Tag Archives: fear

It’s All About Status…

In 2017, Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, published The End of White Christian America. He presented copious evidence that demographic change was eroding the hegemony of the White Protestant males who had exercised social–and often, legal– dominance since the founding of the United States. He also provided evidence that awareness of their impending loss of status explained  most of their political hysteria.

Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall revisited the issue of status, or more accurately, fear of its loss.

More and more, politics determine which groups are favored and which are denigrated.

Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees: the white working and middle class. Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.

The ferocity of this politicized status competition can be seen in the anger of white non-college voters over their disparagement by liberal elites, the attempt to flip traditional hierarchies and the emergence of identity politics on both sides of the chasm.

Researchers have begun studying what we have come to recognize as one of the most powerful motivations of human behavior. That research tells us that perceptions of diminished status is a source of rage on both the left and right. Add American divisions over economic insecurity, geography and values, and that rage only deepens.

Status is different from resources and power, although possession of those assets certainly contributes to it. It is based on cultural beliefs rather than material wealth or position.

Edsall quoted a Stanford professor who studies the subject.

Status has always been part of American politics, but right now a variety of social changes have threatened the status of working class and rural whites who used to feel they had a secure, middle status position in American society — not the glitzy top, but respectable, ‘Main Street’ core of America. The reduction of working-class wages and job security, growing demographic diversity, and increasing urbanization of the population have greatly undercut that sense and fueled political reaction.

People convinced that their status is low tend to gravitate to “anti-establishment” and radical candidates on both the Left and Right. Those fearing loss of status are different. One Harvard researcher explains that people  drawn to right-wing populist positions and politicians, such as Trump, usually “sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation.”

My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

Apparently, the more socially marginalized people are, the more likely they are to feel alienated from the country’s political system — and the more likely they are to support  radical parties.

Radical politicians on the left evoke the virtues of working people, whereas those on the right emphasize themes of national greatness, which have special appeal for people who rely on claims to national membership for a social status they otherwise lack. The “take back control” and “make America great again” slogans of the Brexit and Trump campaigns were perfectly pitched for such purposes.

Other researchers emphasize that populism and fear of losing status are not the same thing. Populist movements stress group cohesion and equality; dominance, they point out, leads to self-promotion and support for steep hierarchies. That said, the research confirms that it is almost exclusively right-wing political actors who actively campaign on the status issue. 

The research confirms that it is fear of losing status, not actual status, that is the key political motivator.

I was particularly struck by this observation from a researcher at Duke:

Those who cannot adopt or compete in the dominant status order — closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of complex cultural performances — make opposition to this order a badge of pride and recognition. 

Dismissing journalists as “enemies of the people,” denying the reality of climate change, and refusing to wear masks and engage in social distancing are all part and parcel of this opposition to “elitists.” 

Edsall’s column has much more detail on the research. It explains a lot of America’s current polarization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us what we can or should do about it.

 

Fear Itself

Paul Krugman’s column on August 24th really, really hit the proverbial nail on the head.  It was titled “QAnon is Trump’s Last, Best Chance,” and it homed in on the nature of the snake oil that Trump and the GOP are peddling.

Last week’s Democratic National Convention was mainly about decency — about portraying Joe Biden and his party as good people who will do their best to heal a nation afflicted by a pandemic and a depression. There were plenty of dire warnings about the threat of Trumpism; there was frank acknowledgment of the toll taken by disease and unemployment; but on the whole the message was surprisingly upbeat.

This week’s Republican National Convention, by contrast, however positive its official theme, is going to be QAnon all the way.

I don’t mean that there will be featured speeches claiming that Donald Trump is protecting us from an imaginary cabal of liberal pedophiles, although anything is possible. But it’s safe to predict that the next few days will be filled with QAnon-type warnings about terrible events that aren’t actually happening and evil conspiracies that don’t actually exist.

Think about that last line: terrible events that aren’t actually happening and evil conspiracies that don’t actually exist. Inculcating fear–of Black people, Jews, immigrants, socialists–has been a Republican staple since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” but until recently, it was only a portion of that strategy.

Now, the once-Grand-old-Party has nothing else.

As Krugman points out, the messaging employed by this administration has focused on efforts to panic Americans over nonexistent threats.

If you get your information from administration officials or Fox News, you probably believe that millions of undocumented immigrants cast fraudulent votes, even though actual voter fraud hardly ever happens; that Black Lives Matter protests, which with some exceptions have been remarkably nonviolent, have turned major cities into smoking ruins; and more.

It has been a constant barrage of Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”

Krugman says that much of this focus on imaginary threats is a defense mechanism from people who have no clue how to do policy, or to cope with real threats.

Covid-19, of course, has been the. all-too-visible example of that inability. In the face of massive American deaths, Trump has offered quack remedies (drink bleach!), and little else other than blaming China. and denying the severity and extent of the pandemic.

Trump, in other words, can’t devise policies that respond to the nation’s actual needs, nor is he willing to listen to those who can. He won’t even try. And at some level both he and those around him seem aware of his basic inadequacy for the job of being president.

What he and they can do, however, is conjure up imaginary threats that play into his supporters’ prejudices, coupled with conspiracy theories that resonate with their fear and envy of know-it-all “elites.” QAnon is only the most ludicrous example of this genre, all of which portrays Trump as the hero defending us from invisible evil.

If all of this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. And it’s almost certainly not a political tactic that can win over a majority of American voters.

Trump’s base is terrified. They are afraid most of all of demographic change, of losing their white, Christian, masculine privilege, but they are also deeply uncomfortable with the increasing ambiguities of modern life. They  want desperately to “return” to a world that never was.

Real-world policies–the kind that would appear in a party platform, or be embraced by competent grownups–can’t soothe those fears. The Republican Party has retreated to the only thing it has left: fantasy.

So they are ramping up the fear and telling us “those people” are to blame.

Fear Itself

Scientific American recently published a fascinating article, titled “Why Are White Men Stockpiling Guns?” It began by reciting statistics most of us now know:

Since the 2008 election of President Obama, the number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. has tripled, while imports have doubled. This doesn’t mean more households have guns than ever before—that percentage has stayed fairly steady for decades. Rather, more guns are being stockpiled by a small number of individuals. Three percent of the population now owns half of the country’s firearms, says a recent, definitive studyfrom the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University.

So, who is buying all these guns—and why?

The conventional wisdom was that gun sales to white guys spiked when a black man was elected President. The article provided a more finely-grained description of the specific “white guys” who went on that buying spree, citing several scientific studies that have concluded that “the kind of man who stockpiles weapons or applies for a concealed-carry license meets a very specific profile.”

These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don’t appear to be religious—and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisisin meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story—one in which they are once again the heroes.

Researchers also found pervasive anti-government sentiments among these men.

“This is interesting because these men tend to see themselves as devoted patriots, but make a distinction between the federal government and the ‘nation,’ says Froese. “On that point, I expect that many in this group see the ‘nation’ as being white.”

The entire article is fascinating. It also dovetails with the results of research into political attitudes conducted at Yale.That research built on a decade of political psychology studies that found people who feel physically threatened or fearful are more likely to be conservatives.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals. And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course).

In the research experiment, when subjects were told to Imagine being completely safe from physical harm, their attitudes changed, and their policy preferences became indistinguishable  from those of the liberals in the experiment.

This result may seem far-fetched, but it correlates with social science research that shows lower incidence of social dysfunction and crime in countries with more robust social safety nets.

FDR was onto something when he said we should fear “fear itself.”

 

 

A Summary of the Situation….

Okay….Yesterday was the last day of the Republican convention. It was without a doubt the weirdest national conclave in my lifetime.

If Trump did not pose such a threat to national security and American values, the spectacle might have been entertaining; as it is, I can’t help worrying that there might be enough anti-Other, angry, civicly-illiterate voters to put this dangerous ignoramus in office.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has one of the better summaries of the spectacle. (Marshall has also memorably defined what he calls Trump’s Razor: “Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts.”) The entire article is well worth reading, but here are a few of his most trenchant observations.

The Republican party nominated a man because of his ability to dominate and denigrate opponents and summon up a plethora of demons already rumbling under the seas of Republican revanchism. The man was and is a charlatan and a grifter, the master of a Potemkin Village world rooted in narcissism and aggression which creaks and staggers under even the most measured scrutiny….

Indeed, while this conflagration was erupting in Cleveland another bomb, which Trump himself had lit earlier in the day, was going off on the pages of The New York Times. One can debate whether it is wise or sensible for the United States to guarantee the independence of small states on the periphery of Russia which had for centuries been either within the Russian domain or inside its sphere of influence. But we have. In his comments to the Times, Trump treated the matter like a real estate goon shaking down a distressed landlord to make an easy buck.

Trump’s mix of cocky ambiguity and predation could scarcely be better primed to trigger the kind of great power confrontation that could push the world from smoldering to fire. It is no exaggeration to say that were it not for the relative confidence that Trump will be defeated in November that interview alone could trigger a genuine international crisis….

On his own Trump is simply a bracing case study in abnormal psychology. But he didn’t shoot to within reach of the most powerful office in the world by happenstance. He is the product of a political and cultural breakdown on the American right, a swaggering reductio ad absurdum of every breach and breakdown and violation of extra-statutory norms we’ve seen over the last two or three decades.

Even more chilling–if possible– is the response of the Trump campaign to a supporter’s call to murder Hillary Clinton. It has gone beyond the rabid chants to “lock her up,” as staggering a deviation from democratic norms as that sentiment represents; a Trump advisor who said Clinton should be “shot for treason” is now being investigated by the Secret Service for threatening the former First Lady and Secretary of State’s life.

Any responsible campaign would immediately disavow a person making such a statement. Not this one.

In response to Baldasaro’s attack, Trump Campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said: “We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments.”

Again, Josh Marshall summarizes the import and context of that “wink wink” statement:

Do I think people on the Trump campaign really want to see Clinton injured or killed? No, I do not. But I do think they believe that exciting a climate of agitated grievance, militant anger and aggression helps them galvanize, gain and intensify support. On one and three they’re likely right. Just as importantly, they clearly believe that any clear denunciation of the growing chorus of angry and occasionally violent threats would demoralize and dishearten a key part of their base. Trump’s brand is dominance and submission. Provocation is his calling card. Calling a pause on their more febrile supporters would simply be off brand and would be hard to clearly differentiate in kind from the campaign-endorsed demand for her incarceration.

Just this week, David Duke reaffirmed his strong support for Trump, and once again, there has been no disavowal of that support from the campaign. Meanwhile, the ghostwriter of “Art of the Deal” described Trump as a nine-year-old with ADHD, and predicted disaster should he be elected.

My ulcer has been acting up ever since this Presidential campaign began, and I think I know why.

What Is WRONG With These People?

It’s spring! Finally!

And if a recent jaunt around the Internet is to be believed, America seems to be growing more bigots than tulips this year.

In Virginia, supporters of “religious freedom” have prevented a group of local Muslims from building a mosque, demonstrating once again that “religious freedom” bills should be labeled “Christian privilege” bills, since they sure aren’t about extending religious liberty to anyone else.

Speaking of Muslims, a student at UC Berkeley who was returning from an academic conference had the bad judgment to call his uncle on his cellphone while he was in his seat waiting for the plane to load. His uncle lives in Iraq, so he spoke to him in Arabic. This evidently was all the evidence of terrorism required by Southwest Air, which removed him from the plane and called police to interrogate him.

Then there’s Mississippi.

I’m not sure who these good “Christians” are gunning for, but according to news reports, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has signed into law something called the Church Protection Act. It allows churches to empower designated members of their congregation as part of a security team with a “shoot to kill” authority equivalent to a police officer but with less government oversight. Who Would Jesus Shoot? (What could possibly go wrong…??)

And of course, in Mississippi, North Carolina and elsewhere, there is the (to me, at least) inexplicable paranoia about bathroom use. Evidently, males are more susceptible to this condition–at least, according to a recent article in Slate:

For many men, taking a piss at the office is apparently a “nightmarish” experience. That’s one of the many fascinating things we learn in Julie Beck’s engrossing essay on the psychological minefield that is the public bathroom, published today in the Atlantic. We all know people who do their best to avoid defecating outside the privacy of home, but the fears and fantasies that Beck explores in her piece are almost Sadeian in detail—paranoia about seeing and being seen, elaborate attempts to construct sonic shields, and most of all, a deep sense that the perils of humiliation and social opprobrium waiting on the other side of the restroom door may very well outweigh the relief of relieving oneself.

If there is one thread connecting these depressingly regular eruptions of insanity, it would seem to be fear–fear of “the other”–fear of people who are perceived as different from “normal” (i.e., from “me.”) People who speak a different language, pray to a different god, love differently, pee differently…

For people who see difference as threatening and dangerous, the world must be a really scary (and uninteresting) place. I’d feel sorry for them, but the incredible stupidity of it all makes sympathy awfully hard to summon up.

I’m going to go water my tulips…..