I don’t believe I’m alone in experiencing this election cycle as largely demoralizing. I share the conviction with many of my liberal friends that Trump’s rhetoric has consistently demoralized large portions of Americans, and most non-Americans. But his rhetoric is nonetheless compelling, and it draws us all into it. I’ve seen Trump opponents, in turn, speak about Trump and his voters in the most callous, condemnatory, and condescending terms. This is one consequence of living in a Trumpian democracy: when your president uses demeaning language as his primary instrument and cannot (or will not) engage in reasoned political discourse, his opponents likewise must abandon such discourse and use the only tools to which he will respond.
One consequence is that Trump advocates and Trump opponents increasingly cannot or will not understand one another. They cannot or will not dialogue. We’ve moved beyond MacIntyre’s concerns about incommensurate perspectives, as we no longer even pretend to speak to one another. Rather, we speak at one another, presenting “arguments” for our positions that, oddly, just further entrench the opposing side in its position. That further entrenchment then moves us to present our arguments even more loudly, which even further entrenches them.
A consequence of this consequence is that the meaning of “pro-life voter” becomes increasingly confusing in America. And “life,” rather than something to be treated with respect and dignity, becomes a tool itself. You are “not really pro-life” because you support pro-choice Biden Harris, or you are “not really pro-life” because you join Trump in his disregard for the poor and vulnerable. One side says, “You’re not really pro-life!” And the other days, “No, you’re not really pro-life!” Catholic pundits on the right and left use these attacks, bordering on spiritual manipulation, in order to guilt onlookers into a position.
These extremes, I believe, are not really opposite poles suggesting a healthy mean one must find, but are, rather, feeders for one another, alike in kind though perhaps different in quality, and artificially set up against one another to support hostilities. These positions need one another in order to have the greatest social affect. Those of us tired of polarization are tempted to speak from an “in-between.” But I wonder whether we don’t need a “middle way” so much as we need to remove ourselves from the shouting match altogether. Fury is anti-political, if one understands “political” as something higher and more important than just “power.” And while anger can be a means by which we infuse the political with important aspects of what it means to be human (indeed, it is often a necessary means), the line between anger and fury can be very thin, such that we confuse one with the other.
But there’s more. I suspect that only when we step away and catch our breath can we realize that polarization isn’t only about anger and dominance. It’s also about fear. The extreme positions we hold come out of stories and experiences which we fear seeing ourselves or repeating. Social anxieties don’t come out of a vacuum. And those of us who have done therapy should know that the voice of the anxious is not always good at articulating the problem; what often comes out is a string of words that tries to remove the problem by deflecting from it, and so what the anxious demand is often not what they really want or need. And to respond to the anxious person with fury and dismissal only further removes them from the ability and opportunity to have their needs addressed and, consequently, to be changed for the better. This is something that I had to learn while doing pro-life activism in high school and college. I had to step out of arguments about the killing of a life and step into the anxieties and concerns of the people with whom I disagreed.
The most common arguments can be distractors. For example, what the mainstream Trump voter fears is not really Communism (most Trump voters don’t even really know what Communism is). It is, more often, a way of life and standard of living that they hope to preserve and which they rightfully fear losing (regardless of whether or not they are owed such a way and standard as a matter of justice).
The foundations in anxiety helps to explain why the mainstream Trump voter justifies his position with constant reference to particular catchphrases or bogeyman ideologies (“bogeyman,” not because the ideologies ought not to be feared, but because the mainstream Trump voter doesn’t have a sufficient philosophical or historical foundation to know precisely what it is he fears). The extremely anxious person is often caught up in loops, constant repetition in which he is trapped because he lacks either the mental-emotional health or the language to articulate what is really going on.
In other words, I do think that the Trump voter often has good reasons to vote for Trump, even if I believe there are more compelling reasons to not vote for him. But I believe that the only way to have the mainstream Trump voter open to the latter is to show an acknowledgement and understanding of the former. Our current social anxiety makes this incredibly difficult.
Of course, this state of social anxiety is not helped by a pandemic hitting the country in waves, and the increasing proportions of our “social lives” spent online.
I can’t be the only Catholic who wants something more than what we’re seeing.
These are just some issues I’m personally trying to work through. I’m very open to your thoughts.
More thoughts on the election:
- Why President Trump isn’t getting my pro-life vote
- Anti-racism and my pro-life vote
- Never before have I felt the President’s words could endanger my physical safety
- A Catholic on this election cycle
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.