Category Archives: Racial Equality

Peter Wehner Explains The Inexplicable

Like most Americans today, I occupy a bubble. My friends, family, colleagues and neighbors all tend to see political reality largely the way I see it.

So I was taken aback–floored, really–by a conversation I had during a weekend visit to New Buffalo, Michigan. Our daughter and son-in-law had treated us to the visit and a tour of the 1932 World Fair’s “Homes of the Future” sponsored by Indiana Landmarks. We were staying in a lovely Bed and Breakfast, and while I was getting coffee, I chatted with a guest who turned out to be from Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis.

What began as a cordial exchange devolved when he mentioned that he “loved” President Trump. (I’m sorry to report that I didn’t bite my tongue; I suggested he’d been drinking the Kool-Aid, and he stomped off.)

This encounter bothered me immensely. Here was a person who was obviously comfortable financially, who didn’t look like someone who ignored the news, or was mentally incapacitated. Why would he “love” this pathetic excuse for a human?

My husband’s theory was that Trump justifies the guy’s probable racism, but the exchange was still rankling when I read Peter Wehner’s column in Monday’s New York Times, titled “What’s the Matter with Republicans?”

One might hope that some of the party’s elected officials would forcefully condemn the president on the grounds that there is now demonstrable evidence that he had crossed an ethical line and abused his power in ways even beyond what he had done previously, which was problematic enough.

But things are very different today than they were in the summer of ’74. Mr. Trump was on to something when he famously said, during the 2016 campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.? It’s, like, incredible.” What most people took to be hyperbole turned out to be closer to reality.

Wehner–who was formerly a staunch  Republican–then asked the same question I had asked: why? What would account for continued fealty to someone who is not only a demonstrably unfit President, but a truly repulsive human being with what Wehner accurately describes as “a mobster’s mentality”?

Why, then, are so many Republicans yet again circling the Trump wagon rather than taking this opportunity to denounce what the president did and declare some independence from him by doing so? Why has Mr. Trump, an ethical wreck of a man both before and after he reached the White House, earned such fealty from Republicans?

Wehner says it isn’t policy, and I agree.

Understanding the close compact between Mr. Trump and the Republican Party starts with acknowledging the false hope many establishment Republicans placed in the shady real estate mogul as he rose to power. They misdiagnosed the individual they were dealing with, assuming that Mr. Trump would “grow in office” and that they, the “adults in the room,” would be able to control and contain him. At the outset of this unholy alliance, they were convinced they would change Mr. Trump more than Mr. Trump would change them. But the transformation turned out to be in them, not him.

Wehner acknowledges that politicians’ self-interest is threatened by the loyalty of the GOP base to Trump. But what accounts for the devotion of that base–of people like the man I had encountered?

As a conservative-leaning clinical psychologist I know explained to me, when new experiences don’t fit into an existing schema — Mr. Trump becoming the leader of the party that insisted on the necessity of good character in the Oval Office when Bill Clinton was president, for example — cognitive accommodation occurs.

When the accommodation involves compromising one’s sense of integrity, the tensions are reduced when others join in the effort. This creates a powerful sense of cohesion, harmony and group think. The greater the compromise, the more fierce the justification for it — and the greater the need to denounce those who call them out for their compromise. “In response,” this person said to me, “an ‘us versus them’ mentality emerges, sometimes quite viciously.”

“What used to be a sense of belonging,” I was told, “devolves into primitive tribalism, absolute adherence to the leader over adherence to a code of ethics.”…

As the psychologist I spoke to put it to me, many Republicans “are nearly unrecognizable versions of themselves pre-Trump. At this stage it’s less about defending Trump; they are defending their own defense of Trump.”

“At this point,” this person went on, “condemnation of Trump is condemnation of themselves. They’ve let too much go by to try and assert moral high ground now. Calling out another is one thing; calling out yourself is quite another.”

And then there’s that shared racism….

 

It Isn’t Hypocrisy–It’s Worse. Much Worse.

In a comment a few days ago, Gerald posted a link to Raw Story, headlined “Why Evangelicals Won’t Care about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s apparent sex scandal.”

Presumably, they also won’t care about the self-dealing, corruption and similar behaviors that were the focus of a preceding expose in Politico. 

What I found fascinating about the Raw Story version wasn’t the detailed enumeration of Falwell’s multiple unChristian behaviors. His full-throated support for Trump had already provided ample evidence that the publicly-espoused values of his brand of Christianity were bogus. What I found interesting–and hopeful–was the publication’s willingness to identify the actual values of that brand.

The article began with evidence of Falwell’s sexual kinkiness and financial improprieties–and a prediction that none of it would matter to his followers.

The pretense that the religious right was motivated by faith and morality was dropped — or should have been — when white evangelicals flocked to vote for Trump in greater numbers than they did for George W. Bush, who if he was convincing about little else, was convincingly a man of faith.

Here’s the thing: The real purpose of the Christian conservative movement is to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy, full stop. As long as Falwell Jr. keeps that up — as his father did before him — his flock will stick with him just as they’ve stuck with Trump, a thrice-married chronic adulterer who has bragged about sexual assault on tape.

The article went on to debunk the evident belief of the whistleblowers who shared the information with Politico that Falwell Senior had been a better, more authentic Christian.

The elder Jerry Falwell was a bigot through and through, and his version of Christianity was primarily, if not solely, about rationalizing a white supremacist, misogynistic and homophobic worldview.

Falwell first rose to fame as a Baptist minister due to his stalwart opposition to civil rights, which he called“a terrible violation of human and private property rights.” He declared that the 1964 Civil Rights Act “should be considered civil wrongs rather than civil rights.” He also once declared, in response to the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, that if the Supreme Court “had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made.”

Falwell Senior made little effort to hide his racism. He criticized Martin Luther King, Jr. for political activism, despite his own equally political activities. The article also reports what scholars have recognized for some time: the attacks on LGBTQ citizens and women’s reproductive rights were intended to divert attention from the racism that was less politically palatable.

Falwell became even more politically involved  when the federal government under Jimmy Carter stripped tax-exempt status from all-white private schools, which Liberty University was at the time. To punish Carter, Falwell helped form the Moral Majority in 1980 to support Republicans and defeat Democrats. He and other organizers shrewdly pivoted away from open support for segregation and opposition to civil rights toward the more politically palatable politics (at the time) of opposition to feminism and LGBT rights. Falwell would try to distance himself from his past by claiming later to oppose segregation, but he kept finding himself on the wrong side of history, such as when he supported South Africa’s apartheid government.

So Jerry Falwell Jr. isn’t straying from his father’s legacy, but expanding it. From the beginning, it’s always been about white supremacy and patriarchal control. The sanctimony was just plastered over these ugly intentions to give all that hate a holy makeover.

So why isn’t this behavior properly called hypocrisy?

Despite the repeated, strenuous efforts of liberals to point out the hypocrisy, Trump’s support on the Christian right never seems to weaken. That’s because it was never, ever — not for one moment, even at the height of the George W. Bush era of big-time Bible-thumping — about sincere religious conviction. It was always about white supremacy and patriarchy. To call this “hypocrisy” misses the point, in a sense, because to be hypocrites Christian conservatives would have had to believe in something larger than their own bigotries to begin with.

Bingo.

Trump’s Base

There is a recurring conversation among reasonable people–a category that includes long-time Republicans who now feel disenfranchised, as well as Democrats and the diminishing   number of genuine Independents–that revolves around a single question: how can anyone continue to support Donald Trump? Who are the people in his (evidently fervent) base? And what in the world is wrong with them?

What prompts that question is a recognition that rejection of Trump isn’t political. It’s moral.

Most Americans who were raised to be polite to other people, who were taught to value modesty and integrity, who honored George Washington by insisting that he “never told a lie,” who were raised to pay their debts and own their mistakes, see Donald Trump as the polar opposite of these virtues. People who value knowledge and education see a man who is not only utterly devoid of intellect, but proud of it.

Above all, for those of us who were raised to believe that racism and associated bigotries are not only wrong, but unAmerican, Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of those bigotries reveals him to be an altogether repulsive figure.

I have significant political and policy disagreements with Republican friends who are “never Trumpers” (and with plenty of my Democratic friends as well). What we all have in common, however, is a belief that immorality and ignorance are flaws, not virtues, and dread about the immense harm this administration is doing every day.

That brings me to the question with which I introduced this meditation: who are the people who can look at Trump’s daily, egomaniacal, misspelled tweet-rants, his word-salad harangues, his documented whoppers and corruption, and the overwhelming evidence that he is seriously mentally ill–and still support him?

Thomas Edsell tried to answer that question in a recent New York Times column. He concluded that Trump’s coalition is dependent upon better-off white people who did not graduate from college.

On Feb. 24, 2016, after winning the Nevada caucuses, Donald Trump told supporters in Las Vegas, “I love the poorly educated.”

Technically, he should have said “I love poorly educated white people,” but his point was well taken.

We have been talking about this since Trump came down that escalator four years ago, but we haven’t quite reckoned with the depth of the changes in the electorate or the way they have reshaped both parties.

Edsell shares data showing that college-educated white voters have been leaving the Republican Party, with the biggest shift occurring between 2016 to 2018.

Political scientists at Duke and Ohio State make the argument that the transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy has produced “tectonic shifts” leading to an “education-income partisan realignment” — a profound realignment of voting patterns that has effectively turned the political allegiances of the white sector of the New Deal coalition that dominated the middle decades of the last century upside down.

Driven by what the authors call “first dimension” issues of economic redistribution, on the one hand, and by the newer “second dimension issues of citizenship, race and social governance,” the traditional alliances of New Deal era politics — low-income white voters without college degrees on the Democratic Party side, high-income white voters with degrees on the Republican side — have switched places. According to this analysis, these two constituencies are primarily motivated by “second dimension” issues, often configured around racial attitudes, which frequently correlate with level of education.

According to this analysis, it isn’t white working-class voters who form the base upon which Trump depends–it’s relatively well-off, low-education whites.

Edsell also notes the obvious: the support of Evangelical Christians:

The key bloc for both Trump and the Republican Party is made up of white Christian evangelicals. Eight out of ten of these voters cast ballots for Trump, and intensely religious voters make up 40 percent of the Republican electorate.

The column is lengthy, and the analysis is interesting–especially the discussion about the true values (as opposed to the professed values) of that Evangelical bloc–but it’s impossible to avoid the obvious conclusion: Trump’s base (which is today’s GOP) is composed of people who fear cultural displacement by those “others.” They are willing to overlook the ignorance, the nastiness, the corruption and dishonesty, and all the harm being done, because they share the bigotry.

For Trump’s base, hate isn’t a bug. It’s the feature that overwhelms all else.

Maybe The South Did Rise Again

Culture matters.

There was an intriguing essay by Josh Marshall a few weeks back on Talking Points Memo, addressing America’s regional differences.

Back in the 1990s, psychologists at the University of Michigan conducted a study about regionalism and aggression. As is often the case, the “real” study took place before the participants actually thought it was happening. The participants are all white male college students. They are walking down a hall when an apparent bystander thoughtlessly bumps into him while closing a file cabinet and calls him an “asshole.”

This is the core experiment. Does the study participant react with some version of amused indifference or does he move into an aggressive affront response? The experiment showed that participants from the South were significantly more likely to have the latter, aggressive affront response.

This is not terribly surprising for anyone who has studied American history and perhaps for anyone who’s spent significant time in both parts of the United States. The Southern murder rate has always been substantially higher than any other region in the United States. Indeed, New England and the prairie states have historical rates of murder that aren’t much different from those in Europe. The South is the big outlier and within the South Louisiana and to a lesser extent Mississippi are the big outliers, with murder rates substantially higher than the rest of the South. Even as murder rates have dropped rapidly across the country over the last quarter century the regional differential has remained unchanged.

As Marshall notes, the higher homicide rates in the south tend to be tied to “heat of the moment” incidents– the bar fight that escalates out of control, spousal killings and the like are typically outcomes of anger and escalating aggression rather than more generic criminal activities like burglaries or bank robberies.

What accounts for this difference? Why did the culture of the American South evolve as it apparently did?

Unsurprisingly, the best historical explanations for this trace back to slavery, a system rooted in violence and domination in which the privileges and respect for the sanctity of the body are paramount. In such an honor and status bound society the consequences of one’s status being degraded or questioned are severe and thus they are aggressively defended.

File this observation under “connecting the dots”–the complicated effort to understand the origins of our human cultural and social differences, and the roots of so many seemingly incommensurate attitudes and beliefs.

This is just one more illustration of the multiple ways in which America’s original sin continues to shape personal and regional attitudes and affect contemporary politics, as we are seeing in the responses to this disastrous Presidency.

“Know thyself” continues to be our hardest assignment.

 

David Duke, Donald Trump And America

In the run-up to the 2016 elections, David Duke– the most prominent current member of the KKK–was running for Senate from Louisiana, and he made no bones about the similarity between his worldview and Donald Trump’s.

As Time Magazine reported at the time,

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is running for Senate in Louisiana, and he says Donald Trump’s popularity is helping him in the race.

“I love it,” Duke told the LA Times. “The fact that Donald Trump’s doing so well, it proves that I’m winning. I am winning.”

Duke also told the LA Times that Trump’s proposed policies, like building a wall along the border with Mexico and banning Muslims from entering the country, show the country is open to a white power message. “He’s talking about it in a visceral way,” Duke said. “Donald Trump is talking implicitly. I’m talking explicitly.”

The article also referenced an earlier report, linking Trump’s candidacy to a shadowy “think tank” providing pseudo-intellectual justifications for white supremacy.

The men eased past the picketers and police barricades, through a security-studded lobby and up to the eighth floor of a federal building named for Ronald Reagan. Inside an airy rotunda, guests in jackets and ties mingled over pork sliders and seafood tacos served by black waiters in tuxedos. There were celebratory speeches during dinner, crème brûlée for dessert. Apart from the racial epithets wafting around the room, the Saturday-night banquet seemed more like a wedding reception than a meeting of white nationalists.

The event was sponsored by the National Policy Institute (NPI), a tiny think tank based in Arlington, Va., dedicated to the advancement of “people of European descent.” NPI publishes pseudoscientific tracts with titles like “Race Differences in Intelligence,” runs a blog called Radix Journal (sample post: “My Hate Group Is Different Than Your Hate Group”) and holds conferences on topics like immigration and identity politics. This time it had gathered a group of 150 sympathizers in downtown Washington to discuss what the rise of Donald Trump has meant for the far right.

The article went on to consider the implications of Trump’s emergence as a hero to white nationalists, attracting fans like Richard Spencer, president of NPI.

For the first time since George Wallace in 1968, far-right activists in the U.S. are migrating toward mainstream electoral politics, stepping out of the shadows to attend rallies, offer endorsements and serve as volunteers. “It’s bound to happen,” Spencer says of white nationalists’ running for office one day. “Not as conservatives but as Trump Republicans.”

In the two and a half years since Trump’s Electoral College victory, a number of researchers have investigated the rise of white nationalism and its relationship to Trumpism.

The link is to Journalists’ Resource, which has compiled several such studies, and introduced that compilation with the following paragraphs:

As with any issue, Journalist’s Resource encourages reporters to look to academic research as a necessary tool in covering critical and complex topics such as right-wing domestic terrorism, the mainstreaming of white supremacy and their consequences. Research will help newsrooms ground their coverage and ask more probing questions.

Below, we’ve gathered and summarized a sampling of published studies and working papers that examine white supremacy and far-right organizations from multiple angles, including their online strategies for spreading propaganda and recruiting new members. Because this is an area of research that will continue to grow, we’ll update this collection periodically.

The studies provide insight into the targets of these groups (despite the rhetoric devoted to immigrant communities and poor economic conditions, violent White Supremacist organizations still predominantly mobilize against their traditional targets–blacks and Jews).

The studies also trace the spread of hate, conspiracy theories and aggression through cyberspace.

They find that racist organizations carefully plan out their communication to achieve three primary goals: to strengthen the group by increasing the commitment of existing members and recruiting new ones, to disseminate racist propaganda, and to create a sense of transnational identity.

America has always had hate groups and bigoted individuals. What we haven’t had is a  President–no matter how personally racist some have been– willing to publicly encourage them.

I’ll repeat what I have previously said: the 2020 election isn’t about policy. It’s about who we are and what kind of country we inhabit.

We can argue about policy once we have cleaned out the real “infestation.”