Dementor ideas—and how to survive them

By William Hausdorff

The glimmers of hope from the most recent state and local elections in Virginia and elsewhere paradoxically made me aware of how thick is the cloud of gloom that had descended on many of us since the previous US national election.  This gloom that has made many of us question, for the first time, the very resilience of the US political democracy.

In trying to cope with this, Masha Gessen drew on her previous life in a gloomy environment in an excellent essay:

…a decade and a half in Putin’s Russia taught me something about living in an autocracy. I am familiar with the ways in which it numbs the mind and drains the spirit. 

In contrast, I have recently been pondering the Dementors described by J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself... soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

While it’s tempting to consider Trump the Dementor-in-Chief, a simple thought experiment reveals he is not the sole source—if he were removed from office tomorrow, even if a cause for great celebration, would the gloom lift overnight?  We would still have white nationalism, Pence, the Tea Party Congress, etc.  True dementors are much more insidious and subtle.

I’m thinking that, rather than individuals, no matter how vicious and repellent, the true dementors may be poisonous ideas that paralyze our thinking about the future of American society.  The initial step in dealing with these is to become aware that there are several out there.

The most prominent dementor ideas, of course, stem from the fact that approximately half of the voting population actually voted for the openly racist, sexist, bile-spewing Trump.  In the convincing words of Ta-Nehisi Coates,

1. Not every Trump voter is a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.

This spawned a corollary dementor thought:

2.  Given the right circumstances in the future, such as an economic depression, there seems little doubt the US could easily vote in a true fascist.  Indeed, it has recently been proposed that Trumpism will long outlive Trump, and end up being led by a much more skilled and dangerous politician.

Some other potent dementor thoughts, well known to the readers of Dorfonlaw, are based on straightforward extrapolations of Trump’s current behavior:

3.  The “discovery” that the President can openly use the powers of the federal government to enrich him or herself, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it short of impeachment.  On the one hand, a high profile group of lawyers and legal scholars have argued that the emoluments clause is indeed relevant to and has been flagrantly violated by this President.  Yet it sounds from the recent oral arguments in a Federal courtroom in New York that the judge may be en route to passing the buck to the Republican Congress to resolve—i.e., avoid--the issue. 

4.  The “discovery” that the President has unlimited power to pardon anyone, perhaps even himself, and thereby to block any investigation of his wrongdoing. It is indeed difficult to be optimistic that Trump won’t simply pardon Manafort, Flynn, Kushner and all the rest without missing a beat.  While the legality and extent of this power has been nicely debated on this website, at the moment it’s anyone’s guess whether the federal courts will rise to the occasion and declare that it is obvious that the Founding Fathers could not have intended the President to have unlimited power to block all investigations affecting him.

But before we succumb to these toxic (and perhaps accurate) notions, it is important to recognize that even prior to Trump we were already coping with several other motivation-sapping dementor ideas:

5.  The prospect that no meaningful gun control legislation will ever be passed again, despite enormous gun-mortality rates, an endless series of record-setting massacres including the slaughter of pre-school children, and the murderous use of devices (“bump stocks”) that allow semi-automatic to simulate fully automatic weapons.   Again, it’s hard to be optimistic, when legislation or regulatory change to restrict even bump stocks appears completely stalled in Washington.

6.  Regardless of how people actually vote, Democrats will perpetually remain in the minority in the House of Representatives due to Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts.  It is difficult to argue that these weren’t brilliantly successful in 2016:

·        In North Carolina, 53.2% of the votes went to the Republican candidates for the US House vs 46.6% to the Democrats, and this somehow resulted in 10 Republican Seats and 3 Democratic seats [instead of 7 vs 6];

·        In Pennsylvania, the figures were 53.9% for the Republicans vs 45.7% for the Democrats, disproportionately resulting in 13 Republican seats vs 5 Democratic seats [instead of 10 vs 8]; and

·         In Wisconsin, Democratic candidates actually captured more votes (49.8%) than the Republican (45.8%), but nonetheless the Republicans managed to snag 5 of the 8 seats.  

Multiple lawsuits are challenging this gerrymandering.   But Chief Justice Roberts’ recent comment that decisions shouldn’t rely on “sociological gobbledygook” like analyses of gerrymandering patterns hardly gives one cause for hope that there will be judicial resolution.

7.  The wide range of dementor ideas connected to the disastrous if not apocalyptic consequences of major climatic change. There is no need to enumerate them here, but in a poignant side note, the relentless destruction of coral reefs is apparently taking a particular toll on the psychological well being of the researchers who have devoted their careers to studying them.

8.  The list goes on.  It is not hard, for example, to think of a dementor idea based on the stunning ubiquity of men in powerful positions who can’t stop groping and sexually harassing.  Yet instead of dwelling on these, let’s turn to how to respond to dementor ideas. 

How to cope with the dementors?

As far as I can tell, there were two sorts of reactions following the stunning election results last November.  Many people, perhaps the most mentally healthy among us, simply withdrew from following the news altogether, or cut down their intake tremendously.

Others, like myself, after a short pause, went the opposite direction and became news junkies, clinging to any indication in the nooks and crannies of the internet of the beginning of the inexorable downfall of Trump.  Unfortunately, this particular response, on reflection, may be akin to the “learned helplessness” described in rather horrific laboratory experiments with rats and mice.  In psychology, it is

a mental state in which an organism forced to bear… stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.

The stimuli, in this case, being the non-stop news cycle, which we continually subject ourselves to despite (or maybe because of) the punishment it metes out.

Neither of these will truly alleviate the gloom that the dementors cause.  I may very well be Pollyannish, but I personally retain some faith that if push comes to shove, enough politicians and judges will indeed recognize that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. As Thomas Jefferson wrote:

A strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means.

But obviously other medium- and long-term solutions are needed in addition to the protracted legal challenges. The November election results provided a boost to nascent efforts to recruit a slew of fresh, young, motivated candidates and redoubled efforts to mobilize progressive voters in general elections, including a newfound interest in regaining control of state legislatures. 

These efforts are crucial, but one can imagine more creative ideas out there.  For example, what if there was an organized effort to have EVERYBODY in a given state change their registration to Republican and overwhelm the ever-rightward Tea Party vote in the next Republican primary in that state? 

Furthermore, poll after poll reveals the extreme unpopularity of the plutocratic positions of the Republican party, even among the demographics that voted for Trump.  However, this won’t automatically translate into votes for Democrats because in too many regions the Democratic brand, fairly or not, is irreparably sullied.  But that doesn’t mean independent candidates holding progressive positions could not attract considerable support—if they truly were independent of the Democratic party.  

But in the meantime, don’t forget your short term mental health.  For example, try to enjoy the squirming as Trump and the White House organ Fox News twist their knickers into knots over the Russian involvement in the election.  This account is a particularly bizarre piece of journalism:

One day after criticizing past leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies as “political hacks,” President Donald Trump clarified Sunday that he stands behind the agencies’ current leadership.  At a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, as he continues his 13-day Asia trip, Trump also said that he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin believes it when he says Moscow did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 
But Trump made clear that he sides with U.S. intelligence agencies, which have concluded that Russia did meddle in the election.  “I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said of Putin….“  As to whether I believe it, I'm with our agencies,” the president added. “As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies."
Then continue your Fox News holiday by watching their own Shepherd Smith dismantle the right-wing conspiracy ideas around a Clinton Russian uranium deal, and read the apoplectic reactions of its diehard viewership.   

Each of these reflects internal conflicts within the Trump universe that may only worsen as the Mueller investigation continues to expose the tangle of lies and corruption.  At the same time, paying too much attention to these may also be symptomatic of an advanced case of learned helplessness.

In her New Yorker essay, Gessen offers several other tips on how to survive.  Particularly resonant, for me, was her “Lesson # 6:  Remember the future.”   Just as it is surprisingly difficult after a few days of illness to remember what it is like to be healthy, so it is easy to forget that there will be an “after” to the current sick state of American national politics, and that it may come much faster than one expects.
One only has to recall how the world watched dumbfounded as the hitherto unimaginable unfolded in front of our eyes:  the Berlin Wall came down, followed by the rapid and mostly peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite governments.  Virtually nobody expected that.

In other words, it'll be a long haul, but hang in there.  Just don’t succumb to the dementor ideas.