Posted Saturday morning, February 4, 2017.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, said Joan Didion. Really we tell ourselves stories in order to live with ourselves
“Hail to me, I’m the Chief!” Our new President cheers himself on as he sets out unselfishly to make America great again. Photo courtesy of Our Mr President Trump himself.
Overheard by Rick Perlstein at the inauguration of Our New Mr President Trump:
The lady next to me lives in Maryland, but is originally from Vermont. She wanted Ben Carson to win the nomination. (Her daughter, she told me, married a man who is Asian and African-American; the proud grandma says the mix makes her two-year-old granddaughter especially adorable. She reflects that her generation grew up learning to be racist, and it’s been a learning experience. “Sometimes, my husband still slips.”) She doesn’t think Trump has what it takes. “He’s trying to do too much good for the whole country and not fight for his own agenda”—like, she says, Bill Clinton and Obama had; Trump, by contrast, is “not selfish.”
How deluded do you have to be to describe Donald Trump as “not selfish”? Selfishness is the defining trait of his character. It’s the key to his whole life. If you want to figure out what he’s up to, assume he’s acting selfishly and the explanation will be obvious. Donald Trump is the love of Donald Trump’s life. The center of his world. For all anyone else truly matters to him, he might as well be living in the world all alone. In some ways, he does. You’d think that would be obvious to anyone who paid halfway close attention to him for five minutes.
But this woman hasn’t paid attention to him. She’s paid attention to a character she’s invented to make sense of the story she’s telling herself about herself. It happens to be the same story most of us are continually telling ourselves:
“I’m a good person and whatever I want and whatever I do must be good because a good person wants them and is doing them.”
She’s an example of the stupidity of Trump voters but mainly because she’s also an example of the stupidity of all human beings.
Most of us most of the time decide what we want then invent reasons why it’s ok to want we want.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, said Joan Didion. I'd amend that to: We tell ourselves stories in order to live with ourselves.
For whatever reasons---racism, bigotry, sexism, the usual Republican reasons that boil down to “Don’t make me share!”, and, oh yeah, economic anxiety---millions of basically decent people voted for a vicious, reckless, shameless, irresponsible, racist, and monstrously selfish demagogue and would-be dictator and told themselves they were doing what was needed to Make America Great Again! And they believed it! They bought their own lies hook, line, and sinker.
Part of their stories, whatever other plot contrivances they contained, included a subplot about for making America great again that showed that no way, no how this meant simply their own position in life would be markedly improved in some limited, mean, narrow-minded, selfish way.
Or, at least, it wasn’t just a matter of that.
But like I said. We all do something like that. We all tell ourselves those kinds of stories. Stories with the moral: I am not a bad person. I am not dumb. I am not wrong. I did not make a mistake.
We’re all Don Quixotes in that way. We all tell ourselves stories in which life turns out all right for us in the end, with ourselves as heroes and heroines, loved and worth loving, admired and justly so.
Such stories help determine our politics. Hillary people told themselves stories about her that were really about themselves. Bernie people did the same. Trump voters’ stories about him and about themselves, heard dispassionately, would sound very much like the stories of Hillary voters and Bernie voters.
It just happens that the stories Trump voters told themselves have resulted in putting a selfish madman in the White House.
Not that they’re likely to admit it or even notice it anytime soon.
People don’t like to think badly of themselves. They don’t like to be wrong. In stories told about them in the news, Trump voters have been asked if they regret their vote and, surprise, most don’t. In fact, they sound proud of how they voted. They sound as if what Trump’s up to---not just his cabinet appointments and his executive decisions to hurt as many people and ruin as many lives as he can while making himself and his cronies piles of money but his recklessness and irresponsibility and lunacy---is why they voted for him. Which, for many of them, is close to the truth. But it’s really a waste of time to ask them, because they hear the question as, “Are you ready to admit you made a really dumb decision?”
You’re asking people to tell a story in which they aren’t the hero, they’re the fool. A story about how gullible they were. They’re not going to tell that story. Not yet. Maybe someday, when telling that story is really telling the story about how wise, thoughtful, and good they are in being able own up to their mistakes, some of them will tell that story.
Some of them.
Others will just continue telling the story of how Hillary would have been worse or they'll tell the story about how our good and unselfish President Trump was undone by a conspiracy of the media, liberals, and elitist traitors within his own party who were determined to stop him from draining the swamp, doing good for the whole country, returning the power to the people, and making America great again.
But most probably won’t tell any story. Donald Trump and the 2016 election will disappear from their thoughts. Like George W. Bush, he’ll never have been President and they won’t have voted for him. They’ll be telling new stories about how smart they are and how good they are for voting for whatever candidate has come along promising to give them whatever they’ve selfishly decided they need to make their own individual lives better.
Just like the rest of us.
Rick Perlstein went to the inauguration and reported back on what he saw there that dismayed him, depressed him, appalled him, cheered him up a little, and even amused him. He also went to the Women’s March the next day and came away in a more hopeful mood. You can and should read his whole report, The emperor’s empty grandstands, at the Washington Spectator.
I’m assuming you all know who Rick Perlstein is and that he’s one of the best political historians now at work. This piece makes me even more eager to read the next installment in his multi-volume history of the rise of the American Right which begins with Before the Storm and continues with Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, all three of which are available at Amazon.
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