Stepping out of the black hole

I never intended to stop. I’d been blogging steadily for two years with two, sometimes three weekly posts about the city I love and the president I abhorred, with an occasional stray thought thrown in when all of a sudden – I just lost it. I’m afraid I can’t explain it any better than that. Probably only for myself, I’d like to try to explain it anyway. So here goes:

The Problem

I’m an engineer by day. I am way more comfortable speaking in numbers, flowcharts and diagrams, so much so that I’ve considered English my second language. My mind is constantly weighing things against each other, comparing them, finding where they are alike and different like puzzle pieces. My mind can’t rest until the problem is resolved, the puzzle complete.

At the same time, maybe for the same reasons, I’ve always been interested in politics – the place where plenty of smart people who’d all agree that g=32.2 ft/s^2 can’t agree whether $15/hr. makes us better or worse off. Why? I have to find out.

I’ve followed politics closely for years, and found it helped to think of political issues like physics problems – each has a mass and a velocity, and where/whether they accelerate to someplace else depends on the force pushing against them. A great politician can not only push hard on an issue and in the right direction, but also inspire others to join his/her cause as a force amplifier. Doing that on a variety of issues is a talent very few possess.

Democrats’ and Republicans’ differing perspectives on issues are like the Doppler effect, where the same noise sounds differently depending on whether it’s coming or going. What you hear depends on where you’re coming from.

Who we are as a country, then, flows from where we’ve been – all those collective experiences providing the momentum of our thinking on any given topic. Every four years, we decide on where it is we’d like to go next. We elect a leader to push us there – sometimes a slight course correction, sometimes full speed in reverse – and their options for where they can take us depend on where we were when they took the wheel in the first place.

The Trump Era

Enter Donald Trump. If American politics is like physics, then Donald Trump is a black hole. The laws of physics do not apply inside of a black hole. We don’t know what actually happens inside there. Things get weird. They distort and break down. They get chewed up and disappear. Yes. The more I think about this analogy, the more I like it. Donald Trump is a black hole.

What goes in, must…actually, no one knows what goes on in there. Least of all the guy in there. | Photos via Getty. Artwork by Sarah Rogers, The Daily Beast.

For me and every other political observer who’d spent time mapping out the laws of our prior political universe, this was extremely frustrating. Trump promised to raise rich people’s taxes – and Republicans cheered. Some of the very Americans who’d fought overseas to defeat dictators now cheered a candidate for excusing their atrocities. Trump lied not only about the color of his own skin and hair (and everything else) but also alienated Republicans and luxuriated in knowing nothing about average American life. He won anyway. Nothing mattered. Two plus two didn’t equal four.

I was drawn to this phenomenon precisely because it made no sense to me – my mind raced to solve the puzzle. I went to work with the tools I knew, arguing with Trump supporters in defense of the America – those self-evident, universal truths – I thought we all supported. I hit a wall. I’m guessing many of you know the feeling of running into this wall.

Swallowed by the black hole was the famous, America-defining quote on Ellis Island:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Ellis Island, a sight of indescribable joy to over 12 million immigrants to America between 1892-1924. It is a feeling many now seek to eliminate, and replace with a wall.

Gone was America the leader, pulling other countries up to our standard one by one through the likes of NATO, the UN, the WHO, or the WTO. Any kind of model for cooperation in the world would need led by someone else.

President Truman at Oval Office NATO signing ceremony, 1949.

Solving the puzzle

In the end, the new laws to describe what we all just lived through only make me depressed. Generosity, humanity, and boundless optimism as political superpowers are replaced by shamelessness and selfishness. Whosoever can authentically project himself as the cruelest, most inhumane asshole alive will wreak the untold powers of the black hole to take and take and take without giving.

I tried to remind myself: for those who aren’t so in love with the natural world as it exists (due maybe to a lack of success, or the perceived threat of success being stripped away by someone less deserving), the allure of the black hole must be strong. Having permission to choose your own reality (we’ll call it the imaginary number system) where a “disastrous” coronavirus response is actually a rousing success clouded only by devious public health experts and “losing” an election was really a landslide victory stolen by Democrats and Republicans and blood relatives and the rotting corpse of Hugo Chavez – is far preferable to the plodding, unexciting slog of real progress.

This was a hard realization for me. Even after Trump’s defeat and thus our escape back to the normal laws of physics, so many of my friends remain in the dark. These are people I love whom filter every fact through the prism of alternative reality, all while calling normal people who watch the news “delicate little snowflakes.”

I don’t want two realities. I worry of what it means for the health of the country. I’m also done letting those worries drown out the good I see right in front of me. I want to get back to enjoying Erie, PA for what it is – an absolute gem on the shores of the greatest country on Earth. So that’s what I’m going to do. I hope you’ll join me. When our friends want to step out of the hole and back into the real world we’re working so hard to build up, I for one will welcome them with open arms.

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