Tag Archives: resentment

History May Not Repeat, But It Rhymes…

The quote with which I titled this post–history may not repeat, but it often rhymes–is attributed to Mark Twain, and it appears to be playing out in America’s increasingly bizarre politics.

It turns out, we’ve been here before, albeit without the extra “supercharging” provided by the Internet. Conspiracy theories and bigotries– and their effect on political life– are evidently as American as apple pie.

Case in point, the 19th Century Know Nothing Party. The parallels are striking.

The precipitous decline of the Know Nothings ought to concern today’s Republicans, because the resentments, conspiracy theories and rejection of reality and evidence that characterize support for Donald Trump all bear a striking resemblance to the resentments and angers that gave rise to the Know Nothings. As the linked article from Politico put it,

Much like QAnon, the Know Nothings started life as a secretive cabal convinced that the country was being controlled by an even more secretive cabal — and much like Trump-era Republicans, their anxieties were rooted in a country that seemed to be changing around them.

In the late 1840s, the United States was being flooded with immigrants, in this case from Ireland. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of poor Irish Catholics led to a rise of political groups in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia convinced that these immigrants could form a fifth column taking direction from the Pope. Under orders from Rome, the theory went, these immigrants would undo American democracy and steal jobs from hard-working native citizens whose economic prospects were hardly secure even in the best of times.

Though these groups had actual names, such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, their membership at first was guarded and secretive. Asked about their views and political plans, members would reply only: “I know nothing.” The nickname was born.

The anti-immigration panic of the time coincided with the weakening and subsequent demise of the Whig Party. When the Whigs imploded, the (aptly named) Know Nothings emerged to replace them. Interestingly, the Know Nothings avoided taking sides on slavery–the issue that was genuinely tearing the country apart. Instead, it supported laws against drinking and immigration. (The anti-alcohol focus has been attributed to the stereotype of the mostly-Catholic Irish as big drinkers– a focus that gained impetus from the widespread anti-Catholic bigotry of the day.) The Know Nothings supported a wide variety of anti-immigrant measures, including laws to prevent immigrants from attaining citizenship.

These were not marginal moves. At their height, the Know Nothings, newly christened the Native American Party (long before that connoted the original inhabitants of North America), controlled the state legislatures and governorships of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maine and California. They also held numerous seats in state assemblies throughout the South, and they sent more than 40 representatives to the House and several senators, all adamant. Most of them supported stringent nativist, anti-immigrant legislation; all emerged from conspiratorial clubs that had spread theories about possible Papist aggression and plots against the sovereignty of the United States. (In their grotesque accusations about Catholic priests and nuns strangling babies and holding young women against their will, it’s not hard to see an early version of QAnon’s core obsession with imagined globalist pedophiles.) In 1856, the name was shortened to the American Party and its leaders nominated former president Millard Fillmore as their candidate for president under the slogan “Americans Must Rule America.”

Sound familiar?

The reason so few of us know this history is that the Know Nothing party split and declined almost as quickly as it had achieved its successes. But as the Politico article recognizes, the anti-immigrant nativism that drove its adherents never went away.

The lesson for today’s GOP is that simply being against something–or even against many things–isn’t enough. Without being for something, without being able to articulate a positive vision, growth is limited. Hate, anger and resentment can only take you so far.

Ultimately, successful politics requires addition. It requires a broadening of the base of support. The GOP’s embrace of crazy conspiracies, overt racism and self-evidently preposterous Big Lies has led instead to subtraction, as rational Republicans are increasingly exiting the party.

I think this may be where we pass the popcorn and watch the show…..

 

The Urban-Rural Divide…Elsewhere

I’ve posted before about the urban/rural divide, and why it’s politically consequential.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal quoted Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, for the proposition that the differences in the United States aren’t really “red versus blue” but “urban versus rural.” That observation has been echoed widely, as the differences between residents of rural and small-town America and those who live in urban areas have become steadily more pronounced.

Religion–a historically important generator of conflict– is one such difference: urban Americans are more than three times more likely than their rural counterparts to say that religion isn’t particularly important to them. (Attitudes on social issues reflect that difference: rural residents are far more likely to consider homosexuality a sin and to oppose same-sex marriage, to oppose abortion, and to support restrictions on immigration.)

A survey by Pew in 2018 found white rural residents twice as likely as white urban dwellers to insist that they don’t enjoy a social advantage by reason of their skin color.

Rural residents are more likely to be older and poorer and more likely to be isolated than urban dwellers. They are also far more likely to be Republican.

Despite the fact that some 80% of Americans now live in cities, the structure of America’s electoral system continues to significantly advantage rural voters, especially but not exclusively through the operation of the Electoral College. Whether what is called the urban/rural split is defined simply as city versus country, or by a more complex cultural regionalism, those ubiquitous red/blue maps attest to the measurable and consequential differences between urban and rural Americans.

This situation, according to the Washington Post, is not exclusively an American phenomenon.A report from 2016 suggests a very similar state of affairs in Europe.

What shaped European politics over the past two years might appear to some like a revolution of rural Europe rising up against the establishment and economic winners.

Support for Britain leaving the European Union was highest in rural areas in the June referendum.

It is also “rural France” that might empower far-right politician Marine Le Pen next year.

In Germany, the urban establishment underestimated the backlash the recent influx of refugees would provoke in less densely populated areas.

In rural northern Europe, the article tells us, younger, better educated men and women have moved to cities to find employment. That statement also describes states like Indiana, where small towns continue to empty out as young people depart for more densely populated cities.

Even in federal republics like Germany, which lack the dominance of one single capital city, an urban-rural disconnect is increasingly visible. Whereas Berlin has attracted foreigners and Germans alike, its surrounding areas have seen a rapid demographic change. Supermarkets have closed, and bus connections were canceled as a result. It is a pattern which can be observed all over Europe at the moment.

The description of those who have stayed in Europe’s rural areas is familiar here too: a feeling of being left behind has replaced the pride of place that used to characterize small villages and hamlets. Rural residents exhibit a sense of abandonment and replacement that the article suggests is largely responsible for the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit.

When people feel left behind, they want someone to blame.

And as these native Britons feel trapped with no economic future, they see images of an increasingly diverse population in the cities. To many Brexit supporters, concerns over an influx of immigrants were among the reasons they voted to leave the E.U.

In Germany, similar feelings have created a different kind of backlash: anti-immigration protests and anti-refugee attacks. Economically distressed eastern Germany has seen the vast majority of those attacks. That region, an area which consists of five states excluding Berlin, accounts for only about 15 percent of the German population. Yet the majority of anti-immigrant attacks took place in the country’s east in 2015.

In one way, it’s comforting to recognize that we aren’t the only country experiencing this problem. But while “misery loves company,” commiserating with that company doesn’t solve our problems.

A country with a functioning government would work to address the problems of rural decline–try to ameliorate the isolation and frustration that feed racial and ethnic resentments. But we don’t have a functioning government.

We have an administration that needs to keep fueling those rural frustrations and resentments. They are the sentiments that motivate the GOP base.

A Plausible Explanation for the Otherwise Inexplicable

One of the disquieting realizations I’ve come to during this interminable campaign is just how many things I don’t understand.

Hard as it has been for me to “get” why any sentient being would support Donald Trump, I’ve been particularly confused about why Evangelical Christians would support a thrice-married admitted adulterer who boasts about his greed, talks about the size of his penis and has a long history of distinctly unChristian behaviors.

It certainly isn’t because they agree with his policy proposals. He doesn’t have any. (Martin Longman recently explained why policy has played such a minor role in this campaign: Despite the fact that Clinton has advanced multiple proposals,  you can’t have a policy debate with rageoholic voters, or with a candidate more focused on beauty queens and his penis than with what is ailing America.)

Not all Evangelicals support Trump, of course, but a significant number do, and I’ve been at a loss to account for that support. I recently came across an interview with Robert P. Jones, the author of “The End of White Christian America” that offers a plausible explanation.

I went back and looked at remarks Trump made at that evangelical college in Iowa in January. There it became really clear to me that he really wasn’t making the case that he was an evangelical. Instead he was making the case that he saw their power slipping from the scene and that he was going to be the guy who would do something about it. He very explicitly said in that message in January in Iowa, “When I’m president, I’m going to restore power to the Christian churches. We’re not going to be saying ‘Happy Holidays,’ we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”

In the book, Jones talks about the politics of nostalgia and grievance–important clues to Trump’s appeal.

When I think and write about white Christian America in the book, I use the term to refer to this big cultural and political edifice that white Protestants built in this country. This world allowed white Protestants to operate with a whole set of unquestioned assumptions. It really is the era of June Cleaver and Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith. This sense of nostalgia is very powerful for white Christians, particularly conservative white Christians, who could see themselves in that mythical depiction of 1950s America, but who are having a more difficult time seeing their place in a rapidly changing country….

 What has become most important to the eight in ten white evangelical voters who are now saying they’re voting for Trump over Clinton is that in Trump they see someone who is going to restore their vision of America. It is a vision which really does look like 1950s America. It’s pre-civil rights, it’s pre-women’s rights, and it’s before immigration policy was opened up in the mid-1960s. And most of all, it’s a time when white Protestants were demographically in the majority. But just over the last two election cycles, we’ve gone from a majority white Christian country to a minority white Christian country, from 54 percent white Christian in 2008 to 45 percent white Christian today. So this nostalgic vision of the country harkens back to a mythical golden age when white Protestants really did hold sway in the country, both in terms of numbers and in terms of cultural power.

As Jones sees it, Trump’s real appeal to white evangelicals—how they hear “Make American Great Again”—is his promise to turn back the clock and restore their power, a promise Jones puts in the same category as “I’m going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.”

Obviously, neither is going to happen. But then, reality isn’t Trump’s–or his supporters’–natural habitat. Grievance is.

There simply may not be “a bridge too far” for these voters, but I can’t help wondering how they  will rationalize away yesterday’s disclosure of a tape of Trump bragging about grabbing women by the p—y” ….