"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Politics–Divisive And Contentious, But The Best Expression Of Human Nature There Is

The Presidential campaign of 1828 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson was perhaps the dirtiest and most raucous of any; but few challenge the notion that the 2016 campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was the most outrageous, vaudevillian, hilarious, and revolutionary.

Clinton ran a predictably safe and uncontroversial campaign – no one thought she could lose, so her well-honed political instincts told her to stay the course, keep well within the channel, and head for port when the breeze picked up.

Donald Trump on the other hand, having no political experience whatsoever, a big mouth, an oversized ego fed by years of success on the mean streets of New York real estate and Hollywood fame, and a clear, populist vision, led the most unconventional campaign ever.  It was more circus act and big tent revivalism than electoral process.  

Trump never positioned himself as a politician, statesman, or legislator – men of compromise, practicality, and narrow purpose.  He was a social messiah come to save the country from the liberal blight which had infected Washington for decades.

His first months in office (as of April 2017) have been little different.  Although he has settled into a more traditional presidency, he is still a caricature – a big, arrogant, billionaire Las Vegas showman with little restraint and no respect for the establishment and the powers that were. 
Despite calls for temperance, he pays no attention.  He plays golf every weekend at his resort in Florida, tweets in the middle of the night, jumps on the phone with world leaders with no judicious counsel, reacts to international events sometimes with raw emotion, others with bullying threats. 


The Left has finally gotten over their apocalyptic defeat but have still not figured out what to do with the radical populism blared on the campaign trail and dismissed as antics and political Pentecostalism.  They never even considered the possibility of it ever reaching Washington.  How could it, so rube and backwoods, so fundamentalist, xenophobic, and socially backward that it was?

Yet there he is, President Trump, bigger than life, only slightly more temperate and Presidential, but never once compromising the basic principles on which he ran.  No longer would the elite, insular, Washington establishment rule.   A nation that not even Ronald Reagan could have envisioned – a truly and profoundly conservative nation returning to its Constitutional, religious, and social roots – was here to stay for many years to come.

Why Donald Trump’s victory, while unexpected, was such a surprise is still a mystery.  The country was clearly fed up with the intrusive, presumptuous arrogance of the Left, its sense of righteousness and entitlement, and its insistence on making over the country in its own narrow, image.

What is more surprising is the emotional toll his election has taken on the progressive Left.  They did not simply lose an election but their very raison d’etre was dismissed by half the country.  Despite eight years of liberal policies and long-hoped for reform in education, social and economic policy, and international affairs; and despite the unison of progressive voices in Washington, academia, and the media, the progressive agenda was given a no-go. 

It is one thing to lose an election, another to feel wounded, hurt, despondent, and despairing.  If there is one thing certain about politics, it is cyclical.  No one party ever stays in office for long.  No one political philosophy is ever enshrined.  No socio-economic vision is ever permanent.  Trump has come and he will go.  The country will be changed, but it will revert.  Every administration will build on every previous one either in rejection or incorporation, and the country will roll on. 

History is nothing but cyclical and predictable.  Regime change, revolutions, uprising, periods of peace and Pax Romana, upheavals, stability, wars, and unexpected catastrophe are all part of politics which, in turn, is an expression of human nature.

Politics, in fact, is nothing more than an expression of human nature.  It is an extension of personal relationships, family dynamics, tribal territorialism, neighborhood solidarity, and community activism.   The compulsion to compete, to demand, and to survive is hardwired.  It is fundamental, unalterable, and unstoppable.  The energy which derives from this natural compulsion is what makes the world go ‘round and which, if Dostoevsky is right, is what keeps us alive.

Ivan Karamazov’s Devil (The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare, Brothers Karamazov) says that if the world were all goodness, sweetness and light, churches and happy families, we would all fall asleep or worse end up in a black dog existential depression.  It is only he – the Devil – a tricky vaudevillian with a sense of humor about the roll of history and man’s unique absurdity – who keeps us interested in life.

The greatest dramatists have understood this.  Albee, Ibsen, Strindberg, O’Neill, and Shakespeare have written about family, power, aggressive territorialism and the jealousy and antipathy they encourage.  D.H.Lawrence used sex and sexuality as a metaphor for politics.  Domination and subjugation are constant themes in The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  True harmony between men and women will never be achieved, so powerful is the urge for sexual dominion; and accommodation is the only hope.

Ibsen was no less unflinching in his plays.  Hedda Gabler, Hilde Wangel, and Rebekka West understood men, their weaknesses, and their limited utility.  Strindberg in The Father was no less unremitting in his assumption of the inescapable political battle between the sexes.

Marx was right about inter-factional rivalries.  Although he saw such rivalries rooted in class, his model is just as applicable to describe today’s sectarian struggles, racial divisions, demands for sexual identity, or national sovereignty.  Rivalry is an essential expression of human nature; human beings understand strength in numbers; and social interest groups quickly form and coalesce to defend themselves from others and to expand their own influence and territory.

Children fight over glasses of milk, parental favors, and sibling equality.  Their battles are also the subject of literature.  The entire history of the English monarchy is nothing but family rivalries, accession to power, and dominance.  Arthur Miller in All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Price wrote of the desperate fights between brothers.  O’Neill and Albee saw family politics as the heart of social relationships.

Nothing, then, should be new about Donald Trump’s ascension to power, nor the frustrated demands of his followers, nor his desire to ‘drain the swamp’ and rid Washington of liberal pestilence as retribution for decades of entitlement and abuse.

Nothing should be new about Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, or the Ayatollah of Iran; nor anything surprising about the rise of the nationalist Right in Europe or the continued venality of African dictators.  They are all acting as all human beings act.  They may be smarter, more willful, more savvy, and more determined than the rest of us, but they are our brothers nonetheless.

Which is why following politics is only useful as a way to better understanding who we are.  It is easy to criticize those with power, especially those who abuse it; and it is hard to accept that in much smaller ways we all have fought for dominance and favor, schemed and wangled our way in a competitive environment, organized for more power and access, remained parochial and personal when it comes to defense, and aggressive and expansionist when it comes to offense.

Ivan’s Devil was right.  He liked to stir up trouble because he knew that we all can’t do without it.  Lawn chairs, chaises lounges on the beach, sitting by the fire with a good book get old quickly.  It is contention – politics – which keep us alive, define us, and ultimately determine who we are.

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