An Optimist Struggles in the Era of Trump

One of the critiques that has been leveled against Ta-Nehisi Coates by white pundits is that he doesn’t provide us with a sense of optimism or hope. You can watch Coates respond to that at the end of his interview with Stephen Colbert. He basically says, “that’s not my job.”

As someone who seems to have optimism built in to my genetic code, that is something I’ve felt from Coates for a long time. But I’ve tried to hang in and understand his perspective.

Lately, I’ve been struggling to maintain optimism myself. Especially over the last couple of weeks, it feels like the outrages are coming at us faster than I can cope. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, but to give you a brief rundown, they include:

  1. Potential war with North Korea
  2. The very real possibility that Trump will pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement
  3. The divisive attacks on Black athletes
  4. Ongoing efforts by the administration to sabotage Obamacare
  5. The release of a tax cut framework that is loaded with benefits for corporations and the wealthy
  6. The fact that obsession with repealing Obamacare led to the expiration of CHIP
  7. The abuse of public service by Cabinet members and the resignation of Tom Price
  8. The tragedy unfolding in Puerto Rico and the president’s response
  9. The tragedy of the shooting in Las Vegas
  10. Today we learn that the Trump administration is developing plans to make it more difficult for poor people to receive food stamps and cash assistance.

Did I forget anything? All of that has come at us in the last week and a half. Is it any wonder that some of us feel overwhelmed? I can’t help but think of a line from one of Lily Tomlin’s characters: “No matter how cynical I become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

Perhaps it is foolish, but in the midst of all of that I’m watching the PBS documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on the Vietnam War. Doing so at a time like this has had a double-edged impact. On the one hand, it helps me understand why Coates, who has immersed himself in American history, finds it difficult to be hopeful.

Throughout the series, the narrator and interviewees have been pointing out that the Vietnam War divided this country in a way that it hadn’t been since just prior to the Civil War. We are once again hearing things like that. It is also striking that Trump is not the first modern president to attack the news media as liars and assume that there are nefarious forces behind those who are protesting. Both Johnson and Nixon did the same thing and often sounded a lot like the current occupant of the White House.

Last night I was watching the episode that covered the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970. It was noted that in a poll taken after those events, almost 60 percent of the public blamed the student protesters. I began to see that what we are living through today is not so much an aberration as it is part of the American fabric than I have been unwilling to admit to myself. When it comes to racism, that is what Coates has been trying to get us to grapple with.

On the other hand, I was reminded of something the great Molly Ivins wrote.

Things are not getting worse; things have always been this bad. Nothing is more consoling than the long perspective of history. It will perk you up no end to go back and read the works of progressives past. You will learn therein that things back then were also terrible, and what’s more, they were always getting worse. This is most inspiriting.

Leave it to Ivins to find something positive about the liberal tendency to focus on what’s going wrong in the world. But she has a point. As I’ve watched what happened in this country in the 1960’s, there has been an element of feeling uplifted by the fact that we’ve actually been through worse…and survived.

In that spirit, I’ll leave you with some advice from John Ward. He titles it, “A Survival Guide for Normal People” and recommends three things:

  1. 24-hour rule: wait roughly a day before reacting to any piece of news with any strong reaction or opinion.
  2. Pick one thing and become an expert on that one issue or area.
  3. Make time for beauty.

When it comes to #3, how about some beautiful music that is not only timely and was featured in the episode of The Vietnam War that I watched last night, but comes from both Tom Petty and Prince?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .