Staying Alert in Trump's America: Who is Our Neighbor?

This series will explore Masha Gessen's six rules for surviving in an autocracy. This post explores Rule #2: "Do not be taken in by small signs of normality." Click here to see Rule 1. 

I wake every morning. Donald Trump is still our president. He, Steve Bannon and Paul Ryan trust that, over time, I will get used to this. I suspect they also expect me to settle down now that all things Trump and Russia are in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller. They surely want this, and I might. I could. 

I so want to. I want everything to be alright, to be normal again.

But we must not—as Masha Gessen describes in her crucial essay, "Autocracy: Rules for Survival"—be "taken in by small signs of normalization."

I want a rest from the constant upheaval of the past few weeks. But we cannot have what we want. We cannot let either their relentless use of power to further their agenda or the steady exposure of scandal by ruthless, amoral men wear us down. We cannot let small acts or a quiet day fool us into thinking they have finally learned how to govern or how to be presidential or how to uphold the Constitution.

How, then? How do we prevent small signs of normalization from lulling us into accepting all this? My faith in Jesus shows me and keeps me awake to the dangers of this present moment. I hope He keeps you from being taken in, too.

Jesus teaches us—expects us—to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

It has become clear: All Donald Trump loves is himself. 

What Steve Bannon—still ensconced in an office right by the President and happy to be under our radar now—loves is his vision of American autonomy, what we commonly call nationalism. Across the world this is emerging as the aim of international conservative populism led by Vladimir Putin. It is known as "sovereignty." Putin and Bannon desire the same ends and follow the same gods to strong-arm influence for themselves in the world. They must delight in our present uproar which so serves their purposes. 

What the Republicans now in power love is empowering the rich and their corporations by lowering taxes, deregulation and dismantling any governmental function that serves anyone else. Will the nine Republicans crafting the Senate version of the American Health Care Act do any better than the House AHCA, a huge tax break for the rich masquerading as healthcare while dismantling it for millions? Nothing suggests that they will, as Congressional Republicans work to establish the AHCA tax break for the rich in preparation for massive tax reduction, again for the rich, masquerading as tax code reform. 

The Freedom Caucus, most Republicans, and certainly the Secretaries in Trump's Cabinet love their rich friends.

These are their neighbors and no one else.

No matter the presenting problem of the day or the outcomes of any one particular action, these fundamental commitments of the men in power remain. They undergird even actions we might desire (one that comes to mind is sustaining regulations on methane gas emissions) so even those are suspect. It is this drift to worshipping other gods, to classifying some neighbors as better than others, that is so dangerous.

Of course, human beings, Christians, Americans, have never perfectly loved God and loved our neighbors as ourselves. However, I would claim that we did learn a lesson from the carnage of the economic upheavals and world wars of the Twentieth Century. The world learned the answer to the follow-up question of the lawyer in Luke 10:29, "Who is my neighbor?" Everyone. 

In the last sixty years, American domestic policy intended, on the whole, to build the middle class, care for the needy, and ensure the basic rights of all. Republicans and Democrats definitely differed on how to do that best, but the underlying premise that we all have value was shared by all but a group of us who were deaf to the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. No more.

And since World War II international structures and treaties have, on the whole, contained the threat of nuclear war and facilitated our common welfare. Countries do have different levels of political and economic power (and the United States has been among the violators of international cooperation, to our shame). But for the most part, we have recognized that we all share the human enterprise of pursuing happiness. No more.

We can no longer assume that, in our country and across the world, we pretty much all agree that "my neighbor" includes everyone.

Remembering that is the best inoculation I have found against being taken in by small signs of normalization. And I have come upon a way to remind myself of this regularly. While watching Schindler's List on cable recently, I came upon the idea of making a list of Holocaust movies and watching them when I get the chance.

Escape from Sobibor, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, Naked Among Wolves, The Reader, Bent, The Devil's Arithmetic, The Counterfeiters, Woman in Gold, Playing for Time, later and with many more possibilities before me, the end game of any answer to Jesus' question other than "Everyone" is rooting itself in my soul. And Martin Niemoller's famous reminder that there will be no one left to speak up for us when the attack comes if we do not stand up for our currently-threatened neighbors keeps me alert to attacks upon others now. Of course, we cannot wait until the end game.

It also helps to remember that our country has, from the beginning, had a deep and strong penchant to dehumanize people. Africans were made "slaves," Native Americans, "savages," Chinese, "chinks," and some whites, "trash." I know you can think of more. The tendency to demonize has always been there.

It has just been stunningly empowered right now.

So, every morning as we rise, let's ask ourselves, "Who is my neighbor?" Will you, then, be taken in by small signs of normalization or appointment of a special counsel?

I trust not.

Photo by Darron Birgenheier

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