The Loneliness of the Trump Era

“man using smartphone inside the train station” by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Over the last two weeks I followed the unfolding of the Kavanaugh testimonies with a mixture of horror, revulsion and disbelief. As I scrolled through the newsfeed, I could see that many felt as just I did, or worse. Political columnists lamented the breakdown of the supreme court nomination process. Courageous sexual assault victims shared their accounts to make Republicans see the painfully obvious truth that many women do not report sexual violence.

Despite this, the latest disheartening new cycle, like much else that has happened since Trump was elected two years ago, made me feel isolated and alone.

Working as an adjunct professor in New York City, I am surrounded by people most of the week. I take crowded subways to the colleges where I teach, meet with students in noisy shared offices, and have lunch on a bench facing Lexington Avenue. When I first moved here, I couldn’t be happier. I thought, that’s how people should live, commuting in packed trains, getting in each other’s way; not isolated in cars and suburban houses like elsewhere in the US.

But after Trump’s election I began to notice how little political conversation I heard around me. People spend most of their time staring at their cellphones, and when they talk it’s about work or shopping; very rarely about politics. The political conversations that I do hear happen behind closed doors in clubs of sorts: Meetup groups, union committees, places where people usually voice well-rehearsed positions to the like-minded.

When I try to go to such meetings, I also feel alone. What my fellow leftists say makes sense, but I don’t have anything to add to the conversation. Nothing beyond the obvious, readymade remarks of “oh, how terrible” and that something ought to be done.

Not long ago my sense of apartness in such meetings had better defined contours. I thought that my interlocutors were only interested in claiming a moral high ground without making any real effort to change the political situation. I remember thinking this back in the Bush years, when I was just starting graduate school. Grad students and professors would spend half a seminar criticizing the wars, skewering Bush’s stupidity, and then at the end of the period go off to pursue their ambitions.

For a while I followed my own imperative and devoted a large part of my life to activism. But since I moved to NYC, work leaves me little time and energy for any meaningful engagement. When I do go to demonstrations (usually with my union), I often walk away with a deeper feeling of isolation and futility. Unless I make an effort to engage someone in conversation, no one speaks to me at these events, and the protests seem to accomplish little.

I still believe in organizing, in direct action, but it seems disingenuous to advocate activism when I’m not taking part in it. On the other hand, the “high” intellectual criticism that turned me off in graduate school still feels empty.

I would like to say something else, to have a conversation that goes beyond the pundits’ clichés and soundbites. But would that conversation still be about politics?

*

Among the many disturbing sound clips that the last week left us, the one that troubled me most is of Donald Trump mocking Dr. Christine Blasy Ford for her testimony. The language, the tone, and the gestures, place it in a boys’ locker room or at a middle-school courtyard. Yet this was an internationally televised statement by a sitting president, and one that did not deter his party members from voting for Kavanaugh.

By now, both the infantile, misogynist statements and the Republicans’ response are predictable, but they still disturb. And since they disturb, we think that we ought to say or write something about them — something eloquent and sophisticated, an editorial or essay that would really count. That’s the Left’s habitual response, both within and outside academe.

But maybe in this instance that isn’t the right response. Maybe in this instance, the instinctive, visceral reaction is the right one: simply to be disturbed. Never mind that we’ve come to expect this from Trump. Never mind that Trump himself isn’t the problem but only the true, public face of neoliberal capitalism (as I and others have said). I think at this moment we can set aside all these intellectualisms and be outraged, and condemn Trump and his cronies as the schoolyard bullies that they are.

And maybe once we look at national politics from this perspective, we can also use the same lens to examine our own institutions. How much of the cruel schoolyard is there in a union or a non-profit, or, for that matter, at a college?

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