I read a piece supposedly from a small city mayor about why he and others remain staunch Trump supporters. It was a fascinating look into white hot anger at Obama, Clinton(s) and liberals in general. Right wing myths and real incidents, some old, some more recent, were grotesquely distorted to portray crimes and misdemeanors that never happened. It expressed outrage at liberals who hypocritically ignored them while being obsessed with Trump’s peccadilloes that are minor in comparison. The accusations were bizarre reflections of almost everything Trump and associates have done proudly, with blatant exhibitionism, and on the record.
It had the disturbing effect of proclaiming high moral standards for public officials while contemptuously ignoring their application to the current administration, doing so with the high dudgeon of unchallengeable self righteousness. I have a local friend who does much the same, but with a smidgen of care about offending too many others with whom he wants to maintain good relations.
What the diatribe came down to, it seemed to me, was racist fear of everything the supposed writer believed was a danger to the way he believes society should be. Combine white supremacy, fearful of its fragility, with demands that government get out of one’s life (except that it’s OK for it to impose one’s values on the rest of society), and that pretty much sums it up. I’m not linking to it for two reasons. First, it could have been a bot intended to incite violence. Second, if legitimate it was too sick to give it more publicity than it already had.
However, it is not to be dismissed. Previous columns have described some of the dynamics that have made it possible for such attitudes to come out of the shadows, into the public arena as a legitimate mass movement. It has some similarities to the America First movement of the late 1930s and early ‘40s, as if merged with the then popularity of the KKK throughout vast portions of the nation. Cruel and ignorant though it may be, it’s based on deeply held beliefs, endorsed by some religious leaders, and abetted by others who recognize its usefulness as a tool to help gain political and economic power denied to them by the rule of law defining liberal democracy.
Psychologists call it transference and projection when despicable behavior is attributed to others as a way to deny one’s own guilt. I don’t know if sociologists have similar terms for how large segments of society can do the same thing. René Girard certainly probed it as a philosopher. So did Hannah Arendt before him from her political historian’s perspective. At its simplest, it’s finding a suitable scapegoat on which to unload all blame for sins and injustices, expecting that the goat’s punishment will restore order and harmony. However it’s described, creating conditions and providing information to counter it is hard to do. Those who hold such views cling to them with tenacity few throughout history have ever seen before (I borrowed some of those words from a well known stable genius).
Who are today’s scapegoats? We’ve got a herd of them. Elite white liberals are always useful. The problem is, no one is exactly sure what liberal means or what a liberal looks like. They’re all socialists of course, whatever socialism might be. Pipe smoking professors in tweed jackets are rarely seen these days. Hippies went out of style a long time ago. The others are hard to spot. Blaming liberals is too much like chasing after the wind.
Unfair international trade is good for the moment, but suffers some of the same weaknesses. Is the current trade environment really unfair? Trump says it is, but what does he know? What are current tariffs on what goods and services? Are trade imbalances really bad? In what way? Anyway, negotiations were going along just fine. Why were they shut down? All of a sudden, blustering trade wars don’t seem so simple or easy to win.
Federal overreach, excessive regulation, and bloated bureaucracies are always worthy targets, except when one’s favorite programs become the targets. Battle cries to keep government out of our lives sounds hollow when yoked to rabid support for authoritarian leadership, and demands for government to force “traditional values” on an unwilling populace. It causes unsettling cognitive dissonance when it runs afoul of libertarian convictions. There have to be better alternatives.
Blacks used to be good ones, but with Black Lives Matter and all those kneeling football players, they’re not as malleable as they once were. Consider that we twice elected a popular black president by large margins. It’s safer just to take occasional pot shots than make them into scapegoat martyrs. Same problem with women, especially with all the #MeToo fanatics running around.
Still, put them all together and you’ve got something to work with, not a scape goat, but a herd of scapegoats, each assigned their own portion of blame and threatened with their own measure of punishment. If someone complains that one is being accused and punished for too much, you can always say, “Yea, but what about…” Fortunately, the whole herd is led by a relatively new, easily identifiable goat, Hispanics, all of them, everyone of them, the more illegal the better. And aren’t they all illegal one way or another? On them can be blamed nearly everything: loss of jobs, gangs, drugs, crime of all sorts, loss of white demographic standing, you name it. What Jews and Gypsies did for Europe, Hispanics can do for America. Build a wall. Zero tolerance. Speak English or leave.
They’re all to blame. Punish them all: liberals, trading partners, blacks, women, and especially Hispanics. On them fall the sins of society, and when they’re dealt with, all will be well again.
It’s a horrible thought. Few are willing to own it outright, but its odor lingers in conversation, political debate, and voting patterns. A good friend, conservative, gentle and deeply concerned about the well being of future generations, would never agree to such an ideology. But he does observe that local Hispanics are unwilling to become a part of the community, even though invited, so there is some validity to what more strident voices say. What he means is that local Hispanics are unwilling to become white middle class Americans with Northern European roots. They’re ready, willing and able to become full members of the community, but as Hispanics bringing their heritage with them, expecting it to receive the same respect that white Northern European based culture has, meshing with it so each is fed by the other. It’s not an idea he’d be opposed to. It’s just one he’s never thought of. For him, “truth, justice, and the American way” have always been defined by the white middle class. It's not proprietary, it’s just normal. A different normal is hard to imagine. It seems so abnormal.
Well, you’ve seen where this has gone. We started with an angry, ignorant white bigot, and ended with a gentle, reasonable white conservative. In between we’ve allowed room for a nascent authoritarian movement to take root. Our democracy is at risk, going in harm’s way.