I have a weird obsession with death. It’s a quirk of personality that has taught me just as much about other people as myself.
When I was younger, I thought there was something wrong with me. No one else spoke about the topic. I was the only one who seemed interested in it.
It was only as I got older, had a near-death experience, and became religious, that I started to discover that there were some people who shared my fascination. In the last few years, I’ve attended “Death Cafes”, and even started reaching out to others with near death experiences.
But as time has passed, and I’ve tried to find more people to engage with discussions around the most clear, the most obvious, thing that will happen to all of us, I’ve found myself even more fascinated by those who don’t want to discuss it. For the first time, I’ve started to wonder if perhaps they are the abnormal ones.
After all, they seem in complete denial. Like magic, they can’t bring themselves to even think about what they are destined to experience. It’s almost like death doesn’t even exist to such people, as if I am speaking a foreign language. Or more like I’m speaking about a foreign thing they’ve never even come into contact with.
I used to think this was just about death. A natural reaction to that which is so existentially worrying that in order to keep our sanity we must build barriers around the obvious to keep it out.
This election, however, has taught me otherwise.
I remember first writing about Trump during the primaries. Back when people were starting to realize he had to be taken seriously as a contender. Most Republicans were disgusted by him, and were speaking out against the danger of this man.
Republicans, from the people running to the people voting to the pundits, were saying that this man was a danger to democracy, that he was a vile narcissist, that he had to be stopped.
Ted Cruz, for example, said:
This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying.
He accuses everybody on that debate stage of lying. And it’s simply a mindless yell. Whatever he does, he accuses everyone else of doing. The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.
But there was also a refusal to believe the man had a chance. No matter how high his poll numbers got, no matter how abysmal everyone else’s were, no matter how obvious it was that having 12 other challengers would split up any opposition vote… people kept believing this man had no chance.
I used to think that this was a function of people being confused by Trump’s buffoonery, that they allowed themselves to think that somehow voters would care about such things.
But as time passed, things quickly changed. Trump won a few states. People dropped out. And the alarmism ticked up among the Republicans. The warnings got worse, stronger.
And then he won.
And there was quiet.
Conservatives who had issued the direst warnings of Trump’s rise suddenly seemed unworried. Some seemed even encouraged.
Ted Cruz, the man who had said all those incredibly powerful, true, things about Donald Trump, who had stood up to him by standing up in front of a crowd of Republicans looking to unify at their convention, and implored people to, “vote your conscience,” eventually, incredibly, unbelievably, endorsed Trump.
But Cruz wasn’t an exception, and it wasn’t limited to politicians. It seemed like the conservative voters I knew had become different people. They weren’t scared anymore. They weren’t worried. They started to say the things that have now become commonplace: he’d pivot, he’d change, he didn’t think he’d win the nomination but now that he had he’d take the responsibility seriously.
This change didn’t only happen among people who cravenly wanted to win the race no matter what the cost. More the opposite, if anything. These were people who were faced with what they had feared, and who were so unable to handle it that their minds tricked them into thinking it wasn’t as bad as they had first imagined.
How else to explain the way people would constantly shift their wrath to Hillary, as if seeing the faults in someone negates the utter evil in another? How else to explain the fact that their being proven wrong over and over again about Trump “normalizing” himself had absolutely no effect?
Only a mind that cannot handle the truth it’s being given would react in such a way. In the same way a person can go his or her entire life without thinking about the certainty of death, even when the evidence of it surrounds them, even when those close to them pass away, people simply could not see the danger of Trump because their minds had tricked them into refusing to see it.
Of course, it could be argued that none of this is the case, that people normalizing Trump could just be because he is normal, or because they are that hateful that they’re willing to hurt millions of people to get their way.
I certainly thought so, which is why I was so shocked at my conservative friends. Why were they not as terrified of a man whose phone had to be taken away from him by his staff during the last week of the campaign so he wouldn’t impulsively write anything petty or angry on Twitter that would hurt his chances at being president? How could they be fine with a presidential candidate saying they may not accept the results of the election? These weren’t things that had anything to do with race or hate, just with preserving the very system they claimed they wanted to make great again.
This bizarre response only made sense to me after the election ended. And suddenly, I saw something I hadn’t expected.
This exact pattern has now occurred among many of our friends who have been fighting Trump tooth and nail. They no longer seemed scared of the things that had terrified them only a day earlier.
They went through a sudden change, a sudden, almost dead, calm. Quiet.
This response has disturbed me more than any protest or riot.
Yes, it’s easier to be alarmed about those things. They are what people tend to notice, since they are loud.
But I can’t help but notice the deafening quiet coming from the rest of us. The sudden, immediate belief that everything will be okay just because Trump won, as if something happening which we once imagined was impossible must mean that it will all be okay.
In other words, they are acting exactly like the Republicans who were disturbed my Trump during the primaries. No more alarm. No more anger. No more fear.
This is not normal. To have something you are deeply afraid of come to pass should not make you completely calm, suddenly unable to see the dangers you once feared with all your heart.
Some of the most famous columnists who fought Trump reflected this perfectly. David Brooks, a vocal conservative opponent of Trump, wrote an impotent piece saying that proclaimed, “the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year.” I’ve heard others say the same thing, as if there is any evidence that the Republican-controlled Congress that have by and large laid down and allowed Trump to eat them alive would say a word if he did anything unconstitutional.
Nicolas Kristof, also a writer for the New York Times, and one of the most liberal writers on the planet, suddenly acted as if everything he believed, everything he had warned about in his writing, might not actually come to pass, proclaiming that we should “grit our teeth and give President-elect Trump a chance.”
The notable exception in the New York Times was Charles Blow, a person who, as a black man and a prominent journalist, is one of the people most in danger of a Trump presidency, who sounded the exact opposite as his colleagues, proclaiming, “I respect the presidency; I do not respect this president-elect. I cannot. Count me among the resistance.”.
What would explain such polar opposite reactions? How could some call for sudden calm despite their dire predictions of Trump’s presidency, and others be even more alarmed, peaceful people claiming they will join “the resistance”?
Because Blow is in immediate danger. Kristof and Brooks are not. They have the luxury of letting their terror subsume into denial. They are able to fool themselves. Blow cannot.
And these men all reflect what is happening our country, what has happened among the Republicans, is now happening among those who resisted Trump, and has happened throughout history when the things we most fear, like the rise of a demagogue, come to pass: either passive, calm denial, or utter fear.
Death. Death is the template for what has happened, and it should become the template for what is about to happen.
I have heard a hope among my anti-Trump friends that America will wake up to the danger of Trump after he shows his true colors. He will fail the economy, he will hurt innocent people, he will break alliances, he will just be a plain buffoon, and people will finally see and regret either their support or their flaccid acceptance of the man.
It’s time to let go of that hope. If we follow the template of what has happened above, then we can see that for most people, the priority will be not making their own lives uncomfortable, not questioning the reality that has been presented to him.
In fact, the biggest danger we face is not just Trump’s actual presidency. It is what most countries face when a strong man takes power and finally actually does things: that he will have unprecedented support. There are, after all, a huge group of people that aren’t scared at all of what Trump plans to do, but who are hoping for it actively. Those people, as earlier, will power him and his popularity, and the rest will choose not to see what is in front of them.
We, as well, will be tempted to go that way. How many of us actually want this feeling dread? This sickness in the pit of our stomachs? The fear that comes with seeing the danger others refuse to accept?
I’ve felt that temptation creep in, that feeling that I just want to finally let go of all this and reconnect with my friends in the way we did before, as if none of this ever happened, as if it’s not happening now, as if every word I had said before was just empty and I was wrong. There is nothing more that I want to be wrong.
I also don’t want to die, though. But I will. And so will all of us.
The difference, then, is how we respond to reality.
In the latest episode of Westworld (no spoilers, friends, I promise), the creator of the most advanced AI on the planet describes how he has designed his robots to not see that which causes them to question their reality, anything that will cause them to feel incredible pain at the nature of their reality. They literally cannot see that which will cause them pain. And so they go about their lives, repeating the same day over and over, as if the world has not changed, and all is well.
It turns out that we humans seem to have the same function within ourselves.
But perhaps there is a message in this: that when we succumb to this function, we become less than human. We, in fact, lose an essential part of our humanity: the ability to see reality for what it is, in its unvarnished ugliness and beauty, so that we can be empowered to change it.
After all, if we cannot see that which is wrong, we can never fix it. And this is the lesson here: having optimism that things will all turn out for the best is not true hope. Hope lies in self-empowerment. In knowing that yes, things are as scary as we imagined. But that we, even now, have the power to change it.