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What Now? The Arts in the Era of Trump

By Steven Leigh Morris


Our oracles got the election wrong. All of them. Even Nate Silver. All that pontificating. All that blather. I wish I’d spent all that time wasted on the media reading poetry instead. Yeats, maybe. “In my beginning is my end.” At least Yeats is accurate. How are we supposed to know what we think we know is true?

For the first time in recent history, from a vote in which Hillary Clinton led the popular count by more than 200,000 votes across the nation, with 47.7% to Trump’s 47.5%, the Republicans will control the three halls of federal power: Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court. We were told, repeatedly, that the Electoral College was tilted towards the Democrats. The outcome was precisely the opposite. How are we supposed to know what we think we know is true?

This election’s outcome was not, as Paul Ryan put it, a “mandate that the country was going in the wrong direction” under Obama. It was the second example in 20 years of how our Electoral College has been at odds with the popular vote. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote against George W. Bush who, with U.S. Supreme Court intervention, became president. Imagine if Al Gore had been president instead. What if we’d used our diplomatic energies on climate change rather than invading a sovereign nation based on misinformation? How do we know what we think we know is true?

Despondency and fury are now abundant across this Blue State, but in all honesty, we don’t know much. So many of Trump’s utterances contradict the next, some defended by him as “just kidding.” He’s a New Yorker and former democrat. The Clintons attended his third wedding. We don’t know who he is, or what he really believes in. Admittedly, there is anxiety generated by the people with whom he surrounds himself, loyalists such as Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani. The prospect of Mr. “Stop and Frisk” Giuliani being up for the post of attorney general makes me sweat. That Forrest Lucas, the 74-year-old co-founder of oil products company Lucas Oil, is a top contender for Interior secretary is similarly disconcerting. And then there’s the pit-in-the-stomach from a potential theocracy, should vice-president-elect Mike Pence take over the presidency. This is all reason for apprehension but not necessarily despair – not yet. How are we supposed to know what we think we know is true?

Since our oracles failed us so monumentally, I’ll start with my late cousin Sheba. She died when she was in her 80s, some 20 years ago. Sheba was a more reliable oracle than Nate Silver, in my view. As a child, I grew up around Sheba on a Cotati, California chicken farm. She was a loving, generous pedant from Ukraine (when it was still Russia, and it may again be soon). Sheba was an old commie who would go up to the one black person in line at the Sonoma County Fair to introduce herself, in order to demonstrate that she wasn’t a racist, when in truth she was demonstrating precisely the opposite. She may have been a racist but at least she wasn’t a bigot. She meant well.

One line she repeated, as an anthem, still resonates from my childhood, and probably from hers: “Capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction,” a line she repeated in the 1980s when Reagan kept promising that the riches accrued by the wealthy through his tax policy (that allowed the wealthy to accrue as much wealth as possible) would trickle down throughout the society. We know how that went, but how do we really know what we think we know is true?

I was in Moscow when President Clinton rolled into the Kremlin to visit President Yeltsin. The ruble had just plummeted, resulting in the evaporation of personal savings accounts across the city. “Hang in there,” Clinton counseled the Russians. “Have faith in free markets.” This was around the same time that the Russians, like us, were seeing their social safety nets dismantled, their middle-class impoverished, while the oligarchs stashed their oil profits in Swiss bank accounts, and bought their second and third luxury condos in London.

The Russians at that time were tinkering with the idea of an independent press and the right to protest. That didn’t last long. Fingers crossed that we can continue to do better.

Since about 1980, we’ve all observed the reality of a “trickle up” theory, as the U.S. manufacturing base has fled the country for cheaper labor overseas. People who used to rely on $70k/year factory jobs at Chrysler, with retirement pensions, now have to listen to the feds boast that jobs are roaring back – $10/hour jobs at Jamba Juice and Walmart that won’t even pay the rent, let alone a living wage. The high tech and green energy industries still can’t fill the void from what’s been lost.

I have no idea what Trump has in mind to bring back meaningful jobs to the U.S., as he’s promised. Redistributing wealth from the 1% was cataclysmic in Russia, just about 100 years ago. Bernie Sanders, who made the peaceful, policy-driven redistribution of wealth a centerpiece of his election platform, may well be Trotsky for the 21st century. He needs to steer clear of hatchets.

What we have now is not a war on poverty, but a war of poverty – in which we’re fighting each other over crumbs, and doing so in ethnic tribes. Yelling and certainty has replaced discourse and inquiry. How did we all get so sure of ourselves, and our respective truths, when in truth, we can’t even agree on what a fact is anymore? I miss Walter Cronkite. When he told the nation we’d put a man on the moon, it wasn’t from an agenda to show the virtue of a government program. It wasn’t a conspiracy. We put a man on the moon. End of story. When did our public interactions become so debased? So boorish? So mean?

There were a couple of guys in the apartment building I once lived in – neighbors. They were perpetually angry and took out their rage on their neighbors, including me, trying to dictate what their neighbors could or could not do. Their being perpetually aggrieved was the backdrop to their bullying. One time, they put a dead rat in my planter garden because they didn’t feel I should have a garden on the walkway railing outside my front door, though it had been cleared by the fire department.

That’s among the reasons I ran for office in the homeowners association, to try to improve the culture of the place. The result was a tie vote between one of them and me. The HOA president unilaterally selected my neighbor to serve on the Board, instead of me. The building had governing documents, a kind of constitution, that forbade the president from appointing the board. I threatened them with legal action if they didn’t permit a re-vote. They refused, and hired a lawyer. Their own lawyer, however, ordered them to conduct a re-vote. After the votes were counted, a tabulation overseen by the lawyer, I had clearly won a seat on the board. Shortly after, I decided to move. As I was leaving, I passed one of these guys: “Good riddance, fucking coward” he barked at me, unprovoked. Evidently, he was livid that I was leaving. I thought he’d be pleased, but he was still raging. As though what he really wanted, needed, was an ongoing battle, over crumbs.

I dread that this is what the United States has become. God, I hope we’re better than that.

How do we know what we think we know is true? And what are the performing arts supposed to do about all this?

We can and will argue that the performing arts are good for business – which is true, but has been so far a largely unpersuasive argument in a society with more visceral concerns of social justice, such as homelessness, mental illness, and an ever-rising a scale of poverty that seems to trump the urgency of putting on a play. Then again, things are not always as they seem.

We have a better case to make — to quote the old song: Teach your children well.

Among the biggest impediments to constructive conversation is social media – which is stunningly effective in building coalitions of the like-minded for purposes of fund-raising and advocacy. The pernicious cost of social media to the society is equally clear and powerful. It separates us from people with whom we disagree, while encouraging us to demonize them. Among the core reasons we’ve become so tribal and intolerant is the international influence of Facebook, and its meticulously calibrated algorithms for the news and information feeds it sends our way, spurring us to read and then nod with righteous indignation at what we already like. This is not how a society moves forward. This is the underpinning for endless grudge matches, and the elevation of certainty over inquiry. How do we know what we think we know is true?

An antidote, a balm, for all of this antipathy and hatred lies in the theater, and in our willingness to make it accessible. To children. In our neighborhoods. We need to use our theater to help teach our children, to show our children, the humanity that’s slipping away. If theater has become devalued and irrelevant, it’s not just ticket prices as a barrier to entry, it’s also that the art form has become increasingly disconnected from the civic culture. It’s become a bubble with scant connection to people’s sorrows and torments and triumphs.

We need to help teach our children by welcoming them, by opening the doors of our theaters to them, like churches, like sanctuaries. And then, once they’ve absorbed at some level what we do, at our best, we need to send our actors and directors and writers and designers, like emissaries, back into the schools or universities or after-school programs or wherever these young audiences came from. We need to work with them, to guide them as they write a poem or a play, and perform it or see it performed. They need to interact with each other, in real space rather than cyberspace; they need to hear the applause of their peers, so they can absorb that whatever lies in their hearts and minds was understood and appreciated by others. Not as thumbs-up emoticons, but through the sound of applause echoing in real time and space. They need to see and create characters who argue, fruitfully, and reach resolution through those conflicts.

Because, among the contributing factors to our cult of certainty and intolerance is ignorance.

I teach at the California State University. My students are well-versed in pop culture and social media, but they are almost entirely ignorant of world literature and of theater or of any literature or theater. For my students, Arthur Miller – a seminal American playwright of the 20th century — has simply disappeared into the static of pop culture. They know about his wife, Marilyn Monroe, but Miller is just history, and history is dead. They’ve come through a school system that has taught them almost nothing, barely how to read and write, and how to think only in fits and starts rather than in expansive, articulated thoughts. And that’s our culture now. And these are our university students. They’re not stupid, they simply don’t know much. And they’re willing to admit that.

We need to help teach them that the history of the theater is a history reaching back well over two thousand years in which people, for all that time, have been trying to fathom how they know what they think they know is true. And that this is not an academic inquiry, it’s an existential one in the age of Trump. We need to teach them how Oedipus the King was impetuous and as certain as anybody today who trolls on Facebook, and that he was operating, in his arrogance and certainty, from a set of false premises. Some of these students know the Bible, but we need to show them the creation myths of The Mahabharata, too. We need to show them how, in the medieval morality play Everyman, admission to Heaven comes through the good deeds one does on Earth. We need to show them how Hamlet, who is not impetuous at all, loses his mind after he sees a ghost, and he tries to fathom whether what the ghost told him is true. But he doesn’t know how. So he lashes out at his girlfriend, and his mother and his uncle. Until, at last, he finds the truth by putting on a play!

We need to show them the plays of August Wilson and Tony Kushner and Sarah Ruhl and Tracy Letts and Suzan Lori-Parks – latter-day poet-playwrights they’ve never heard of. As a community, we can do that.

We need to show them Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. They should see how a son complains to his mother about his father, who’s talking to himself so loudly that he’s becoming a public embarrassment. They should hear the mother’s response – an Anthem really – about a man who has seen an economic system collapse around him: “He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

We should teach them that after decades, the only one to pay attention to such a person was a guy named Donald Trump, and because of that attention paid, Donald Trump became president of the United States, and that an old lefty like Arthur Miller, who could easily have been Bernie Sanders’s favorite uncle, would have found that ironic, if not tragic, while August Wilson is surely groaning from his grave.

How do we know what we think we know is true?

Because when the world seems upside down and inside out, when reliable sources are no longer reliable, when reason starts to sound like babble, and babble like reason, when the Russian Duma applauds the outcome of a U.S. election (as they did with Donald Trump, literally), there are places where actual truth can be told, little halls off back alleys, where poems are read, where songs are sung, where plays are put on, places like in the tiny theaters all across Los Angeles, and Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. This is what happened in Soviet Russia. In secret. In defiance.

And this is how the performing arts change the world. And there are small pockets of history when nothing is more important. And we may well be entering one of them.