Working a big conference several years ago, I had the bad luck to stay in Las Vegas for a whole week. When you’re organizing large meetings, you’re the first one up and often you’re downstairs dressed and ready while other people are still asleep. So every morning at The Mirage, I’d leave my room in the tower and take the elevator down to the conference center at 5 a.m. To get there I had to walk through the casino. And it seemed I wasn’t the only one awake after all.
There they were, sitting at the slots or the bar, always with a cigarette burning and a drink next to them, not so much greeting the new day as sucking on the butt end of the night. Hopeless, exhausted, but with just enough energy left to throw away a bit more money in the hope that some magical turn of events would transform the lives they had so far completely fucked up. Hoping just this once to be “winners,” and tragically blind to the fact that this wish was, more than anything, what made them losers. It made me uncomfortable to look at them, frankly, and I hurried past without lingering on their pasty, sick-looking faces.
If you want to experience the very worst of human nature, step inside a casino. No matter how luxurious and elegant the surroundings, you can feel the energy: desperate, powerless, greedy. Deeply depressed. They say depression is anger turned inward, and you can feel the anger too. It’s no wonder that booze and cigarettes and stale food abound in these buildings—if you’re going to destroy yourself, you might as well speed things up as much as possible.
And so it seems to me that of all his sleazy business ventures, Donald Trump’s owning of a casino is the most appropriate of all. Because his promises as a candidate for President are the same as the promises of a casino: magical thinking combined with bad behavior will do wonders for your self-esteem. You’ll feel great about yourself by giving in to the worst in yourself. Through no fault of your own, you’ve been a loser, and here’s your chance to feel like a winner. Just give up all your real power, give up what really matters, and feel the rush as you toss it away!
This is what so many of our fellow Americans have come to. They believed in many things that turned out to be mirages, but mostly in a consumer culture that long ago learned how to push their buttons and promise them fulfillment in a new possession, a new experience, a new President… a new anything. The ego knows nothing but clinging and craving, and if you let it run amok it just strives to pour whatever it can into the gaping empty hole at the center of it.
There’s one thing the ego doesn’t know, can’t know by its very nature. That selfishness leads to self-annihilation. That the only way to get—to really get—is to give. That empathy and love are the only paths to salvation. That making someone else happy, improving someone else’s life, is the fastest way to improve your own. And that defending yourself, putting up a wall around yourself for your own protection, may feel like power but is really the most powerless thing you can do.
The Democratic Party is flawed, like every other human institution, but it has this going for it: it’s full of people who want to help other people have a better life. Often, the ways they go about doing this aren’t all that helpful. Often, they don’t live up to their own ideals. Hillary Clinton, who will almost certainly be their candidate, is a flawed and compromised human being who has made a lot of mistakes in her life—a life that has nonetheless been all about public service. Many people hate her for that, it seems. Or they see her as a phony who is all about personal ambition. Or someone whose presumption to know what is in the public good is deeply arrogant. Some of them, whether they know it or not, whether they are men or not, hate her for being a powerful woman who is completely unapologetic about it.
Many of those same people prefer the Republican party, with its “greed is good” ethos and its survival-of-the-fittest outlook. A party of government that does not believe anything good about government except its ability to recruit and train soldiers, and build weapons. A party that exalts triumph and “winning” above all other values. And large numbers of them prefer the party’s apparent standard-bearer Donald Trump, a man whose life has been about surrounding himself with the appurtenances of success. Fistfuls of money and tall buildings and gold lettering and porn-quality women on his arm. It’s the image of success on a billboard outside a casino, and it wouldn’t be there if it didn’t draw a crowd.
But there are other crowds. Huge numbers of legal and illegal immigrants who had the courage and willpower to leave their homes in search of a better life, and who have found it harvesting your food and cleaning the mess you left in your hotel room. Groups of people gathering in poor neighborhoods doing free repair work on weekends. People in support groups helping each other past their addictions and their trauma and their sheer loneliness. These people could be Republicans or Democrats, because individuals have more savvy and compassion and complexity than large organizations do. There are people of both parties who find themselves repulsed by Trump’s narcissism, his crudity, his lack of ideas, and his bullying that seems to shade more into facism every day. I’m talking about the rest of us, in other words, who haven’t given up hope just yet.
And so for the rest of us, hating on those Trump voters is not going to help us get past this grim national moment we’re having. These are our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors, who feel they’ve come to the butt end of the night and want to throw away civility, compromise, and maybe democracy itself in one last desperate throw of the dice. We have to stop them, of course. But somehow, we also have to help them. Not try to hurry past and ignore them, because they feel they’ve been ignored already and that’s part of the problem. Look them in the eye, talk to them, attempt to understand them, and then point out that there are better ways to “win” than this.