Social despair creates 'ideal conditions' for autocratic Republicans to seize power

President Donald J. Trump arrives in the House chamber and is greeted by members of Congress prior to delivering his State of the Union address Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

Wynn Bruce was a climate activist and Buddhist who left Colorado to arrive in Washington on Earth Day. On the steps of the US Supreme Court, Bruce burned himself alive. Friends say it was a protest of government dereliction on the environment, according to USA Today.

Bruce’s suicide came a few weeks after the United Nations released a report showing urgent need for action. Empty promises and hostility toward climate counter-measures have “put us on a track toward an unlivable world,” according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

A heatwave in India over the weekend seemed to illustrate the UN’s findings. In some parts of the subcontinent, land surface temperatures reached 60 degrees Celsius – that’s 140 degrees Fahrenheit. A vast majority of that country’s 1.4 billion people don’t have air conditioning. Meanwhile, animals and plants can’t survive under that scorching heat.

Bruce’s self-immolation has raised concerns about a broader experience of despair in the face of ecological collapse. Young people, who will live in a future the rest of us won’t live in (because we’ll be dead) are especially prone to “doomism,” reports the Associated Press.

If Bruce wasn’t protesting, as his friends insist, he might have been expressing the hopelessness others feel. “It’s the feeling that nothing can be done, so why bother,” according to the AP. “It’s young people publicly swearing off having children because of climate change.”

While there’s much to be worried about – while there’s much to fear! – despair is never experienced in a vacuum. It’s felt in a social context.

Think of it this way.

Despair is similar to bothsidesism. In that way of thinking no one is doing anything to anyone. Everyone is as good or bad as everyone else, and nothing really matters. Like bothsidesism, despair is anti-moral. It refuses to see who’s doing what to whom. Instead, it blames everyone.

But we know who’s doing what to whom. We know because we know the answer to this question: who benefits when individuals, especially the young, are so hopeless they wonder if they bother exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights as free citizens in a free society?

It’s not the Democrats, though some, like US Senator Joe Manchin, do indeed depend for their political livelihood on pleasing West Virginia’s atavistic coal industry. But even Manchin’s political livelihood doesn’t benefit from hopelessness, because he isn’t threatened by democracy.

The Republicans, however, are.

Citizens who give in to despair are citizens who won’t fight back.

Given that the Republicans benefit from despair, it’s fair to ask: is this done on purpose? On one level, you could say they’re merely serving the very obscenely rich. But on another, you could say a consequence of that is the broad feeling of climate change being so planetary in scale that nothing can be done. Live today, because tomorrow, we die!

Are there better conditions for the party of autocracy?

Political attitudes – despair is one – are similar to a person’s health. They can be healthy or unhealthy. The GOP doesn’t want healthy political attitudes. The public square, therefore, shouldn’t be a marketplace for the exchange of ideas for the purpose of vetting the greatest ones for the greatest good. Istead, it should be a brownfield.

In fact, the more poison, the better.

A public square poisoned by enemies foreign and domestic animates the very worst our society has to offer in ways impossible to achieve when the very best our society has to offer is equally animated.

But the poison works both ways.

It lifts the bottom to the top. It pushes the top to the bottom. The people most needed to democratically force the government to act on climate change are the same people most consumed by the experience of despair. They are people like Wynn Bruce – thoughtful, caring, principled and politically active – who light themselves on fire.

Ideal conditions for the Republicans.

Once you see that despair isn’t an inevitable consequence of faceless forces beyond your control determining the fate of humanity – once you see you’re not facing a god – you can liberate yourself. You can take action. You can make choices. You can act democratically.

It’s still unclear why Wynn Bruce self-immolated. Perhaps he’d given in to despair. I would like to think, however, that he did it for a good reason – to show the planet is going to burn as his body burned.

Now act.

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