Porcupines and the Social Contract

November 11, 2017

 Emanuele Corso
Sometime back there was an image on the internet of a snake that had swallowed a porcupine. I didn’t click on the image to see the video of the event as the photo was sufficiently vivid. That image came back to me after seeing photos online of Trump and members of Congress beaming into the camera, having reached a happy compromise over the debt limit in order to facilitate hurricane aid to the affected states. The Republican Speaker of the House did his best to make it seem like a good time was being had by all. The Republican Party, I think, swallowed a porcupine when they climbed onto the Trump bandwagon, and they know it. The daily damage and destruction inflicted on the American social contract by the Trump administration has revealed a number of people who are now realizing they too have swallowed a porcupine.
Not long after hurricanes struck Puerto Rico, the president explained that Puerto Rico is an island way out in the ocean, thus making aid difficult. Despite begging from elected officials, prevarication characterized the presidential response to the emergency and attendant tragedy. Puerto Rico was still engaged in an ongoing humanitarian emergency weeks later, as well as a verbal duel with the president, who visited the island and demonstrated his concern for the people by throwing packages of paper towels to them. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the government and its partners were providing only 200,000 meals a day to meet the needs of more than 2 million people. As if the Puerto Rico tragedy were not enough, just a week or so later a gunman, firing from a hotel room 39 floors above street level in Las Vegas, shot and killed 59 people and injured more than 500 who were attending an outdoor concert. The president’s response?  It’s “premature” to discuss guns.
In some respects the porcupine seems to be going down easily. The president is eagerly joined by Congressional Republicans on certain issues. Speaker Paul Ryan, in discussing the Republican sponsored tax cuts, explained that the middle class would somehow benefit from those cuts that were mainly for the wealthy. Middle-class people would pay more to fund the cuts. Oh, yes, of course. So far the proposal has been stalled and new, sweeter proposals offered. This is the same Paul Ryan who led the Republican assault on Social Security and public education, which should also give people a clue to just how destructive his party and this president are intending to be to American society and our limping democracy. The assault on public education, by the way, is the same strategy employed by demagogues and dictators throughout history: Control education to control the minds of children and young adults so they become easier to manipulate as a general public. Control information with falsehood or distortion to control the public in general. And, let’s privatize public education to make a profit while we are at it.

What we have here is an untethered reality, a president who believes whatever he says is real and true. It is true, of course, that people can believe and not believe the same thing simultaneously. It’s a form of solipsism, the idea that anything outside your own mind doesn’t exist, so you can inhabit your own reality simultaneously with inhabiting the outside social world shared with others. This self-defined world is fueled by what is sometimes referred to as “existential fatigue,” which has been defined as a personal search for meaning and purpose in a world increasingly bankrupt of both. It isn’t a complicated matter for the people who voted for Trump who know his  background of financial cheating, child molestation, self-admitted sexual assault, complete with comments on how to approach that. Yes, good church-going, self-defined “Christians” remain supportive of the president and his agenda. What to make of this? A remarkable fluidity of perception, loose commitment to a social contract, and a fungible belief system. Now, while the porcupine is getting a lot of attention it’s the snakes facilitating the porcupine that we have to watch out for. And the snakes had better understand that once swallowed, the porcupine has only one path out. 

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