I remember after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, those who supported Hillary Clinton complained openly and often of severe anxiety and stress. It wasn’t just the run-of-the-mill “let’s all move to Canada” stuff. A friend from college told me she couldn’t sleep because she was so scared about what might happen. A doctor told me that his anger at the president-elect was getting in the way of his ability to treat patients.
Their reports made me feel exposed as a little superficial. I cared about what was going on, but the material occupying my emotional life, even at such a momentous time, had to do mainly with my children. I was worried about one of them in particular, but not because of who won the election. I was worried because he seemed so unhappy at school.
Fast forward a couple years, and a researcher named Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has just finished combing through mountains of Google Search data. What we search for online says a lot about what’s occupying us. When we Google something, we’re alone, anonymous, and unfiltered. What we enter into that search bar may not provide the whole story of our inner life, but it’s certainly a decent clue.
Anyway, Stephens-Davidowitz discovered that there wasn’t actually a rise in anxiety in the country after Trump was elected—not even in the most liberal areas. “When people were waking up at 3am in a cold sweat, their searches were about their job, their health, their relationship—they’re not concerned about the Muslim ban or global warming.”
Again, the political dimension of life remains tremendously important. But the psychospiritual dimension trumps it (!) every time.
That’s a passage from the politics chapter of Seculosity, and it’s been on my brain these past few days, especially the final line. Does it still apply? Or, rather do I still believe it? The answer, after some reflection, is yes. I believe it more strongly than ever. I’ll explain.
I live in an overwhelmingly blue area of the country. In 2016 it was near-impossible to find a Trump-Pence sign in any yard within city limits. This time around, I didn’t spy a single one. The only distinction was whether you had a Biden sign, or no sign.
Like more and more places in the country, red or blue, our town is a bubble. Which isn’t to say it’s not a wonderful place to live. It is. But as someone who’s always felt politically homeless, you learn to sit back and observe, toggling between envy and judgment of the certainty your neighbors espouse.
I can only speak for my context, but what I observed during the days that the vote was still being counted wasn’t so much anxiety as shock-merging-into-disgust. Disgust at how many Americans could check the red box, given all that’s happened these past four years. (That disgust has now given way to relief and elation–thank God. But I imagine some vestige will return after the dust settles).
Now, a lot has happened these past four years, and folks have ample reason/ammunition to feel justified in their responses. But I’m not talking about dismay or confusion at the non-landslide result. I’m talking about a reaction that assigns “crazy” or “evil” motives to the other side (or worse). I’m referring to an “othering” so palpable that it’d be ironic if it weren’t so painful to all involved.
I’ll say it as clearly as I can while maintaining my staunch non-partisanship: the “how could they?!” disgust response, sincere as it may be, represents a failure of imagination. One bolstered no doubt by our self-reinforcing filter-bubbled devices, but a failure nonetheless. I find it just as discouraging as any vote someone may or may not have cast in the first place.
Now that the definitive call has been made, the road to understanding and magnanimity–and yes, healing–runs along the banks of a low anthropology. Meaning, it resists any explanation that locates blame out there with those people. It looks first for the root within. That root, in this case, has to do with the universal yearning for enoughness.
What I mean is that the divisions we’ve seen play out this week have plenty of ideological contours but are ultimately psychospiritual in shape. I almost cringe to say it, but they have more than a little to do with law and gospel, judgment and love.
What one side sees as law the other sees as gospel. What one side receives as love the other receives as judgment, and vice versa. It’s a catch-22.
The problem, in my own context at least, is that many well-meaning Americans cannot fathom how anyone might view Donald Trump as an avatar of love and acceptance. I’m so entrenched in that world it feels downright jarring to put those words on paper in reference to one another.
To suggest that someone could see the man in that light, in fact, is to risk the charge of “both-sides-ism” (which has to be the most emotionally stunted term we’ve invented in decades), a form of heresy in the seculosity of politics. It’s a dissonance too far, an assertion so counter-narrative as to defy all sense and reason and, well, reality.
And I get it, I really do. I try to tune out most political punditry as best I can but the facts on the ground are the facts on the ground. The tone and the vulgarity and the recklessness, and everything else we know so well—these are inescapable. So if you’re simply done with this subject/person/phenomenon, Lord knows no one would blame you (though probably best to stop reading here).
On the other hand, if by some miracle your reservoir of curiosity hasn’t run dry, the following might be illuminating. It was for me.
Speaking to podcaster Rob Mackenzie this week, author and thinker Sam Harris laid out his theory for “how [Trump] is supported because of his flaws, rather than in spite of them.” It’s as plausible (and imaginative) a tracing of the psychospiritual fault-line in our country as I’ve come across, and pretty surprising coming from such an aggressively uncharitable atheist.
You don’t have to agree with what he’s saying, and I’m not sure I do. Lord knows it scans as patronizing in parts, not to mention overstated. But it also might mitigate “blue disgust” a little, birth some humility and thereby strengthen our bonds, and who couldn’t use a little of that?
After reciting his antipathy for the president–his liberal bonafides as it were–Harris details a recent realization:
One thing that Trump never communicates — and cannot possibly communicate — is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement. Even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters. Even when he’s calling himself a genius — he is never actually communicating that he is better than you. More enlightened. More decent. Because he’s not. And everyone knows it.
The man is just a bundle of sin and gore, and he never pretends to be anything more. Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he is never really judging you — he can’t possibly judge you — he offers a truly safe space for human frailty…and hypocrisy…and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer: a total expiation of shame.
His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm…
[Meanwhile,] what are we getting from the left?
We’re getting exactly the opposite message. Pure sanctimony. Pure judgement.
You are not good enough. You’re guilty, not only for your own sins, but for the sins of your fathers. The crimes of slavery and colonialism are on your head. And if you’re a cis, white, heterosexual male (which we know is the absolute core of Trump’s support) you’re a racist, homophobic, transphobic, islamaphobic, sexist barbarian. Tear down those statues, and bend the f[$^@@] knee.
It’s the juxtaposition of those two messages that is so powerful.
Again, as he goes to great pains to point out, this is not an argument for anyone’s fitness for the highest office in the land. This theory does not address any policy or talking point on purpose; it speaks only to what might be going on underneath the level of argument in our country, on the heart level.
And yet it constitutes a compelling explanation of why different groups of people seem to have such different experiences of the same man. You may disagree (vehemently!), but in that disagreement, it’s important to remember that sanctimony never works in personal relationships, and it won’t work in collective ones either. It certainly backfired when Republicans tried it in the 80s and 90s.
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that magnanimity–to say nothing of grace–is a lot easier to summon when we can identify some shred of our common yearning for enoughness at work among our opponents. Whether it should be is beside the point. The psychospiritual dimension is where the real action is happening, and not just on the “other side”. It’s where the action is happening with you and me, too.
Back to Seculosity:
Toward the end of the book of Luke, Jesus points to the temple in Jerusalem, the nucleus of Jewish religious and political life, and says something remarkable. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). If he was trying to coin a catchy campaign slogan, he failed.
To those who would absolutize systems of government and the power dynamics inherent to them, Christ underlines their impermanence. All that we see—every headline, every scandal, everything that seems so pressing at the moment, the legislative, judicial, and executive branch—none of it will last. Maybe that scares you, or maybe that gives you hope. Either way, his message doesn’t end there. In the same passage, Jesus assures his followers that despite the tumult surrounding them, “not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18).
In that vein of assurance, may the Lord have mercy on us all in these coming weeks, siphon our disgust with humility, increase our love for our adversaries, and grant us enoughness everlasting. Amen.