Democrats are reminding me of a bizarre psychological experience I had three years ago, unfortunately not in a good way. That experience taught me a lot about the power of social validation and affirmation, including how effectively they can anchor beliefs and understandings that are not effective. Being able to critically examine the frameworks we use to understand the world around us is important. An ability to switch between frameworks, and choose to hedge our bets through more than one plan of action based on conflicting understandings, makes it possible to act in more effective ways. Being exclusively invested in a single framework for making meaning of our experiences can be very risky. This is the territory Democrats are now acting in, even though they may say otherwise.
In the past three years, Donald Trump has orchestrated a major shift in both the political landscape and how we relate to facts, truth and reality.
I’ve often thought that if Trump were not validated and affirmed by his base, the games he plays with facts and the truth would long ago have tipped his mind into madness (yes, I know some people think he’s already there). I am certainly not alone in feeling that in leading over a third of the US population to embrace and accept versions of reality that are not based in fact, Trump has given a distinctly crazy flavour to US politics.
What’s odd to observe is that in leading his base to embrace a reality disconnected from facts, Trump has changed US politics so that the choices and actions of Democrats are also no longer well-founded.
While “the resistance” animatedly criticizes Trump, there are ways in which, collectively, Democrats continue to operate according to an understanding of the political landscape which may no longer be valid or useful. Evidence suggests that Trump and the Republicans supporting him will do whatever they need to do in order to hold on to power. While there is open discussion in the media of Trump’s autocracy, there has been no effective call to action. Pieces like this one squarely address the possibility that Trump may refuse to leave office but the author continues to place faith in traditional process. That is the same faith that those who reluctantly voted for Trump placed in other arms of government to restrain his worst tendencies. The Senate has become unwavering in its support for Trump and impeachment has failed, both are evidence that that faith is mistaken.
That millions of people did not fill streets all over the United States to demand that the Senate hold a meaningful process and impeach Trump is deeply disappointing. It also makes sense. It’s frightening to embrace and act on the idea that the political landscape in the US has changed so profoundly that a system that has worked (at least for many if not all) for centuries is now failing. Action based on that understanding makes it real in a way that is not easy to stomach. It is much more comfortable to channel outrage and expectations into actions, like the selection of the Democratic candidate, rooted in faith in the traditional political process.
As someone who now lives in Canada, but who lived in the US for seven years and has many relatives and friends there, it’s a very odd situation to observe. In Canada we see our own conservative leaders attempting, with varying degrees of success, to adopt Trump’s approaches. One advantage we so far have is that there is no dominant media player giving Canadian politics the sensational, fact-denying spin of Fox News. However, the proximity of the US to Canada makes the US situation very uncomfortable. Trump’s approach to leadership and the truth is infecting politics everywhere.
Frameworks of meaning-making and understanding being operated by Democratic leaders relate to a pre-Trump world.
It is way past time to examine and act based on alternative understandings of the reality we are in. The actions of most Democrats are based on the understanding that elections will occur and that Trump can be beaten. Meanwhile, every day brings news of Trump acting with complete disregard of past convention and current laws, and being supported in doing so by a Senate that refuses to hold him accountable. Trump continues to be supported by a significant minority of the population. Even the Supreme Court is bending to the will of Trump’s administration. News of ongoing election interference to support Trump appears daily. All of this suggests that understandings of how politics and government work in the US that are based in the past are no longer valid. And yet Democrats, in their actions, if not their words, cling to them.
Those of us who do not support Trump regularly ask ourselves what it might take for his base to abandon its cult-like support for him. A question that doesn’t get asked is what it will take for those who oppose Trump to recognize that traditional systems of government and political action have failed and the US is becoming an autocracy. Those who do not support Trump need to embrace and act on multiple understandings of what is going on. Certainly continue to participate in the traditional election process. However, Democratic leaders should long ago have started to mobilize supporters in new ways. Ways that do not take the efficacy of traditional political processes for granted.
Pointing out that the US is starting to resemble autocratic societies is not enough. People who care need to do what has sometimes made a difference in other societies: taking to the streets in large numbers, in an unrelenting way. [Edit: the Coronavirus has now made this a foregone opportunity. Edit2: post George Floyd’s murder — apparently not.] Sadly the window of opportunity of the impeachment process has passed, but demanding the resignation of Bill Barr could be another focus of massive protest. So could demanding aggressive government action against election interference. Protest taps into the power of collective validation and affirmation, it may unmoor some Senators from their conflicted but consistent support for Trump. Conducting life as usual based on the belief that the processes and conventions that have governed the US will prevail is comfortable but increasingly risky. That these conventions will constrain an individual, and his supporters, who are so clearly determined to ignore them, might prove a very costly mistaken belief. Waking up to this fact in November may prove too late.