Existential, as the word implies, has to do with existence. Our existence.
Indifference is somewhat easier to grasp, since the sentiment of “I really don’t care” is so frequently on common display in America – most recently in large letters on the back of First Lady Melania Trump’s jacket.
Still, it isn’t accurate to say that we simply don’t care about the values, principles, and issues we hold to be important. For many of us, it’s more appropriate to describe our indifference in terms of being overwhelmed, confounded, even laid low by a comprehensive, intense, and unrelenting assault on those very values, principles, and issues that we once defined ourselves by. The hyper-nationalist, increasingly authoritarian, and deeply divisive discourse, policies, and direction in this country, as well as in once democratic (or quasi-democratic) countries like Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Turkey have grave consequences. We watch as Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam all sink deeper into authoritarianism. We see global inequalities rise more precipitously than ever before.
What does it take for ordinary citizens to withstand such a torrent of outrageous, destructive, self-serving, corrupt, often callous, and sometimes evil policies, actions, sentiments, language, and assumptions – and their dire consequences? What kind of ideologies can drive such disarray?
In the United States, labeling the politics of Trump, Pence, and Sessions as “ideologies” presumes a coherence, intelligence, and intentionality that would have to be more strategic and inspired than what we are confronting, yet the danger is no less real. Existential, even.
So, what’s the threat?
Well, the list is long…we could start (in no particular order) with human dignity and human rights. Trump regularly refers to human beings in language that denies any shared moral commitment to universal human dignity. He describes immigrants infesting our country, and members of the notorious MS-13 drug gang as “animals”. Human beings do not “infest”, and even hardened MS-13 gang members are still human beings (after all, we seek to prosecute those who are proven to be criminals because we hold that all human beings – and not animals – are obligated to act morally and in compliance with just laws). Even Hillary Clinton’s election campaign indiscretion of labeling some Trump supporters as “deplorables” spoke about their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamaphobic values, not their lack of human dignity. Trump, Pence, and Sessions have similarly ganged up to humiliate, malign, and deny the equal dignity and rights of between 4,000 and 10,000 patriotic US active-duty and reserve transgender military service members, not to mention those transgender persons who are aspiring recruits. The transgender phenomenon seems particularly troublesome to these and many other Republicans, as they also have acted to deny basic equal human rights and legal protections to transgender students, and to push back on transgender people accessing essential health care. Obviously in their eyes, some of us – including people just like me – are not quite human enough.
A second casualty of the current assault is truth itself. We have a president who seems to be incapable, or at least indisposed, to be truthful. Trump is on the record in saying that lying in public is acceptable. He lives this belief every day; the cascade of lies is nearly beyond the best fact-checkers’ capability to count that high. With truth so battered and eroded, day after day, we finally grow numb, even indifferent. We grow complacent, no longer expecting truth from those elected in positions of public trust. What’s “public trust”? A quaint notion, it seems.
A third casualty is compassion. This administration equates compassion with leniency, weakness, and a lack of virility. We’ve had the most graphic example this past week in the boldly callous Trump policy of separating the children of immigrants charged with illegal crossings along our southern border. The reality of innocent, vulnerable, distraught, traumatized young children and even toddlers being ripped away from their parents’ arms does not appear to elicit a scintilla of care, concern, or compassion from Trump, Pence, Sessions, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, or White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Most Republicans in Congress demonstrate their own callousness by their silence.
A fourth casualty is the cherished ideal of public service. As so poignantly summarized by the Washington Post, for the Trump administration “public service, in the form of a commitment to setting aside one’s own material interests at least for a time and focusing only on working for the good of the American people, is for suckers”. Granted, the whole notion of public service has been on the decline and out of public and political discourse internationally for some time, although thankfully some die-hard institutions such as the U.S. Peace Corps stubbornly still cling to that ideal every day, often in conditions of significant hardship abroad, and political indifference at home.
A fifth casualty is civility. I’m not alone among those Americans over 60 who acknowledge that in this country in our lifetimes we’ve never experienced such deep divisions, rancor, distrust, malevolent stereotyping, condescension, bigotry, racism, violence, and orchestrated hatred. While there have always been strongly diverse opinions and beliefs in the United States, we were all still first and foremost Americans. Now we have rank tribalism, and many – like me – wonder even what it means anymore to identify as American. Alas, Donald Trump was probably right; he really could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, without losing the loyalty of his base. Our public morality and shared ethics have crumbled – no surprise really since we have done so little for so long to promote and protect civility, decency, and secular ethics.
The casualty list goes on: global free trade, trusted international political alliances, venerable public institutions, and international human rights law. The negative consequences too are legion: the massive suffering of refugees, persistent poverty, wars and conflict, human trafficking, terrorism, the steady decline of democracy around the world, the opioid epidemic, the rise in oppression and violence directed at LGBTQ persons, domestic violence, misogyny, and gender-based violence. Not all of these can be laid at their feet, yet the Trump administration has a clear record of having exacerbated nearly all of these, and directly causing many of them.
The attrition is relentless. Those who have the power and position to stand up against this destruction instead choose indifference. Those of us who do not (yet) hold those levers of power persist as resiliently as we can in our resistance; we do our best to stand firm but the torrent is brutal. Every day adds new worries, as Trump administration policies, actions, dysfunction, and blatant lies corrode the very values and institutions that have made us who we were once proud to be.
As grave as all of these listed threats are, we now confront a challenge that overshadows them all. It’s an existential challenge, central to the longevity and sustainability of human life and civilization on this planet: our future, and the future of humanity everywhere.
Yes, I speak of that old chestnut of existential threat, also known as climate change. As threats go, it’s by now a painstakingly well documented one, the indicators are clear, and the consequences are already there for us to experience. As the Center for Biological Diversity notes, “we’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago”. With glaciers already melting, sea levels already rising, and air pollution levels largely going unchecked, the future trajectory is undeniably catastrophic.
Catastrophic is politically “inconvenient”; our president, his followers, many in the business community, and far too many Americans in general look to short term job gains and a slight uptick in economic indicators to justify ignoring an existential threat to us (and them), our (and their) children and grandchildren, to humanity itself. We make excuses, look the other way, and choose not to see those who are already falling victim to suffering and loss attributed to climate change.
The solution? We need the “good guys” – and girls – and we need them now. We lack ethical, intelligent, caring, and inspirational leadership that is far-sighted and responsible. And we need such leadership not just here in the United States, but around the world – with an intensity of purpose unmatched in human history.
It’s a tall order. It’s existentially important. And it’s the antithesis of Trump.