Alternate Title: “3,000 Self-Indulgent Words About My Feelings”
My wife and I learned different things about feelings when we were growing up. My wife was taught that, “Whatever feelings you’re feeling are okay.” (It was how you acted on your feelings that mattered.) Whether billowing anger or rapturous joy, she was raised to let those feelings happen, without self-criticism or external judgment, regardless of how they arose. Her job was to ride those feelings out and then make good choices.
I, on the other hand, was raised by two philosophy professors who were great fans of Thomas Aquinas. Although I don’t think anyone ever sat me down for a talk about “feelings,” it is not surprising that I ended up believing something rather different: emotions can be disordered, irrational, improper, and just plain wrong. We might not be directly responsible for our feelings—we can’t turn them on and off at will—but, if you’re looking at a mass grave and experiencing joy, there’s something wrong with you. Even if you go on to do the right thing (good for you), that emotion you felt was wrong, and you need to take steps to make sure that you don’t feel that way the next time you see a mass grave. To me, one of the signs of a fully developed human being is that he evolves beyond simply riding out disordered emotions; instead, he stops experiencing such emotions altogether.
So I was alarmed when I woke up the morning after Election Day and discovered that I felt… pretty good, actually!
After all, I had just spent the past nine months making the case that Donald Trump was unfit to be President of the United States. During the primary, this blog became a chronicle of the campaign to stop him. After he won, I kept defending #NeverTrump and trying to remove him. Less than a week before the election, I published a post entitled, “For the Record, Trump is Evil”, in which I derided him as a moral monster whom the ethical voter should not elect to the post of dog-catcher, still less the highest office in the land. Unfortunately, I thought the same of Mrs. Clinton, which left me in something of a bind—so I spent the final days of the election bending over backwards to try and find an ethical way to oppose Mrs. Clinton without supporting Mr. Trump. When Election Day arrived, still undecided, I stalled: I didn’t show up at the polls until just an hour before they closed, and then I spent twenty-five minutes agonizing over my choice (which was between third-party candidate Mike Maturen and the Republican slate of electors).* I soon thereafter sent a piece to The Federalist arguing that the Electoral College had a duty to reject Donald Trump in favor of some other conservative, because of Trump’s manifold moral and legal failings.
So the election of Donald Trump should have made me feel awful. Other than the little bit of schadenfreude I gleaned from reading Paul Krugman and Rachel Maddow and the New Yorker in complete meltdown—yeah, the expansive, take-no-prisoners culture war you started isn’t so fun when you’re losing, is it, guys?—the American future I forecast under President Trump was bleak. I expected (in no particular order) corruption, recession, realignment, war, big government, racism, violence on all sides, incompetence, the surrender of social conservatives on all the issues that really matter (while simultaneously turning back the clock on human decency under the guise of fighting political correctness), classlessness, lawlessness, end-runs around the Constitution, deficits as far as the eye can see, brand new threats as yet unimagined, and a myriad of other evils. In fact, I still expect all these things: my pre-election outlook on Trump has changed only a little. All this, my Thomist training told me, should have left me bereft and horrified. I shouldn’t have been feeling schadenfreude while reading Anna Merlan, I thought; I should have felt more or less the same awfulness she was feeling (credit where due: her piece, “It’s Okay To Feel Terrible Before You Feel Anything Else”, inspired the title for this post).
But the weeks passed. The schadenfreude faded, and I still felt fine.
Trump made it clear he planned to continue to beclown himself with celebrity feuds even as President. Russia’s increasingly clear interference in our election added a whole new dimension to a foreign policy chess game not a single person in Washington was equipped to play—least of all the President-elect. I kept feeling fine.
I watched Gods of Egypt, as promised, and it was an abomination before God and Man. The Electoral College betrayed its duty and elected Trump despite everything. The dumb caricatures of GOP policy Trump ran on (when we could have had the policies of a Paul or a Rubio or a Cruz! Auugh!) didn’t get less dumb after his election. If anything, they became more confused. And, even then… I felt fine.
I’ve seen scant evidence that Trump has developed a single virtue since the election, but I have seen an awful lot of evidence that Republicans, from the grassroots to the pinnacle of the Senate, are more willing to aid, abet, and generally cover for him (now that he’s “our” guy) than I ever imagined in my most cynical moments as a Republican. A once-great American party I once called home has permanently sullied itself, and I’ve scampered away to start a new political party—an effort which, I’m sad to say, isn’t going all that well at the moment! In short, everything is terrible.
Now, a lot of this did make me feel frustrated or dismayed. I was very cranky for a day after the Electoral College voted. Yet, through all of it, my basically okay feeling remained. This, in turn, made me feel awfully guilty: how dare I feel good while staring at the political equivalent of a mass grave? What the hell is wrong with me? I’m not my wife! I don’t think it’s okay to just feel my feels whatever they may be!
During the run-up to Inauguration Day, I was forced to think about it more and more. Why wasn’t I more enthusiastic about impeaching the new President? Why wasn’t I feeling more ashamed for my country as he prepared to take the Oath? No longer able to set my feelings aside, I examined them more closely, and realized a couple things.
For one, it turns out a lot of what I’m feeling isn’t happiness. It’s just relief. The imminent, even inevitable, presidency of Hillary Clinton had weighed on my chest for months.
Actually, scratch that: I resigned myself to President Hillary Clinton way back in 2012, because I thought President Obama’s “blue wall” gave Clinton a structural advantage that even a real Republican like Rubio or Fiorina would have a tough time overcoming. When Trump secured the nomination, my hope of victory died, but it had never been strong to begin with. I had this vivid mental image (read: nightmare) of President Hillary Clinton naming Barack Obama to fill Justice Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, with Goodwin Liu as a chaser when Clarence Thomas died. Of Catholic schools (like the one I work for) and convents and hospitals being threatened with destruction unless they abandoned their Catholic identities. Of the First Amendment going away for good, in more ways than one. (Mrs. Clinton did not hide her disdain for pro-1A decisions like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby.) Of gender ideology spreading to every corner of society, not through debate and cultural change but through imperial mandates and threats of defunding and blacklisting and jailing. Of Obama’s imperial presidency continuing to expand into a monarchy while a rapturous press corps did nothing but cheer. Of continuing persecution for me and mine through the organs of the unaccountable federal bureaucracy, with no check in sight. Above all, I imagined a lot of babies being killed by the abortion machine, even as President Clinton destroyed the Hyde Amendment and put us taxpayers directly on the hook for mass murder.
I was going to fight like an archangel to stop all this from happening, but I didn’t expect to succeed. I thought Clinton would be the next President no matter what we did. (Trump supporters reading this are probably thinking that makes me a cuck, but I think fighting for a lost cause, never surrendering, is noble.) So, by the time Clinton got around to losing, I had been carrying the dread of her presidency around with me for four years. I had no idea how much that quiet, resigned horror affected me until it was, suddenly, gone.
It’s okay to feel relieved about that. It’s not disordered. It’s actually pretty reasonable. I’m not saying you have to. I have plenty of friends, including conservative friends, who are feeling various shades of despair, anger, and simple shame today. Given how awful Trump is, I think those feelings are entirely justified, even if I find, to my surprise, that I don’t share them. But hear me out:
You look at the Orange Menace on the presidential dais and say, “Okay, yes, he’s a perilous, predatory Putin puppet who proudly posed for Playboy, but he’s not going to destroy whole orders of nuns for declining to join the Left’s Permanent Sexual Revolution.”
“…but he isn’t going to repeal the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.”
“…but, when he brazenly ignores the rule of law to advance narrow political ends, he isn’t going to be able to get away with it quite as easily as President Obama and the Clintons always did.”
I can stack those “buts” all day. There are dozens—hundreds—of catastrophes Clinton vowed to inflict on us in her own campaign materials, and (unlike Trump) you could actually take her word for it when it came to policy. And then, in one remarkable night, those catastrophes all went away.
We are left, instead, with Trump.
There are a lot of bad things you can say about Trump. I said some of them, above. Now let me say a few more:
Trump could start a nuclear war that kills us all. I’d trust Fake Drunk Nixon with the nuke codes sooner than I’d trust Trump with them—and, yet, here we are.
Trump could be the most corrupt president in history. In the country where Warren G. Harding was once president, that’s saying something.
Trump could be the most ethically-compromised president in history. In the country where William Jefferson Clinton was once president, that’s saying something.
Trump could be the president who does the most damage to the unity of the country itself. In the country where James Buchanan was once president, that’s saying something.
Trump could be a (not-so-)secret fascist who is just waiting for an opportunity to sweep aside the checks and balances of the Constitution and impose a permanent, autocratic political order on us—and has perhaps the best chance of succeeding when he does. In the country where Woodrow Wilson was once president, that’s saying something.
Trump could start torturing U.S. prisoners of war, in serious violation of domestic law, international law, and the moral law. At one point, he promised to do just that.
Trump could start murdering the families of suspected terrorists in cold blood, in serious violation of domestic law, international law, and the moral law. At one point, he promised to do just that.
Trump could abandon the commitments he’s made to the protection of the unborn, leaving them worse off than ever when a Democrat, inevitably, one day retakes the Oval Office. He’s taken so many positions on abortion and judicial nominees that you can pretty much take your pick!
This list could go on for a while. If you are a progressive who was counting on continuing the string of culture war victories achieved during the Obama presidency, it could go on almost forever—although that’s true of any Republican president.
But notice what every item on this list has in common: it’s all “coulds.” Maybes. Possibilities. With a man of Trump’s low moral character, even his most fervent promises evaporate at a tiny gust of political wind into dreams. We really have very little idea of what Trump is going to do in office. U.S. trade policy is probably going to take a turn, but U.S. trade policy is not the burning issue of my life that keeps me up at night, sick with dread. It’s pretty reasonable to allow the possibility that none of my worst fears will actually come to pass. Same goes for some of your worst fears, too: we don’t know what his immigration policy will actually be, we don’t know what his health care policy will actually be (a fact which is driving House Republicans crazy), we don’t know how serious he is about shielding himself against an emoluments clause prosecution. We can be pretty certain he’ll be a gigantic flaming amoral scuzzball, but we’ve been through that before and come out okay; one prays we can weather that storm again.
For me, there have already been good signs that my worst fears will not come to pass: Secretary of Defense Mattis had a talk with Trump and apparently changed his mind on torture—then promised the Senate he would refuse any presidential order to the contrary—so Trump’s torture promise has largely dissipated. Trump’s judicial commitments, by contrast, have turned out to be solider than I expected: the word is that his leading candidate to fill Justice Scalia’s seat was none other than Sen. Ted Cruz (who turned him down; Cruz still thinks he can be president), and his second choice is rumored to be Judge William Pryor, a very solid jurist. Trump’s cabinet is full of people who wouldn’t be my first choice, but, at the same time, every one of them so far looks like an improvement on his or her predecessor.**
Above all, they all seem strangely normal. They have pretty typical cabinet résumés. They have a wider range of views than, say, the George W. Bush cabinet, but none of them are shocking, except maybe Steve Bannon. Democrats are attacking them on pretty typical, opportunistic grounds, and Republicans are defending them on pretty typical, opportunistic grounds. The typical minor scandals are emerging, perhaps a bit more than usual because the nominees were so hastily vetted. If these are the people who are going to run the Trump Government, it’s not crazy to imagine the next four years might be a pretty typical four years of Republican rule.
None of this is to say that I expect the Trump presidency to go well. I don’t. That list earlier? “Corruption, recession, realignment, war,” et cetera? That’s still my prediction. For good or ill, the man’s an unprincipled, sociopathic demagogue, and—spoiler alert!—that usually ends up more ill than good. But the future under Trump, today, remains very uncertain. It could be very good; it could be very bad; and there’s a very large middle ground where the Trump Administration is just kinda okay with a side order of cruddy—a one-step-forward/two-steps-back grind, much like every presidential administration since I was born in 1989. The future under Clinton, on the other hand, was deadly certain: it promised to be the final catastrophe that did in everything I believe in for a generation or more.
With all this very much on my mind, I sat down to watch Trump’s inaugural address today. It was a decent speech, following a messianic narrative quite typical of inaugural addresses, most clearly evoking Reagan’s 1981 inaugural but with strong strains of Obama’s 2009 address, and even a few hints of Roosevelt ‘33. It was not the speech I wanted to hear. I am sick to the teeth of presidents who think themselves Messiahs, and Trump is the poorest exemplar yet. Nevertheless, I still felt okay. And, on closer examination, I discovered that I wasn’t just feeling relief.
There were mountains of relief, of course. Whole kilos of it feel like they’ve rolled off my body since Election Day.
But there was just a whisper of something else. Something I haven’t really felt in American politics in over a decade. Something that could vanish again in a heartbeat like a passing fever dream—and, frankly, probably will. Something I never, ever expected to feel while watching a Trump speech:
I felt hope.
And that’s okay.
*It doesn’t matter which I decided, in the end, because I could have just as easily gone the other way. Decide whether you’d hate me more for voting for Trump or for Maturen, and then assume I did the one you’d hate more. Either choice was shameful, in its own way, I have readers on both sides of the question, and no light to shed on the question of which choice was best under the circumstances.
**Even if you question Betsy DeVos’s competence—not unreasonable!—it would be tough to be a more intrusive, overbearing overregulator than either of President Obama’s EdSecs, John King and Arne Duncan. Obviously your mileage will vary if you are a progressive… but that conservatives uniformly consider them an improvement and progressives uniformly consider them awful, all for the usual reasons, just underlines how weirdly normal this all is.