Election Reflection, Part I: Omens of Chaos

Note: this is the first of a series of Toteboard post-election reflections.

Some thirty years ago, a friend was speaking candidly about his seventeen years as a member of ISKCON, i.e., the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Hindu-based missionary organization that many of you may know better as the “Hare Krishna Movement.” At one point during his tenure with ISKCON, he came to serve as an official liaison to academia, tasked with destigmatizing the community by demonstrating its historical and thematic connections to well-established Hindu bhakti (“devotional”) movements, explicating such practices as single-pointed focus on the divine, and even suggesting avenues for interfaith dialogue with Christian theologians. At some point in this fascinating conversation, another friend asked him what his parents -- liberal “post-war suburban” Jewish intellectuals – made of his decision to renounce his identity and live much of his early adulthood as a Hindu monk, complete with the shaved head, street proselytizing, and a decidedly goyishe new name. He smiled gently, and said something like, “you know, I didn’t really think about it at the time, but if I had really wanted to find the one thing that would most upset them, I probably couldn’t have come up with anything as effective as that.”

Which brings us to where we are now. If a year ago the Toteboard had been asked to imagine a scenario that would make for the most angst-ridden, migraine-producing campaign and election conceivable, if we had programmed rows of computers to labor for weeks on end to construct the most dystopian chain of events possible, we probably couldn’t have come up with anything as corrosive as what recent reality has handed to us. A global pandemic that is taking lives, damaging livelihoods, crippling travel, sabotaging education at all levels, sapping communities of life-giving occasions for cultural expression, and turning basic human physical contact into something dangerous or irresponsible. An extended pandemic-infused election season marked by an uneven cacophony of constantly-shifting (and constantly-litigated) state-specific voting laws, which left citizens uncertain about how best to cast their ballots and less than confident that those ballots would actually be counted. And finally, the election night from hell, with information trickling in so slowly that it took four days before it was clear who won, all with assorted spin-masters out trying to hijack the narrative and flood social media with disinformation.

But the infuriating thing about all this is that none of it had to happen this way.

The onset of the pandemic could have been a real pivotal moment in American history. It was an opportunity for a socially and ideologically divided country to make common cause, to work together for the public good, even if that would entail some modicum of shared sacrifice. And Trump had his chance to make that happen. He could have leveled with the American people immediately. He could have assembled a transparent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon team of experts to get out in front of the science and devise an informed and flexible plan for getting the pandemic under control. He could have created a series of specific task forces charged with getting medical supplies to hospitals and covid tests into communities, partnering with educators around the country to re-imagine and support covid-era learning, coordinating with small businesses to avoid a complete economic meltdown, providing relief to those with housing insecurity, and figuring out ways to repair broken supply lines, so food wouldn’t be rotting on farms and animals wouldn’t be needlessly euthanized while people in cities skipped meals or stood in line at food pantries. And then he could have kept the public informed at every step of the way, so people would learn in real time what the scientists were thinking, what resources were available to them, and what to expect in the coming months. But Trump misread the situation. He ignored the science and gambled that the virus wouldn’t be any worse than a cold, or that it would go away in the warm weather, or that the press would just ignore it. If we view this through the most generous possible hermeneutic, we might say “OK fine, government officials do fuck up from time to time.” But once those fuck-ups are exposed, they are then obligated to be honest about them, to correct them, and to learn from them. But that’s not part of the narcissist’s playbook, and Trump – in for a penny, in for a pound – instead resisted or willfully fought against anything that would lay bare his fuck-ups, no matter how much that compromised the country’s health and security. And so the next thing you know, Trump is trashing Anthony Fauci and defunding or disempowering medical agencies, perpetuating lies about the severity of the pandemic (which he still calls the “China virus”), blaming democratic governors for covid escalation in their states, and turning the most benign and useful measures for limiting transmission into partisan issues. Of course, that’s all Trump at his most Trumpian. As the Toteboard noted exactly six months ago, “whenever Trump has an opportunity, however thin and unlikely, to inflame demographic tensions, to scapegoat convenient targets, or to manufacture new enemies, he seizes that opportunity as though following some primordial urge, as though the instinct were hardwired into his DNA.”

And just like the government could have gotten out in front of covid, it could have also gotten out in front of the election itself and provided some genuine democratic leadership. Just think how the last six months would have gone if leaders from both political parties had stood together in a public forum and said, “Alright, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and voting the old fashioned way comes with a lot of risks. So, we’re going to start working now, to make sure that every registered voter who would like to avoid election-day lines and possible covid exposure has an easy, reliable way of voting early and/or by mail, and we’re going to work together to create redundant safeguards against fraud. We’re going to work with state legislatures to change or adjust existing laws so that votes can be processed in a timely fashion and the results can be made available as soon as possible. There is nothing more American than the right to vote, the right to be heard, and we, your elected officials, are going to do everything we can to make sure you have to the opportunity to exercise that right.” Yeah, just think of how things might have gone. So why the fuck couldn’t the last months have witnessed something like that? Because the vulgar, ugly, disgraceful truth is that republicans would never get on board with such a statement, that republicans do not, in fact, want everyone to vote, that they do not believe in representative government. Republicans know that they would lose a truly fair election (as they just did, in fact) and are habitually devising unethical schemes to preserve power: closing polling places in minority communities, curtailing early voting, enacting signature ID laws, gerrymandering districts, confirming blatantly partisan judges, instigating suspicion about the integrity of fair elections, resisting changes to the electoral college, and the list goes on.

And of course, if our leadership had done its job on covid, had done its job on the election, we would not have had to live through that chaotic election night of red mirages and blue shifts, through the cynical declaration of victory by the rejected incumbent, through those excruciating four days before (some) networks finally called Pennsylvania for Biden, and through the delusional fever dream Trump and his fellow sociopaths (and far too many of his cult followers) are acting out on the country as we speak. One might be inclined to ask if Trump really believes he was cheated out of the election, or if he knows that he lost and is pathetically trying to cling to power. But that’s really the wrong question, because it assumes that Trump’s relationship with the truth is anything other than coincidental. For Trump, truth is a non-sequitur, an inert gas, a variable with no bearing on any equation. Rather, his motivations are simply those of a conscienceless bully, the craving for power and ego-gratification. To meet those ends, he reflexively (and sometimes violently) follows the four stages of assholerie: Take what you want. If there are obstacles, cheat to get it. If you still can’t get it, cry foul. And if that doesn’t work, then just steal it. Obviously, we seem now to be somewhere between the third and fourth stages of this really, really twisted pathology.

The former Hindu monk who had so (at least temporarily) disappointed his parents eventually repudiated ISKCON for its excesses and abusive treatment of members, and he would later learn, with much shock and sadness, that this even extended to the physical and sexual abuse of children. But it would be interesting to check-in three decades later and find out if he still gleans some inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita, a well-loved text among Vaishnavites (i.e., devotees of Krishna and other avatars of Vishnu) which the movement had often employed more as a bludgeon than a source of wisdom. One of the most profound concepts in the Gita is that of karma-yoga, the discipline of action. The idea is that one should carry out ethical conduct without regard to the fruits of the action – in the lexicon of the tradition, to sacrifice the fruits to Lord Krishna – to do good for the simple fact that it is good (and for its vaguely suggested cosmic implications), not for the concrete effects it produces. Certainly, one could take issue with this approach, e.g., a former chair of the War Resisters League (and likely subject of a future Toteboard) had little patience for religious conscientious objectors whom he regarded as more concerned with their own moral purity than with effecting real social change. But the lesson of karma-yoga can be a helpful one during times when it seems like the country will be no less divided tomorrow than it was yesterday, when MLK’s arc of justice seems to be bending at such a long and slow angle, and when it becomes tempting simply to stop trying because the payoff does not seem to be forthcoming. And if ever a time tested us to our limits, if ever a time demanded perseverance, well, we’re smack dab in the middle of it.

Postscript: Today is the 60th anniversary of the day 6-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated a public school in New Orleans, which coincides with her publication of a new children’s book and, sadly, the death a few days ago of her mother, who had been the driving force behind Ruby’s path-breaking year in first-grade. Ruby remains an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and has justifiably been celebrated in stories and songs. At a time when we can all use a little inspiration (and maybe even a little karma-yoga), the Toteboard finds a source of optimism in the memories of one of the heroes in Ruby’s story.