Take the Fork in the Road, Please

from Life in the Trumpocene

After the occurrence of some significant event—in this case, the election of a megalomaniacal and unpredictable billionaire celebrity to the U. S. Presidency—it is human nature to look back in time to see how it could have been predicted and prevented; or at least discover that someone or something else had foretold it (which is much simpler—there always are signposts to the future pointing the way to the present, signposts the time traveler had forgotten reading along the way, or missed entirely—and made sure those oversights should be avoided the next go-round. Or signs that were just ignored, pooh-poohed as “that’s just crazy,” or, “that couldn’t happen here.” Keep in mind, there could be hundreds or thousand of such examples, some more specific like direct, pre-election polling; others more general, like explanations of the social psyche or political-economics as explained by academicians, literary sages, or cultural critics. Either way (and to cliche´-up this point) hindsight is 20-20, and simple—and fun! As a Big Picture person myself, I like the following warning signs (billboards maybe?) of the climate that led to election of DJT.

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, in his 1998 Achieving Our Country (Harvard Press, first paperback edition, 1999), writes

The point of his book The Endangered American Dream [Edward N. Luttwak] is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized– are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen…

Or this keenly descriptive state of the political and economic state of affairs that had made the state of Kansas look like a microcosm of the rest of America (or the Arab states) and an easy touch for demagoguery. From Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Metropolitan Books Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2004) five years later:

The Wall Street Journal ran an essay about a place “where hatred trumps bread,” where a manipulative ruling class has for decades exploited an impoverished people while simultaneously fostering in them a culture of victimization that steers this people’s fury back persistently toward a shadowy, cosmopolitan Other. In this tragic land unassuageable cultural grievances are elevated inexplicably over solid material ones, and basic economic self-interest is eclipsed by juicy myths of national authenticity and righteousness wronged.  

The essay was supposed to be a description of the Arab states in their conflict with Israel, but when I read it I thought immediately of dear old Kansas and the role that locales like Shawnee play in conservatism’s populist myth. 

Using the backlighting of the past, the present has come more into focus. But viewing forms from that perspective can be as illusory as the figures in Plato’s cave, however; so for the future we to know as completely as possible the present as the condition of the past, and then direct an LED-brilliant flashlight beam toward—what?

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