The Politics of Catharsis

by Daniel J. Flynn

A payback in so many ways.

Catharsis and its ugly flipside schadenfreude characterize the emotions of conservatives this week. The feelings of liberals run a wider gamut encompassing shock, sadness, confusion, revenge, and much else.

In Chicago, a group of black men kicked a turtled-up white man as an amused mob taunted, “You voted Trump” and “You gonna pay for that s#!+,” before a thief made off with the Reginald Denny-like victim’s car. In New Orleans, “F— Trump” and “Die Whites Die” graffiti decorated Lee Circle. In San Francisco, despite local schools providing “safe spaces” for pupils to share their feelings on the election, thousands of students participated in an orchestrated hooky event to protest the president-elect. A Los Angeles woman told CNN that “people have to die to make a change in this world.” In the Twitterverse, rougher than Chicago and more radical than San Francisco, some discussed assassination in 140 characters or less.

Did they miss Hillary Clinton’s concession speech in which she offered the perfunctory but sincere, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead”?

It all felt good. It didn’t do any good.

If the events of Tuesday hit liberals as surreal, the events of the last eight years struck conservatives similarly. Cops murdered at a “peaceful” Black Lives Matter protest, rich kids lecturing normal people about one percenters, transgenders invading the bathroom stall next to your daughter, Catholic nuns ordered to provide birth control, religious bakers told to bake wedding cakes for gay unions lest they lose their businesses — the change wasn’t what many could believe in. The people most worried about immigration felt as though they lived in a foreign country even if they resided in the house of their birth. A health-care bill unread by legislators and unsupported by the people nevertheless became the law of the land.

Conservatives, like riotous liberals, found the aftermath of the election therapeutic, albeit in a more subdued way. From their living rooms, the deplorables watched as their votes cold-clocked the smug looks off the faces of MSNBC hosts and CNN anchors.

Tuesday night played out for conservatives like the finale of Newhart, in which the title character awoke in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from Bob Newhart’s earlier eponymously named ’70s sitcom. Dr. Robert Hartley, Newhart’s lead from The Bob Newhart Show, therein reflects on a jarring dream of mute woodsmen, a dim-witted handyman, an heiress maid, and life as a Vermont innkeeper. In other words, Newhart’s psychiatrist character from the 1970s dreamt up the ’80s-era sitcom.

During the last eight years, conservatives lived in if not another sitcom then in another country. Trump’s election, they hope, stems the totalitarian tide of political correctness, unfettered immigration, and judges imagining themselves as legislators. Obama’s radicalization of America now appears as a blip rather than a permanent trajectory. An agenda implemented through heavy-handed means now faces an unraveling by similar means. A government reorganization of health care rammed through via reconciliation, interventions undertaken without congressional approval, legislation from the bench, and executive orders resembling congressional bills all await a giant pencil eraser.

Whereas campaigns offer winners euphoria, governing often brings disappointment. Enjoy the feeling while it lasts. Politics isn’t therapy, no matter how much healing November 8 induced. It requires compromise and deals and picking battles. The dreamlike state enjoyed by 60 million Americans soon morphs into a more complicated reality.

The current catharsis relished by Trump supporters pales next to the comeuppance delivered and enjoyed by Trump.

Five years ago, Citizen Trump sat stoically but stiffly as President Obama delivered a comedy routine, unusually funny by presidential standards, on The Donald that meandered into mean as it dragged on. The comedian-in-chief’s standup at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, highlighted in a recent Frontline documentary, likely becomes analyzed to the point of cliché during the interregnum. Before the 2011 event grows stale past its sell-by date, it deserves a fresh look.

Obama mocked the real estate developer’s allegedly gauche tastes in architecture by showing a White House transformed by a Trump presidency and ridiculed the reality-television star’s “credentials and breadth of experience.” In the wake of the release of Obama’s Hawaiian certificate of birth, the president quipped that his antagonist could “finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like … Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

The press corps laughed with the president. They laughed harder at the punchline.

The real punchline came Thursday when Barack Obama acted as the buyer agent guiding the real-estate mogul on a tour of his latest Pennsylvania Avenue property acquisition. He who laughs last, laughs best.


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