This is a quick rant expounding on a thought I posted to Facebook yesterday. I’ve talked repeatedly about fear, and how Trump stokes people’s worries and concerns, and distracts from real problems. Unfortunately, it bears repeating. And repeating. And repeating…
I was listening to an interview this morning on NPR with a Trump supporter. She was expressing her fears, specifically fears of terrorism committed by Muslims. The interviewer pointed out that most mass shootings in the United States are carried out by white men. He asked her if that made her feel any better.
Admittedly, that’s kind of an odd question, and the correct answer probably should be no (but for different reasons than what she stated). Anyway, she said no, but her reason was, “I don’t believe it.”
And that’s what it seems to come down to this election. I can find plenty of research substantiating that point – that statistically, the threat of Islamic terrorism is actually quite low in the United States. Especially compared to other, more real dangers.
But you have a guy like Trump, stirring up fear and resentment. It’s no different than McCarthyism, or the justification for Japanese internment, or the yellow peril, or any other instance when fear of the Other is stoked to justify bigotry and Draconian policies.
So the sweet little old Mormon lady tells the NPR announcer that she wants to be kept safe. And who can blame her? She’s been told for the past 8 years that her president is a dangerous Muslim foreigner. Even if she doesn’t believe that specific lie, it helps set the stage for everything else. She’s been told, to varying degrees, that 9/11 was perpetrated by dark-skinned hordes on the other side of the planet, all just itching to destroy the land of the free. She’s told that cities are rife with crime and poverty and lawlessness, only made worse by those permissive, secular liberals.
Despite a recent uptick, crime is still at historic lows. Accidents involving furniture are deadlier than Muslims in America. And scapegoating an entire religion is more likely to fuel anti-American sentiment among the extremists than to pacify it.
But this person on NPR doesn’t believe it. She knows what she feels. And whatever else one thinks about Donald Trump, he is particularly skilled at emotional appeals. Even if you hate the guy, he’s still manipulating your emotions. He tells you trade is the cause of slow economic growth – even though that’s overly simplistic – and some people will nod their heads. Yeah, that makes sense. And he’s just the man to bring the jobs back – even though manufacturing will never be what it once was (and he can do nothing about it). He’ll tell you the know-it-alls are bringing the country down with burdensome regulations and global warming hoaxes. Don’t believe the statistics, or any evidence. Go with what feels right. Things aren’t going so well for you? Trump can tell you who’s to blame. And he’ll tell you who can fix it. Of course, he won’t tell you how, but you trust him. I mean, he’s rich and successful, right? So he knows how to get shit done.
Trump has few plans, incoherent and often contradictory policy positions, and has demonstrated a poor understanding of how governments are run. On paper, he should be a candidate along the lines of Lyndon LaRouche, or maybe Pat Buchanan at best. Not somebody to take seriously. But here he is, one step from the Presidency. And it’s because he knows fear. He knows how to make you feel. He can explain your troubles. And he’ll make you feel like he’s the only hope. That’s a demagogue. He’s a reactionary, bigoted, anti-intellectual demagogue.
He will tell you things that are absolutely untrue. He takes advantage of real worries and concerns, then tells you who is really to blame. And if you remember when your whiteness, or your maleness, or your heterosexuality once garnered more authority – you may be inclined to think the world is falling apart. And it sure looks like those foreigners and minorities and gay people are benefiting. So yeah, this brash businessman is just what we need.
Is this exactly the same as Hitler? Is he authoritarian in that same sense? Well, no, not really. However, could his appeals to emotion, his embrace of anti-intellectualism, his constant redirection of blame, his fear mongering, and his bigotry, all be a step in that direction? It certainly seems so. When was the last time a major party nominee advocated registering every member of a major religion? When was the last time a nominee supported deporting more than 10 million people en masse? When was the last time a nominee made openly racist statements in defense of authoritarian policies and proposals? When was the last time a nominee openly called for violence against political opponents? When was the last time a nominee called for reinstating policies already deemed violations of civil liberties, as well as the Constitution? When was the last time a nominee claimed that he was the only hope for national salvation?
And as of this morning he has a 28 percent chance of becoming President. That could be a lot worse. But if he were just a bit less charismatic, he would have a zero percent chance. If he wasn’t resonating with those who feel left out and overwhelmed – those who know there are problems, but don’t necessarily know how to fix them – then he wouldn’t have been nominated in the first place. He probably won’t become President. But it’s still possible. And that’s mostly because he knows how to focus our fears. And yes, the parallels with dictators of the past are real.