Donald Trump and his Republican colleagues have demonstrated a dangerous habit of thought when it comes to seeking solutions to the most urgent and life-threatening problems facing Americans and the nation as a whole.
What is that habit of thought? They tend to think in stark and narrow either/or terms when it comes to devising policy, particularly when it comes to the economy.
The result of this kind of impoverished and deceptive thought process is that then Americans are posed with false choices, neither of which is healthy or appealing, obscuring other viable and more attractive and humane possibilities.
Consider, for example, Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who held such narrow view of the options when it came to “opening the economy” or protecting Americans’ health, indicating the country was basically “choosing between cancer and a heart attack.”
Really? There was no third option? It had to be either/or and not both/and? That is, we couldn’t imagine a way to protect Americans’ health AND re-open the economy, doing so safely?
See what I’m talking about?
It would serve all of us as voters to be attuned to this tendency of Trump and the Republicans to pose these false choices so we can effectively assess their policies in relation to our interests and also so we can see through and around their false choices to discover more optimal solutions to our pressing needs.
Trump glaringly put this disarming and deadly habit of thought on display in last Thursday’s debate.
At one point during last Thursday’s presidential debate, NBC journalist Kristen Welker asked Trump,
“President Trump, people of color are much more likely to live near oil refineries and chemical plants. In Texas, there are families who worry the plants near them are making them sick. Why should these families give you another four years in office?”
“The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily, and they’re making a lot of money — more money than they’ve ever made,” he said.
In other words, for Trump, it’s your money or your life. Either/or. There seems, for Trump, to be no way to imagine a scenario in which these Americans enjoy BOTH fiscal well-being AND physical health.
In the world Trump’s impoverished imagination envisions, we will find ourselves with a pile of money but no clean water to drink, no fresh air to breathe, and failing health. I’m somehow reminded of a famous episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, starring Burgess Meredith, in which the book-loving character Meredith plays finds himself the last man standing at the end of the world. He is surrounded by books and while rollicking in a fit of elation at his predicament, displaces his spectacles from his face, only to see them fall and shatter. He has all the books, but not the wherewithal to read, just as Trump’s vision leads to a world where we may have money, but no access to resources to live.
Recognizing this either/or habit of thought can help us see the political twilight zone Trump and Republicans are creating for Americans.
Their thinking asks us to accept a vision of “economic success” that entails our own death.
Trump, for example, has rolled back legislation protecting our waters, thus enabling pollution and threatening our clean water supplies, telling us it’s good for the economy.
But let’s remember from our ECON 101 class what the whole point of an economy is, which is to produce and distribute goods and services most efficiently to meet the needs of those living within the economic system.
In other words, the point of an economy is to support life.
Trump doesn’t seem to understand this fundamental economic principle. Indeed, he thinks in terms of winners and losers, of the successful and the suckers. For him the economy is a game designed to separate these two, not to serve and support all lives.
So Trump can’t even understand what Joe Biden is saying when talks in both/and terms about opening the economy safely and cautiously. For Trump it’s shut down the economy completely or simply open it wide up with no restrictive measures such that death is inevitable, the casualty of a successful economy.
He cannot understand addressing the pandemic as part of successful economic policy because he does not understand human health, the supporting of life, as an economic objective.
Trey Hollingsworth, Republican Representative from Indiana, encapsulated this line of thinking best when he argued that we needed to choose between the “loss of American lives” and “the loss of our way of life as Americans.” He summed it up when he said:
“Both of these decisions will lead to harm for individuals, whether that’s dramatic economic harm or whether that’s the loss of life. But it is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.”
Trump and his Republican allies miss the very truth obvious in the language: A way of life is actually supposed to support life, not result in death. That’s why we call it a “way of life” and not a “way of death.”
Of course, remember Dr. Mehmet Oz who came out in favor of sending all of America’s children back to school, calculating that doing so “may only cost us two to three percent in terms of total mortality.”
Just a few dead kids. No biggie. Either some children die, or we can’t go back to school.
Do you like that choice?
If not, you can choose this election season to remove this kind of thinking from the offices that make policy and install a new way of thinking in the halls of power.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.