How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?
—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Sometime within the first 24 hours of 2020, I received a text message from a former friend who I’d been actively avoiding in the weeks leading up to the New Year. (I can hardly recall the exact details of our falling out. Its subject matter is so wrapped up in my own personal trauma that, at the time, the inside of my head felt like it was being whipped into pudding; I went into freeze mode, and I was incapable of being fully present for the conversation. All I know is that she told me, more or less, that she believed Donald Trump’s white supremacy was nonexistent—i.e. fake news—and that his sexual assaults were “a thing of the past”—i.e. forgivable, and inconsequential in the grand scheme of his presidency. And, when I tried to respond—when I tried to explain how sexual violence and white nationalism traumatizes people for life—she cut me off to exclaim, “Fake news!”)
The moment I saw her name flash across my iPhone, I felt exhausted and disappointed beyond reconciliation. (Her previous dismissal of my personal experience, combined with her dismissal of other people’s suffering in general, had all added up to the kind of experience I had been trying to tell her about, the kind you can’t come back from.) I didn’t know how, exactly, I was going to convey to her, in a formal and decisive manner, that we were no longer friends. But—in those wee hours of 2020—she was “reaching out for the last time”, and I realized I couldn’t avoid her forever.
I opened her text message.
“I forgive you,” it said.
Fuck no, I thought, and promptly chucked the olive branch into the dumpster.
I texted back, “I’m not going to pretend it’s okay, because it isn’t.”
I told her that I had no interest in mending fences, or remaining friends; that I didn’t need her forgiveness. After which, she proceeded to list off each of my transgressions against her with “I forgive you” tactfully reiterated between each one. She criticized me for “throwing away” our friendship over a “miscommunication”, and then congratulated herself for going into the new year “on a positive note.” (“Positivity” was mentioned a total of six times.)
Needless to say, we haven’t spoken since and I’m definitely not mad about it. However—even though I still believe I dodged a bullet—her interpretation of events—the fact that she considered what happened between us to be a simple miscommunication that I was refusing to reconcile—still lingers in my mind.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: at this point in history, it seems like many Americans keep shouting into the void, Why can’t we all just get along? Why are so many of us allowing politics to affect our personal relationships? (As my ex-friend would probably say, “Why can’t we just be positive?”) And I’ve concluded that the reason we can’t just “get along” and put aside our political differences, in favor of some shared—in my opinion, delusional—sense of goodwill, is because our political differences aren’t a difference in politics, but in morality. (In other words: when a person answers “no” to a question, like, “Do you think the sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump should be taken seriously?”, it becomes very difficult for a person who would answer “yes” to view the former in a positive light.)
From my perspective, making amends with that old friend was out of the question: we were two fundamentally different people with opposing core values, and I had no interest in trying to force a square peg into a round hole. (Especially not when I’d be the only one compromising their edges.)
In short, I am not someone who looks for depth where there is none: a bigot is a bigot.
However, in our post-truth world of viral conspiracies—fear of vaccines, QAnon, Satanic democrats, and the like—this certain way of thinking, an attitude of “it is what it is”, seems to have gone out of vogue. Fueled by collective anxiety, if not outright hysteria, the American people (primarily, White Americans) seem to be looking for meaning everywhere, and especially in places where there is none. (Please see: pizzagate.) A trend that has since been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and might very well be a sign that we are in search of some grand conspiracy to absolve us of responsibility for our country’s most unsavory realities. (You don’t like the way something makes you feel? Fake news!) Which, automatically, warrants the question: when it comes to times of uncertainty, is it sometimes better to refrain from drawing conclusions; from searching for resolution, or a divine purpose? Is it sometimes more productive—at least in terms of achieving “the greater good”—to repress one’s, very human, impulse to force big and scary events into a shape that makes sense—one that is more conducive to one’s own worldview—in favor of sitting with it as it is, however agonizing or self-annihilating?
I’m not quite sure how this relates, but: when I was 19, I remember being around this guy who was complaining about the prospect of one of his acquaintances studying abroad in India—he didn’t get why anyone would want to go there. He said, “Why wouldn’t you go someplace classy, like Germany?” And I remember saying, “Isn’t that the point of studying abroad, though? To be uncomfortable.” He dismissed me. Waving his hand and walking ahead of me, he said, “Whatever. I’m white and I’m happy to be that way.”
I was obviously very ignorant at the time because I remember feeling shocked by his response; the whole situation, for me, revealed the lengths some people would go to not question their place in the world—to justify their presumed superiority in order to protect some imagined order that they’d assigned to all the chaos. (How a person could definitively describe any sector of the human race as “classy”—especially one that was responsible for one of the nastiest atrocities in human history—was beyond me. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how we’re all barbaric and fallible at heart; I knew there was no denying that, and yet—as I learned from this interaction—there were some people who were still going to try.)
Sometime between the months of March and August, when I had nothing better to do, I re-read Susan Sontag’s lecture, Illness as Metaphor, along with its companion, AIDS and Its Metaphors. (In both works, Sontag argued against the metaphorization of illness and disease, saying that these kinds of interpretations—especially in the context of widespread infectious diseases—have always been used to further isolate, dismiss, and victim blame the most vulnerable members of society, such as: immigrants, the poor, minorities, the chronically ill, et al. She believed the mystification of certain illnesses created an emotional disconnect that enabled those without illnesses to project their own anxieties about the external world onto any given malady, and that this ultimately hurt those most affected by the malady in question. In short: It’s easy to use “cancer” and “pure evil” interchangeably when you’re not the one living with, or dying from, cancer.)
Revisiting Sontag’s insights, I began to wonder what she would have to say—were she alive today—about the ways in which the coronavirus has been metaphorized, minimized, and denied. I wondered: What would Susan Sontag have to say about Madonna referring to the coronavirus as “the great equalizer” from a rose petal milk bath? How would she have reacted to Madonna’s comparison of the pandemic to a shipwreck? (“If the ship goes down, we’re all going down together,” she said.)
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Susan Sontag probably would’ve said exactly what she’d said about cancer metaphors in 1977, and then—again—about AIDS metaphors in 1988. She probably would’ve said, more or less, that metaphors, when applied to unprecedented suffering, do nothing to incite meaningful change. (At their best, they are a crutch we employ to find comfort in a senseless world, and at their worst, they are a mythology that we project onto external subjects in an attempt to control them. Either way, in times of widespread tragedy and increased uncertainty, metaphors, more often than not, obstruct affirmative action, and repress our sensibilities; they fuel mass hysteria, and enable humanity’s worst impulses.)
Which, in my opinion, would have been a fair assessment. How western civilization chooses, and has chosen, to interpret emerging and widespread infectious diseases—or any other kind of illness that we find difficult to explain—has always been used to justify racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and—basically—every other form of discrimination you can think of. (Americans, especially, have always blamed infectious disease outbreaks on immigrants. For example: White Americans on the west coast in the 20th century viewed Chinese immigrants as the cause of unemployment and declining wages—side note, they weren’t. So, when the plague hit the west coast, White Americans interpreted the outbreak as validation for all of their grievances and subsequently blamed Chinese immigrants for the disease. Meanwhile, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, any number of outbreaks were blamed on whatever group of people happened to be hated by white protestants: cholera was the “Irish Disease”, polio was the “Italian Disease”, Tuberculosis was the “Jewish Disease”, et al. And finally, in the present day, Donald Trump has—in true American fashion—deemed the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus”. A term that has inspired enough hostility toward Chinese Americans that the CDC decided it was necessary to post a notice to their website, stating, more or less: Please don’t be racist toward Asian Americans.)
Needless to say, our interpretations of illness—how they’ve historically been used by western civilization to project and excuse collective prejudice and racism—says a hell of a lot more about the dominant population’s inability to look in the mirror—both as a collective, and as individuals—than it does about any of the groups that have been judged and persecuted as a result. Something that, in my opinion, was most clearly demonstrated by the American AIDS epidemic.
Given America’s puritanical roots, it comes as no surprise that the AIDS epidemic was widely and openly interpreted as a divine moral judgment of the LGBTQ+ community—along with other such “degenerates”, like drug addicts and artists.
As a result, AIDS victims were treated by both the “general public” (mainly, straight cis white people), and the government, with indifference, if not outright hostility. (Victims would go home and find all of their belongings thrown out into the street; cab drivers refused to pick them up from the hospital. They were fired from their jobs, banned from school, and denied health insurance. Major news outlets didn’t give the virus adequate coverage because they didn’t want to be associated with the “gay plague”. And the Reagan administration actively repressed releasing information on how to prevent HIV/AIDS under the pretense that it would encourage people to engage in premarital and gay sex. They cut funding for AIDS research, and resisted funding needle exchange programs, as hundreds of young and otherwise healthy people became infected and died.)
Entire friend groups were being wiped out within a demographic where chosen families were paramount; meanwhile, the world around them was so detached from their suffering that some people began to regard it like some kind of joke. (According to Newsweek and History.com, in 1982—as AIDS was affecting around 600 people—President Reagan’s press secretary was asked about the “gay plague” by a conservative journalist, and the entire room erupted with laughter; then, within the same vein of callous humor, Bob Hope playfully said, “I just heard the Statue of Liberty has AIDS,” at the 1986 rededication ceremony for the Statue of Liberty.)
All of this callous and flippant behavior, of course, was enabled by the underlying belief that, on some level, those who were affected by the AIDS crisis deserved it; a message that was openly reinforced, and succinctly summarized, by one of President Reagan’s advisors (Pat Buchanan) when he said: “The poor homosexuals—they have declared war against nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”
Looking in the mirror, as I’m recounting all of the ways in which American society channeled its homophobia through its interpretations of the AIDS crisis, I am contemplating something Michael Gottlieb (the first doctor credited with recognizing the AIDS epidemic) said about the paralyzing effect fear can have on any given society in times of crisis. He said, “In the first years of AIDS, I imagine we felt like the folks on the rooftops during Katrina, waiting for help.” And, in doing so, I realize that what can be gleaned from the ways in which the general public regarded and interpreted the AIDS crisis is this: to assign meaning to a painful experience that isn’t yours, and to assume its cause without objectivity, or, god forbid, empathy, is—in true straight white cis American fashion—a mark of the privileged. Like: You don’t get to be afraid unless you’re the one on the rooftop! To metaphorize suffering through our imagination (not our experience) of it, to explain away past cruelty with “I was afraid”, is to keep our personal perspective at the forefront of public discourse, and to avoid accountability for how the past informs the present.
In other words: fear of gay people, or whatever phobias the general public imagined would come to fruition by aiding this demographic in a time of crisis, was irrational, while an individual fearing a deadly, mysterious, virus inside of them was not. And yet, the general public gave hysteria so much power that all manner of reason and compassion fell to the wayside. People who had the right to be afraid died, as everyone around them, in a position to help, remained captivated by imaginary phantoms. (They stockpiled their own blood like toilet paper, made a few “gay plague” jokes along the way, and then sent out their thoughts and prayers: God willing.)
Furthermore, thinking in terms of the present, when it comes to the metaphor of the coronavirus as “the great equalizer”, one conclusion that can be drawn is this: it’s easy for a person like Madonna to plop herself into a milk bath and talk about the pandemic like it’s some kind of fortune cookie to be interpreted in whatever way feels most convenient to her experience. Interpreting the coronavirus in this way might inspire some positive growth for Madonna, but to the rest of us—people on the verge of eviction, jobless and losing loved ones—it doesn’t mean shit. And although this kind of interpretation merely promotes and excuses ignorance, some interpretations of unprecedented human suffering—especially the ones propagated and created by public figures—have the potential to manipulate the public imagination in ways that can alter the course of history.
In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag wrote about how politicians used the AIDS epidemic to fuel the concerns and fears of conservative Americans—many of the same fears we still see today through the ideology of Donald Trump’s supporters, and in the resurgence of the alt-right.
She wrote that the intent behind some government officials’ (such as Pat Buchanan, who I quoted earlier) inclinations to speak of AIDS as if it were a moral judgment were not limited to enabling homophobia, but also sought to inspire fear of social progression, and to create hysteria around socialist ideology and policy. (During this time, many conservatives—like many conservatives today—held the belief that America had moved away from its domineering global presence in favor of “going soft”. They believed that America was becoming “too” diversified, and that the integration of immigrants and minorities into “mainstream” American society posed a threat to “American Values”. Such as: democracy, “western culture”—i.e. white culture—the nuclear family structure, and the capitalist ideal of rugged masculine individualism—i.e. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”)
She said, “Predictably, the public voices in this country most committed to drawing moral lessons from the AIDS epidemic… are those whose main theme is worry about America’s will to maintain its bellicosity, its expenditures on armaments, its firm anti-communist stance, and who find everywhere evidence of the decline of American political and imperial authority. Denunciations of the ‘gay plague’ are part of a much larger complaint, common among antiliberals in the West… about contemporary permissiveness of all kinds: a now familiar diatribe against the ‘soft’ West, with its hedonism, its vulgar sexy music, its indulgence in drugs, its disabled family life, which have sapped the will to stand up to communism. AIDS is a favorite concern of those who translate their political agenda into questions of group psychology: of national self-esteem and self-confidence. Although these specialists in ugly feelings insist that AIDS is a punishment for deviant sex, what moves them is not just, or even principally, homophobia… A whole politics of ‘the will’—of intolerance, of paranoia, of fear of political weakness—has fastened on this disease. AIDS is such an apt goad to the familiar, consensus-building fears that have been cultivated for several generations, like fear of ‘subversion’—and to fears that have surfaced more recently, of uncontrollable pollution and of unstoppable migration from the Third World—that it would seem inevitable that AIDS be envisaged in this society as something total, civilization-threatening.”
Furthermore, the AIDS-as-moral-retribution rhetoric was not only used to fuel paranoia surrounding the destruction of “American Values” but was also used to move the general public away from incorporating empathy into their politics. (According to Sontag, when the outlawing of discrimination against people with AIDS was proposed, in favor of “[setting] aside prejudice and fear in favor of compassion,” Pat Buchanan called the proposal “foolish” and said, “Has America become a country where classroom discussion of the Ten Commandments is impermissible but teacher instructions in safe sodomy are to be mandatory?”)
Christianity was weaponized and used as a feint to deter the general public from their more logical impulses, causing them to react to the notion of “setting aside prejudice and fear in favor of compassion” as—according to Sontag—“a weakening of [American] society’s power (or willingness) to punish and segregate through judgments about sexual behavior.” In short—and as if the U.S. government, essentially, saying, God wants people with AIDS to suffer in every human way imaginable until they DIE, wasn’t terrible enough—a large portion of the population believed it was their “American Right” to ostracize and persecute those in need—people who were dying—based on who they were.
Now, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re experiencing deja vu. Many of these historical recountings reflect the present day. The same rhetorical messages behind the political discourse that surrounded the AIDS crisis have been employed, from the beginning of the 20th century, and in recent years, to incite anxiety over socialist ideology replacing “American Values”, and to repress social progression, especially in terms of integrating “others” (i.e., immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized groups) into the mainstream of public consideration.
For example, the Red Scare—the irrational fear of a communist takeover, fueled by a number of politicians from 1917 and into the late 1950s—changed the course of American history, and stunted momentum in the direction of racial equality, as politicians weaponized the general public’s fear of communism by labeling, essentially, anyone who identified as even remotely progressive—people who wanted to improve workers’ rights, or advance the Civil Rights movement—radical communists who posed a violent threat to American democracy. Ultimately, this enabled government officials to misrepresent various political movements, and to violate the American peoples’ civil liberties. (According to History.com, labor strikes were attributed to “immigrants hellbent on bringing down the American way of life.” In 1920, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered federal agents to raid the homes of suspected radicals. This was done without search warrants, and at least 6,000 Americans were arrested. J. Edgar Hoover—the F.B.I. director from 1924 to 1972—considered the Civil Rights movement communist subversion and labeled Martin Luther King Jr. a communist radical. Meanwhile, a Trump-ish senator of Wisconsin by the name of Joseph McCarthy, who served from 1908 to 1957, publicly accused anyone who disagreed with his politics of being a radical communist. As a result, many of his victims unjustly lost their jobs and reputations. Politicians from both the left and the right became more conservative in their rhetoric and conduct due to fear of falling victim to the implications that being branded a “communist” might provoke. Leftists groups deteriorated, and many forward-thinking people were forced into silence.)
Progress in any number of important political issues stagnated, and the repercussions of this stagnation can be seen today, as President Donald Trump has also wielded an irrational fear of socialism, in lieu of communism, to further his own political agenda, and to paint any form of social progression—from accepting immigrants and refugees, to dismantling systemic white supremacy—as a threat to the economy, national security, and “American values”. (In 2019, he said, “A vote for any democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American Dream, frankly, the destruction of our country. That’s what’s going to happen to our country.”)
The ways in which socialism is presented by our current politicians and, in effect, how it is interpreted by Americans, matters because it mimics how communism was interpreted during the Red Scare. As it stands, many politicians present socialism as a threat to the middle-class white person’s American Dream, which, in turn, manipulates White Americans into interpreting even the mere consideration of including “other” peoples’ right to pursue happiness—to pursue their own unique vision of the American Dream, and to have their own needs and experiences incorporated into the collective imagination—as a threat to their financial security, assets, and comfort.
This is a scare tactic that has always been employed by politicians—albeit with a few variations—to keep White Americans complicit within a system that upholds white supremacy and maintains capitalist exploitation of the poor and working classes.
Furthermore, American democracy has never been about protecting liberty and justice for all. It has always been about protecting liberty and justice for the “right” kinds of white people. So when politicians like Donald Trump talk about protecting the “American Dream”, or “American Values”, or “The American Way”, what they’re really saying is that people of color, immigrants, the poor, the working class, feminists, and other marginalized groups, need to be put in their place. A message that ultimately fuels white hysteria and echoes a call to arms that American Fascists—i.e. the alt-right—have been sounding off for quite some time. (Nazism is so ingrained in the “American Way” that Adolf Hitler is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It was America that taught us a nation should not open its doors equally to all nations.”)
Many of us don’t realize, or refuse to acknowledge, that the history we are often taught in school is watered down and white-washed beyond recognition. (I recently saw a Tweet that said, “our textbooks really had this on pg 10,” and beneath the Tweet was an image of an Egyptian pharaoh depicted as a white dude who looked like a Ken doll.) We (and I’m speaking from the white millennial experience right now) like to think of ourselves—at least, from what I can remember of high school history lessons—as the heroes of World War II; as the noble Americans who defeated the evil Nazis and saved the Jews. When, in actuality, if we had been alive and engaging in politics at this point in time, there’s a good chance many of us wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass about the Jews. (“Refu-jews, go home!” was a popular chant among conservative Americans, and at least 53% of Americans believed that there were innate differences between Jews and Anglo-Saxons.)
Which, looking in the mirror once more, brings me back to the coronavirus as “the great equalizer” metaphor. Because even though Susan Sontag argued against the interpretation of illness, there is one interpretation of the coronavirus pandemic, and its affects on American society, that I believe she would agree with; one lesson that can be drawn from the social and cultural responses to any given widespread, and infectious, illness and its metaphors. And it’s this: everyone knows that history repeats itself, and yet, those of us with the most power to change it continuously refuse to do so; we go in the direction of hysterics instead of compassion; we allow a mindset of scarcity and entitlement to crush our sensibilities and better judgment; we look for reasons outside of ourselves to alleviate our own shame, more concerned with not feeling like a “bad” person than we are for the people who suffer due to our denial. We are fragile and full of fear and we have no reason to be. The pandemic hasn’t revealed any social, political, or cultural, problem that wasn’t already there, sitting right in front of us—it just made them all even more glaringly obvious.
In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag concluded with: “Our views about cancer, and the metaphors we have imposed on it, are so much a vehicle for the large insufficiencies of [American] culture: for our shallow attitude toward death, for our anxieties about feeling, for our reckless improvident responses to our real ‘problems of growth’, for our inability to construct an advanced industrial society that properly regulates consumption, and for our justified fears of the increasingly violent course of history. The cancer metaphor will be made obsolete, I would predict, long before the problems it has reflected so vividly will be resolved.” And I’ve concluded that this statement can be applied to today, with “coronavirus” serving as a substitute for “cancer,” and the word “amplified” serving as a substitute for “reflected.”
It would say: “The coronavirus metaphor will be made obsolete, I would predict, long before the problems it has amplified so vividly will be resolved.” Because, despite Madonna’s best attempt at “unity” in the time of coronavirus (i.e., “if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together”), the ugly truth remains: the first-class passengers always had a better chance at survival than everyone else when the Titanic went down.
Therefore, we can no longer afford to subscribe to some delusional idea that the human condition afflicts us all in the same exact way; to these fantastical, hyperbolic, interpretations of human suffering that assume there is some kind of divine order to the chaos that will absolve us of all responsibility for the present moment. Especially not when history has shown, time after time, that some things were within someone’s—or some group of people’s—control. (While in quarantine, I watched The Big Short, and I felt like screaming when Steve Carell’s character predicted how the American people would react when the great recession inevitably hit. He said, “I have a feeling, in a few years, people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”)
The White American’s enemy isn’t immigrants, or refugees, or the Black Lives Matter movement; it isn’t the people benefiting from socialist systems, the same way the coronavirus isn’t biological warfare engineered and intentionally spread by the Chinese government. And even if you belong to the percentage of White Americans who acknowledge these realities, myself included: I don’t believe the whiteness of the left can be compartmentalized from Donald Trump and his supporters, the same way American Nazism cannot be compartmentalized from German Nazism. (White supremacists have never obtained power or platforms in isolation. We’ve helped to create the circumstances that aided them in their rising by exercising the luxury that is opting out of politics; by minimizing the influence of the alt-right within our government; by never being forced to think about race, or experience a generational trauma caused by genocide and racial persecution. At the very beginning of Donald Trump’s campaign, for the 2016 election, he called Mexican immigrants rapists; he openly mocked a reporter with disabilities at one of his rallies; he was accused of multiple sexual assaults, and he gained support by demonizing refugees. And yet, enough White Americans deemed this acceptable, and presidential, behavior in 2016.)
The night my friend and I had our falling out, I remember asking her, “What about black people who get shot and killed for no reason?” And she said, “Yes, that’s very sad.” (She said it in the same way someone might say a rainy day at the beach is very sad, or the way getting ranch dressing when you asked for blue cheese is very sad: it implies sympathy, but it’s passive and indifferent at its core, like when you meditate and experience a negative thought as a distant cloud floating by.)
After that, I got teary-eyed and overwhelmed. I felt like I was choking on information, and I felt desperate to convince her of how important it was to me that she understood just how complicated the “Trump Problem” is; why support for him and everything he represents can be—and often should be—interpreted as a personal hurt by so many people. But I couldn’t do it; I failed miserably. I just fucking cried. And she told me, “You can’t blame yourself for things you can’t control.”
Which irked me even more, because it is both true and untrue. Like, yeah: a lot of problems are bigger than me and shouting into the void won’t stop it. Nor will sending political hot takes, or even historical and scientific facts, out into the echo chambers of social media. Our current systems and how we’ve been conditioned our entire lives to internalize them—to normalize “the way it’s always been” to the point of blindly assuming that there is no other, better, way—is an overwhelming and complicated issue that is well beyond any individual person’s influence. (It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “It’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked, it’s the Grand Canyon.”) However, I can take it upon myself to be open to re-education; to listen and pay attention when a person shares a firsthand experience with a widespread issue; to respond with empathy and receptivity when a person says that they have fallen victim to systemic abuse, or harmful cultural norms. And more importantly, I can choose to put my ego aside and believe them without minimizing or dismissing their experience. Like, I can choose to give a fuck.
To say “you can’t blame yourself for things you can’t control” in regard to matters of injustice and our country’s tolerance of human cruelty—Nazism, white supremacy, xenophobia, police brutality, systemic racism, misogyny—is to evade responsibility and accountability in our daily lives. And I want to be better than that; I’m glad I didn’t drop the subject of Donald Trump and the issues his presidency has amplified, however ungracefully it unfolded. Because, I want to believe, no matter how defensive a person might become when the ethics of their values falls into question, they still go home and reflect. (One time, when I was younger, a friend told me they felt like some of my friends were racist, based on their odd behavior around them. I said, “I don’t know, I think they’re just a little more reserved than some people. They listen to me when I talk about politics and feminism and don’t act like it’s weird or super radical.” Then they asked me something that completely changed my perspective. They said, “But do you think they’d still respect you and your views if you weren’t white?” And, when I really thought about it, I couldn’t definitively say yes or no. Their question made me aware of the reality that there are some forms of prejudice that I can’t see, and I have to integrate that consideration into my daily life. I’m glad they had the courage to challenge me—they encouraged me to be a better person.)
My current dilemma, however, isn’t that I see the world in terms of “all good” or “all bad”; it isn’t that I don’t believe in peoples’ ability to learn and grow and change—or that one questionable opinion is indicative of moral bankruptcy. (I firmly believe that everyone really is just doing their best.) My current dilemma is that I can’t quite figure out how anyone can have a fair debate with a person whose only counter argument is “fake news”. Like, what the fuck do you say to that? How do you justify your anger to a person who feels so confident in their position that they can begin a conversation, unprompted, with “I forgive you”? How do you challenge a person to question their worldview when they aren’t even living in the same reality as you? And, more importantly, how do you cultivate love for your fellow man—the kind on which human survival depends—in a world where such starkly contrasted versions of reality exist?
While googling about the psychology of Trump supporters—because I find their passion for him both fascinating, and incomprehensible—I came across a theory in social psychology called “terror management theory”, or the idea that, because humans are unique in their awareness of death and its inevitability, there is a small, subconscious, anxiety constantly lurking beneath the surface of every one of us. And, therefore, this constant and quiet fear forces us to apply meaning to the world around us; for this reason, we find religion, or cling to political ideologies and superstitions; we make up culture, and analyze literature, and develop addictions, and buy things we don’t need. We do all of these things because we need something to fill the space between us and our imminent deaths. (What does this have to do with Trump supporters? Allegedly some psychological studies have shown that conservatives are more likely than liberals to react to reminders of death with increased support of nationalism, and therefore, they become more abetting to bigoted rhetoric and behavior. Ultimately, this implies that conservatives are more vulnerable to a fear-monger like President Trump. This, of course, is just the hot gossip over at Psychology Today, and I often take their articles with a grain of salt.)
Now, the interesting thing about terror management theory (this idea that says we find and create and project meaning onto the world around us in order to sooth our existential dread) is that reminders of death can either bring us together, or tear us apart, depending on the overarching values of a society. For example: when social psychologists imposed constant reminders of death upon individuals within a collectivist society (societies that value the whole over the individual, such as Japanese society), they found that these individuals became more understanding and compassionate, while the individuals within an individualistic society (societies that value the individual over the whole, such as American society) were more likely to become hostile toward those with differing worldviews, and more isolated from the whole.
Therefore, reminders of death have the power to color our worldview, for better or worse. And how we choose to manage—or interpret—our fear; how we choose to respond to the physical manifestation of our deepest dread, whether it be in the form of a figure, movement, event, or novel disease, ultimately reveals the heart of society.
Furthermore, and thinking within this context: I believe Donald Trump is a figure loaded with visceral meaning that is inextricably linked to America’s existential dread. His symbolism, whatever it is that he represents, is malleable like clay; you can interpret him however you want to interpret him because his statements are left wide open to interpretation through their ambiguous intent; he just goes in whatever direction will best serve his ego. He leaves himself vacant so there will be a vast space for the projections of those most vulnerable to him. Which is exactly why all of America’s problems felt like a bruise that only got darker from underneath his pressing thumb; it doesn’t matter who you are—left, right, socialist, conservative, and into infinity—whether you admit it to yourself or not: Donald Trump assumed the shape of whatever you feared most about American society, either through his rhetoric or his representation. And it’s crazy because he’s about as ridiculous as the Oogie Boogie Man from The Nightmare Before Christmas: he’s just a meaningless sack of bugs. But I think this is exactly what made his presidency so alarming; this reality that a person with so little to offer in the way of depth and truth, someone so vapid and deprived of meaning—all bark and no bite—could suck so many people into his false reality and could be so skilled at discerning human weakness that, for a time, he was allowed to manipulate America’s ideological divisions to his whim.
Therefore, I believe that every one of us—with the exception of, like, Richard Spencer—have been a victim of this presidency on some level, and precisely because we can’t even agree on how to interpret Donald Trump’s legacy.
The political left, for example, is split in terms of how to define “Trumpism”. (Centrists and liberals define Trumpism as disrespect for the rules of democracy, while leftists and socialists define it as the oppression underlying the entire political system—the former says our system, on a foundational level, is fine as it is and needs to be protected, while the latter believes it was designed solely to accommodate the success of wealthy cis straight white men and needs to be reimagined from the ground up.)
All that being said, some people believe “Trumpism” is more generally defined; they believe “Trumpism” is a kind of totalitarianism that defies political identity. Or, in other words: it’s the idea that Donald Trump has turned us all into little totalitarians by proxy; that he has reimagined the American People in his own image, and therefore we’ve been groomed to be as divisive and unforgiving as himself. Which is something I can get on board with, as a concept. (Though I’m totally of the mindset that Donald Trump ultimately represents the oppression at the heart of American Democracy, and I want to make that very clear.)
In this way, he has victimized the masses by robbing us of a shared reality, and by forcing us all to self-isolate within our own, little, realities. This makes it difficult for us to connect with loved ones, along with all the other people we encounter in our daily lives; we are deeply skeptical and fearful of one another. What was once considered a temporary form of politeness—i.e. “don’t discuss politics”—has now become a hard rule, lest you want to open the floodgates to the likely chance that ties will be severed and someone is going to walk away screaming or crying.
Furthermore, the effects of his presidency has not only created strained interpersonal relations, but has also hurt his own supporters in very real and tangible ways. Starting first and foremost with the reality that he has lied to, and misled, them throughout the entirety of his political career, and has taken advantage of their disenchantment by presenting them with a sense of purpose and affection. (Donald Trump makes his supporters feel seen and heard and valued, despite the fact that his words and his actions never really seem to add up, which is kind of like the cognitive dissonance one experiences in an abusive relationship, like—it doesn’t matter that Donald Trump has failed to fulfill a majority of his promises once that dopamine rush hits.)
It’s really tragic, actually, since his lies, and his refusal to disavow misinformation, whilst covertly adding fuel to the fire, have resulted in the deaths of people who trusted him. (Donald Trump doesn’t give a fuck about the woman who got shot in the face trying to protect his false reality of a rigged election. Nor does he care about the man who drank chloroquine phosphate and died after he suggested his weird bleach “cleansing” idea. Sure, he didn’t technically say “Go out and drink bleach!”, but he planted the seed, and he never made a public announcement telling people to stop trying unconfirmed solutions for COVID-19. In fact, there is evidence that shows the misinformation surrounding the pandemic has resulted in hundreds of deaths.)
None of this is the behavior of a person who respects the people that he would be nothing without. (Honestly, any person who says, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” does not respect the people they’re talking about.) And yet, many of his supporters still love him, despite all the evidence that says they’re better off without him. And I think this is primarily because, to them, he represents their most idealistic selves: a “self-made” man.
This all comes back to American individualism, and how—in the same way Donald Trump has made little totalitarians of us all—American individualism has made greedy little capitalists of us all. These two elements, when combined, become the precursors to fascism, or, as I like to call it: a society deprived of its humanity. (In her address at the 1995 Charter Day Celebrations, Toni Morrison said: “[Fascism is] recognizable by its determination to convert all public services to private entrepreneurship; all non-profit organizations to profit-making ones—so that the narrow but protective chasm between governance and business disappears. It changes citizens into taxpayers—so individuals become angry at even the notion of the public good. It changes neighbors into consumers—so that the measure of our value as humans is not our humanity or our compassion or our generosity but what we own. It changes parenting into panicking—so that we vote against the interests of our own children; against their healthcare, their education, their safety from weapons. And in effecting these changes it produces the perfect capitalist, one who is willing to kill a human being for a product—a pair of sneakers, a jacket, a car—or kill generations for control of products—oil, drugs, fruit, gold.”)
As Americans, so much of our identity is wrapped up in what we “do” for money, and so much of our worth is measured in numbers. (Net worth, stocks, 401Ks, followers, likes, clicks, views, IQ, GPA, disposable income, et al.) The first thing we often ask a person, upon meeting them, is “What do you do?”, and who they actually are gets lost in translation; we forget that, for most of us, whatever we happen to “do” in order to achieve the first level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is a minute—if any—indicator of who we actually are. (I refuse to believe that shoving tubes into a machine for eight hours a day says anything about who I am as an individual.) We forget that all these presumed indicators for where we stand in society—symbols for “how important” we supposedly are—are completely made up, and imaginary. They can be stripped of their meaning, at any moment in time—like, we can decide that these things mean nothing to us whenever we want, and yet we still allow them to consume our souls.
If there’s anything that Donald Trump’s presidency has shown me it’s that there are so many Americans who would rather aggrandize and protect the illusion of individualistic power and control than love and be loved in return. It’s insane to me, but it’s not even their fault: we have been programmed to believe in the individualistic myth of the “self-made” man, and therefore we value and fight for things that are completely incongruent with our own happiness. We are groomed to operate from a place of scarcity—to “work hard” with a Darwinian mindset—under the pretense that it will get us ahead. (Of what, we are never really told.) Standing out, and alone, is considered “good”, and so we believe having privileges that others don’t is a sign of our own personal success—our inherent “specialness”—and not an indicator of corruption and human neglect. A deep understanding of oneself in relation to the whole—working toward the goal of true self-actualization and fulfillment—is considered wasted labor, because it disregards the bottom line. And we do this all for what? (There are full grown adults intentionally coughing in service workers’ faces during a pandemic just because they were asked to wear a mask.)
Honestly, it’s no wonder that America is one of the most clinically depressed countries in the world; we are completely disconnected from ourselves, hollowed out by the incessant need for external validation, not realizing that what we’re searching for is a kind of purpose and sense of fulfillment detached from material success and social approval.
Despite our best efforts to resist facing the tiny blip that is our lives, as terror management theory poses, human beings are hardwired to look for truth—some greater meaning, beyond the bottom line—and Americans are no exception. The problem, however, is that the only time we collectively look for that greater meaning is in times of chaos and crisis—a time when, in my opinion, it is least productive to do so, as the greater meaning is so often dictated by panic; because it is so often described in apocalyptic, sensational, and out of touch, terminology. In short: It’s all a conspiracy! (It seems to me that the reason Americans are particularly vulnerable to unfounded conspiracy theories at this moment in time is because the truth that has been laid bare, over and over again, throughout the course of history, is even scarier than the made-up stories we tell ourselves. Like: it’s easier to believe that child sexual abuse is perpetrated by some elite society of democrats who worship Satan than it is to accept that sexual abuse is often inflicted by friends, family, religious leaders, and teachers; it’s easier to believe that the holocaust was made up, or exaggerated, than it is to accept that it did happen, and it really was that bad; it’s easier to believe that George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor, did something to deserve being murdered than it is to accept that the police can just suffocate a person on the concrete in broad daylight, or shoot someone in their sleep, for no real reason at all; it’s easier to believe that sexual assault victims are just working together to “take down a good man” for clout and profit than it is to accept that we’ve all known and loved at least one man who has traumatized a person in these ways.)
Basically, the truth is wildly uncomfortable, and Americans are especially averse to discomfort.
Therefore, I believe it’s just as important to deprive certain things of meaning as it is to find meaning in others. Like, my point isn’t to say that everything is meaningless, it’s that we should be more mindful about what we assign meaning to, because the ways in which one interprets the world inevitably dictates one’s behavior, and there are some events—particularly human tragedies, such as the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating effects—that we’re better off recognizing, not as hoaxes or great equalizers, but for what they are: a waste of human life and potential; arbitrary, inconceivable, senseless, and unfair; the result of a careless government, selfish and inept leadership, misogyny, capitalist greed, white supremacy, and class inequality. (As one victim of the AIDS crisis said in response to Craig Thompson’s declaration of AIDS as “the great unifier”: “Don’t you dare tell me there’s any good news in this.”)
Furthermore, I think the “self-made” man as a noble pursuit is one of those concepts we assign significant meaning to and ought to retire; the world is more connected than ever and we can no longer afford to resist being an active part of it by fiercely defending our borders and denying others the kinds of care that we all deserve just because we want to feel “special” or “powerful”. (There are real existential threats that can, or will, affect us all—climate change, nuclear war, unconstrained AI, increasing centralization of wealth and power, etc.—and no amount of individual success is meaningful if we’re all dead.)
Bringing me to my final point: I recently re-read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green—a YA novel about precocious adolescent cancer patients who are trying to accept that they will likely die before they can achieve anything that they’d describe as meaningful. And, in it, the secondary protagonist, Augustus Waters, writes a letter to an esteemed, and brutally nihilistic, author about his girlfriend, the main character, Hazel; in the letter, Augustus challenges the author’s cynicism regarding the pursuit of making the world a better place, and describes what his love for Hazel has taught him about finding meaning in a meaningless life. He says, “The marks humans leave are too often scars. You build a hideous minimall or start a coup or try to become a rock star and you think, ‘They’ll remember me now,’ but (a) they don’t remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars. Your coup becomes a dictatorship. Your minimall becomes a lesion… We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths. I can’t stop pissing on fire hydrants. I know it’s silly and useless—especially useless in my current state—but I am an animal like any other. Hazel is different… Hazel knows the truth: we’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either. People will say it’s sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely. But it’s not sad… It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that the real heroism? Like the doctors say: First, do no harm. The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people noticing things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.” (Now, this is not me saying that there’s any good news to found in the pandemic, or Donald Trump’s presidency, but I do believe these events serve as a reminder to pay attention.)
Ultimately, progress is not about transforming our country in one fell swoop, but improving ourselves, little by little, in hopes that one day our country will be better for it. (Anyone who takes on a challenge with changing the whole of America in mind is biting off more than they can chew from the get-go, is, on some level, still only out for themself. But, to walk through life, noticing things and pointing them out with the intent of leaving behind a lesser scar—to live in a constant state of trial and error with the direction of progress in mind—is, like Augustus Waters said, a noble way to be.) Because, even if there are ten corruptions for every genuine act of public service, even if each individual life ultimately means nothing, and the depth of human cruelty is an issue that cannot be resolved, what other meaning is there—what other “good” reason are we here for—if not to make the inescapable climb toward death a little less painful for one another?
A note: I am not a historian or psychologist; I am just a private citizen with a writing degree, a keyboard, and internet connection. While I do my best to make sure all of my research is accurate & derived from reputable sources, I am an enthusiastic supporter of people doing their own research in order to draw their own conclusions. Therefore, if anything I’ve written here has inspired doubt, or questions, I encourage you to look deeper for yourself. In the mean time, I have some sources and recommendations that I found in the course of writing this post listed below.
The New York Times, Rabbit Hole Series
The New Yorker Radio Hour, ep. “Samantha’s Journey into the Alt-Right, and Back”
The Cut, ep. “Rich People Problems”
This Podcast Will Kill You, ep. #12 “HIV/AIDS: Apathy Will Kill You”
NPR’s Throughline, ep. “White Nationalism”
You’re Wrong About, ep. “The Challenger Disaster”
Behind the Bastards, ep. “Ronald and Nancy Reagan: The Bastards Behind the AIDS Crisis” parts 1 & 2
Behind the Bastards, ep. “Hitler’s Sex Life: The Whole Sad Story” parts 1 & 2
Philosophize This!, ep. #081 “Capitalism vs. Communism”
The Atlantic, “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots” by Adam Serwer
Racism and Fascism by Toni Morrison
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, U.S. History
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories
Severance, Ling Ma
Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green