Category Archives: Racial Equality

Two Problems, Inter-related

Conversations with friends keep returning to a question I’ve been unable to answer: who are the Trump voters? Who are the Americans who lived through the last four years and marched to the polls wanting more of the same?

The answer is emerging. Votes for Trump are almost all attributable to two things: racial resentment and the rightwing media ecosystem.

Right now–thanks to years of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart and literally thousands of internet sites–it is perfectly possible to reside in an alternate reality, to live in a world that confirms your every preferred bias. When that world is at odds with the reality the rest of us inhabit, it absolutely precludes rational discussion and debate.

As I often tell my students, if I say this piece of furniture is a table and you say, why no, it’s a chair–we are not going to agree on how to use it.

As Jennifer Rubin recently wrote at The Washington Post,

The greatest challenge to our democracy is not that we hold deeply polarized beliefs, but that one party refuses to operate in a fact-based world that might challenge its beliefs. Whether it is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) propounding Russian propaganda, or the Wall Street Journal editorial page fanning Hunter Biden laptop conspiracy theories, or right-wing websites circulating falsehoods about crime and immigrants, we are awash with conservatives seeking to exploit the fears, ignorance and prejudices of many Americans

Rubin attributes the right-wing hysteria over “socialism” to that media bubble–she suggests rightwing media is “marooned in a weird time warp in which the ‘other side’ is some Cold War-era Marxist caricature.” Until very recently, I would have agreed with her analysis–I’ve frequently engaged in efforts to point out that the things that usually get labeled “socialism” are simply elements of the (necessarily) mixed economies of all modern nations, the public goods that markets cannot provide.

What I have finally understood–it takes me a long time, I’m dense–is that when the typical Trump voter hears “socialism,” that voter doesn’t think of an economic system. (Most couldn’t define the term accurately if they were asked.) What today’s Republican hears when an opposing candidate is labeled a “socialist” is: “this candidate wants the government to take your hard-earned tax dollars and use them for the benefit of ‘those people.'” (And we all know who “those people” are.)

Fear of “socialism” is where rightwing media and racism intersect.

Recently, a friend sent me an essay that laid it all out. Its central thesis is that more than half a century of white hostility to any kind of social progress has taken the country to a place that is dangerously close to social collapse,  culminating in Trumpism.

The author, Umair Haque, writes that “white Americans, as a group, have never, as a group, voted for a Democratic President. Never in modern history…. This trend goes back to JFK and perhaps before.”

Furthermore, Haque says that “Liberal, sane, thoughtful White Americans often overestimate how many of them there are,” and he backs that observation up with data showing that a majority of White Americans have approved of segregation, endless wars, inequality– and have made guns and religion primary social values. Majorities of White Americans have voted against most of what we think of as public goods–and against desegregation, civil rights laws, access to healthcare, retirement programs, and childcare.

The article is filled with depressing data. You really need to click through and read it in its entirety. (If you are White, you might want to pour a stiff drink first.)

I vaguely remember an old song titled “Two Different Worlds.” It ended, as I recall, with a promise that the “two different worlds” that the lovers inhabited would someday be one. Our task is a lot harder than the one in that sappy love song–we must somehow get a handle on the disinformation and propaganda and conspiracy theories–the media ecosystem that blocks out inconvenient realities and sustains White Supremacy. Then we have to have a White version of “the talk.”

Until we all see the same furniture, we aren’t going to agree on how to use it.

Alternative Dangers

As my post-election posts have rather clearly demonstrated, I have been shaken by the evidence that nearly half of Americans–after 4 years of Trump’s destructive circus and “in your face” bigotries– still support him.

My efforts to understand why have led me to characterize those voters–to treat them, as one commenter complained–as a bloc. It’s a valid observation/criticism, especially since I have a fairly long history of bemoaning a “we versus they” approach to statecraft–or really, to anything else.

And yet.

Probably because I am Jewish, and old enough to remember the Second World War and the hideous revelations in its aftermath, I see dangers in both approaches. There is certainly danger in “writing off” Americans who voted for Trump, in failing to try, at least, to understand the how and why of their world-views. But those of us from families that perished in the Holocaust, or from tribes eradicated in other genocides, see a countervailing danger: failing to understand the depth, persistence and reality of racial and religious hatred.

In the wake of the election, I did what depressed academic types do. I researched the question why “nice Germans”–people who loved their children, helped their neighbors, maintained their properties, went to church–nevertheless actively supported the eradication of German Jews. One good resource was titled “Why Germans Supported Hitler,” and it is an enlightening read.

Even more on point was an article from Psychology Today. Some of its most pertinent observations:

The vast majority of active German participants and passive bystanders had quite normal and stable personalities before Hitler came to power. Their family lives were remarkably similar to those of average middle-class American families today. They had jobs to support their families, sent their children to school, donated to local charities and socialized with friends and family on weekends.

As the author notes, neither the active participants nor the passive bystanders showed signs of having psychopathic or sadistic dispositions prior to the Nazi era. Nor is there any evidence that many participated out of fear or coercion.

Even when explicitly given a chance to opt out, most recruits went on to participate in killing and torture. Out of the 500 ordinary men in Germany who were recruited to do roundups of the 1,800 Jews in the village of Józefów, only fifteen decided not to participate after being told by Major Wilhelm Trapp that they were to shoot the woman, children and the elderly but could step aside if they didn’t want to be part of the killing…

The Germans who voluntarily signed up to do roundups or work at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, Dachau and other concentration camps where the inmates were killed in gas chambers or used as human guinea pigs in sadistic medical experiments came from all social classes and trades. Recruits for camps and battalions included soldiers, police officers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, secretaries, train engineers, factory workers and academics…

While military-trained people were in command of the camps, ordinary Germans executed the actual atrocities. People who had previously lived side by side with Jews, willingly carried out, assisted with or facilitated sadistic human experimentation.

The article has many examples, and in searching for explanation, the author notes that simply the existence of dehumanizing stereotypes didn’t explain behaviors so vicious that the vast majority of Hitler’s executioners would not willingly have subjected their pet dogs to them.

The difference was a hatred with a much longer, deeper history. The majority of German citizens had been conditioned to hate Jews. They had been taught that the Jews had destroyed the economy, that Jews were secretly scheming to destroy non-Jewish Germans and enact a Communist coup.

They “had been mentally prepared for the ugly war long before it started.”

Since well before the Revolutionary War, a large number of Americans have been similarly socialized into racism. Today, they are constantly being told–by Fox News, by their friends on Facebook, their compatriots in QAnon, often even in their churches– that the demographic shifts we are experiencing are a threat not just to their continued dominance, but to the very survival of their way of life. The election of Obama electrified them–and not in a good way.

This is the parallel that causes my angst, my concern that well-meaning, good-hearted admonitions to “reach out” and “try to understand” may be self-destructively naive.

America’s original and persistent sin is racism. It’s our fertile soil, just as Europe’s long history of anti-Semitism nourished and fertilized the Final Solution.

Since the advent of ubiquitous cellphone cameras, we’ve had evidence that–as Sinclair Lewis warned us–it absolutely could happen here.

Facing Reality

At this moment, it looks as if Joe Biden will win. But no matter who is President when the smoke clears and the votes are all counted–if they are– we learned some things on Tuesday. And the lessons weren’t pleasant.

The most obvious–and ultimately least consequential–is that polling is not nearly as “scientific” as the pollsters think. The effort to figure out what went so wrong will undoubtedly occupy pundits and nerds for a long time.

The far more painful lesson concerns the nature of our fellow-Americans.

I read about the thuggery leading up to the election–the “good old boys” in pickups ramming Biden’s bus, the desecration of a Jewish graveyard in Michigan with “MAGA” and “Trump” spray paint, the consistent, nation-wide efforts to suppress urban and minority voters–but until election night, I’d convinced myself that those responsible represented a very small segment of the population.

I think what I am feeling now is what Germany’s Jews must have felt when they realized the extent of Hitler’s support.

I am not engaging in hyperbole: the research in the wake of 2016 is unambiguous. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly motivated by racial and religious animus and grievance. White nationalist fervor has swept both the U.S. and Europe over the past few years, but it has taken firmer hold here. The QAnon conspiracy has clear roots in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and America’s racism–our original sin–has provided fertile ground for the alt-right sympathizers who defend tearing brown children from their parents, treating both immigrants and citizens of color as disposable, and keeping women in “our place.”

Trump didn’t invent these people, but he has activated them. Indeed, he is one of them.

I thought it was tragic when Trump’s approval ratings forced me to recognize that more than a third of America fell into that category. I find it inconceivable–but inarguable and infinitely depressing–that the actual number is close to half.

Evidently, the America I thought I inhabited never really existed. I’m in mourning for the country I believed was mine.

The Echoes Of History

I just finished reading The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, James H. Madison’s deeply researched and very readable account of Indiana’s history with the KKK. To say it was sobering would be a considerable understatement.

Madison, an Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University, is often referred to as the “Dean” of Indiana historians, and this recent book, published by IU Press, is a good example of his meticulous approach and his ability to place historical events in a larger context. He cautions us that the malcontents who currently affiliate with the Klan and other white nationalist organizations are very different from those in the broad-based movement that included thousands of “good Indiana citizens” in the 1920s–a movement that effectively took over the state’s political establishment for a time.

Times change, but sometimes less than we might hope. After reading the diatribe Becky shared in yesterday’s comments, I was especially struck by its echoes in Madison’s description of the Klan’s 1920s appeal:

In churches, town halls, and public parks, Hoosiers heard the warnings. People not like us were tearing down our religion and our country. Enemies were rising up. The Klan could identify them. The Klan could show 100 percent Americans who they should fear and how they should fight.

I don’t want to overstate the case. We really have come a long way from the hysteria of the 1920s, and the susceptibility of enormous numbers of Americans to fear and hatred of “others.” But as Trump devotees remind us, an uncomfortable percentage of Americans still respond to messages of division, threats of  displacement, and hostility to people they perceive as different from themselves.

I grew up in Indiana, but Madison’s book expanded considerably on what I’d known about Klan dominance in the state. I’d heard about the passage of a state law authorizing sterilization of people deemed “defective,” but I was totally unaware that our first state constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote, or that its replacement in 1851 (affirmed by a large vote) “excluded African-Americans from taking up residence in the state.”

I knew that the Klan had been active in Indiana politics, but I was surprised to read an excerpt from a New York Times article reporting that the “Indiana Klan had a machine that made [New York’s] Tammany seem amateurish,” and depressed by assertions that “85% of the [Republican] party were Klan members.”

I was also largely unaware of the degree of anti-Catholic fervor the Klan tapped into–although I do recall a couple of people telling me in 1960 that Catholics were stockpiling firearms in church basements, and that if John F. Kennedy won the election, the Catholics would mount a take-over. (I thought those people were nuts. It didn’t occur to me that such a myth was widespread, but evidently it was.)

It was impossible to read this history without discomfort, or without hearing its echoes in today’s fringe precincts. Madison pointed out, for example, that the  Klan constantly whined, consistently characterizing white Protestants as “victims” and seeing any and all social change as a descent into immorality, crime and godlessness. I had been unaware of the Klan’s considerable role in pushing for Prohibition, its suspicion of public libraries (!), and its savvy use of that new communication device called radio. “This new technology helped create the imagined community of like-minded Americans separated by distance.”

And I’d known nothing about the Klan’s “aggressive” education agenda–bills to require (Protestant) Bible reading in the public schools, to allow the state to approve all textbooks in both public and parochial schools, and ensure that curricula advanced “patriotism and Americanism.” (Where have we heard that lately?)

I recommend the book.

As Santayana warned, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.

 

 

About that 40%…

The problem isn’t Trump. As numerous people have recognized, Trump–despicable and dangerous and deranged as he is– is the symptom, not the disease.

I’ve previously posted about the systemic and structural fault-lines that have been exploited by Trump’s GOP supporters and fellow-travelers–but the disease, the root problem, isn’t the systems. It’s those supporters. Polls suggest that some 40% of Americans fall into that category, and the recurring, haunting question is: why? How could any sane adult look at this man and say, yep, that’s the guy I want directing my government? That’s the role model I want my kids to emulate?

Actually, I think my manicurist answered that question during a recent appointment.

She’s an adorable young woman (and very “woke” as the current terminology would have it). We were discussing the election, and she shared her distress that several family members were Trump supporters. I asked the question I always ask: why? What was her impression/ best guess about the basis of that support? She thought for a moment, then said “I hate to say this, but I think they are sort of racist, and Trump gives them permission to feel that way.”

Her anecdotal suspicions continue to be confirmed by the research, some of which I’ve referenced in prior posts. As more studies emerge, the evidence continues to grow.

The Washington Post recently reported on research into the authoritarian proclivities of Trump supporters–research that  linked those tendencies to racial animus.

In “Authoritarian Nightmare,” Bob Altemeyer and John W. Dean marshal data from a previously unpublished nationwide survey showing a striking desire for strong authoritarian leadership among Republican voters.

They also find shockingly high levels of anti-democratic beliefs and prejudicial attitudes among Trump backers, especially those who support the president strongly. And regardless of what happens in 2020, the authors say, Trump supporters will be a potent pro-authoritarian voting bloc in the years to come.

The research paints a picture of  people who are “submissive, fearful, and longing for a mighty leader who will protect them from life’s threats.” They are particularly prone to divide the world into friends and foes, and to believe that the foes far outnumber the friends.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions using very different methods. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, for instance, recently used YouGov survey data to find that many Republican voters hold strong authoritarian and anti-democratic beliefs, with racism being a key driver of those attitudes.

In the most recent study, respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.” Roughly half of Trump supporters agreed with that statement,  which–as Altemeyer and Dean point out– is “practically a Nazi cheer.”

If there has been one overarching lesson to be learned from the past few years, it is the (previously unappreciated) extent to which tribalism, racism and bigotry explain things that are otherwise inexplicable. A recent essay from New York Magazine analyzed the failure of Congress and the President to agree on a second, desperately needed stimulus package. The author’s conclusion was stunning: “bailing out” blue states would benefit ethnic minorities–something Republicans are loathe to do.

The most plausible explanation for this state of affairs is this: Most Senate Republicans face no great risk of losing their seats to a Democrat this year or any other. For them, the main threat to their power is a primary challenge. And right now, conservative media has turned opposition to fiscal aid into a cause célèbre, casting support for “blue-state bailouts” as treasonous.

How hateful do you have to be to withhold aid during a global pandemic to people you see as “Other”–even if by doing so, you and those you view as your own kind are harmed as well?

Even if there is a blue tsunami on November 3d, the people who hold these attitudes will still constitute a troubling percentage of the electorate. We can only hope that they fall far short of a majority.

And I have to wonder: What the hell is wrong with them?