Monday, March 12, 2018

America the not so great and exceptional: Miserable, lonely, and unhappy people elected Donald Trump

The 2016 American presidential election is a political corpse. We continue to pick it apart in an effort understand how a manifestly incompetent, proudly ignorant, racist and sexist demagogue like Donald Trump could have possibly defeated Hillary Clinton, and what this portends for the country.

More than 15 months after the ignominious day when Trump won the White House, what have we learned?

We know that racism, nativism and white victimology were crucial motivations for Trump's voters. We know that white identity politics disguised as anger about the economy, globalization and "elites" also propelled Trump's victory.

We know there is a crisis in faith among the American people regarding our democratic institutions; a majority of the American people do not consider civic literacy a virtue.

For several decades authoritarianism has been increasing among Americans, and this is especially true for Republicans and right-leaning independents. These voters were drawn to Donald Trump because they share his authoritarian values.

We know that Russian efforts to undermine American democracy by manipulating low-information voters -- especially Republicans and others immersed in the right-wing echo chamber -- were remarkably effective.

We know that Trump and the Republican Party used voter suppression and other techniques to prevent nonwhites, especially African-Americans and Latinos, from voting. This did great harm to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a huge margin. However, her campaign did not expend sufficient and necessary resources in several key battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. This resulted in a "black swan" effect where Trump snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

There is another variable, little discussed, that also helps to explain Trump's rise to power and the fanatical support he enjoys from Republican and other right-leaning voters.
In the United States collective well-being and happiness have been decreasing for at least a decade. This is correlated with an increase in loneliness and feelings of social isolation and alienation.

A new report from Gallup highlights this problem. It explains that nearly half of U.S. states "saw their well-being scores decline by a statistically significant margin in 2017," while none of the 50 states "saw statistically significant improvement from the year before. ... The large number of states with declines in well-being in 2017 is particularly notable given that Americans' confidence in the economy and perceptions of the job market are substantially better in 2017 than they were in 2009."

The Gallup report continues:
Many of the states showing declines in their well-being scores worsened on the same set of well-being metrics. These include:
  • An increase in experiencing significant worry on any given day
  • A sharp uptick in reporting "little interest or pleasure in doing things"
  • An increase in clinical diagnoses of depression
  • Elevated reports of daily physical pain
  • A decline in reports of receiving "positive energy" from friends and family members
  • A decline in having "someone who encourages you to be healthy"
  • A drop in reports of liking "what you do each day"
  • A decrease in those who have a leader in their life who makes them "enthusiastic about the future"
  • A decline in the percentage who report that they are reaching their goals
  • A reduction in satisfaction with standard of living (compared to peers)
This mix of alienation, loneliness, despair and angst provided the perfect breeding ground for the authoritarian populism that Trump rode to victory. Social pathology does not encourage healthy democratic politics: Trumpism is the proof, as is the rise of right-wing authoritarianism across Europe and around the world.

In her classic work "Origins of Totalitarianism," philosopher Hannah Arendt explained the perils of loneliness in politics this way:

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

In another passage, Arendt wrote that all forms of tyranny "could not exist without destroying the public realm of life ... . But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man."

What can be done? The commons must be protected and nurtured.

To that end, social democracy as made real through labor unions, public education, associational life, volunteer work, activism, respect for human rights, a renewed commitment to the arts and participation in local government must be reinvigorated in America.

The value of positive freedom and liberty where government and community are seen as viable solutions to social and political problems -- as opposed to enemies of the common good where selfishness and cruelty are valorized -- must be emphasized at every opportunity.

Donald Trump, the Republican Party and its gangster capitalists are attacking the very idea of government and community because they know their policies and ideas cannot withstand critical scrutiny and are highly unpopular with the American people.

Ultimately, political sadism, where pain, misery and suffering are inflicted on the American people (and in particular on the white "working class" voters in red-state America who formed Trump's base) is the right wing's primary means of remaining in power and shaping the country in its own distorted image.

A public that is miserable and in pain will often withdraw from politics and communal life. As seen with Republicans' high levels of support among precisely those voters who are most likely to be hurt by their policies, political sadism can be used as a type of fuel for racism, prejudice and white supremacy. There the pain and anger of White America is directed at some enemy Other who is black or brown, an immigrant or a Muslim, instead of at the corporate elites and gangster capitalists who drive the Republican agenda.

While they are often easy vulnerable prey for demagogues, a public that is in misery and pain is also one which can be mobilized for radical, forward-thinking social and political change that can reinvigorate our democracy. This potential energy terrifies the Republican Party, the radical right and the petit-fascist and demagogue Donald Trump -- and, yes, too many "establishment" Democrats who are also wedded to the neoliberal "profits over people" political and social order.

A political community of misery and loneliness elected Donald Trump. Unfortunately, those same sad and lonely people have latched onto a placebo and happiness pill that has no medical value and will only leave them less healthy and more miserable. Trump's public wants to get better. Unfortunately, it has not yet acknowledged the true source of its unhappiness, sickness and loneliness.

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