There should be a word—maybe a juicy, complicated German one—for the experience of living through a history that’s both tragedy and farce. It’s a feeling we’ve all come to know. What else could explain the psychic breakdown of American liberalism in the Age of Trump?
Surely you’ve noticed it, too. There’s the latest viral Resistance theory claiming to have divined the strategy behind Putin’s infinite-dimensional game of chess. There’s a Democratic Party establishment that, fresh from betting everything on Hillary Clinton, looked at Tom Perez and said “get this man on television.” There’s the mainstream media, caught between Maggie Haberman’s Twitter feed and a Morning Joe debate on whether Jarvanka can save us. Not even the jokes are funny anymore. Instead, there’s Stephen Colbert explaining why that bad thing you read about on your phone earlier in the day is, in fact, bad. See it whole and the tableaux looks, more than anything, kind of sad.
Viewed from another perspective, all this is just the latest in a long string of failures on the part of the American elite. This is the elite that spent the early Bush years announcing in its most serious tones that Iraq was a crucial front in the War on Terror, then moved on to insisting there was no way a downturn in the subprime market would spread to the rest of the economy, and capped it all off by laughing at anyone who thought Donald Trump could ever make it to the White House. Maybe it was unfair to expect that a group responsible for so many of the steps leading to this crisis would be able to do anything about it.
There should be a word, too, for the comfort to be found in taking refuge from all this—and in building solidarities that might allow us to make something better. It’s a curious emotion, this joy amid the ruins, but it’s one that a growing number of people are discovering. The trick is to hold onto it while acknowledging that if the path to a more just world were simple, we would have traveled it already.
It’s a question of balance, the type of balance contained in the phrase “democratic socialism”—socialist because it recognizes the profound insufficiency of lives measured in dollars and cents, democratic because it knows that to make a better society we have to persuade our fellow citizens to come along with us. It’s a radical vision, maybe a utopian one. But have you seen the alternative?