By Joe Lamport
High in a hilltop meadow in Nova Scotia, overlooking the basalt reaches of the Bay of Fundy, it’s possible to contemplate the Age of Trump, without inducing the usual gag reflex from the onrush of outrage and bile.
The Canadians we find ourselves amongst are warm and sympathetic hosts who have attained a far more measured outlook on the bizarre turn of events in the lower 48—this too shall pass, they assure us. It reinforces our gratitude for having come north to this tranquil spot, far removed from the daily barrage of breaking news and fake news alike.
From here it is easier to see this moment for what it is, without feeling crushed by the negativity it engenders. We have entered a darkly farcical stage in the drama of American public life. It is Brechtian in the sense it is characterized by an equal share of buffoonery and corruption; Suki Tawdry and Jenny Diver both being on intimate terms with Donald Drumpf. Of course, low and darkcomedy have always been an important element in American popular culture, as evidenced by such long running successful franchises as the National Enquirer and The WWF. But in the Age of Trump this mode of discourse has achieved ascendency.
Bathos rules the airwaves. It turns out that the market for public discourse is subject to something akin to Gersham’s Law, as a result of which the value of our public discourse has undergone abject debasement.
This, as I remember learning in college, is one of the rules of farce as a genre—all the participants in a farce are eventually dragged down to the same low level. Not just the sycophants, like Mnuchin and Cohen, but also the sparring partners, like Joe and Mika. You could hear the same principle at work in the recently released transcript of the post innagural call Trump placed to Enrique Nieto, in which the American president ably ensnared his Mexican adversary in his trademark brand of radical idiocy.
Sooner or later everyone looks ridiculous. Ridicule simply replaces reason and commentary. When you fight a buffoon you become a buffoon, even if you lay him bare.
This farcical turn of events has been deeply unsettling to many of us. Ever since the election we’ve been walking around with a bad hangover that just wont go away, no matter how long we meditate or how much herbal tea we drink. As citizens of a hegemonic world power, we are accustomed to thinking that what happens in our public life should be dignified and of real consequence, both domestically and abroad. How strange it is to become a laughingstock to the world, how disruptive to our sense of well being.
In other words, what is happening now in the U.S. has all the hallmarks of being a major social and political crisis. Trump is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem. What began as a financial crisis in 2008 has festered and morphed into contagion that has seriously destabilized the political order. The system, which long maintained stasis through alternating two party rule, seems to be breaking down and nobody knows if it will end up being damaged beyond repair.
Trump is merely a catalyst or accelerant speeding the system’s demise. Or sticking with the contagion metaphor, Trump is the vector by which the disease of disaffection has spread from the margins to the mainstream of society. It is a debilitating condition which may result in a complete loss of confidence and the knack for self-governance.
I don’t mean to sound full of doom and gloom. From this mountain-side meadow in Nova Scotia, the view is quite breathtaking—the panorama spans across three or four different vistas, each with its own story to tell. As I sit here writing, two hummingbirds are working over the hydrangea by my side, accompanying my thoughts with a pleasant occasional low register hum.
Already it is evident how much good can come from this most unfortunate turn in our public life. I’m not speaking about the eventual political outcome because frankly I have no idea how events in Washington are likely to play out. The positive outcome I’m thinking about is on a more personal level. In a time of political and social crisis, each of us faces the challenge of renewing our understanding and connection to the society we live in. The old world order is most likely irretrievably lost, which means this is a good time for us to think about the world we really want to live in and consider what we can do to make it happen.
There is another more spiritual way to appreciate the unique quality and opportunity inherent in the present moment.
We find ourselves cut adrift from both our past and future. The Age of Trump heralds a break in our sense of historical continuity. We have lost our connection to a stable social and political order. At the same time, the specter of climate change hangs as a dark cloud over the prospects for our collective future.
Bereft of a strong connection to past or future, we have no recourse but to come alive to the present tense.
This of course is the very place that sages and wise folk (from the Buddha to Thoreau) have long urged us to direct our attention. In a way then we should be grateful that world events have thus conspired to make our spiritual quest that much easier to accomplish.
Joe Lamport is a writer and translator and a fellow traveler of the Middle Way. His spiritual practice is intimately connected with the translation of classical Chinese poetry, including the Buddhist inspired poetry of Bai Juyi and Wang Wang Wei. He has several published books to his credit, including most recently an all verse translation of The Adventures of Monkey King, by Wu Cheng En (you can read the first chapter of his translation which was published online by Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation here: The Birth of Monkey King). In addition, his translations of Tang poetry have been published extensively online and in print, as he previously served as a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. He has written a short essay on Tang poetics, which was published here: A Journey into the Yu Gong Valley. Follow him on Twitter and check out his personal blog, http://lampoetry.blogspot.com.
Editor: Dana Gornall