Last weekend, a Facebook friend of mine explained the Trump situation as the outcome of a Faustian bargain GOP elites made with racists and anti-intellectuals some decades ago. He was riffing on this WaPo editorial which asks “Where Were Republican Moderates 20 Years Ago.?” In the article Fareed Zakaria criticizes the Republican leaders who are now scrambling to fend off Donald Trump for allowing the situation to develop in the first place.
It’s a fairly stinging critique. Fareed argues that by failing to restrain the right wing of their party from using the virulent rhetoric and vicious tactics that have become a commonplace in U.S.politics — and in some cases actively encouraging it — the Republican leadership fostered the environment in which Trump is now flourishing. The money quote:
Here is a much simpler explanation for Donald Trump: Republicans have fed the country ideas about decline, betrayal and treason. They have encouraged the forces of anti-intellectualism, obstructionism and populism. They have flirted with bigotry and racism. Trump merely chose to unashamedly embrace all of it, saying plainly what they were hinting at for years. In doing so, he hit a jackpot.
I buy this. It tracks with what I said in my last #WeekendCoffeeShare post about why I consider Trump dangerous even if he loses.
When Presidential candidates say racist things to whip up political support, that sends a message to their followers that it’s ok say and do racist things in public. Which makes people who actually have racist attitudes a little more comfortable with spreading bigotry and hate.
Zakaria locates the Republicans’ turn toward toxic rhetoric in the Gingrich era. My own experience agrees with his assessment. When I Iook at how we arrived at this pass as a social/historical process, I can trace it back to the racist backlash against the Voting Rights Act with ease. The now-infamous Southern Strategy and Barry Goldwater’s run for President in 1964 are pieces of this puzzle.
That said, Zakaria has a point. I remember a fair amount of virulent political speech during the Reagan and Bush I eras. And keep in mind, I was 8 years old in 1980, so my memory is a bit fuzzy. “Welfare Queens” and a lot of homophobic things that were said during the AIDS crisis spring immediately to mind. But during the 1990s, the right wing of the Republican Party went absolutely bananas. There was a notable change in the things they were willing to do and say to win elections and policy debates.
The far right hated Bill Clinton and they expressed their hatred in the mass media. Even after the Obama birther madness and all the racism I’ve seen directed at our current President, I still don’t believe I’ve ever seen the level of vitriol spewed at a government official that was directed at Clinton. Maybe the Clinton era made a larger impression because I was younger and hadn’t been desensitized to it yet, but I am not sure.
We had Rush Limbaugh on television framing the Clinton Presidency as “America Under Siege” and counting the days. There were all manner of conspiracy theories accusing the Clintons of everything from cocaine smuggling to plotting with China to make the U.S. a vassal state of the PRC. The right exploited the Waco and Ruby Ridge catastrophes to score political points by whipping up anti-government sentiment, which ended up fueling the militia movement.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the government deserves criticism for both of these incidents. But criticism should be productive, and the right went too far. I’ll also point out that Ruby Ridge happened in August of 1992. Bill Clinton wasn’t sworn in until January of the next year, so it didn’t even happen on his watch. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know that.
I’ll be honest in the interest of full disclosure. I not only supported Bill Clinton, I liked him. After 12 years of grandfatherly Presidents who smiled and said they cared about everyone while they happily went about the business of punishing poor people for being poor, Clinton was a breath of fresh air. He was dynamic. He was talented. When he said he cared about the rest of us, I believed him. He gave me hope for the future.
Some of the most heated conversations I’ve ever had were during his impeachment trial. I thought at the time he shouldn’t have been impeached because Ronald Reagan wasn’t impeached for Iran-Contra despite the fact that the hearings revealed him to be either criminally culpable or so incompetent as to be unfit for office. I thought the whole sorry impeachment affair was orchestrated by opportunists who wanted to damage the Democratic Party so badly the country would go along with the GOP running the government forever.
I maintain to this day that if the circumstances had been the same, but Clinton had been a Republican, there would have been no trial. Heck, there probably never would have even been a Whitewater investigation. No one will ever convince me otherwise.
The right wing during the Clinton era went way beyond personal attacks and saying bigoted things to score points. They operated, from day one, from a position of contempt for the executive branch itself. These people didn’t want to govern. They wanted to rule.
So yeah, during the 90’s the extreme right escalated the bigotry and hate. The centrist wing of the GOP allowed it to happen by not stepping on it and in some cases, condoning it to win elections. The extremists pulled them to the right and forced them into a position which required them to “go nuclear or go home” any time they had even a slight disagreement with the Dems.
By the end of the decade we had a separatist problem and a militia problem because (almost exclusively white) people were joining what amounted to private paramilitary organizations out of fear that the Clinton administration was scheming to take away their guns or use the military against the population or some such. We’d seen a federal building in a major city bombed. I was never sure why so many people bought all that, given our well-established tradition of leaving problems in the hands of the civil authorities unless things break down to the point that they threaten public safety in a big way or the authorities plead for help.
We had people being abused and in some cases murdered for not being heterosexual and an uptick in violence against abortion providers. In my neck of the woods, people were using the label “Democrat” as a not-so-sly racial slur. Unless you were a thick-skinned, assertive person in the South, you thought twice about identifying as liberal or feminist. It took a LOT of courage, even at that late date, to be open about your sexual orientation unless you were a hetero, cisgendered person.
It’s tricky to identify causal relationships in these matters. But note the obvious way the escalation on the part of far right people in government seems to have enabled the bad behavior of average citizens who agreed with them. Note how it encouraged even more extreme elements of society to organize and collaborate. I believe this is a real thing I’m looking at.
There’s a relationship here between what our politicians say and how our citizens treat one another. I’m ready for our public discourse to start running in the direction of tolerance and respect. I’ll happily organize with anyone who convinces me they want the same.
I started writing this post almost a week ago. Since then, we’ve seen a Trump rally in Chicago canceled because confrontations between his supporters and protesters became too violent for the event to go forward. Now he and his surrogates are claiming the protesters violated his First Amendment rights. I can’t publish this without saying a few words about all that.
I’ll condemn violence no matter which end of the political spectrum it comes from. Violence is violence, period. But it’s a huge mistake to allow Trump to put this all on the protesters. The only reason people are protesting his rallies is because for months, he’s been spewing racism and encouraging his supporters to abuse people who object to what he’s saying.
In some cases, people who weren’t being disruptive in any way have been removed from his rallies because they were wearing other candidates’ messaging on their clothing or because they were black. And that IS a violation of the First Amendment, because those people were removed by police and/or Secret Service.
Trump has had every opportunity to dial back his rhetoric and to encourage restraint from the podium. He has not done that. The Republican Party has done very little to call him out for it, and what they have done has been too little, too late.
As Saturday Night Live pointed out in the Weekend Update this week in a much more pithy way than I am. Given the character and history of Chicago, is it any wonder a rally for an openly racist Presidential candidate who regularly incites his supporters to abuse people attracted a large protest and things got ugly? Is it any wonder at all?
Far as the First Amendment argument goes. Freedom of speech protects political speech from government censorship in public spaces. It doesn’t protect political candidates from being heckled by protesters.
Removing protesters from political rallies for disrupting the event to the point it can’t continue, or for threatening the safety of others, is totally legal. Removing people for standing silently with signs or listening attentively while wearing t-shirts supporting other candidates is illegal. One of the reasons Trump is encouraging his supporters to abuse any and all protesters whether they’re being disruptive or not is to create an environment in which those people aren’t safe so the police have an excuse to escort them out.
When you hear someone bemoaning the infringement of Donald Trump’s First Amendment rights, it is appropriate to call bullshit on that. Also appropriate to point out that it’s a classic case of projection. And here’s the funny thing about Trump hiding behind freedom of speech. This may be the only funny thing I’ve seen since he started his campaign.
I know quite a bit about trolling. I sometimes engage in discussions that attract the trolling-folk. I’ve written about their behavior. Donald Trump is using their tactics.
Sometimes I see people obviously trolling a thread with the intent to disrupt the conversation and I tell them to cut it out or step off. One of the most common responses I get when I do that is a rant about freedom of speech. At that point, I usually block the person so they can’t respond any more, and then explain to them that I’m not the government, and that even though blogs are publicly accessible, they are not public property, which means the First Amendment does not apply.
Donald Trump and his enablers are trolling us, y’all. It’s too bad we can’t all disengage and stop feeding him. But people are going to keep showing up at his rallies, and he’s not going to dial back his rhetoric. Even if he did at this point, I don’t think he could restrain the crowds. Trump is not holding these people in the palm of his hand the way he was even a month ago. He’s lost control of his own followers and he’s unleashed a thing.
We can’t accuse Donald Trump of directly inciting what happened in Chicago because he wasn’t even there. But I say no matter who threw the first punch, he bears more responsibility for that incident than any single person — on either side — who was in that crowd. Because if the things he’s been saying for these last few weeks aren’t incitement, I don’t know what that word means.
So let’s hope he somehow inexplicably loses big on Tuesday. But even if he does, be mindful of the fact that his following isn’t going to evaporate. Most will support Cruz if it comes to that. And we don’t want Trumpism to take hold the way the Obama Birthers’ ideas took hold. Because that strengthened the Tea Party and made governing harder for Obama than it had to be.
So, how do we handle this, since we can’t stop feeding the trolls in this case? I say we stay engaged with this election and see it through to November. And we assert our own views at every opportunity.
I’m not saying you have to let it take over your social media the way it’s taken over mine or berate your friends offline. That sort of incessant chatter isn’t for everyone. I know a lot of us are depressed, disgusted, and exhausted already and November is months away.
If it gets to be too much, step away from it for a few days and spend your internet time looking at pet photos and baby pictures. I’ve come to enjoy those over the last year or so and to see them as valuable as anything else we do on the social media. Because they make people smile and they foster positive relationships. We could do with a heap more of both right now.
All I’m saying is we can’t afford to burn out, or to just tune it all out in disgust. If someone asks you for your opinion on the election, give them a polite, honest answer and be firm if you receive conservative jackassery in return for your trouble. And if someone starts blithely extolling the virtues of Donald Trump to you, ask them what they think this country will look like if we elect a guy who has people escorted out of his rallies just for being black whether they are actually protesting or not and who incites his followers to violence.
And have a little faith in the American people, even though that’s getting harder by the day. We don’t always do the right thing, but it is my sincere hope that in this case, we will. I have to believe that even though I’m an unapologetic leftist and my views do not represent the mainstream in any way, most Americans want what I want in this election. I’m running entirely on faith and hope at this point.
We don’t want to make America great again because even though we’re at a low point and we are in a precarious position, we haven’t lost our greatness yet. We just want to make America sensible again.
ed.- I need to acknowledge a few people here because this is a different post than I’ve ever written, and a few people helped me get here, even though they might not realize it.
If not for the many conversations with my sister Diana, who runs the blog Part Time Monster, and our friend Gretchen Kelly of Drifting Through My Open Mind, over the last three years, I would not have found the heart to put a thing like this on the internet.
My friend Luther M. Siler of Infinite Free Time has taught me a lot about blogging, and interpreting statistics, and the dynamics of this election just by sharing his opinions with me these last couple of years and commenting on my threads. Luther is an author and he blogs about a lot of stuff other than politics, but you only need to spend two minutes scrolling through is archives to see he’s one of the good guys. Thank you, Luther, for your kindness, patience, and generosity.
I religiously follow the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation on Facebook. I am not affiliated with them, but they always answer my communications and they post a lot of good stuff. I think of them as friends.
If you care about these things I’ve written about in this post, please give all these nice folks a look, and if you see why what they’re doing is valuable, give them a follow and some likes.
More to come.