By Martha Quillen
Surprise! The November 8 election delivered a shocker, not just to Democrats, but probably even to Donald Trump himself. From the beginning of the 2016 season, Trump was the candidate whom reporters noticed. Even when Hillary Clinton was deemed the presumptive winner, Trump was the media star. Pundits and pollsters kept saying Trump’s chances were almost nil, but Trump won.
Afterward protesters marched in the streets. Then some citizens urged Electoral College participants to overturn his victory, and I was astounded. What would happen if they actually succeeded? Riots? Shootings? Pandemonium?
The answer is obvious, because subverting and repressing other people’s rights, opinions and votes is nothing new. Districts are gerrymandered. Polling places get shut down. Complainants are shunned, booed and heckled at public meetings. Drifters, minorities and street people are harassed because they look different. And America’s poor, homeless and unemployed frequently get disparaged by national and local governments and citizens alike.
Violence is common in our society. So I suspect our first priority today should not be to attack our opponents or ignore their concerns. We’ve been doing that for decades, and it has clearly made things worse.
Our current level of distrust is alarming. This season, I’ve heard perfectly sane citizens say there’s undeniable proof that the Clintons killed Vince Foster and that Foster wasn’t their only victim. I’ve heard all about how Hillary Clinton planned to put gun owners in concentration camps, and how Trump was going to round up and torture immigrants and Muslims. And I’ve heard about how both Clinton and Trump planned to plunder the public monies.
And since the election? I’ve heard tales about Chicano kids who have been so traumatized by Trump’s victory that schools have sent them home to assure them that their parents hadn’t already been deported. I’ve likewise heard stories about Islamic children who can’t be lured out of their homes.
And if those stories are exaggerated? Well hyperbole seems to be the only viewpoint Americans still share. The National Enquirer on display at our local grocery store during election week announced “Hillary: Corrupt! Racist! Criminal!” And the nearby Globe pronounced Doomsday was at hand because Hillary was going to trigger World War III.
Gone are the days when alien babies and serial killers led the pack in terms of tabloid fear-mongering. Now, government officials are scarier than Martians, Ted Bundy and Big Foot combined.
Trump’s belligerent style likely exacerbates such fears, but his contributions are a mere dollop in an ocean of paranoia. So how did this come about?
Recently I came across a book of essays called Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter, an author who used to head an MFA writing program at the University of Michigan and currently teaches in Minnesota. The book was released in 2007, but the lead essay, “Dysfunctional Narratives: or: ‘Mistakes Were Made’,” establishes a theory about political rhetoric that still resonates in 2016.
Baxter laments “the concept of deniability” common in political discourse today, and credits the Presidents who first established it with changing story-telling, modern literature, his student’s views on life and our entire culture.
“Following Richard Nixon in influence on recent fiction,” Baxter contends, “would be two runners-up, Ronald Reagan and George Bush … In their efforts to attain deniability on the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, their administrations managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self-righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath and constant disavowals of political error and criminality, culminating in the quasi-confessional passive-voice-mode sentence, ‘Mistakes were made.’
“… What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? … So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading.”
Baxter then compares new politicians with old, and affected novelists with their predecessors, and introduces another consequence: “How can the contemporary disavowal movement not affect those of us who tell stories? We begin to move away from fiction of protagonists and antagonists into another mode, another model. It is hard to describe this model but I think it might be called the fiction of finger-pointing, the fiction of the quest for blame. It often culminates with a scene in a court of law.”
According to Baxter, “deniability” eroded literature, changed people’s attitudes and infiltrated television. People started going on Oprah and Montel to blame their families for their addiction, misbehavior, crimes and depression.
Baxter’s thesis is compelling and sometimes downright funny. Yet I suspect he’s also deadly serious in his implication that our politics, literature and culture have been hijacked by whiny, self-pitying narcissists.
I also suspect most Americans agree that there is something deeply disturbing about modern political narratives, with the blame games, accusations, denials and unrelenting dissatisfaction and suspicion which permeate our society.
In 2016 our list of culprits has expanded. We are not just blaming fellow workers and dysfunctional families for everything, we are blaming the economy, sexual predators, rednecks, elitists, immigrants, Syrian refugees, Chinese peasants and little kids trying to escape serfdom and sexual exploitation in Latin America. And that’s only half the story.
So how are governments supposed to function when the nation is so thoroughly divided about what is wrong and who’s to blame? Actually, they barely do. During the last few decades, the U.S. Congress has engaged in internecine stand-offs with both parties determined to serve only half of the citizens – their half. And now Salida’s government keeps lawyering up so its internal factions (administrators, council and the NRCDC board) can fight one another.
And yes, dysfunctional narratives likely play a huge role in feeding our litigious, self-pitying, blame-anyone-but-ourselves society. But if we want to fix things, we can’t just indict presidents and politicians. In our democracy, we the people are surely part of the problem. And if we really want to change things, we’ll have to make ourselves part of the solution, because elected officials and government administrators can’t integrate our needs. They are too beholden to narrow constituencies: e.g., cities answer to businesses and taxpayers, congressmen to regions, and presidents to commerce and industry.
We the people, on the other hand, are free agents who man institutions aplenty, both public and private – including service groups, charitable organizations, churches, fire departments, libraries, museums, animal shelters and emergency and social services, which provide soup kitchens, food banks, legal aid, clothing, information, shelter and help for the indigent, elderly, ill and dying.
And we work together in these endeavors – young and old, rich and poor, right and left – to serve all sorts of Americans.
During his acceptance speech, President-Elect Trump talked about the importance of uniting Americans. That’s an excellent idea, but not one Trump will likely accomplish while building his wall, rounding up immigrants, scaring schoolchildren and terrifying minority communities. In fact, the ACLU has already received an unprecedented amount of donations and is gearing up to keep Trump very busy. So if Americans want to really change things and actually come together in the next few years, the people will have to take the lead, which should put us in a better position than taking the blame or dispersing it.
Martha Quillen blames time constraints for her narrative dysfunction.