K. Lauren de Boer is a poet, essayist, and composer with a special interest in human-Earth relations. He is author of Where It Comes From, a collection of poems, and was executive editor of EarthLight, a magazine of spiritual ecology, for many years. You may find him via TerraVitaBooks.net.
Donald Trump’s rise is in part a backlash to the Obama years, and not entirely surprising. But it’s only part of the story. Many progressives, including myself, were lulled into believing, when Obama was elected, that the racial divides in this country were beginning to heal. How else could a black president be elected, twice? What were we basing that assumption on, exactly? How could it have been healed when there was so little real deep cultural work done to heal the past? He was elected more on a promise of change, not racial healing.
It was never completely about race, but about a disaffection with what life has become in America for many people. At its heart was a longing for change. There is a dearth of meaning in American life rooted in the lack of a story, a story that truly liberates the human from limited forms of identity, from seeing ourselves as mere consumers, or even mere Americans (or any of the sub-identities within our nationalist identity). There is a certain irony in that because we talk so much about freedom in this country, and the primary source of meaning is human liberty — from the shackles of ignorance, greed, narrow self-interest, from our latching onto our smaller identities. Americans tend to equate freedom with individualism and self-reliance. With that comes a mistaken notion that to be free is to be separate. But true freedom is found not in separation but in a vibrant interiority that thrives from relationship.
The difficulty with this election was that people needed positive references to help guide them, not the destructive references of anger, hatred, and fear. Bernie Sanders represented a more positive reference and ignited passion in many people, but was smacked down by a dying system that was nevertheless still powerful enough to overcome his efforts. And of course cosmology — a functional story — and a sense of ourselves as an integral Earth community are positive references entirely absent from the electoral process.
I was sorting through boxes in the garage the other day (one of the things I do when I need to take my mind off destabilizing news or events) and I came across a carton of back issues of newspapers I had saved. They were all about pivotal events — Clinton’s first election, September 11, Obama’s election, etc. What I noticed in the clippings from past elections was the remarkable similarity in the story line. The operant word was “change.” Bill Clinton was the candidate offering change. Then came Obama, offering the same. Trump was elected primarily because he was, compared to Hillary Clinton, the change candidate. He was seen as the outsider to a corrupt system, although he is the ultimate insider to the patriarchy. You could even say that he is the quintessence of patriarchy.
When Obama promised to go after Wall Street and make big changes, people were willing to look past race and vote for him. Trump appealed to the same frustration that people were feeling with a system rigged against them. And years of obstructionism and gridlock in Washington only confirmed their suspicions that career politicians were ignoring their pain. He just did so in a much darker way, appealing to baser instincts. People in this country are pragmatists. They tend to vote for their interests, not their ideals, at least for the most part. There are, of course, some who do vote their conscience, but they are in the minority. Many voted for Trump out of outright racism and hatred, but many of the same people voted for Obama when it suited their interests.
So, I’ve woken many mornings since election night feeling that I cannot wake up from a nightmare. In many ways, it is too surreal to believe. And yet I have to believe it and confront it. It’s not only the threat Trump poses to the health of the planet. It is also a nightmare because hate crimes and racial incidents are widespread since his rise to power. The Ku Klux Klan is holding a celebration of his election. Neo-Nazi groups, biker groups, skinheads, hate groups, and white supremacy groups are dancing in the streets. Resentment and fear of women can now be expressed openly. It’s like they now have permission to fling their hatred into the world. He is the dying patriarchy laid bare. He epitomizes the fear of nature, the body, a united humanity, and the spirit. This is the ugliest America.
And yet…there is more underneath all of this. Something to which I choose to adhere and that will eventually pull me out of my despair….
In many ways, this election was less about ideas and issues than it was about a clash between paradigms, or essential world views. One is in ascendance, the other is dying. One goes toward the light, one is blinded by darkness. One believes in the future, one attaches itself desperately to demagogues who idealize the past.
Ideologies shift, they come and go. Political factions come and go. They are like the shadows of shadows, mirrors that rise up and break and fall away. What endures is a beacon of light that people either follow or not, either embrace or reject. That is where the real choice resides, not in seasonal picks between candidates that are lighter or darker shades of each other. People will make the right choice when presented with actual and meaningful choices. That didn’t happen in this election. As for who supported Trump and who didn’t, I don’t think we really choose the factions we find ourselves in. We end up there by temperament or fate or accident, not by real choice. But commitment to that beacon of light is a choice, one that allows one to speak with some authority and wisdom about what is of ultimate concern to all of the Earth community and of our responsibility to safeguard it and nourish it in ourselves and others. So we should not be on the defensive or shy about our vision of the future. It is those who adhere to the dying system who must defend their actions.
We are fireflies in the sense that we carry that beacon of light within us. And we each have our own way of carrying our torch to provide people, and ourselves, with the references we need. The 2016 election has made it clear that it is all the more important for people of good faith to fill the airwaves and the town halls and the print media with messages that give people true references, ones that affirm life and the future. So the work continues and is even more important. People need something more to embrace than the empty promises of a demagogue. But if that is all that is offered, that becomes the more palatable choice than continued disaffection.
We are in a moment of destabilization. The infantile antics of people like Trump and his followers won’t much matter in the end. They will cause suffering, without a doubt. They will cause destruction and a lot of noise. There will be losses to mourn. But they will not extinguish life and the evolution toward the beacon of light. Destabilization causes a void, and it is at these moments that something new will arise.
—K. Lauren de Boer