Love, Imagination, and the Void
A growing number of conservatives have publicly withdrawn their support of Donald J. Trump’s candidacy for President of the United States in reaction to an audio recording released this past Friday. On the recording, Trump boasts he is free to sexually assault women with impunity due to his fame. While Trump issued an apology and said his statements, made a decade ago, do not reflect his character, this was not enough to staunch the bleeding of Republican support over the weekend. As of this writing, Trump has not ceased his campaign, despite growing calls within the GOP for him to do so.
As for myself, I find relief to see the wind at last begin to blow away the Trump house of cards. His campaign for president, while never going higher than “highly improbable” in terms of succeeding, has nevertheless made for a fractious, vulgar, and often worrisome political season. Though it is all but certain that Trump will not be President of the United States, constituents who found their voice in him (and politicians who found him useful) remain with us. Still, we have, for a moment, averted what would certainly have been a national catastrophe of historical proportions. The Republic lives on another election cycle. While a Clinton administration may mean further decay and decadence, it will, at least, be a downhill tread and not a leap from a cliff.
There are many things worth pondering from the weekend’s events. One is, of all the many horrible things we’ve known Trump to have said and done—and continue to do!—why was this the last straw? From accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists to insulting John McCain for being a prisoner of war, from accusing military veterans of corruption and thievery to running a university as a pyramid scheme (and so much more), why this? Why now? We’ve already known about his attitudes and treatment of women. Just prior to the release of this recording, Trump was already embroiled in another controversy regarding sexist remarks. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the politicians abandoning Trump en masse have long seen the writing on the wall and have simply now found a convenient reason to extricate themselves. It’s a cynical thought to be sure, but the madness of this year warrants, and perhaps even excuses, the attitude.
Another thing worth pondering is to what extent our relationships are allowed to influence our lives. Saturday morning, as conservative politicians awoke to voters, journalists, and the internet mob demanding a response to the Trump recording released the night before, many men of prominence took to the web to declare their revulsion of Trump’s comments with a very similar refrain: “As the husband of a wife and the father of daughters, I find these comments offensive and unacceptable.” This wave in turn prompted a backlash of its own. Why must the remarks be offensive only when put into a personal context? Why isn’t the fact they are reprehensible in the abstract sufficient?
Rebecca Cusey, senior contributor at The Federalist, countered this backlash in a Twitter thread where she points out that humans are relational creatures. Our relational nature, established by God, is inherently and deeply good.
This is an important observation, and one I’d like to expand upon. Through our relationships with those in our personal lives, we are equipped to uphold and value the dignity of those outside of our sphere. We learn to love those in our own lives in a very real, non-abstract way, and in doing so, we learn to love strangers, people who existed to us only as hypotheticals. Thus, not only are our relationships sufficient motivation for outrage when hearing such vile comments, they may be the only possible means by which we may truly be outraged.
Relationships are part of the grammar of our lives; they give us meaning, order, and coherence. Relationships shape us, and they fashion our imagination and our loves. It is easy to accept or reject an abstract thought, but difficult to be offended and moved by it in a visceral way. This is something I’ve noticed in the past year with stories about the relationship of parents and children. When I read a story or watch a film that deals with the injury or loss of a child, I’ve always intellectually grasped the gravity and pain of the experience. I was sympathetic. However, it wasn’t until I had a daughter of my own that I began feel those pangs of loss and pain and guilt alongside the characters. Our real world relationships give life teeth. Without them, I doubt we would be moved by much of anything.
Another writer, Laura Turner, rebutted Cusey and complained that empathizing with the hypothetical person via our real relationships “lacks imagination.” I think we might as well complain that a new photo album just brought home from the store lacks pictures. Of what material are we to fashion our imaginations if not our experience? To have empathy ex nihilo is a miracle on the order of the creation of the universe and a feat beyond the means of mere mortals. It is an unfortunate failing of human beings that we must live our lives before we can interpret and apply that experience.
Perhaps this is how Trump lasted for so long: the victims of his public crudity were largely individuals with whom his supporters had no personal experience. How many know Mexican immigrants, legal or otherwise? Veterans, too, while easy to valorize and pay lip service to, are demographically a rarity; about seven percent of Americans have ever served in the military. It was a risky move to mock veterans, but the numbers might just have been in Trump’s favor. He mocked POWs and beauty models as well—they too are not a common feature of our personal lives. Now that he’s finally hit a group who just happen to comprise half of humanity and give birth to one hundred percent of it, the last vestiges of his base are withering away.
Or perhaps my theory of his supporters is total bunk. What remains, though, is the idea that relationships are not only a valid means to interpret abstract notions of personhood, but that they are likely the only way we can do so. If we live in a void, our imaginations will resemble that void.