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Don't Lose Hope. Be A Fanatical Optimist Instead

The White House is seen before sunrise, in Washington, Saturday, March 23, 2019.  (Cliff Owen/AP)
The White House is seen before sunrise, in Washington, Saturday, March 23, 2019. (Cliff Owen/AP)

I am writing this in the dark.

My wife and three children are upstairs, sleeping. The clock on the wall tells me it’s 4:52 a.m. In my heart, it feels like midnight.

By the time you read this, the Senate will have acquitted President Trump of the articles of impeachment lodged against him, with only one GOP senator, Mitt Romney, voting to convict.

We’ve known this result was coming for weeks, and known, too, that the defendant was guilty. House managers presented overwhelming evidence that Trump sought to extort Ukraine, a vulnerable ally, to smear Joe Biden, and thus cheat in the 2020 election, that he used his office, and taxpayer money, to do so, then obstructed the investigation into this scheme.

As is so often the case with this president, he not only confessed to these crimes, he bragged about committing them in public.

... the only way to battle nihilism, which is the belief in nothing, is with belief in something.

A number of Republican “jurors” admitted that the House proved its case. Their rationale was not that the president was innocent, but that his guilt didn’t matter.

And that, in a nutshell, is the most upsetting aspect of this regime — the prevailing attitude that nothing matters: that every act of corruption, every lie, every calculated cruelty, every indecent remark, can be excused, rationalized, shrugged off.

He brags about sexually assaulting women and mocks the disabled? He incites violence among his supporters? He demonizes immigrants and allies and cuddles up to white supremacists and dictators? He rips families apart at the border, and has kids put in cages? He calls climate change a hoax and empowers polluters? He nakedly profits off his presidency?

Who cares?

The crisis we now face is not just that the leader of our nation does these things, but that so few within his party will hold him accountable.

The 2016 election revealed that our electoral system was sufficiently flawed (see: the Electoral College, voter suppression, foreign interference), that our population was sufficiently apathetic and aggrieved, and that our fourth estate was sufficiently profit-driven, to allow a brazenly corrupt demagogue to claim the White House.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at the Knapp Center on the campus of Drake University, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at the Knapp Center on the campus of Drake University, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The ensuing years have accelerated the degradation of our collective moral standards, the ways in which our media and political classes have either ignored, or normalized, the ruinous policies and propaganda and illegal conduct of an administration that functions, openly, as part of a transnational crime syndicate.

It is this monstrous nihilism that yanks me awake in the middle of the night.

And we have just witnessed, in real-time, the logical endpoint of that nihilism: the public desecration of our Constitution, by Trump and his minions. Mitch McConnell just handed a power-drunk bully the keys to the liquor cabinet. He knows he did it. He doesn’t care.

We should be honest about what just happened, what we’re living through, and we should be alarmed and saddened. But we should also recognize that historical moments such as these can be clarifying.

Here’s what I can see, more clearly now than ever: The only remaining source of accountability is the power of our own faith.

Faith may sound like an old-fashioned word, but the only way to battle nihilism, which is the belief in nothing, is with belief in something. This is what Adam Schiff meant when he declared, in his soaring and doomed final argument that he placed his faith “in the optimism of the founders.”

I would go a step further. In this climate of calculated cynicism — a cynicism designed to make us feel hopeless — we need to be fanatical in our optimism, in our belief that we can become the subjects of history again, not just the objects.

We need only look at the history of this country to see the proof of this fanatical optimism. Abolition. Suffrage. The labor movement. The New Deal. The War on Poverty. Civil Rights. In each case, the outcome seemed impossible. And yet millions of Americans rose up and took action to make our union more perfect.

It’s not enough at this point for us to wait around for others — the courts or suburban women or millennials or the media or Susan Collins — to come to our rescue. We have to come to our own rescue.

To do so, we must place our faith in the fragile belief that our own individual actions as citizens still matter. We have to shake off the modern American temptation to passively consume civic dysfunction as disposable entertainment.

Nihilism remains the GOP’s ultimate Trump card. They are counting on citizens of good faith to give up, to quit the field, to say “who cares?”

The media may continue to train its cameras on the trollish spectacles Trump orchestrates at his rallies, and his various reality TV events, such as last night’s State of the Union address. But we, as citizens, don’t have to hate-watch.

We have to accept our anguish and set our devices down and find ways to support the candidates and causes we hold dear. We must organize rather than agonize.

This optimism should not be confused with naiveté. We all know that the Trump regime will do everything in its power to rig the 2020 election. We’ll see more voter suppression, more fearmongering, more Russian trolling.

Nihilism remains the GOP’s ultimate Trump card. They are counting on citizens of good faith to give up, to quit the field, to say “who cares?” So is the party’s most reliable ally, Vladimir Putin. And so are the oligarchs, domestic and foreign, who have converted our planet into a vast and decaying casino.

Don’t let them sucker you.

Be a fanatical optimist. Make a plan. Take action. Listen to your conscience. Vote.

A brighter dawn might await all of us, but we have to work for it.

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Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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