Serenity In The Time Of Trump

‘There’s nothing I could have done’ can easily curdle into ‘there’s nothing I can do’

We've known that hackers have been trying to influence the U.S. presidential election ever since we saw the bounty of that hacking — first, emails from the Democratic National Committee, and later, emails from party insider John Podesta. Unless you believe that the RNC is significantly better at cybersecurity, the fact that none of their emails were released was strong circumstantial evidence that the hackers were trying to hurt Hillary Clinton and/or help Donald Trump. We also know that the Russian government had plenty of incentive to prefer a Trump presidency — what passes as Trump's explicit foreign policy agenda is friendly to Russian interests, and his inner circle throughout the campaign had members with ties to Russia.

So there was good reason to believe Russia was behind the leaks, even before the CIA's recent allegations. I have not seen the evidence the CIA is relying upon, and likely would not be able to interpret it even if I did, as I am not a cybersecurity expert. In fact, I have never cybered even once. Anyway, it should go without saying that if Russia hacked the Democratic Party and attempted to swing the election, the matter should be thoroughly investigated. The public deserves to know the truth, and if the CIA has evidence that points to the truth, we should see it.

As important as the DNC hack was to the results of the election, we can still draw political lessons from the past 18 months. It's true that without E-MAILS, Trump might have lost, but that doesn't mean that Trump only won because of them. Many factors worked to bring us a Trump presidency, and I've noticed an unfortunate and unsurprising pattern when it comes to conducting election autopsies: opportunistic blame-shifting. The Democratic establishment, for example, has emphasized the role that FBI director James Comey's October Surprise played in pushing late-deciding voters toward Trump, implicitly minimizing their party's own role — both in the policies it has pursued over the past eight years, and in clearing the field for Clinton's candidacy. Clinton herself is reportedly fixated on both Comey and Russian hackers, rather than trying to think through her campaign's failures in the Midwest.

Politicians aren't the only people playing a rousing game of causal hot potato. For their part, the traditional media has emphasized the role of Facebook in spreading misinformation, propaganda, and lies. Doing this means they don't have to ask why the public doesn't find them trustworthy, and also absolves them of their own role in the blanket coverage that elevated and legitimized Trump's nascent candidacy. People from large blue states blame red states, red staters blame out-of-touch coastal elites, coastal elites blame racism, and so on.

The problem isn't that any of the factors blamed for Trump's win are necessarily wrong. Fake news, real news, Comey's letter, racism, poor messaging, voter suppression, and many other things certainly played a role in the election. We should be diligent in tracing the effects of each of these factors and deciding how much they mattered: In such a close race, it's true that even a small tweak to one of them could have averted a Trump presidency. But the problem is that if we all focus only on what's out of our control, we risk succumbing to fatalism and complacency. Saying “there's nothing I could have done” can make us feel better temporarily, but it can easily curdle into “there's nothing I can do.” And that's the dead end.

To solve this problem, I think we all need to take a hint from a white man of German ancestry from the 1930s. That's right, folks, I'm talking about Reinhold Niebuhr. He wrote a prayer that's now commonly known as the Serenity Prayer. Here are the first three lines:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Niebuhr was a Christian minister, but you do not have to be a Christian to use the prayer, and if you don't believe in a god at all, you can simply take it as a mantra. The point of it is to help you focus on the things that you can affect, and not get overwhelmed by the things you cannot. It's important to note that when Niebuhr says “accept,” he doesn't mean that the things that we cannot change are OK, but that we should take them as fixed points, as obstacles that must be surmounted.

In focusing on the things that we can change, we take on the responsibility to do our part — but no more responsibility than that. If we take on responsibility to change what we cannot, it will only make us overwhelmed and depressed. It's not always easy to be able to “know the difference,” but it helps to have the question in the forefront of your mind. The Serenity Prayer can help free us to do the work that must be done without letting the magnitude of the task consume us.

Once you are free, you must use that freedom, and that means acting in concrete ways. If you want to lobby Congress, find a local organizing group. If you can't find one, link up with a few of your friends and start organizing yourselves. This primer on how to make your voice heard by Congress is one great place to start. Or if service is more your lane, find a nonprofit group that you can volunteer with. Figure out which causes you're passionate about and find a way to start contributing in concrete, manageable ways. The challenge is immense, but we can — and must — be up to facing it. Let's start chipping away.