Participatory democracy was always an experiment, but somehow, here in the United States, it has survived. Certainly there have been some rough patches, none more dire, destructive, or disheartening than the Civil War. But that was 150 years ago, and since then despite two world wars, the great depression, Viet Nam, and 9/11, we have managed to muddle through.
I’ll concede that was before 62 million American voters thought it might be fun to put a buffoon in the White House and provide him with the opportunity to gather more buffoons, a gaggle of clowns, and a parliament of jackasses around him. These days even muddling through seems daunting, let alone moving the country forward in any meaningful way, and that may be a real danger. Around us (and sometimes I think we forget this) nations are advancing in fields important to us, while here the environment, education, health, taxes, and (after this week) human rights sit cooling on the back burner while we absorb the inane narcissism of Donald Trump and his coterie of sycophants.
But maybe a week as absurd as this one, where even decorum and decency have been assailed, should lift our spirits, not only because the current presidency is probably unsustainable, but because more than half a millennium ago, medieval thinkers had this all figured out. Anyone who remembers those dreadful British Literature classes (and yes, I taught some of them) may remember a writer named Geoffrey Chaucer. (Have you returned your classroom copy of The Canterbury Tales yet?) Chaucer, who was born in 1343 and lived a rather long 67 years, wrote during a time when men’s lives were thought to be dictated by the humors—bodily fluids that determined personality. The belief endures today in the sense that we still use words like sanguine to denote optimism, bilious to indicate ill temper, and phlegmatic to describe the slug who can’t get out of his own way. Even melancholia can be a result of a fluid imbalance.
Also important during Chaucer’s time was a widely held belief that the rising and falling of human experience was the province of the wheel of fortune. People were either ascending or descending, passing from moments when everything was sunshine and roses to those where low clouds and rain dominated and dampened the weeds. Man’s destiny had less to do with his own actions than with the capricious workings of this mythical wheel.
What Trump does with his bodily fluids is not something I care to consider (in fact I’m a bit nauseated at having written that sentence), but his place on the wheel is significant. I would contend that he has been descending since November, and that the descent has been accelerating in recent weeks: Jeff Sessions, the Boy Scout embarrassment, au revoir Spicer, health care failures, party revolts, the transgender pronouncement, and finally Scaramucci’s unsettling vulgarity.
The problem is, the rest of us seem to have been on the same side of the wheel and heading in the same direction.
But if that’s true, maybe we’ve already reached the bottom and turned the corner. (Yes, no corners on a wheel, I know, but we could still be ascending while the halfwit continues to sink.) Every day Trump becomes more self-destructive, burns a few new bridges, alienates a few more followers and party members. These are all good signs. If the rest of us can remain sanguine while our bilious and phlegmatic president self-destructs—if we can let him reach the bottom and repair to Mar-a-Lago permanently before he initiates a nuclear war with Finland or Sardinia, our participatory democracy may survive this test also.