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Like all progressives, Trump’s victory in 2016 sent me into a funk. Now, as the concrete consequences of that election unfold, my Trump Funk even deepens. Most readers needn’t be reminded of the list of depressing executive actions and policies feeding our collective depression. That’s not why I write now. I do so to try to understand why, after nearly 2 years, the Trump Funk seems a nearly bottomless pit of emotional darkness, worse even than what we’d have the right to expect in the wake of a mere election defeat? Why the oft heard, but inarticulate, lament of pundits over Trump’s growing list of misdeeds only seems to boost his approval among his base? Worse still, instead of growing dull like most grief, the Trump Funk only sharpens as POTUS finds new ways to remind the defeated of his victory. Trying to understand why this should be so has taken me far beyond depression over policies and other misdeeds, but has driven me to come to face-to-face with something so fundamental about civic life that I’d nearly forgotten it.
So, I began asking myself about the kinds of things that put people into funks, that make people unhappy to the point of depression? I mean the experience of unhappiness that rules more than the moment, but one which rolls forward into the future as far as the eye can see. Stephen Colbert caught hold of this idea in a recent monologue, telling off Hindus for their foolish belief that we live in a world where karma insures the victory of good and the demise of evil.
Through the waves of wackiness, it hit me that Colbert stumbled into something. What feeds cosmic gloom more than the realization that the wicked prosper at the expense of the good; liars at the expense of truth-tellers; brutes at the expense of angels? Worst of all, they always have and always will, and with shameless impunity. Colbert might as well have been channeling George Orwell, who in 1984 prophesied (as if of POTUS 45), “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But, how and why?
What gives “boot” its power is its ability to destroy hope. Hope is what gives people strength over against the smug assertions of power. Hope is, at least, the conviction that these things too shall pass—that in the end, the bully will fall in defeat, that the “boot” will crack and crumble. Herein lies what is hopeful in the Abrahamic tradition’s promise of a last judgment, while the Indian tradition posits a law of moral cause and effect—karma—that will deliver universal justice in its own inexorable way. Here, this universe of ours declares itself a world of ‘soul making,’ a place of moral trial and error, where transgression is punished and virtue rewarded—a place of where despair needn’t triumph eternally facing off against power.
And, even though both Abrahamic and Indic traditions offer a great deal more than the assurance of a just world, it is significant that they’re grounded in a fundamental sense of hope in the ultimate wisdom of the pursuit of virtue. Indeed, human hope depends on our belief in a morally meaningful universe—whether this results from personal divine intervention or impersonal natural moral law, such as karma.
What has this to do with the Trump Funk? Quite simply, every time Trump flaunts the norms of decency; every time he lies, bullies, insults, or demeans; every time he heaps scorn on the broken and vulnerable; every time he prosecutes another desperate, asylum-seeking refugee; every time he uses a Stormy Daniels or Karen McDougal, only then to shutter them up with another NDA; every time his booted feet trample another human face—and he gets away with it—Trump forces us to fear that hope is vain, that might makes right, that the victorious write history, that winning is all that counts. He forces us to concede victory to the abyss.
For those confident in the coming of Judgment Day or in the frictionless workings out of karma, there is naught to be done but wait for history to unfold its glorious purposes. But, for those unsure of history’s providence, what then is to be done to pull that brutal boot off humanity’s collective face? How do we restore hope, and lift the human spirit out of the pit of the Trump Funk?
Not surprisingly, if history will not push that boot off the human face, then people, acting together, must seize control of history and do so for themselves. This is why the true purpose of a humane politics is to make hope live in every human heart by guaranteeing that the virtuous prosper and the wicked do not. This is how we regain our hope in a future and climb out of the pit of Trump Funk. Alleluia!