Saturday, January 6, 2018

Unfocus the Shitshow

When Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became public in 1998, I had lived in the US for three years. The focus on his affair with the intern, and the following impeachment proceedings left me with my first case of culture shock, or rather, a complete lack of understanding of what was going on and why. I could not grasp why people were paying so much attention to the private life of the president. I felt that no matter what we thought of his private choices, it should not affect how we viewed his political work (which I was highly critical of). Yes, 2017’s #MeToo perspective makes me more critical of his behaviour - a man in power taking advantage of an impressionable young woman. It’s stupid, sexist, privileged and disgusting, and pretty common, as we now find out. It still doesn't make me waste thoughts on the man as a private person. I still dislike him for what he did around welfare ‘reform’, and for his failure to create a health care system back then, as well as for moving the democratic party to the neoliberal middle and paving the way for much of today’s shitty political environment.

Growing up in Western Germany, a parliamentary democracy, we learned to observe 5+ parties, policies, coalitions, strategy. All this is of course carried out by individuals. The office of the German chancellor tends to be held by one person, usually for a longer time than American presidents stay in office. Still, this important leader gets to do their private stuff privately, and is judged by what they do or don’t achieve politically. I went on to study political science, and learned more about polity, democracy, international relations, the political economy, pluralism, globalization. I always strived to understand the complexity of these systems and developments, and was never tempted to boil them down to the character of one person. Thus the ‘98 culture shock.

US society, marked by its strong individualistic culture, has turned politics into a person cult. The presidential system only reinforces this by placing a lot of (some of which, as we find out, unchecked) power into the hands of one person. The media, and we as observers of politics now attribute all power, responsibility, blame, to individuals. The cult of personality is fed by unrelenting propaganda from both political sides, and the public and private conversation degrades - today it has become largely about Trump and the people around him.

The individualist lens is applied, unfortunately, also by the electorate. Less than 20 years after Bill Clinton the person cult in American politics led straight to the election of Donald Trump. It made Bernie Sanders incredibly popular on the left, made people dislike Hillary Clinton for an array of ‘character issues’ Trump happily built his campaign on, and led all the ‘vote my conscience’ people to either stay home or vote for insignificant 3rd party candidates. The nonvoters and the 3rd party voters brought Trump to office. They reacted to person(s), and were not led by a political strategy.

As a consequence, they (and everyone else alongside them) have had to watch the Trump shitshow ever since. Trump’s tweets, the White House rumor mill and all of its reception and regurgitation in the (social) media pile up to be the most incessant, disgusting, mind numbing manifestation of the person cult to date.

I watched from over in Europe. First I was fascinated too. After the hundredth time of “I can’t believe he said that” and “ I thought it couldn't get lower than that”, about six months into it, I started losing interest, and began to filter the news for those old things that matter to me: policy, legislation, stuff that affects people’s lives. ACA, taxes, environmental protection, climate change, DACA. How much can they actually fuck up before this is over?

I focused on analyses of what this era will likely mean in the long term. Questions like, how do we contain the damage? How is the US polity holding up? What needs to change legislatively to assure that the erosion of standards is turned back and will not happen again?

The shitshow rolls on, meanwhile, the outrage on the left about each transgression, and the inevitable delighted reaction to the outrage in the Trump camp. The distraction from real issues. From the fact that the Republican party is actively working to dismantle what’s left of the economic fabric of this nation through tax and ‘entitlement’ ‘reform’. (Fortunately, they seem to have mostly lost the skills needed to create and pass legislation.) And we, along with the clown in chief, rage about kneeling athletes, whose news is more fake, and who has the bigger button. Michael Wolff’s book ‘Fire and Fury’ that came out this week tells us nothing we didn’t know about Trump. Yet we delight in the fact that now the bad guys get at each other’s throats. All media is dominated for days by this, the book selling quicker than they can print it. Can we instead please focus on what matters?

Oh, speaking of the button. The one exception I would make to the rule ‘unfocus the shitshow’ is taking a serious look at Trump’s mental health - for purposes of human survival. ‘The president is not well’ is what we hear from many concerned observers now, and increasingly, mental health professionals speak up. They are well within their ethical code which mandates them to act when an individual may cause harm to himself or others. Someone like the Germanwings pilot who took everyone on the plane with him on the suicidal flight into an alpine mountain in 2015. Somebody should have taken his pilot license away and should have provided him with help. Trump, who tweets of his power to unleash nuclear war as having the bigger and better working button, if not well, might just use that button one day (it is not a button, as we all know). So if he is sick, he needs to be removed from the job.

Apart from that, all the talks of impeachment, Article 25, etc. seem largely rhetoric to me. All these are political processes, and they will not happen as long as the Republican Party sees political benefit in keeping Trump. And, as many point out: as a consequence, we would get people in charge who are more strategic, smarter, actually read stuff, know how to pass legislation and are only slightly less creepy. People with darkness in their souls would still be ruling - without the screaming clown. I don’t like that idea.

I’d rather let Trump deal the final death blows to his long-rotting party, while we ignore all the drama. We should stop trying to convince the world that Trump is batshit nuts, unfit, devoid of morality. Anyone with half a mind knows that already. (Just forget about the leftover Trump fans.) Ignore it. Meanwhile we can do a lot more effective things than wallow in outrage. The shitshow is not only a distraction of our attention, it is a diversion of our time and our energy. And a way to deny ourselves power.

We have the power to flip the House and Senate in 2018 along with state and local governments. Support and participate in the upsurge of awesome people from all backgrounds, especially women, who are getting ready to run this year. These awesome people need your help so they can take the time to convince voters of their programs, their policies, and their values. Make politics about ideas again, not about the person.

(Thanks to St├ęphane Luchini for inspiring this piece and giving me input.)

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