American Hangover (Last Day)

9:15 am Pacific Time Saturday

Pennsylvania has just been called for Biden. Trump will continue to bellow publicly and in the courts, but barring any shocking surprises, Biden will take the oath of office on January 20.

YA-HOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The referendum on reality is over. Reality won.

Now a more enduring headache begins: what to do about the 70 million Americans who experienced authoritarianism and voted for more of it?

I doubt Biden will be a strong president, not just because he’s a moderate with a conciliatory nature, but because the Republicans are likely to retain the Senate, and they will be unrepentant due to the turnout for Trump and their own electoral victories. Plus with Trump gone, the advantage of negative partisanship switches to their side, and if they play their cards right they may take back the House of Representatives in 2022.

Looking at it selfishly, a stalemate is okay. Four years is a big chunk of the rest of my life. If Biden can keep a lid on the crazy until 2024, I’ll have
significantly less reason to believe it unfair that I die in a country more resembling 1930s Germany than the Eisenhower-era America I was born into.

For anybody younger, though, the battle against authoritarianism is just starting.

And following up on the second half of yesterday’s post, I have a new theory about Trumpism: it’s a liberation movement.

We’re accustomed to liberation movements from the left: women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, trans rights, Black Lives Matter, etc. They’re for people who haven’t been treated well for generations and are tired of it. To get their message across they often violate social norms — sitting in the front of the bus, kissing their same-sex partner in public — and if you find that offensive, too bad.

In many respects Trumpism is the same, only from the opposite direction.

It’s possible I’ve been too dismissive of Sigmund Freud. It’s true that he didn’t research so much as theorize, and that his conclusions revealed as much, if not more, about his own mindset as any universal one. But Freud gave us one concept I find compelling even after tossing the bulk of his work in the intellectual garbage can: the tension between id and superego.

In Freudspeak, id is impulse, what we’d do without constraint, and superego is self-censorship, the check we put on our impulses so we get along with others (and perhaps get what we want). Childhood is where id first encounters superego: the child’s tantrum-throwing id is squelched by caregivers’ controlling superego. In time the child absorbs the lesson and becomes self-squelching.

Self-suppression gets tiresome, though, especially after years of taking shit from parents, teachers, lovers, exes, kids, bosses, customers, co-workers, smart people, rich people, etc. Now along comes Trump. He lets his id fly and doesn’t care if he hurts anybody. Finally! Someone who does and says what you’ve wanted to your whole life — and after all those years of taking it, of being made to feel stupid and inferior and ashamed, he’s telling you you’re not only great, but it’s your turn to dish it out.

Or, to put it another way, the 2016 election was the Stonewall Riot of Stone Age Americans.

I’m not alone in this analysis. I never thought I’d have this much in common with Judith Butler, but her take in The Guardian is spot-on: “[Trump’s] appeal to nearly half of the country has depended upon cultivating a practice that licenses an exhilarated form of sadism freed from any shackles of moral shame or ethical obligation.”

Or, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer succinctly put it, “The cruelty is the point.”

I’m not justifying Trumpism or its Triumph-of-the-Id mentality; I’m horrified by it. But I’m trying to explain it in terms we can understand, because only by understanding it can we engage with it constructively — or defeat it. The tension between id and superego is universal. No doubt you can instantly recall an example from your own life — say, being nice when you really didn’t want to. I felt it every day at work, and it spurred my early retirement. If it was enough to push me into such a major transition, I can imagine how pitilessly it gnaws at those with fewer options.

So perhaps this universal experience can be a starting point for engagement.

Defeating Trumpism, which I admit may turn out the only realistic option, means continuing to out-mobilize it politically, including relational organizing to deprogram its less doctrinaire acolytes. But I’m not sure that level of effort is sustainable. Just getting Biden over the top took everything the Democrats and their allies had, and they failed to secure the Senate or retain all the seats they had in the House of Representatives. Think they’ll be up for as broad and hard a push in 2022, when Trump isn’t on the ballot?

Trumpism, like the coronavirus, isn’t going to magically disappear. It’s a timeless response to anxieties provoked by insecurity. Civilized people (including lots of conservatives — Trumpist and conservative are not synonyms!) have been resisting it with some success for thousands of years. Now it’s our turn.

Sometimes an authoritarian is just an authoritarian.

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