Nothing Works — And Everything Matters Profoundly

Miltiadis Fragkidis / Unsplash

“Nothing works and nothing matters.” This idea seems to auto-complete much in the atmosphere at this fraught moment. It is a kind of nihilism that has afflicted Democrats ever since the ascension of Donald Trump. “Nothing works and nothing matters.”

But: Is it just my eyes that tear up when I think of our wounded country? Despite things not working on so many levels, it matters mightily — not just to me but, I venture, to masses more. Rather than feeling numb or truly nihilistic, masses of Americans have never cared more deeply or agonized more anxiously about the outcome of a presidential election than the one nine days away. “Nothing works — and everything matters profoundly.”

The “Nothing works” idea signifies in two ways. One is the mechanical, the functional. Most notable example, of course: the dysfunctional federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, now claiming 225,000 American lives —that is, a quarter-million — with this Friday seeing the highest daily infection rate yet — almost 83,000; worse is to come with winter. Bollix is due to an incompetent President, but also to fellow citizens refusing to mask up. Even the vaunted Centers for Disease Control is rendered less functional: Its initial missteps, exacerbated by disinformation, have created a cloud over its pronouncements.

Another mechanical example: our voting “system” — pardon the scare-quotes, but we hardly have a system in the true sense. Instead, we have a fractionated network of vote-gathering that differs by state and county; in Republican-controlled states, the emphasis is on vote-disallowing. Add now the complication of the pandemic when mail-in ballots must be an option, an option Trump slams as fraudulent, and who has 100% faith in this “system”? If the count is close, there will be a legal fight, there may even be blood (also here). (See “Frontline” program “Whose Vote Counts,” with New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, here.)

The other way “Nothing works” signifies is the moral and, again, it relates to Trump: how, no matter how egregious, salacious, or outright illegal an act he commits, nothing sticks to him — from the Access Hollywood tape in 2016 in which he brags of groping women and which would end the campaign of any other politician (Republican as well as Democrat), through a cornucopia of misdeeds and malfeasance too abundant to itemize. The point is: Nothing sticks to Trump, thanks to his devout base.

This is when Democrats began muttering “Nothing works,” in 2016, per columnist Molly Roberts of The Washington Post. She writes: “This bleak sense that Donald Trump could not be stopped became a refrain for battered progressives when he was first elected four years ago.” (I’d add it’s heard among moderates, too.) Now with the 2020 election pending, and “nary a dent” to Trump’s popularity after The New York Times’ bombshell showing his tax returns revealed him “a failure and possible fraud,” Roberts saw this refrain “undergoing a worrisome revival”: “Today, Democrats are in danger of making the same mistake: believing that ‘nothing matters,’ or feeling too silly to keep on screaming ‘This is bad!’ when voters across the country seem to delight in everything devilish the incumbent does.” Quite rightly, Roberts calls this “Nothing matters” thinking “a trap,” and, quite rightly, says: “[W]hat matters really ought to be a question of values [my italics] that we aren’t yet ready to give up on.”

Indeed a crescendo of “Nothing matters” commentary engulfs us (also here, here, here, and here).

Recurring to the moral realm, writing how “everything happens and nothing matters,” The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser, after drilling down into Trump’s rock-solid polls, ends with: “Through impeachment and scandal and now pandemic and recession, a more or less straight line of roughly forty per cent of Americans have supported the President, no matter what… Previous Presidents — all of them — saw their ratings go up and down depending….on their performance in office. Not Trump. He appears to be living a politician’s dream: a Presidency free of consequence and devoid of accountability” [my italics again]. As for the mechanical, in “The Election That Could Break America,” The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman drills down into our election “system,” showing how all manner of legislative legerdemain by the GOP could skew the final count and throw the entire election into question.

By no means is this to say these writers are unduly dark; after all, they are describing objective reality, dour as it is. But it is to say: Dour as the picture is, it does not follow that “Nothing matters.” Rather: In some hearts, what auto-completes from “Nothing works” is the conviction that “Everything matters,” and matters profoundly. I see the front page of The New York Times’ “Sunday Review” section for Oct. 18, consisting solely of the words “Corruption. ANGER. Chaos. INCOMPETENCE. Lies. DECAY” [sic: capitalization] — and my caring reaches an even deeper profundity.

And — happy objective reality: Millions of other Americans feel the same, witness the massive turnout in early voting (also here, here, here, and here).

As of this posting, almost 59 million voters have already voted — with about 40 million voting via mail-in ballots and another 19 million standing in line, sometimes for hours, to vote in person, and doing so while braving infection by the coronavirus. This turnout, recorded daily by the U.S. Elections Project, is, per Vox, “on pace to be the highest in a century.”

What accounts for this outpouring? Profoundest caring. The American voter gets it: We see “Nothing works” and, rather than collapse and auto-complete to “Nothing matters,” we are moved by our love for America — a beautiful idea we see in mortal danger — to declare, “Everything matters profoundly”; thus, we are voting. In this way, we say not only do we want a country that works again, like America historically worked. We want also to reckon finally with racial and sexual injustice, income inequality, climate change. Best way to do that is with a landslide for normalcy and sanity, the Biden-Harris ticket.

Are we writing a new script? In Western Civilization, “Nothing works” auto-completes to tragedy — ancient Greek tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy, Modernism’s “Waiting for Godot.” We are going after Godot. In everyday life, saying we’re going after Godot auto-completes to optimism. But with America now “going to school with suffering,” optimists are a vanishing breed. Something more real is coming into being. Americans have lost their easy smile, but an earned one is coming instead. Bless our hearts!

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost.

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