The awareness emerged gradually but very surely in the course of a casual conversation. A group of us, all friends, were chatting amiably as we sat in the stands during the half-time of a college basketball game. Inevitably, predictably talk turned to the still alien-feeling Trump regime, mostly mordant comments offered in jest. Then what felt like a common realization came over us: that whether expressed lightly or not, to pass the time or not, we were incapable of coming to rest without the intrusion of some degree of Trump-related disturbance. A woman said that for her the worst thing since the election was that she awoke daily feeling the same dread and wrongness she first felt in November when the election returns were conclusive. It is like nothing she had felt before, she said. Like most of us sharing the conversation, she is an educated, left-leaning liberal, an academic. Another woman said that her ambient unease was nothing like what she had felt when Nixon and George W. Bush were elected, both of whom she strongly disapproved. We all hastened to agree, struggling to find words for the intensity of our aversion to Trump’s impact. Somebody said, “It’s a little like feeling sick.” Somebody else said, “I’ve actually been sick, since Thanksgiving!” We all laughed, and he added, “Really. I have been.” The woman sitting next to me, an English professor, said, “My therapist told me that since the election all her clients are worse.” Again we laughed, though she wasn’t joking. The game resumed, but I could not stop thinking about the notion of being held in a collective malaise.
Far from those bleachers, documented and undocumented Latinos, first and second generation Muslim Americans, and others composing the 42 million immigrants in the United States have more immediate and concrete reasons for feeling and being unwell. In February psychiatrist James Gordon reported in The Washington Post that Latino and Muslims currently living in the United States are newly stressed and sickened not just by measures like the administration’s contested travel ban and stepped up deportation measures, but by the outbreak of threats and denigration they now experience at the hands of newly liberated, unapologetic America First enthusiasts. These stresses and fears, Gordon maintains, contribute to more than a gloomy outlook; they promote heart disease, diabetes, exacerbate asthma, and in severe cases post traumatic stress disorder. More specific evidence of state policy-related health losses includes a study published in January, 2017 by The International Journal of Epidemiology documenting lower birth weight among Latino babies born in the aftermath of federal immigrations raids. No small thing, low birth weight is strongly correlated with physical and mental health deficits, diminished cognition, and poor school performance.
Should we be surprised that state policies, even those unrelated to health care, can make us sick? Whatever one’s particular prod to doing so, it is time to consider—seriously—the relationship between the state of the polis and the state of our mental and physical well-being.
Systematic thinking about politics in the western world began with a consideration of the relationship of individual citizens to the state that contains them: the polis. In his Politics Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E) traced the evolution of the polis through a succession of associations necessary to full human realization: from family to clan to village to polis. All associations, Aristotle wrote, aim at some good, and the polis aimed at the highest good, a condition in which citizens could most fully realize themselves in all their capacities. For Aristotle and the ancients the polis was the city-state, a polity sizable enough and dimensional enough to enable sustainable productivity and commerce and to protect citizens from dangers from within and without. The highest aspirations of humankind might be realized in a polis rightly constituted: artistic creation, the pursuit of knowledge, and—especially prized by Aristotle— the enjoyment of friendship. In anything less than a well composed polis, these individual benefits are less likely to be realized, if they are realized at all. A man without a polis, Aristotle pronounced, “is either a pig or a God.”
Plato (424-347 B.C.E.), with whom Aristotle studied for years, saw the personal well-being of the citizen as continuous with the integrity of the polis. In his master work, The Republic, Plato has the historical Socrates guide a group of fellow inquirers through an all-night consideration of what constitutes a good life. Through a succession of elegant arguments Socrates is able to establish that the quality of an individual’s life is inseparable from the composition and conduct of the state he lives in and serves.
Socrates illustrates this point by logically constructing an ideal society. In it a cadre of future leaders is rigorously schooled from infancy to subordinate selfish appetites to the virtues of self-control and courage. When they are sufficiently mature, the future leaders are taught to see reason as the ultimate arbiter of what is true and false, right and wrong. These masters of reason become the deliberative, or law-making element of the polis. The laws are executed and enforced by those whose education has revealed their capacity for loyalty and courage. The rest of the citizenry is composed of Productive types whose chief function is to create and distribute the material goods necessary to sustain the polis.
In this ideal polis, state and citizen are similarly constituted. Presaging Freud by two millennia, Plato conceived the human psyche as consisting of three dynamic components that develop successively over time: elemental animal appetites, a spirited capacity to direct the appetites, and a capacity for reason to direct the spirit. Seen this way individuals are politically viable—good citizens—to the extent their reason persuades their spirit to conduct their appetites in a productive way. Citizens constituted this way are governed by reasonable lawmakers whose laws are executed by spirited magistrates so that productive citizens can live well together.
In constructing this ideal state, Plato/Socrates does not draw on history or observed example, only on logically consistent premises. The ideal Republic resembles no regime known to Plato, nor any regime established since. However, when Socrates goes on to illustrate how the ideal might be corrupted and decline, the features of actual historical regimes, ancient and modern, come forth in vivid relief. In decline the ideal Republic comes to look historically familiar, even contemporary.
The decline of the ideal regime begins with the failure of its guiding attainment: reason. A generation of rulers arises who, among other lapses, can no longer see the reason for certain sustaining policies of the past—most critically, the strictures against the rulers holding private property and amassing personal fortunes. It takes only a generation for the emerging young to see that the virtues of the past—reason, honor, self-discipline—do not, at least materially, get you very far in life. As leaders dedicate themselves to acquiring wealth and luxury, the polis devolves into a commercial plutocracy in which the former virtues, to the extent they remain, are put in service of amassing and protecting private gains. The resulting income inequality and class tensions undermine the stability of the polis to the extent that the masses are finally able to wrest power from reigning plutocrats. “When the poor win,” Plato wrote, “the result is democracy.”
Plato acknowledges the heady exuberance of those who succeed in replacing the old oligarchic order with a radically egalitarian alternative. But democracy, he argues, is inherently unstable. Democracy’s enthronement of tolerance and acceptance extends to good and dangerous citizens alike, good and dangerous ideas alike. The pursuit of ruinous policies and ventures goes unchecked because to oppose them would be repressive. In a true democracy there is no basis to repress anything, including the animal appetites, the subordination of which to the general good was central to the founding of the ideal polis.
Liberated, the appetitive desires of citizens in a democracy seek various excesses that undermine their collective viability and individual well-being. Some of what is desired may not be practically achievable, may not be affordable. Thus democratic magistrates attempt to realize citizens’ will and whims by usurping, whether through taxation or direct appropriation, the fortunes of the deposed but still productive plutocrats, forcing them into reactionary postures, to the point that they plot against the democratic regime.
In response to such threats a demagogue arises, demanding armed protection and other emergency measures, including the suspension of liberties on which the democracy had been founded. In this way the appetites unleashed under the democratic regime lead to their own negation: a polis in which a besieged despot, his reactionary nemeses, and a helpless and fearful citizenry are bound together in a dynamic pathology. In the absence of deliberative reason, spirited loyalty, and self-discipline, democracy’s governing majority can neither maintain the polis materially nor maintain necessary order, necessitating the demagogue tyrant who must rule by force.
But where were we? Yes, a consideration of the anomie, stress and outright sickness people experience when the regime governing them behaves pathologically. Revisiting the classical understanding of the relationship between the polis and its citizens is not a digression. Plato and Aristotle established a continuous line of western political thought that would later shape and justify the United States Constitution. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, the principal authors of the prevailing argument for the constitution, The Federalist Papers (1787), were thoroughly schooled in Plato’s and Aristotle’s political writing.
Probably the most persuasive argument for adopting the new federal constitution was offered by Madison in Federalist No. 10. Madison was aware of Plato’s grim assessment of democratic rule—“popular government”—unrestrained by higher order virtues: “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Like Plato, Madison acknowledged that human beings were by nature appetitive and self-interested, and if granted the liberty to express their passions they could unite and inflame like minded fellows to ill considered, repressive ends. For the Federalists, democracy, whatever its promise, was also a serious problem.
Madison laid out the problem this way: if given the liberty to do so, citizens could unite in a factious way to promote their interests over the interests of individuals or smaller factions, thus creating a tyranny, albeit of the majority. “Liberty,” Madison memorably wrote, “is to faction what air is to fire.” But just as you would not want to prevent fires by eliminating air, you would not want to prevent factions by eliminating liberty. Madison argued that the proposed solution to the problem was, if not perfect, promising: a federal constitution which, by separating the executive, legislative and judicial powers and empowering each branch to check the excesses of the others, would make it difficult for any single iniquitous faction to dominate the body politic and restrict the liberty of individual citizens.
So Madison and his co-authors hoped. It was a principled and considered hope. Like Plato, Madison understood that a mere process, however elegantly designed, could no more be counted on to rein in periodic eruptions of avarice than a putative Invisible Hand would restrain commercial interests from dominating markets. If the historically untested constitution the federalists proposed was going to work, it would require the foundational virtues Plato set in place in his ideal Republic. The fate of the American Republic would depend, in Madison’s words, on the efficacy of the proposed constitution to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through a medium of a chosen body of citizens [elected representatives], whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
These high hopes invite a consideration of how we are doing in the era of the Trump administration. How well have the separated branches of government and their established checks and balances managed to mitigate the dominance of single-interest factions, such as the gun lobby, pro- and anti-abortion advocates, or financial concerns deemed too big to fail? Did the early federalists foresee the way money could advance the interests of a faction—again the gun lobby comes to mind—disproportionately to the actual numbers composing the faction? Did they foresee the greater part of the nation’s wealth being held in so few hands, and the consequent ability of a few wealthy individuals to finance and shape the political programs of favored candidates? How money could purchase advertising and media in order to shape public opinion favorably to particular interests?
The constitution’s separation of powers was intended to reduce the likelihood of partisan interests overwhelming all three government branches at once. The Supreme Court was to be especially resistant to inflamed partisanship, since its justices, once appointed, were not beholden to any electoral constituency. Did the federalist founders foresee a Senate so stridently partisan that it would defy its constitutional obligation to fill a vacant court seat, lest its partisan leanings be checked? Central to the arguments for the proposed constitution is that without the intended checks, there is no balance.
What are the prospects for maintaining constitutional balance if the President ignores the designated authority of either the Court or Congress and proceeds, by executive order, to act without regard to the former’s decisions and legislation? Could this happen? Might a helpful first step be for the President to deny the authority of those serving in those branches, perhaps to call a federal judge who rules in opposition a “so-called” judge?” To call the majority leader of the opposition party in the Senate its “head clown?”
In the clear absence of “wisdom and the love of justice” on the part of elected federal officials that Madison declared was essential to restrain fractious passions, the federal government has moved past mere partisan squabbling and disunity. It has become observably unbalanced. And as political philosophers from Plato forward have maintained, the condition of the polis ultimately determines the condition of citizens. When, in the language of current social science, the state becomes dysfunctional, its citizens become dysfunctional. Like our leaders, we become without knowing it, without wanting to, erratic, angry, and fearful. We are to varying degrees sick in this condition.
To step back and reflect, how could it be otherwise? Political thinkers from the ancients forward have recognized that the integrity of the state bears directly on the integrity of citizens composing it. Both Plato and Aristotle insisted that the character of the polis does not merely affect us, it completes us. The state, like the microcosmic associations that precede it—families, tribes, villages—can be seen as the outermost rim of each member’s viability.
In Plato’s dialog Crito a devoted friend urges Socrates to defy the unjust death sentence an Athenian jury has imposed by escaping to Thebes. There is even a workable plan to carry this out. Socrates, while acknowledging the kindness of his friend’s intention, argues that it is never just to defy and thus weaken the integrity of one’s polis—because Athens, even more than his mother and father, had sheltered, protected, and educated him throughout his life. It was as a citizen of Athens that Socrates was able to determine his life mission and to live in its service. Even his relentless challenges to his fellow citizens, including established leaders, were carried out in an attempt to improve and strengthen the polis. What would it say about this patriotic conviction, he asks Crito, if he evaded the polis’s ruling as to his innocence and ran away? He was in effect a product of Athens, and he had served it to the best of his ability. He did not need to add, as Aristotle would a generation later, that a man without a polis had no real existence at all.
Socrates compares the polis--favorably--to one’s family with respect to protection and nurturance. If this observation is hard to grasp and credit today, it is not because the analogy no longer applies, but because in the progression from city-state to nation state citizens have become profoundly distanced from the national magistrates acting in their care. The contemporary difficulty in recognizing the vital link between citizen and polis is a problem of scale.
Here a reconsideration of actual family dynamics may clarify the ways in which the integrity of the state, or lack of it, contributes to the personal welfare of citizens. Close scientific attention to child development over the past century has yielded a clearer understanding of the circumstances in which children thrive or fail to thrive. Attachment theorists, following the lead of British psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907-1990), have demonstrated that children securely attached to effective and attentive caregivers, beginning in early infancy, tend to meet their successive developmental challenges. Children insecurely attached succeed less well. Children unattached do not thrive at all. Had Aristotle chosen to shine the beam on family behavior that he focused on political behavior he might have written, “An unattached child is either a pig or a god.”
However and wherever one is situated in contemporary America, one doesn’t have to look far to observe the consequences of unsatisfactory early attachments, whether in the form of substandard school performance, delinquency, unemployment and underemployment, a failure to commit to sustained partnerships, a failure to contribute to common enterprises. Nor, more dramatically, does one have to look far to see the gruesome consequences of unattached former children. Two of them detonated lethal bombs killing and maiming observers of the Boston Marathon. One of them made his way into a church sanctuary in Charleston, South Carolina, where he shot and killed nine African Americans gathered for worship.
Today’s failed or collapsed states—Rwanda, Somalia, Yemen, Libya—can be likened to families failing to establish attachments. Failed states do not provide safety or sustenance, abandoning inhabitants to prior associations: tribes, clans, and families. Without a polis, the people of failed states are neither pigs nor gods. They are damaged. They and the positive potential they represent are unrealized; without a polis they are incomplete.
Most of the planet’s sovereign nations are not failed states. But many sovereign nations, like many troubled families, fail to provide reliable, secure attachments to their constituents, resulting collectively in what besets insecurely attached children: underperformance, a disinclination to engage with and commit to others, latent and no so latent hostility. Just as dysfunctional families may produce children whose delinquency and hostility seem to pass into outright madness, dysfunctional states generate those behaviors in their least securely attached citizens.
It is past time to start comprehending what presently passes for incomprehensible behavior. Here again there is promise in recognizing how dysfunctional family transactions illuminate dysfunctional political transactions. Following Bowlby’s and other attachment theorists’ lead, British psychiatrists Aaron Esterson and R.D Laing immersed themselves in the personal lives of a number of people diagnosed with serious mental illness, including schizophrenia. Esterson and Laing were especially interested in how the seemingly deranged behavior and utterances of those so diagnosed reflected the dynamics of the families to which they were attached. Attachment theory findings suggest that mental health necessary to social viability is the result of secure attachments, beginning in infancy. Secure attachments require reliable, consistent, comprehensible, welfare-promoting gestures on the part of nurturers to those nurtured. Conversely, unreliable, inconsistent, contradictory—that is, untruthful—gestures on the part of nurturers result in insecure attachments with consequent failures to thrive.
From their work with diagnosed schizophrenics and their families Laing and Esterson proposed that the pathology ascribed to the subjects they worked with was not the result of an organic biological irregularity generated by the patients; it was created, rather, by disorienting, contradictory messages to the patients from members of their families. In the published study of their findings, Sanity, Madness, and the Family (1964), Laing and Esterson illustrate how a variety of contradictory messages, including outright lies and misrepresentations, on the part of primary nurturers and siblings create uncertainty and cognitive disturbance to the extent that the child’s ability to think clearly and behave appropriately is impaired. Laing and Esterson did not claim, as some critics worried, that crossed family transactions were the sole, principal or even frequent cause of schizophrenia, only that such transactions could lead to personal impairments dramatic enough to be diagnosed as mental illness. To the extent people are unreliably, insecurely attached, they lose competence. They become patients.
Which begs the contemporary question: if contradictory, confusing messages, including intentionally deceptive falsehoods on the part of parents and other nurturers can debilitate children even unto madness, what is to be expected in consequence of political leaders who do the same? To some extent we already know the answer because, whether due to the proliferation of fake news, the new administration’s attempts to discredit establish news sources, or the difficulty in understanding, much less verifying, the daily barrage of tweets and stated utterances of President Trump, we recognize the cognitive disturbance, the mounting distrust of those we constitutionally need to trust: a hard to articulate sense that this is bad, this is wrong--and this is new.
In plain terms, the unexpected rise to office of Trump and his administration has created an increasingly insecure attachment of citizens to polis. The incoherence, occasional mendacity, and belligerence of Trump’s statements and proposals have unsettled even those who, due to their allegiance to particular outcomes promised in the course of his campaign, voted for him.
There is a broad consensus that Trump’s emergence, whatever its other features, is discontinuous with prior political process in this country. His conduct in office since his inauguration has done nothing to weaken that consensus. Americans dwell in a climate of collective uncertainty and doubt: does this President know enough about constitutional process, legal protection of individual rights, who and where our enemies are? Can a President preoccupied with the ratings of network television shows, who is publicly indignant about chain stores that discontinue selling a line of his daughter’s commercial products, who does not read books, who does not write the books published under his name, who appears to know no American or other history, who presents that face to the world, who talks that way—can such a figure be in charge?
In the weeks spanning Trump’s electoral college victory and his first weeks in office the prevailing question—can this be happening?-- has been definitively answered: yes. The abiding uncertainty, hostility, and anxiety that now beset us continue to take their psychological toll. If the Center for Disease Control should choose to turn its attention and metrics to the phenomenon, it might well reveal a toll on physical health as well. To date, the national press, now targeted as an “opposition party” by the President, continues to report, analyze, and criticize the substance and style of the administration, although the authority and even the sense of what constitutes a national press has been compromised by the proliferation of individual “news” sources, ranging from Alt-news outlets to bloggers to social media posters to the intentional fabricators of fake news.
In their uneasy, insecurely attached condition, citizens are apt to respond in the ways distressed and anxious peoples have responded historically. They deny the encompassing political reality, turn inward, divert themselves with proximate amusements, eat more, drink more. They may, unless chastened by a Socrates, fantasize or seriously consider flight to another polis. They may make an effort to “normalize” what feels so disturbingly abnormal. Like desperate children who project a former reliability onto a new, unreliable parent, they rationalize the intolerable to themselves and others, they try to see the menacing as benign, the dangerous as harmless, and if they succeed they will, like Laing’s and Esterson’s schizophrenic subjects, pass into what an objective observer or a former global ally would consider a kind of madness.
By contrast, dedicated and capable citizens will resist the repellant new reality. They may even feel newly invigorated in the effort--especially healthy. Like children whose early nurture has been truth-based and reliable, they will have no patience with unreliable successors. To proceed with the analogy, they will seek more secure attachments. They will confront, correct, and work to replace those who undermine the public trust on which the polis rests.
The dividedness, hostility and general malaise that currently characterize the American public is, however bad it feels, good information. It is clear evidence that we are out of alignment; specifically, citizens are out of alignment with the governors of the polis. Realizing this and making its realization normative is the first step in calling the nation to order. But in order to make the necessary corrections the underlying cause, and not just the present symptoms, of the pathology must be identified.
Trump and his administration did not sneak up on a just and benevolent America and take it hostage. He did not terrorize or forcefully compel his “base” to support him. Surprising as it was to liberals opposing him, Trump gave voice and possibility to things millions of Americans wanted: to own and use deadly weapons, to elevate provisions of their religious faith to national law, to be rid of and untroubled by racial minorities and foreign nationals seeking refuge. Men and women who saw their status and material condition in decline were willing enough to consider a demagogue, to ignore the exposed excesses of a figure who, after all, “knows how to run a business” and “tells it like it is.” He was well known, a TV celebrity. And he promised to make America— which his supporters assumed included themselves—great again. Again.
The inauguration of President Trump and his ham-handed efforts to carry out the divisive pledges made during his campaign have not caused the present national malaise; they are the manifest result of a preexisting condition. What is wrong, what is sickening, has been festering for a long time. For over a century committed outlying thinkers have inveighed against market economy excesses that concentrate national wealth in so few hands that there is not enough left to sustain healthy and secure lives for masses of people. When the consequences of the imbalance become dire enough, as they were in the late nineteenth century’s Gilded Age and over the course of the past century’s Great Depression, progressive initiatives arose to break up the biggest financial conglomerates and, via progressive taxation, redistribute wealth.
With the crises of World War and the Depression seemingly met, the two established political parties, Republicans deemed to be Conservative and Democrats deemed to be Liberal, settled into outwardly opposed advocacies: Republicans favoring unregulated, market-driven pursuit of wealth; Democrats favoring a state regulated economy in order to prevent the devastating slumps and crises of the past.
As the nation passed through the Cold War era into the 1970s, the defense, automotive, and fuel industries created new concentrations of wealth, the combined influence of which eroded the economic difference between Republicans and Democrats. While Republicans continued apace as free marketeers, eager to deregulate and unapologetic about amassing impressive profits and individual fortunes--because they would “trickle down” to the benefit of all--Democratic elected officials, like their Republican counterparts, found that corporate largesse could in one way or another advance their own political and personal fortunes. In consequence political liberals became what economic thinkers ranging from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman have called neo-liberals: those who might take tolerant, egalitarian positions on social issues, but who, like Republicans, favor leaving markets to market forces.
Socialists and historians have long known what happens when markets are left to market forces. State economies collapse, unless there is a redistributive intervention such as those composing Roosevelt’s New Deal or the stop-gap bail-outs the Obama administration imposed after the 2008 housing bubble. Yet even with, one might have assumed, the story book cautionary tale of unrestrained corporate greed provided by the 2008 crisis, Democrats, in their neo-liberal caution and comfort, continued on the same economic course that had not only brought the nation to the brink of a ruinous depression but had demonstrably failed to reverse the steadily declining economic prospects of the great majority of the American people.
Candidate Clinton’s appeals for a nicer, more inclusive America along with seemingly daily evidence of Trump’s personal awfulness failed to move sufficient millions of under acknowledged, undereducated, and underserved citizens whose economic prospects were in decline. These millions, as opposed to the quieter, rather more decorous super-rich who also composed Trump’s base, may have been less Deplorable than they were worrying symptoms of a polis far from well.
The nation’s descent into its present dysfunction has been accelerated by a decades-long failure of neo-liberals to confront the way unrestrained market forces generate income inequality and ultimately human inequality. A fitting case in point, since it bears directly on the health of citizens, is the wobbly test flight of the Affordable Care Act. Launched as President Obama’s first and signal initiative, the ACA looked at first as if it might succeed after more than a century of false starts in adding basic medical care to the expected benefits of American citizenship.
The key variable in the initiative was affordable, which is the practical equivalent of possible. Universal health care was not in 2008 and is not now affordable given the prevailing insurance premiums set by the oligopoly of national insurance companies. The Obama administration recognized the political hopelessness of directly challenging the legitimacy of the insurance industry’s unaffordably high premiums, which would entail also challenging the wildly inflated—except for the insurable fortunate —cost of medical procedures, hospital stays, and prescription pharmaceuticals. No amount of redistributed tax income was going to cover the cost of insuring against those inflated fees. Nor was there the neo-liberal will to carry so “socialist” a notion as the Public Insurance Option initially proposed by the President: the establishment of a publicly managed insurance company, guaranteeing affordable rates—but thereby limiting the profits of private companies that could not or would not compete.
Thus to no thoughtful person’s surprise, but to seething Republican indignation, the provisions of the Affordable Care Act are increasingly unaffordable, as private insurers either refuse to participate or to do so at rates clients cannot afford. As the embattled Care Act now stands on the brink of Trump-promised repeal, blame and disparagement are heaped upon the departed President and his neo-liberal supporters—when it clearly falls on the insurers who in concert raised premiums to unaffordable levels. Neo-liberal Democrats who, with regard to markets, are indistinguishable from Republicans, do not acknowledge that fact. In consequence there is no universally affordable medical care in the United States, as citizens quite literally get sicker.
Because the Trump presidency is the malignant effect and not the cause of the present national malaise, his removal, whether by impeachment or other means, will not restore the polis to political health. An impeached and convicted Trump would leave the country under the leadership of his unwaveringly loyal vice president, followed in sequence by the Republican majority leader in the Senate, the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, then by Trump’s appointed cabinet members, in the historical order in which their offices were created. If the Democratic party should rise on the tide of topical Trump revulsion to gain control of both the Senate and the House while continuing on the neo-liberal economic course that has enabled the current level of income inequality and its roiling antipathies, the inflamed and perhaps enlarged Trump “base” will be in position to champion a better, more efficient, more ruthless version. Uncorrected, the present partisan rancor, fear, and hostility hasten us in the direction of dark times history teaches are not merely constructs of dystopian novelists and hand-wringing essayists.
The critic Clive James proposes that a kind of “cultural amnesia,” an ominous desire to forget, is at work suppressing the historical impact of the devastations of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution—not to mention the cautionary tales of more historically remote ruptures in the citizen-state connection.
In Russia at the close of the sixteenth century tsarist rule utterly collapsed in what historians have called The Time of Troubles. A series of hapless pretender tsars arose and were violently eliminated. State governance dissolved in chaos, neighboring states invaded, and over the course of two decades millions of abandoned subjects starved to death, committed suicide, and otherwise lost their lives. At the outset of the French Revolution in 1789 when a longstanding monarchy was abruptly overthrown and no coherent scheme for restoring governance had yet evolved, French citizens far from Paris, the epicenter of the disruption, fell into a spontaneous violent unease that came to be known as The Great Fear, in which armed bands of peasants and townsmen arose to march on neighboring towns and estates with no clear idea of the wrong to be righted.
As suggested earlier, the present American misalignment of governors and governed can, if recognized and addressed, hasten needed realignment. Unaddressed, the anomie and rancor that characterize the current civic climate can only worsen. The contradictory gestures of the present administration—pledges made but not kept, threats to perceived opponents, false claims issued and defended—can only heighten the distrust, loss of confidence, and antipathy of those affected, further dividing and isolating them from one another. If escalating gestures of resistance on the part of the citizenry are suppressed, we will proceed from misalignment into tyranny.
Under tyrants all citizens are patients, and with respect to personal fulfillment, their condition is terminal. In her seminal work, On Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes the diminished condition of citizens in a pathological polis.
One of the primary concerns of tyrannical government is to bring isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror. Its hallmark is impotence in that power always comes from men acting together; isolated men are powerless by definition.
We as citizens are not yet isolated and powerless, but there is a sickening new awareness of the possibility. In a better world sickness seeks cure, and the first step in that direction is to see through the chauvinistic bluster and rhetorical smokescreen of Making America Great Again and to set about making it well.
Sources Consulted (In Sequence)
Aristotle. The Politics of Aristotle. Ernest Barker ed. and tr. (New York: Oxford University Press) 1963.
Plato. The Republic. Paul Shorey tr. The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1969.
Plato. Crito. Hugh Tredennick tr. Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1969.
Madison, James. “Federalist Paper No. 10,” The Federalist Papers. Roy Fairfield ed.
Garden City: Anchor Books) 1966.
Bowlby, John. A Secure Base: Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (London: Routledge) 1988.
Esterson, Aaron and Laing, R. D. Sanity, Madness and the Family (London: Tavistock)
James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia (New York: W. W. Norton) 2007.