We're Going to Need Our Institutions
Regardless of political persuasion, we're going to need institutions during the Trump Administration.
I tend towards cynicism in my day-to-day. By and large, I believe that human beings are a pestilence put on this Earth to destroy the planet itself and each other in the process. We’re locusts, basically, if locusts also took time out from their crop razing to tear each other to pieces.
This is why I identify as a dispositional (though not ideological) conservative. I believe in the necessity of “institutions” that have the potential to organize our better impulses and mitigate our worst: church, government, schools, universities…
The public commitment of two individuals to not only not tear each other apart, but do the opposite, build each other up, is an affirmation of some pretty important values. I know that being married and therefore beholden to another cuts against my instinct to be selfish and self-centered. I am healthier, wealthier, more emotionally and physically secure than I would be if I were not married.
The great thing is, when I’m doing it right, the energy I project towards my partner is returned in greater proportion and so on…and so on…in a virtuous circle. Sometimes I may not be the dedicated spouse I wish to be, but in those cases, the institution supporting me is strong enough to carry me until I can get back on track.
Like a marriage, our public institutions work best when we see them as something that consists of individuals, but are also separate and larger than the sum of those individuals. Just like a marriage, even when individuals fall down on the job, there is a reservoir of faith to see us through the rough patches.
I’m not talking about “faith” in the sense of religious faith, belief based on things felt, but unseen. I’m talking about confidence, belief based on experience and outcomes.
Marriages break down for lots of reasons, but they only dissolve into divorce once both parties have either lost belief in the institution to do the work, or decided the other parties that share the institution aren’t worth the trouble.
One of the challenges our public institutions are facing is a crisis of faith. Many of us are asking ourselves, do we still believe in this? Is it worth preserving, or are we better off simply getting a divorce.
The election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States is, I believe, a signal that some significant portion of our populace has so lost faith in the ability of the government to improve their lives, it does not matter that we elected someone who has neither the knowledge nor the temperament to be our President.
Two-thirds of voters didn’t believe Donald Trump possessed the temperament or qualifications to be president. Twenty-percent of those people voted for him anyway.
Donald Trump has a post-election favorability rating of 42%, the only President-elect in modern times to have a favorability rating beneath his popular vote share.
Only 29% of the public believes that Donald Trump enters his presidency with a “mandate to carry out his agenda.”
There is no Trumpism mandate because there is no such thing as Trumpism. There is only Trump. The most organized part of his transition has been exploring how to exploit being president to the benefit of the Trump business empire.
When actual neo-Nazis are celebrating the election of Donald Trump as an “awakening,” it can feel like something larger than a culture war, an impending cultural apocalypse.
The so called “alt-right” desires to roll back America to its founding, a white “ethno-state” where ethnic and non-Christian religious minorities are welcome, provided they are willing to occupy a subservient position.
In the 80’s and 90’s, the culture tug-of-war was over who would control our most important institutions: government, media, schools.
Those battles resulted in each side claiming territory. The left largely captured popular culture, while the right has grabbed government.
Trump as a man for our time actually spans these sides. He is the very embodiment of cultural vulgarity the right once decried, a hedonist leftist. He is the kind of authoritarian the left once accused Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush being.
Perhaps this is why these times are so confusing. In a healthy Republic with functioning institutions, Trump’s appeal wouldn’t stretch very far.
The current question isn’t which side will gain a few inches in the tug-of-war, but whether or not we will continue to make our fitful progress toward fulfilling the American ideals initiated by our Founders in the Declaration of Independence: All created equal; Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness.
Was that happy talk meant to mask a permanent system of white supremacy, or was is it the expression of an awesome ideal of American pluralism? My hope is it’s the latter. I worry I’m wrong.
While Trump is experiencing a honeymoon with the Republican Party for the moment, it is only a matter of time before the sowing becomes reaping, and when that happens we will need our institutions to protect us from what is coming. I do not pretend that our institutions are any more perfect than the average marriage. We are always falling short of our ideals. Indeed, if they had been functioning in the interests of a majority of the people, we would not be facing this challenge. But institutions are an important mechanism for people with different points of view to hash things outs.
The good news is that when the authoritarian mindset has shown itself previously, we have defeated it.
The bad news is that the institutions we relied on during those times are considerably weaker. Richard Nixon was brought down by two journalists who ferreted out people of conscience who helped them tell a story of corruption and presidential abuse of power.
All the journalism in the country couldn’t prevent a man who settled a class-action fraud suit for $25 million during his transition to the Oval Office from becoming President of the United States.
Fraud. Whatever you have heard or believe about this case, it is "worse than you think."
Americans of all political stripes going to need a media that fulfills its traditional 4th Estate role.
I don’t think we have it. We’ve lost our belief.
Tomorrow, I want to explore if we can get it back.
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