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I’ve spent a lot of time reading these past four years to try to make sense of what’s been happening in America. Much of what I read provides analysis and context on the news, but every now and then I’ll find something that transcends this and taps into some feeling, some emotion, some idea that I think is critical to understanding our current times.
I wanted to share seven articles that have done this for me. Why seven? This entire exercise is arbitrary anyway, so it might as well be seven. (If you want to see every article I’m reading, I tweet them out from this account). Here are five pieces that have defined the Trump era for me, in no particular order:
Headline: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People”
Key excerpt: I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see (do you make anywhere close to the median American salary? Less? Congrats, this tax break is not for you). I cannot have political debates with these people. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.
What it captures: More and more, I’ve realized that disagreements about politics are fundamentally disagreements about whether we as a society should care about fellow humans. Should everyone have the right to vote? Should all have access to healthcare? If people fall on hard times, should they be able to depend on their government or their fellow (wo)man for help? Should parents seeking safety in America have confidence that their children won’t be ripped from them? In general, only one major political party in the United States is for policies like gutting the social safety net, removing people’s access to healthcare, and essentially codifying an “Everyone for themselves” mindset. And if we can’t even agree on whether or not you should give a crap about having compassion for others, it’s hard to find any other middle ground. On that note…
Headline: “The Cruelty Is The Point”
Key excerpt: Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
What it captures: For quite a while, my mind had a difficult time pretzel-twisting itself into figuring out why people who seemingly have no reason to support Trump would not only vote for him but be proud endorsers. After reading this article, whenever I had difficulty understanding what I was seeing in the news, I’d return to this simple yet strikingly accurate headline: The Cruelty Is The Point. Things don’t need to make more sense that that. There’s a portion of the electorate that not only condones Trump’s attacks on minority groups; they relish it. It doesn’t matter that Trump’s policies would lay waste to their way of life. He makes them feel good and ultimately that’s more important to them than literally anything else.
Headline: “Three Cheers for Socialism”
Key excerpt: Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.” Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions. This is at once the most comic and most tragic aspect of the excitable alarm that talk of social democracy or democratic socialism can elicit on these shores. An enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete. They are far more vulnerable to medical and financial crisis, far more likely to receive inadequate health coverage, far more prone to irreparable insolvency, far more unprotected against predatory creditors, far more subject to income inequality, and so forth, while effectively paying more in tax (when one figures in federal, state, local, and sales taxes, and then compounds those by all the expenditures that in this country, as almost nowhere else, their taxes do not cover). One might think that a people who once rebelled against the mightiest empire on earth on the principle of no taxation without representation would not meekly accept taxation without adequate government services. But we accept what we have become used to, I suppose.
What it captures: The past few years have revealed to me that many Americans cannot imagine a better world than the one we live in. One in which a medical event doesn’t have the capacity to be financially ruinous. One in which children don’t have to fear execution due to a crazed school shooter. One in which huge swaths of the population don’t live in constant mortal fear of the police state. One in which the government can play a meaningful role in curbing a pandemic. I hope for the sake of all of us this election, and for the sake of the rest of the world, Americans can imagine a better world in which it doesn’t have to be like this.
Headline: “With Impeachment, America’s Epistemic Crisis Has Arrived”
Key excerpt: As congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein warned in 2012, the GOP as become “an insurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” The machine was primed and waiting for someone like Trump. Now, with his erratic and indefensible conduct, he is accelerating the breach, pushing the right into ever-more cult-like behavior, principles laid aside one after another in service of power. That is what a tribalist like Trump wants: for communication and compromise across tribal lines to become impossible, so that loyalty becomes the only measure and everything is reduced to pure struggle for dominance. If he makes it through impeachment unscathed, he and the right will have learned once and for all that facts and evidence have no hold on them. Both “sides” have free rein to choose the facts and evidence that suit them. Only power matters.
What it captures: One thing that strikes me about the past four years is that it’s become ever more clear that people live in two separate versions of reality. There are no more agreed upon set of facts that undergird our decisions and arguments; there isn’t even an agreement that facts are important. Instead, the GOP is largely driven by tribalism — an unwavering loyalty and belief in their leader, regardless of any decisions or mistakes he makes. It’s a terrifying thought and I’m uncertain if our country as a whole will ever find our way back to the truth.
Headline: “An American Spring of Reckoning”
Key excerpt: Race, to the degree that it represents anything coherent in the United States, is shorthand for a specific set of life probabilities. The inequalities between black and white Americans are documented in rates of morbidity and infant mortality, wealth, and unemployment, which attest that although race may be a biological fiction, its reality is seen in what is likely to happen in our lives. The more than forty million people of African descent who live in the United States recognize this reality, but it’s largely invisible in the lives of white Americans. As with men, who, upon seeing the scroll of #MeToo testimonies, asked their wives, daughters, sisters, and co-workers, “Is it really that bad?,” the shock of revelation that attended the video of Floyd’s death is itself a kind of inequality, a barometer of the extent to which one group of Americans have moved through life largely free from the burden of such terrible knowledge.
What it captures: There has been so much great writing about the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have roiled America in its wake (I’d recommend Ashley Reese’s commentary, this interview with Bryan Stevenson, and Wesley Lowery’s reporting on the matter). But I feel like Jelani Cobb’s piece for The New Yorker elucidates the fundamental reason why Floyd’s death was such an eye-opening moment for many Americans. It kicked over a rock for people and revealed to them what festered underneath: that we are a country in which some people inhabit a different reality than others, and there’s a lot to be done if we’re going to fix that.
Headline: “Human sacrifice and the digital business model”
Key excerpt: And so a pattern emerges that is larger and more consequential than the specifics of the latest political flare-up. It is not the arguments or ideas of any political group, but the structure of the digital platforms that sets the tone of the culture as a whole. And what is the structure? It is an arena for perpetual conflict driven by an accumulation of grievances collected in a mass program of decentralized surveillance. We are incentivized, by the coded logic of the social media platforms where public engagement now takes place, to find reasons to hate each other. The algorithms that encourage and reward particular behaviors on Twitter and Facebook play on our deepest human instincts and desires to create spectacles of symbolic violence and sacrifice. Much of the time, the violence and spectacle has the appearance of a game or a light amusement. To take it too seriously, therefore, is to risk being an alarmist, and likely of the reactionary sort. But it is precisely the gamelike aspect of the platforms that keeps us playing. Playing and paying because the point, finally, is profit.
What it captures: I’ve written about Geoff Shullenberger’s piece in the past, but I continue to think it is incredibly helpful in understanding online behavior today. Social media platforms are currently designed in a way that make us want to destroy each other. In recognizing this fact, perhaps we can attempt to carve out a better future for our online lives.
Headline: “How the Pandemic Defeated America”
Key excerpt: The countries that fared better against COVID‑19 didn’t follow a universal playbook. Many used masks widely; New Zealand didn’t. Many tested extensively; Japan didn’t. Many had science-minded leaders who acted early; Hong Kong didn’t—instead, a grassroots movement compensated for a lax government. Many were small islands; not large and continental Germany. Each nation succeeded because it did enough things right. Meanwhile, the United States underperformed across the board, and its errors compounded. The dearth of tests allowed unconfirmed cases to create still more cases, which flooded the hospitals, which ran out of masks, which are necessary to limit the virus’s spread. Twitter amplified Trump’s misleading messages, which raised fear and anxiety among people, which led them to spend more time scouring for information on Twitter. Even seasoned health experts underestimated these compounded risks.
What it captures: “Each nation succeeded because it did enough things right.” No country was perfect in its handling of the Coronavirus but they did enough things correct that they aren’t living with the reality we are right now in America, where cases are spiking, infections are happening at the rate of about one every second, and where winter looks like an increasingly bleak time. America is unique in its failure in that we couldn’t meet the minimum bar to control this thing. With our underinvestment in public health, the rise of anti-intellectualism, and the specter of minoritarian rule upon us, we are finally reaping what we’ve sown.
I hope these help you to make sense of the world. If you enjoyed this piece, consider supporting me on Patreon. And if you haven’t yet, vote.