This morning I awoke to the horrifying news that a gunman had killed or wounded over 100 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Like many, I was deeply saddened by the senselessness of the tragedy and the immense loss of life. And like many, my mind also turned to another concern–the impact of this terrorist attack on the presidential campaign. It didn’t take long for Donald Trump to tweet “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism…” In his usual self-aggrandizing, vacillating style, he then went on to say that he does not “want congrats” but rather “toughness & vigilance.”
Alas, in this case Trump does not have a monopoly on twisted thinking. I imagine that I was not the only Democrat who found him or herself saying “Please, please don’t let this be Islamic terrorism.” The reason is obvious, but no less disturbing and disconnected from the awfulness of the event: it would be “bad” for Hillary Clinton if the attacker were Muslim and “good” for Donald Trump, especially given that he has advocated for banning all Muslims from the U.S. and it would therefore seem like he was prescient or “right.”
In contrast, were the attacker white, it would be “good” for those who want to focus on gun control and “bad” for those obsessed with second amendment rights; even though the gun control argument can and should be made in either case, the message gets significantly muddled when the focus shifts to ISIS. Listening to the radio, tv, and written coverage of the shooting, one cannot escape the political implications of it, as though how the murder is spun matters more than the impact it has had. Nothing speaks more to the hyper-politicized nature of presidential campaigns in general, and this one in particular, than the fact that good, well-intentioned people went so quickly from compassion to partisan political analysis. Unfortunately, it is a fact that the response to mass shootings has become tediously monotonous: the NRA make some variation on the argument that if more good people had guns this could be prevented, and those who I would term logical / sane note that it’s fucking stupid for anyone to be able to purchase a rifle capable of killing 50 people in the space of minutes.
What sets this calamity apart is that because the attack has taken place during a political campaign, it has revealed far deeper divisions in this country. Some on the religious right have already made the disgusting implication that this is God’s revenge for the passage of gay marriage. Others are all-too-happy to use this as an opportunity to vilify Muslims writ large. In short, what happened in Orlando–the worst mass shooting in this country’s history–has tapped into issues of gun rights and gay rights, immigration, and more broadly the differences between the political parties.
I can’t avoid the feeling that we have become an ugly nation. While we fling mud and spend hundreds of millions trying to elect a candidate that kinda sorta represents our political beliefs, the fundamental challenges we face–poverty, climate change, substance abuse, mass incarceration, etc.,–are allowed to fester. To be clear, it is a false equivalency to say that because both sides are partisan they are equally bad; I strongly believe that the Republican party, long before Donald Trump, was the party of racism, classicism, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-intellect, and pro corporate welfare. What’s more, as a party they don’t even see many of those things as issues, or even advocate for policies that make them worse. After all, Ronald Reagan started the War on Drugs that ushered in the age of mass incarceration, and the party platform seems to be rooted in a denial of climate change and hatred of, or disinterest in, LGBT people, minorities, immigrants, the poor and other vulnerable groups.
That being said, I also believe that we must take responsibility for who we are as a country; blame is easy, accountability is hard. And who we are ain’t pretty. It isn’t pretty because we are always taking in the news and looking for ways to use it to “win.” Victory seems to be the goal; victory at all costs; victory as a means to the end of more victory. We are therefore left in a state of constant campaigning punctuating by brief periods of governing. It is said that the president has two years to get things done before the mid-term elections, and then the next presidential election, make it harder to do anything. The presidential campaign itself now lasts 18 to 24 months. We nearly spend more time talking about the things that the president will take action on than we do taking action on them once he or she wins.
Of course, if ever there were a time to focus on victory above all else, it’s now. As I’ve written, a President Donald Trump would be astoundingly catastrophic. A recent, popular meme compares Bernie Sanders supporters who won’t vote for Hillary to someone who drinks bleach because they can’t find the brand of beer they like. The point? For all her flaws, she is infinitely better than Trump. Sometimes I wonder if the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 feel good that they made a statement about their true political beliefs even though their vote, in part, led to the election of George W. Bush. Still feel like a principled stand? Would voting for a third-party candidate instead of Hillary be worth the possibility of handing victory to Trump? No fucking way.
On the other hand, if we are always swinging from idealism to pragmatism, what is there to inspire us? How will we ensure that bold goals are set and then met? How will we ever change the political system? Sadly, it’s not so simple. In this campaign, for instance, for all his progressive rhetoric, Bernie has been shockingly light on specifics on how to implement his proposals. His supporters–myself included–gravitate to him because he’s not associated with the powerful, monied interests we see preying on everyone but the wealthy. Yet time and again he’s been unable, or unwilling, to go beyond catch phrases and sound bites. “We’ll break up the banks” is a bumper sticker, not a policy. Put another way, it’s hard to make progress when we apply a purity test to political leaders. The best idea Bernie has espoused is that the only way we can make a quantum leap forward in social and environmental justice is if all of us take part in the political process, demand change, and work to bring change about; the longer we wait for the ideal candidate to surface, the longer we put off making good things happen. Neither Bernie nor Hillary are ideal candidates, but they are who they have and we have to take it upon ourselves to force them to live up to their campaign promises.
Nothing good comes of us politicizing everything in the news if we don’t strive to be good people ourselves and lead lives in accordance with our desires for a just, peaceful, and verdant world. This is true regardless of our political persuasion, for only people of good will can have legitimate debates, compromise when it makes sense, and ensure a healthy democratic process. We have to somehow shout down hatred and ignorance without drowning out the possibility for progress. We have to also recognize that sometimes the truth is muddy and sometimes it is clear as day; a debate about tax policy is perfectly legitimate, but some topics–civil rights, human rights, mass incarceration–require a firm hand, not endless discussion. This is why I think President Obama’s response to what happened to Orlando was the best possible one: sorrow for the loss of life mixed with yet another plea for concrete action to prevent more gun deaths. At the end of the day, our anger and outrage means nothing if it does not lead to something positive. So yes, be angry, but don’t let anger turn to ugliness. We should all be ashamed that when people die one of our first thoughts is how to leverage their deaths to advance our political causes.
I started this post yesterday morning and wanted to give myself some time before completing it. I realize that it is all over the place. My first instinct was to spend hours editing it, but somehow as I read the words this morning the confusion seems appropriate to the moment. We have a presidential candidate in Donald Trump who is stunningly unsuited, not only for the presidency, but for any role where he can have an impact on a lot of people. He is a racist, a misogynist, an autocrat, a bully, a liar, and an asshole. This entire presidential campaign seems like a bad joke that never gets to the punch line, and in the middle of all this craziness 50 people have been shot to death. If there is a coherent, rational way to assimilate all that is happening, I’ve yet to find it. The thoughts I present above are my attempt to get to an understanding even while I am assailed by the vile, the unjust, the dangerous, and the bizarre.