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An article donated by
Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

Existential matters

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Paul Krugman had an interesting article on the AlterNet website titled:

Paul Krugman explains why the GOP can’t drop Trump: They think Democrats have ‘no legitimate right to govern’.” 1

The article is about why the Republicans are still supporting President Trump in spite all of the evidence of his wrongdoing.

I think he missed one important psychological point: The impending impeachment of President Trump has created a full blown Existential Crisis among Evangelical Christians, White Supremacists, old School Republicans, and what I will call "Party Republicans" (Republican Senators and Representatives) that form the Trump coalition. They voted for Trump and will support him no matter what because to do otherwise will be to admit they have doubts about him and doubts about their core beliefs. That is unthinkable. Some have been raised to believe in their natural or God given Superiority and Righteousness. They feel they can never be WRONG about anything. They are sure that if they are forced to make even the slightest CHANGE it will destroy them. However, it is their inability to change that actually causes their crisis.

Existential is a philosophical/religious/psychological concept and is best understood in this way: The word combines two words, existence and essential; it is about what is essential to existence. It could be to an individuals’ existence. For the Theologian and Philosopher it is what is essential to the existence of the Universe or life on this planet. Understanding this concept can help us understand  antisemitism, Christian Nationalism, hate crimes and the “religious wars” around the world that are tearing our world apart. We can’t solve problems unless we fully understand what is at their roots.

The Wikipedia article on "Existentialism,* 2 describes the philosophical movement behind this idea. It states that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) -- an early Existentialist -- declared:

“The actual life of the individual is what constitutes what could be called their ‘true essence’... ."

This fits perfectly with statements I have made in other essays that our day-to-day words and actions show the world who we are as human beings: the true nature of our character; and the state of our soul or spirit. This is also represented in folk philosophy that says "actions speak louder than words!"

Some people dismiss my essays as one woman’s uninformed (read worthless) opinion. So I am always pleased when I stumble upon a confirmation of my opinions in other sources!

An article on the AlterNet website “Why Christian nationalism is an existential threat to democracy” caught my attention. 3 Towards the end of the article, the author pointed out that Sara Robinson “... captured what it takes to leave that kind of authoritarian mindset.” This is the mindset of the Trump coalition.

Ms. Robinson said:

“We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them…You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.”

You have to confront your doubts.

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I stumbled upon another curious confirmation of my idea in -- of all places -- a book entitled “Noah’s Flood, The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History,” by William Ryan and Walter Pitman. 4 The book is quite interesting and presents the hypothesis that a Black Sea catastrophic flood is the event recorded in history in Gilgamesh and the Bible as Noah’s Flood. It wasn’t a world wide event only a wide spread event that encompassed the whole world to those that went through it.

What caught my attention in relation to this essay was towards the end of the book where the authors summarize the evidence and the hypothesis of how it all played out. The people living around the Black Sea, a fresh water oasis in an arid land, fled from the flood in all directions, one group eventually made their way to France and the Paris basin. These refugees, modern humans, were genetically different from the Neanderthals that occupied the lands they entered. Like the Neanderthals, they also were hunter gatherers. “But they brought with them qualities that their predecessors lacked, in particular an extraordinary ability to adapt and innovate.” 

To “face down fear and live with ambiguity” requires the ability to “adapt and innovate”, the ability to CHANGE. This ability separates the Conservative/Republican/Trump supporter from their Liberal/Democratic cousins. Without this ability any setback (especially something as major as the threatened impeachment of their chosen president) can become a full blown Existential Crisis.

According to the Wikipedia article the word was coined by a French Catholic philosopher in the mid 1940s. BUT the idea is much older than that.

I cast the I Ching this morning after working on this essay and cast #57 Penetration of the Wind. The I Ching is an ancient book of Chinese philosophy circa 1000 to 750 BCE.

The idea behind this passage is that the wind penetrates every nook and cranny, unobtrusively, you don’t realize it is there, but its influence is pervasive. I have said in other essays that it is our Ego that gets in our way and keeps us from reaching our highest potential as human beings. The I Ching passage says:

“To attempt actively to force the situation would be simply to dissipate your energies. To willfully apply your own wants and needs to the situation would be to become dependent on the situation instead of an influence on it -- part of the problem instead of part of the solution. These dangers are most imminent when your personal welfare is most at stake.” 

This is at the root of an existential crisis. Your Ego (your sense of your Superiority and Righteousness) -- the essence of your existence) and your inability “to face down fear and live with ambiguity”-- combined with your inability to “adapt and innovate” (to change) makes you think “your personal welfare is most at stake.”

In Krugman’s article he says:

“In a different era, when both parties believed in the Constitution, Trump’s abuse of his position for personal gain would have led to his removal from office long ago. ... Yet almost no partisan Republicans have turned on Trump and his high-crimes-and-misdemeanors collaborators. Why not?”

I would add that if a Democratic president had done or was doing what Trump has done and is doing. the Democratic president would have been long gone!

Krugman continues:

“... most modern day Republicans will justify Trumps actions because their disdain for Democrats runs so deep.” “I don’t think most observers realize, even now, the extent to which many Republicans view their domestic opponents not as fellow citizens, but as enemies with no legitimate right to govern.”

I would add to this (or modify this) they view Democrats as having no legitimate right to exist.

I think this disdain for Democrats occurs because Democratic moral concepts and ideas on policies create an existential threat to Republicans and their moral concepts and ideas on policies. One Evangelical Christian lady (a nice grandmotherly figure right out of a Norman Rockwell painting) said in a Letter to the Editor of my local paper that she had heard that we should tolerate other religions but she didn’t think that was right. You don’t tolerate what you see as a threat to your very existence.

There are ONLY three ways people deal with existential threats.

1. They hunker down, they entrench. They use the tools of denial (to push away their doubts) which involves lying (both looking the other way pretending what is happening isn’t happening or pretending that there is nothing wrong with what is happening, or that somebody else did it, not me).

Character assassination of their opponents (those they see as responsible for putting them into this crisis, this also involves lying, creating false accusations and narratives), they deflect (try to steer the conversation in a different direction—away from what threatens them), or they project (remove the blame from themselves and place the blame onto others; this often involves extensive lying to create fake news, conspiracy theories, etc.) 

In an Existential Crisis people will abandon their moral principles and values and adopt “The Ends justify the Means”, as their guiding principle. They must win no matter what it costs. We see this with comments (rationalizations) some people make: “I don’t like Trumps tweets but at least he has created lots of new jobs.” Or “we had to get Conservative justices onto the Supreme Court.” Or the response from many Evangelical Christians that “Trump was chosen by God. And God works in mysterious ways and it is not for us to question Gods reasoning or motives.”

I must point out that this change in values costs them dearly. In order to save their sense of self they often do major damage to their sense of self with the loss of their honor, integrity and self-respect. Their guilty conscience bugs the heck out of them. The lies and denials and false narratives can even create physical responses: heart burn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea, heart problems, anxiety attacks, alcohol and drug abuse. 

Many Democrats and folks like me think their thinking is backwards and that “The MEANS justify the End.” What we do is most important. If we don’t reach our goal because we stuck to the principles that we believe are most important we will try again another day and in another way. Doubts are seen as opportunities not threats. We have that ability to “adapt and innovate” that the Conservative lacks. Our sense of self isn’t tied up with any particular outcome (winning). What we do shows the world who we are as a human being. Who we are is more important than what we have/own, than the titles we possess or don’t possess, than our social position or fame, than the religion we follow or whether we follow any. This position puts the Conservative into -- or compounds -- an Existential Crisis. We, Democrats and Liberals are different from the Conservative and these differences are something they don’t understand. They find this threatening, because they devalue what they place the greatest value on: winning, being RIGHT, being Superior to and more Righteous than all others.

We see this with the current argument put forth by Conservatives that the ONLY reason Democrats are conducting this impeachment charade is because we are sore losers; we want to undo the election. They refuse to accept the Democrats reason that what we are doing is protecting the integrity of our Democracy. If this causes us to lose this next election than so be it. We will at least be able to live with our conscience knowing we did what was right. This generates perfect conditions for a full blown Existential Crisis for Trump supporters.

2. A second way to deal with an Existential Crisis is to CHANGE. BUT the fear of change, their inability “to face down fear and live with ambiguity.” and their inability to “adapt and innovate”, to modify their beliefs is what has put them into this crisis in the first place. These folk are what are called Black and White thinkers. Everything they believe is either 100% literal, absolute TRUTH or it is 100% a lie. I repeat, for people who have been raised to believe in their natural or God given Superiority and Righteousness change is simply unthinkable. To change is to admit that maybe they aren’t as Superior and/or Righteous as they think they are. They are sure any change will destroy them. 

The only way to deal with Existential threats to keep them from becoming a full blown Existential Crisis is to CHANGE your attitudes so a threat is just an annoyance, something you don’t like but you can live with, or better still gets incorporated into your own world view. The Saudi Crown Prince is accused of ordering the assassination of the journalist Jamal Kashogi. This assassination didn’t remove the Existential threat to the prince it turned the threat into a ghost forever haunting the prince, or to use two other metaphors into a dark cloud or the sword of Damocles forever hanging over his head. Mitch McConnell declared after the election of President Obama that they (the leadership of the Republican Party) would make sure his

presidency failed. Their action failed. The Obama presidency was a success (and what he represents) is still a threat to White Republican Supremacy and all their actions have come back to haunt them. Trump keeps trying to denigrate and demean the press, but the press is still there still bugging him, a burr under his saddle. The press combined with Trump’s behavior and comparison to President Obama, has brought Trump and his supporters to a full blown Existential Crisis.

3. There is a third way to deal with an Existential Crisis. Some turn to violence. Some of the hate crimes and mass murders we see are from people who see a violent statement as their only way out, their last chance to reclaim their lost self, even IF it leads to their death--which often it does when many mass shooters commit suicide. 

When facing a threat to the essence of your existence you either entrench; dig in deeper, become more self-righteous and intransigent; OR you CHANGE. However, to change means you must “face down fear and live with ambiguity” (confront your doubts). Thia, coupled with your inability to “adapt and innovate,” is what put you into this crisis in the first place and is unthinkable. Fortunately the third option turn to violence is still unthinkable for many.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Alex Henderson, "Paul Krugman explains why the GOP can’t drop Trump: They think Democrats have ‘no legitimate right to govern’," AlterNet, 2019-NOV-22, at: https://www.alternet.org/
  2. "Existentialism," Wikipedia, as on 2019-DEC-05, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. Alex Henderson, "Why Christian nationalism is an existential threat to democracy," AlterNet, at: https://www.alternet.org/
  4. William Ryan & Walter Pitman, "Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History, (2000). Available in hardcover and paperback versions. Read reviews or order this book

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Original posting: 2019-DEC-
Author: Contributing Editor, Susan Humphreys
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