Unchecked passions

Well, has our system of government finally bitten down on the cyanide capsule after 240 years? On December 17, 1814, John Adams, one of the most important architects of American democracy, wrote from Quincy, Massachusetts, to John Taylor:

I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.

Not a cheerful thought, but there aren’t many around New York this morning. It’s hard to be more cynical, but there was nothing quite as cynical last night as Trump’s speech acknowledging his victory. “We owe [Hillary Clinton] a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country,” he said. “Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential” — this from a man who only recently threatened to jail her, hired lawyers only yesterday to keep votes from Hispanic Americans from being counted, and stoked the fires of hatred, resentment, and spite against women, people of color, and the press; the list goes on and on. Which is the real Donald Trump? The man who says he wants to “bind the wounds of division” or the man who more than anyone else deepened those wounds and exploited them to his own selfish ends? I’m not sure which would be worse. If the first, it indicates that he was willing to say anything, to cater to the worst qualities of Americans, in order to get elected; if the second, he possesses those qualities himself.

During the Obama administration, the system of checks and balances — and it’s a pesky system, this, if you want to get anything of importance done — more or less worked; it didn’t make anybody particularly happy, but it didn’t lead to any constitutional crisis either. There will be no such check or balance on a Trump administration, which will begin in January backed by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, in state governorships — and, soon enough I’m sure, on the Supreme Court.

This morning we had to explain to our daughters — seven and six years old — why Hillary Clinton lost the election, especially since they identified so strongly with her message and the opportunities she presented to them, the promise that she represented for the places that women can take in society. I don’t really think we were able to explain it fully. What I would really like to do is have someone who voted for Trump — and I know a few of them — watch this video with them:

Then I’d like that person to explain to them how he’ll be a good President. They are already expressing concern that some of their classmates will be deported because of the color of their skin. Life for kids is already pretty hard. This is just going to make it much harder. It’s going to make everything much harder.

On my Twitter and Facebook feeds I’m seeing Clinton supporters turn to each other to say that it’s time to get angry — but anger (and fear, something else Clinton supporters are expressing) is exactly what led to the Trump election. The Trump campaign legitimized the rhetoric of anger, hate, and fear as valid expressions of political opinion, and we now know where that rhetoric gets us.

So what to do next? Stay close and get closer to our family and friends; encourage our children to stand up for what they believe in, shield our daughters as much as we can from the toxic personalities, bigotry, and prejudices of Trump supporters, and provide them with the strength to oppose that bigotry and prejudice where they find it; and pay more attention to what Edmund Burke called our “little platoons” of family and local community  — “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” he wrote. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

And one more thing. This year I joined a church, and it appears that I joined it just in time. Over the next four years I imagine I’ll very often be turning to the Sermon on the Mount for comfort and guidance. And I’ll be praying. A lot.

9 thoughts on “Unchecked passions”

  1. “Life for kids is already pretty hard.” I disagree. Compared to the chaos we survived growing up in a completely dysfunctional family, it’s hard to see how life is hard for Billie and Goldie. They enjoy a very good life. They are fortunate kids.

  2. The new administration is set to undo about 40 years of civic and social progress. It’s not just Billie and Goldie who will have to live with that. It’s every child.

  3. What you’re suggesting seems to be surrender. Politics no longer works; progress is short-lived or illusory. So the right’s mission is then complete, because they’ve been trying for decades to make people turn away from politics, to make us stop trying to use the law to improve our lives. Are you saying withdrawal is the only option? If not, please elaborate.

  4. I don’t consider this surrender or withdrawal, but an emphasis on what can be done in our own backyards to live meaningfully. A puritanical zeal for abstract ideological ideals will get us nowhere, and I don’t believe in revolutions (neither did Burke, who foresaw the Reign of Terror three years before it happened). We just had one yesterday, and look how that turned out.

  5. “The new administration is set to undo about 40 years of civic and social progress.” No, it isn’t. Trump is a Rockefeller republican, not a conservative ideologue. Remember — Trump is a New Yorker, not an American. His rhetoric to get elected was inflammatory, but his focus as president will probably be on economic — not social — issues.

  6. Watch who Trump appoints to his administration. I doubt we’ll see David Duke or any snake handlers from the backwoods of Kentucky in the cabinet. Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani are more likely. Not exactly social conservatives. Parenthetically, I believe Giuliani’s wife is from Hazleton, if I’m not mistaken.

  7. I get no comfort from seeing Christie or Giuliani in the Trump cabinet, I’m afraid.

    The word “conservative” doesn’t mean anything any more (and, after this election, neither does “Republican”); too many people have been throwing it around for their own purposes, so to say that any individual is conservative or not really tells us nothing.

    Speaking of Hazleton, it led the BBC’s coverage of election night. Did you see this?


  8. I don’t know who is luckier, you or I. You get to walk your young daughters and give them perspective on these strange times and events. My daughters are less tender now, but I have less influence over them, as they are 27 and 24.

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