What we’ve lost

On the morning of November 9, when the votes were counted and we all knew that Donald Trump would become our next president, I put the following statement on social media:

Well, folks, it’s been a nice republic.

It got a positive response from friends on the left and the right. They all sensed that something very important had been lost, though it was hard to pinpoint what. But those who find profit in that loss are leaving no end of clues, and it’s our job to read those clues.

It shows in many disturbing recent events. In the lobby of my hotel the morning after the election, a seedy-looking man walked through the breakfast area. In front of several families with children, he pumped his fist and said: “Grab ‘em by the pussy! Yeah!” Friends report similar events. Some on the right have gone beyond animalistic gloating, and promised retaliation against those who have opposed them. And Trump supporters have no monopoly on revolting behavior. Some on the left have rioted, or called for assassination. This, too, is part of our loss.

My friends are correct that something has gone terribly wrong; but those who believe Donald Trump is the problem are mistaken. He is a problem, yes; but he’s not the problem.

This is not a partisan essay. I do not attack Trump voters as such. Each had their own motive; some were honorable, and some were, in fact, deplorable. And I do not mean to excuse those who voted for other candidates; many were honorable, and many had motives as ugly and mindless as the worst of their opponents. An election as chaotic and confused as this one can never be a litmus test.

But the entire ugly spectacle is a symptom of a disease that is consuming our republic—which hasn’t expired yet, but is in an advanced stage of illness. So let’s begin by remembering what the republic stood for.

From the Declaration of Independence to the Bill of Rights, our founders showed a singularity of focus that had no precedent. They took extraordinary care to build a nation of sovereign individuals whose rights are guaranteed. The mechanisms of government were designed not to exploit and subjugate the citizenry, but to protect them from coercion and harm. To be sure, failures have plagued us, and the cost has been unspeakable; ask anyone who knows black history in Tulsa. But the failures have been the shameful and the hidden; the principle of rights has remained venerated. The United States of America was built as a republic where citizens were invited to pursue their own happiness through the free exercise of their own minds.

But this freedom is in no way guaranteed to us—because it can only survive as long as we continue to value thought.

Consider, then, the popular mentality that made this election different. Neither side is exempt from responsibility for the mess. The feeble options we got came to us from a citizenry that is in the process of rejecting the free exercise of their own minds, and looking instead to their leaders to do their thinking for them. This is what it means when Trump boasts that his supporters would stand by him even if they saw him commit murder in broad daylight. This is what it means when the Trump supporter in this video wags his tail and barks faithfully for his candidate, immune to facts, unreachable by reason:

It isn’t necessary to agree with a single policy advocated by Ted Cruz to understand that he is talking here to someone who has turned off his thoughts, and surrendered control of his mind to another.

Similarly, the Democratic party surrendered its machinery to Hillary Clinton’s iron-fisted control without a squeak of protest, despite her evident contempt for ethics, while supporters of Bernie Sanders resorted to violence without thinking twice, or indeed, once. After the nominations were secure, self-appointed enforcers on each side gleefully intimidated voters and delegates of their own political wing, and treated dissenters with a breathtaking viciousness; they demanded a level of servility that does not belong in the Land of the Free. And they got it.

When you know you deserve everything that's coming to you
When you know you deserve everything that’s coming to you

Once individuals have rejected the sacred responsibility of thinking, and left their disengaged minds as empty vessels for authority to fill, how do you suppose they’ll settle their differences? Through civilized discourse and reasoned, objective debate?

Or through the use of force and intimidation?

The veneration of rights that our republic was founded on is passing into the mists of mindlessness. A growing cross-section of our culture no longer feels the need even to pretend to respect the rights of their fellow citizens, or to deal with one another through reason. And why would they? Those concepts come from the mind, a realm they are strangers to. 

We have a president-elect who is somewhere between brazenly indifferent and openly hostile to individual rights. He has promised to jail his opponent; threatened retaliation against businessmen who failed to support him; and incited violence against disruptors at his rallies. And the party he steamrolled has politely fallen into line behind him, despite his manifest indifference to the oath of office.

The rioting leftists, meanwhile, are equally contemptuous of the person and property of others. They ooze malice, indifferent to whom they’re harming, as if they fear losing the race to anarchistic rock bottom. They lash out seemingly at random, not even caring about the political persuasion of their victims.

What on earth do they hope to achieve?

The same question applies to the Trump supporter who flaunted his own offensiveness in the hotel lobby: what was his endgame?

The answer is not measurable in terms of legislative outcomes or executive policies. These people don’t expect to achieve any specific public policy. Their desired outcome is the acceptance of their brutal, mindless method. The fact that both sides consider this an occasion to push the envelope speaks directly to what we’ve lost. The right and the left, seemingly bitterly divided, are becoming more closely united on the worst of all issues: indifference to the rights of the governed, and toleration of the initiation of force.

They want force and intimidation to become accepted means of conflict resolution; they want the mob. Demands for reason and accountability will never get in the way; the mob will always be happy to do their thinking for them, and absolve them of their guilt.

Consider the fist-pumping creature in the hotel lobby. His clear message (with the language cleaned up a bit) was: “To hell with civility, decorum, and respect for the humanity of others. To hell with standards of behavior. We’ll take what we want, and no due process, standards, systems, or human decency will stand in our way.” It is the mentality of a thug who looks forward to mob rule. He believes that this election has given him what he wanted.

These hateful actions, on both ends of the political spectrum, are not the result of rational men and women pursuing moral outcomes. They are not a rejection of corruption, authoritarianism, or bigotry. They are a rejection of reason and ethics.

This trend has been growing for some time in our culture, and it is now bearing fruit more openly than ever before. Neither the right nor the left is in a position to point fingers. Neither side is cleaning its own house and removing these stains from its record. Neither side, centrists of each party included, is saying loudly and publicly to the mob, “You and your methods don’t belong among us.”

But that is exactly what needs to happen—because the acceptance of force as a method of settling disagreements is an absolute prerequisite to totalitarian rule. Just as bad thought drives out good, violence drives out all thought, period—and the price, if we tolerate it, will be just that: unthinkable.

If we want to get back what has been lost, then the use of force must never be accepted. It must never become normal. It must be loudly and vigorously repudiated by those of us who have not surrendered the use of our minds to others. Then, perhaps, we can have our republic back, regardless of what kind of entity sits in the Oval Office.

2 thoughts on “What we’ve lost

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