Sitting with a group of friends last night at a party that had been advertised as a celebration, we felt depressed, frustrated, infuriated, impotent. In short, we suffered. Why was that?
Mental suffering, according to a Buddhist teaching, comes from a craving for gratification that is frustrated because it is rooted in ignorance about reality. When we suffer from a knot of negative emotions at the triumph of this menacing clown that is Trump, the reason is that we are mired in misconceptions about the country that produced him. We forget that America was named after an adventurer who stupidly thought he had landed in India. We forget that the advance of European civilization here came via blankets deliberately infected with smallpox, and saw every kind of treachery against the native people and and sabotage of the indigenous civilizations. We forget that our lauded revolution of 1776 was in reality a slaveholder revolt against the winds of liberty sweeping the world and that the preservation of slavery was a cornerstone of our Constitution. We blind ourselves to the fact that women could not vote for six generations after the founding convention. We forget the savage campaigns of government-sponsored terrorism against Black Reconstruction, the waves of lynchings, the Jim Crow acts, and the modern extensions of Jim Crow in the War Against Drugs, Stop and Frisk, and the growing suppression of minority votes via voter identity laws and other chicanery. We forget that immigration policy for decades acted as an overt racial filter, we forget the Japanese internment, we forget the guarantees of civil liberties we gave when the border with Mexico crossed south over the people living in California. We forget that mine owners repeatedly massacred mine workers, that sweatshop owners locked women workers inside burning factory buildings …. Need I go on? Those are among the bedrock foundations of the country we live in. Should we be surprised, then, that our electoral system, which is no better than our country, has vomited up a candidate who embodies all the disgusting, hateful, ignorant, and destructive qualities in our history?
Of course, America is also the land of grand ideals. All men created equal. Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. One man, one vote. Liberty and justice for all. And so on. And not only ideals. We shed rivers of blood that required an end to slavery. America is the land of the women’s suffrage movement, of the fight for the eight-hour day, the New Deal, the wartime alliance against fascism, the ninety per cent postwar tax on high incomes, the Civil Rights movement, and much else. The American people have an unsurpassed capacity for generosity, empathy, and idealism. From time to time, despite all obstacles, our political party system puts forward candidates who are able to arouse the better angels of our nature, and to ride that bright-eyed momentum into the White House. Such candidates in my lifetime were Lyndon Johnson, JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and, notably, Barack Obama. I do not say that our better angels found gratification in their presidencies. Quite the contrary. When I came of age I voted for LBJ as the peace candidate in Vietnam. He promptly turned around and escalated the war beyond all measure. One can point to similar betrayals with each of the others. What counted is that they energized enough of the virtuous hopes and dreams of American voters to win their elections.
Hillary Clinton was not such a candidate. When the opponent has tons of baggage, you need a candidate who is squeaky clean. You don’t win by offering voters a choice between two candidates who tell lies and whose financial dealings are corrupt. When the primaries demonstrate huge pools of voter anger against the establishment, you don’t win by putting up an establishment candidate. When there is smoldering rage against the financial elite that caused the 2008 depression, you don’t win with a candidate who is politically in bed with that elite. When it becomes obvious that voters want change — the magic word that propelled Obama into the White House — you don’t win by offering voters more of the same. All this was clear, to those with eyes to see, fairly early in the primaries, which showed Bernie Sanders polling far stronger than Hillary against Trump. By putting up Hillary, the Democratic Party’s inner government snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Democratic Party’s debacle will have terrible consequences. The Supreme Court will be a right wing rubber stamp, possibly for decades. Women’s right of choice, many civil liberties, climate change, education, environmental protection, Obamacare, and many other benchmarks of progress stand imperiled or doomed. The lives of millions of immigrants will be disrupted and their families divided. The big wall, if it ever gets built, will further empower the criminal gangs who have the means to tunnel under it. Nobody yet knows the consequences for foreign policy.
Is there hope? The optimistic scenario is that the Trump administration will make a mess of the economy and otherwise alienate voters so severely that the opposition will sweep the midterm elections and confront Trump with a hostile Congress two years from now. Then, four years from now, a progressive candidate — say, Elizabeth Warren — will enjoy a landslide victory.
Whether that’s realistic depends in part on the Trump administration. Given the man’s personal and business history, we can expect vulnerabilities. He has no ethics and readily commingles his personal, political, and business affairs. When such people hold office, they become kleptocrats. He will surround himself with others of the same breed. Some of them will be caught and prosecuted. He himself may be implicated. He may be prosecuted for tax fraud. His Trump University case is not over. He may be caught at sexual offenses. Improper relations with Putin may be unearthed. Any of these may be impeachable matters. Things could get quite rough and fragile in Washington. Then there is the matter of managerial competence. He doesn’t have it. His tax policy, if Congress implements it, will hugely expand the federal debt and invite another financial meltdown. His trade policy, if Congress goes along with it, risks an economic war with unpredictable consequences.
So, there are many vulnerabilities here. But there is reason to doubt that the Democratic Party will have the moxie to press and exploit them. The party that could not beat Trump the candidate will hardly have the strength to beat him as an incumbent. Hillary’s conciliation speech set a tone of conciliation and capitulation. There is no fight left in her nor in the party establishment that surrounds her.
Now, more than ever, if this electoral game is at all worth playing, the country needs a New Democratic Party. I’ve criticized Bernie Sanders for not launching such a party at or immediately following the party convention in Philadelphia. The vaporous “Our Revolution” initiative doesn’t cut it. Millions of enthusiastic, young, and energetic Bernie activists and voters have been left politically homeless, with no tent in which to gather and no flag to rally around. Worming one’s way into the Democratic Party with the hope of seizing control of it in a palace coup somewhere in the distant future is a ridiculous, infantile fantasy. The party establishment is wise to all of that; it’s been tried many times. The only way forward is to dump the Democratic Party and build a new one.
The root of suffering is seeking gratification in ignorance of reality. We stop suffering when we understand the reality and work effectively to change it.