A Better Question
Back when I started this blog six months ago, I thought it would be useful and healing to unpack the Trump election by holding it up for examination against Wendell Berry's life's work. I felt like if Berry didn't predict the popular disgust that Trump cashed in on, he at least adumbrated it. I surmised that people in small places, availed, in the end, of the smallest of opportunities, had finally turned the tables on an elite class. And I was struck at how chickens appeared to be coming home to roost in a country that has never given a shit about land and labor, which is to say, out-of-the-way places and working people. If I cared more than most about how my fellow Americans were faring across this broad and suffering landscape, it was at least in part because I'd been reading Mr. Berry for three decades. I felt it necessary, all of a sudden, to amplify his ideas as best I could.
That's just one telling of the story, and of course it's partial and oversimplified. For an even more reductive theory, we need look no farther than American party politics and gerrymandering. I'll buy that one too. Here, let's double down: how about racism? There's a nearly complete explanation in a word.
But six months in, it's worth remembering that while this moron in the White House is, as feared, a clear and present danger to the country, he isn't the real problem. Would that it were that simple. Trump is only the eruptive boil. He is the symptom. The illness is bacterial. It's something we can't quite make out. It's culturally pathogenic and infectious. We could excise the man -- indeed we're surely getting to that -- to be left with.....what?
I'm beginning to wonder if the President, with his daily dunce act, isn't causing more harm via distraction than dispensation. It does appear that there will be life after Trump. (I'm not embarrassed to admit that I had my doubts in January). But what of it? What are we doing to get underneath the phenomenon that has more than thirty percent of this country still standing firm behind this lout and his brigade of self-dealing oligarchs? The cynics among us will surely point out that three out of ten people have always had, and will always have, outlying opinions and so can be ignored. I'm not so sure about that. Not being cynical myself, I look at those same people who, by the way, amount to millions in this country, and ask how their circumstances brought them to embrace the lying-cheating-stealing anti-ethos so perfectly personified in Trump. "What is wrong with our minds?" Wendell Berry asks early in The Presence of Nature in the Natural World. "What is happening to our souls?"
Think back to February 1, 2016 in Iowa when the unapologetically amoral and mammon-worshiping Donald Trump finished a close second to Ted Cruz in the heart of the heartland and cradle of evangelical American Christendom. If it wasn't already, it should have become surpassingly clear to all of us right then and there that something in the country was seriously, seriously amiss. Not only by his strong showing in the contest, but just as importantly, by our reaction. Then as now, there was no shortage of theories about what was happening. But what I continue to want, and can never seem to find, is a better question.
In the days that followed, I recall no great national reckoning over the ruinous potentiality of a Trump presidency. In the aftermath of that seminal moment -- that moment when the last blankets of denial finally slipped off the bed, we became nothing more than spectators at the racetrack watching the ponies come in. Perhaps some eyebrows went up, but as to Iowans (Iowans!) legitimizing a disgraceful candidate running a disgusting campaign --- not a protest to be seen anywhere. Last February, when the metaphoric public square should have been filled with outrage and shame, a resigned silence descended instead. Months later, in retrospect, it was already too late.
We're hearing plenty about the risk of "normalizing" these days. It's a little late, don't you think? What was normal about the campaign? What's normal about attack ads in politics? What's normal about Citizens United? If you're Wendell Berry, you'd say that we've had a "normalizing" problem from our very beginning. "This is not normal" is what Berry has been telling us since he first picked up a pen.
Why the retelling of the rise of Trump? To remind us that we're still not discussing the root causes of what ails this country, let alone what to do about it. The best I can do offer is this (and here I'll do what I always do, which is rip off Wendell): We're a people who've made it okay to prosper through abuse. We abuse indigenous peoples home and abroad. We abuse the land and water and every thing whose home is the land and the water. We abuse each other in our every-man-for-himself economic system. We have lost our moral minds in exchange for our ill-gotten comforts and riches. Did our rise to dominance (culturally and individually) not also require incredible hard work, ingenuity and scientific wizardry? Yes to all. But do those exalted qualities exonerate us from our abusive ways? Of course they don't. Just as they don't protect us from the consequences that are now being visited upon us politically, ecologically and societally. Though we desperately need to, we can't yet face up.
Again I oversimplify. It is my tendency. The truth is that none of us -- not me, nor Wendell Berry, nor your-favorite-thinker, can perfectly explicate how our national dissonance became so poisonous and permanent. And I can say this with great confidence, because I'm one of those who can't stop panning for the grand theory that clarifies all. I've got my go-to's -- those handful of people who I find both trenchant and sweeping in their perspective of the American experiment. But alas, no matter the depth of insight, we are still up against a problem-set far more complex and unknowable than any one of us might want to admit. We are still blind men describing an elephant.
Wendell Berry has plenty to say on our national disease, and once again I've failed at my task to say something of interest about his very thoughtful essay on The Presence of Nature in the Natural World. The piece, as I've said, is a long and careful survey of influential thinkers (mostly classical writers and poets) who kept Wendell company through the years and more importantly, taught him about Nature and our relationship to it. I suppose I will give it shot again next time. For today, I'll only observe that the point of his essay -- to follow the barely visible thread of Nature and man's need to know her, is about as ineffable as the task of making sense of our current American sickness. What Wendell has always done when up against the Big Question, however, is read and write -- carefully, studiously, and at length. We don't do that. And I can't help but wonder if that isn't part of the problem.
It's fine that we aren't all readers or writers. No sin in that. But then maybe we should get out of the habit of asking "what do you think?" A better question is "who has put in the work on this and what do they think?" If we stop putting our own minds first -- all the time, every time -- that would be a small start to stopping the madness. Maybe a huge start. I wonder.