Every so often, I read something that expresses an opinion I hold so succinctly and clearly that I get a bit jealous of the wordsmith. (That tends to be my reaction to pretty much anything Leonard Pitts writes, and especially this one).
That was also my reaction to a recent post by Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.
Brayton was addressing the recurring question of why Trump supporters don’t care about his constant–incessant–lies. He began by referencing two classic analyses by Richard Hofstadter, the book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Hofstadter’s much-quoted essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics—both of which are well worth reading if you haven’t already done so. Hofstadter wrote in the 1960s, and Brayton’s point was the cyclical nature of American history.
It seems that about every 40-50 years we go through this bout of pseudo-populist, anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant and racist fervor. You can go back to the Know Nothings of the mid-1800s, to the rebirth of the KKK in the early 1900s, to the McCarthy era and the birth of the John Birch Society in the 60s (which was just starting when Hofstadter did his analysis). What we’re seeing with Trump is the latest rebirth of those movements. He’s tapped into a rich vein of ignorance, paranoia and bigotry that is never far below the surface in America.
When I am particularly worried about our prospects for emerging from the current cesspool of corruption and bigotry, I remind myself of these episodes from America’s past. After all, we survived those; surely when the fever breaks, we can repair the damage being done every day by the looters and racists who now control our government.
Brayton makes another point I’ve frequently made: these eruptions occur in times of economic and cultural stress.
When people feel insecure economically or socially — as in white Christians feeling threatened by becoming a smaller percentage of the population, coupled with vast income inequality and the massive recession of 2008 and 2009 — they tend to retreat into this very simpleminded tribalism. They want to build Fortress America and shut everyone else out. They retreat to racial tribes and lob bombs — sometimes literally — at other tribes. Their fear and insecurity make them easy targets for demagogues like Trump to whip them up into a fervor by telling them that it’s all the fault of (insert scapegoat here — blacks, Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, gay people, “elites” or “globalists”). Fear is a powerful motivator and is easily exploitable by those seeking authoritarian power.
And once people are fully in the grip of tribalism, the truth simply doesn’t matter to them anymore.
Brayton points to Trump’s repeated–and largely fact-free– attacks on immigrants as an example. Those immigrants (unless, of course, they are pale and come from Norway) are dangerous threats, they are “other.”
Leonard Pitts, in the linked column, brilliantly summed up how we fell into this particular abyss.
There is no mystery here. Trump is president because Obama was, and because there were many people for whom that fact was apocalyptic. It’s no coincidence David Duke loves this man, white people chant his name to taunt black ones and hate crimes spiked during the campaign.
After all, what’s a lie or two–or 3,000–when your white Christian heterosexual tribe is in danger of losing its hegemony?