More rain has fallen in Southern California today than I can remember in the time I’ve lived here. The sky is streaked with grey sheets, the roadways clogged and flooded. The symbolism of this meteorological fact can be applied to any circumstance or agenda. Franklin Graham (ugh), at the presidential inauguration this morning declared rain a symbol of God’s blessing. He’s not wrong. At the same time, there are those–like us struggling to stay dry on the West Coast today–who might see a different meaning: The sun is hidden, our light obscured by a storm that turns the sky and many moods dismal.
They’re not wrong.
In this time when presidents and their meanings are so much at the forefront, there’s been much talk of how these men we elect to this office are also symbols whose meaning can be manipulated and projected onto any agenda, any ideology. Barack Obama was many things to many people, and the identities that were projected onto him (Socialist Muslim tyrant; post-racial civil rights icon; progressive hero; drone-wielding champion of U.S. Empire) say a lot more about we as a people than they say about him as a person.
I am tempted to say the same thing about Donald Trump. After all, he has exposed our divisions more starkly and cynically than any public figure in memory. His supporters see in him a longed-for embodiment of American strength, vitality, pride, (and White privilege). His opponents…well, just read more of this blog. Point is, people see in Trump what they want to see, and that reveals us to be more divided than we thought we were.
The more I think of it, though, I’m less satisfied with talking about presidents as symbols. Yes, in the Bible rain is a blessing from God. It is life-giving water for the crops that sustain human community. But keep reading, and rain and floods are also instruments of destruction and wrath. God used rains to eradicate humanity. Floods and storms are symbols of chaos, over which only God himself has control.
On a more practical level, rain is an actual, physical reality whose benefits or costs vary depending on where you stand. Farmers in arid areas pray for rain, but when too much comes, it can mean disaster. Climate change has disrupted weather patters, leaving many dead in recent years from record rains in the U.S. and Europe.
Like rain, Donald Trump is an actual, physical, reality. And, like rain, there is not much to him. Rain is water falling from the sky. I am more and more convinced that there is not much more to Donald Trump than what we see. He is not complex, self-reflective, analytical, a long-term visionary, someone who grasps complex systems and the details that make them function. Impulsivity, lack of empathy, a fragile ego, vindictive and puerile personality–these qualities are not disputed between his supporters and his haters. These qualities (and many others) are plain to see, and you either love them or hate them.
The problem is, they will have real-life impact on our country and our world. A President Mitt Romney or a President John McCain would have had character flaws of their own, and they might even have tried to radically re-make America along conservative lines. But something different is happening here. We fear it because we have not seen it before in this country. If we’ve been paying attention, we’ve seen it in other countries. This is not to say America is morally clean or hasn’t perfected violence, injustice, or chaos through the force of law and bureaucracy.
But to combine the mechanisms of empire with the temperament of an insecure and authoritarian populist? I don’t want to throw words around lightly, but students of history should know what that has led to in the past. At the very least, it should give us cause for deep concern.
But concern is one thing. Action is another. Trump will use the instruments of government (insomuch as he is allowed to by the other branches, the media, and a strong popular resistance movement) to shape America according to his dismal and deluded vision. The border and the “inner cities” are not flooded with crime and carnage. Foreign governments have not “destroyed” or stolen our jobs (they’ve been shipped away by greedy corporations, like the ones represented by many of Trump’s cabinet picks). But it doesn’t matter what is factually true. What matters is that false rhetoric can and will be solidified into actual policy.
The border with Mexico is already more militarized and surveilled than it has ever been, despite record low illegal immigration. What will be the consequences of spending billions more on a project that is not only useless and doomed to fail, but that will destroy families and innumerable human lives?
What will be the consequences of an administration treating the free press like an opposition party? What will be the consequences of an abandonment of federal oversight for police abuse of power, corporations’ environmental impact, or states’ attempts to curtail voting rights?
It is true that these things were already piecemeal or fragile, even under “liberal” administrations. Things might very well not get as bad as we think they will under Trump. We just don’t know.
This is why we have to move beyond concern, and into action. Trump and his government will not tire of action. They’ve wasted to time getting to work, as their days in office will be numbered. But the rest of us, we will still be here (let’s hope). Obama himself is fond of urging citizens toward engagement and activity in the service of a free and inclusive society. We’d do well to heed his call. And it is not just his call. It has been the occupation of so many freedom fighters and patriots through history who deeply lived out the vision: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream”
With that in mind, I will focus my political posts on this blog on sharing opportunities for regular people to take action, get involved, and lead. I hope–I know–that we can make a meaningful stand to protect the communities and values that are dear to us–and that are just as much a part of America as any others.