In the age of Trump, some of us have to give ourselves little pep talks. They go like this: “I cannot believe that Trump just did that.” (The internal monologue is triggered by some of Trump’s foulest deeds: pulling out of the Paris climate accord; firing FBI Director James B. Comey; doing nothing about Russia’s attack on our democratic process; equating “both sides” in Charlottesville; repealing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections; blowing up Obamacare with no alternative.) These actions create moments of despair when it feels as though our democracy is in the grip of shaken baby syndrome brought on by a narcissistic tyrant. Compounding this feeling of hopelessness is that at least 40 percent of the country doesn’t seem cumulatively troubled by Trump’s actions and a fairly large percentage of them seem to like Trump’s efforts to undermine our nation’s ideals and principles. “Alienation” would seem like the perfect word to describe that feeling.
But then the learned optimism kicks in. The comeback goes like this: “Sure Trump is awful, but our country has survived worse leaders and circumstances.” (Richard Nixon and the Civil War come in handy here). And the majority of Americans are appalled by Trump’s recklessness, and his reckoning will come soon at the polls. Democracy will once again prevail.
Cycling between despair and optimism is tiring. One becomes alert for the next outrage or trigger that will bring on pessimism about the future of our country. Just today I read an excerpt from a book written by astronomer Carl Sagan in 1995. It’s worth quoting at length for its relevance to today:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
And so, the cycle begins again.