's going to be trying to run the US for everyone, not just his cronies and political ideologues.  I wouldn't have expected otherwise, given his drive to destroy and humiliate anything that doesn't totally align with his ever-changing convictions.  But Trump's appointments go beyond political extremism, or pettiness, or nastiness; not content to appoint conservative experts in a given field to the agency that covers that field, Trump has repeatedly chosen people (mainly old rich white men) who are explicitly opposed to the very existence of the agency they're being tapped to run.  There is no pretense that they will even attempt to carry forth their agencies' missions responsibly; their clear aim is to destroy those agencies and what they stand for.

This will not be a creative destruction, nor one that somehow improves life for the mass of the population.  These are not committed mavericks, people who will shake up a sclerotic system to make it work better.  No, they are robber barons who have all but declared their intent to seek private advancement for themselves and their associates.  An oil executive for the State Department.  Goldman Sachs executives to run the economy.  Anyone who for some bizarre reason might have expected Trump to favor the little guy should be appalled that the "experienced businessmen" tapped to watch over the economy are Ponzi schemers from the finance sector, people who led the economy to ruin by funneling money upward instead of creating new wealth, and then kept sucking once there was no more private money for their pyramid and the US government had to bail them out.

This gets to the cynicism not only of Trump himself but of those who elected him.  We heard a lot from "reasonable, not racist" Trump supporters before and after the election about how their vote was a "fuck you" to an irredeemably corrupt system.  My thinking back then was that such adolescent reasoning was all good and cute, but that once my wife is getting accosted on the street by men emboldened by the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief, or once my kids are getting harassed and attacked at school because they are Latino, that shit ain't so cute no more.  After some time, I now have a more profound critique of the "fuck you" voter because, as any thinking person would have expected, Trump's election will clearly not shake up or correct a corrupt system, but make it even more brazenly and unapologetically corrupt, dragging us all down economically, politically, and culturally in the process.  So those who thought their vote for Trump was some sort of protest against injustice or iniquity need to know that they have essentially enabled a wholesale pillage of our common resources for the gain of a few ultrarich people.

Let's dig even further for a moment, because it's not just cynicism operating here, it's a weird mix between nihilism, moral relativism, and a total remove from reality.  Nihilism is just an extension of cynicism, as epitomized by the "fuck you" voter who would cause limitless harm to the entire world if it made him feel his little tantrum were validated.  Moral relativism because there are a number of things that Trump has proposed that, each alone, would merit totally condemning his entire platform (I'm thinking torture and assassination of women and children abroad, inciting hate crimes against numerous groups of US citizens, admiration for foreign dictators over seasoned US politicians, etc.).  The mental and moral acrobatics people have had to do to justify their not disqualifying Trump over any one of these issues firmly secure the Right's place as the new home of moral relativism.

For me though the most striking thing at play in Trump's election, and in the modern US Right Wing in general, is a total remove from reality.  In a lot of developing countries I've become familiar with, there are profound social problems and profound political divisions, but there are certain things that few would argue against, not simply because it is politically inconvenient to do so, but rather because it would never occur to anyone to deny the existence of certain hard facts.  Almost everyone in these contexts can agree on the importance of reducing hunger and poverty, curbing violence, improving education, etc.  These are real problems that no one would think to deny.  The Right and Left in a given context will of course differ in their proposals as to how to address such problems, but they both realize that, unless their society does address them, it will be doomed to failure.

But in analyzing the discourse of the Right and the Left in the US, I feel like only one side is grappling with real problems, while the other is tilting at windmills, at invented abstractions that rile people up but ultimately don't matter in the real world.  The Left in the US tries to address mass shootings and inner-city violence, drug addiction of all types, gross inequalities in education, and the massive divide between the rich and the poor.  The Right, on the other hand, concerns itself with things like "The War on Christmas" or the ever-looming specter of political correctness.  I'm not just making this up or exaggerating.  If you listen to Right-Wing radio, or read Right-Wing magazines or especially websites, you will mostly see a bunch of commentary on cultural abstractions.  There are too many gay characters now on your favorite TV shows.  Your kid's school has a Hannukah song in addition to a Christmas one.  You have to press "one" for English.  They cast a black guy as a Norse god.

When I hear this shit, I ask myself, "Is this really the biggest problem these people face on a day-to-day basis?  Is this really causing major objective harm to these people?"  I can get on board with working to improve education in the US or preventing murders.  But avoiding the momentary emotional distress caused by the acknowledgment that not everyone speaks or looks exactly like I do?  What a waste of time.

The problem is though that my country has now collectively opted not to address real common problems.  We will not be tackling obesity, heart disease, domestic and street violence, poverty, hunger, environmental sustainability.  No, the electorate has pronounced itself firmly committed to rolling back the War on Christmas, to protecting the flag from burning, to keeping "politically correct" scientific truths out of our schools.  And in the meantime, as voters are distracted with this nonsense, the Right Wing power structure will commit itself to real issues like rolling back voter protections; further eroding workers' rights; strengthening the police state to persecute people of color; privatizing public goods like healthcare, education, and wilderness areas; and stifling free speech.  We may be the first nation that has entertained ourself so much with the circus that we allow our very bread to be taken away.

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