Defusing the angry Trumpsters

The Thinker by Rodin

Sorry I haven’t been posting lately. For being sort of retired, my life has been plenty busy lately. Mainly I’ve been hosting family, who seem to have finally accepted that we have moved to Western Massachusetts and suddenly want to visit. My brother arrived for a weeklong visit. In the middle of it my sister arrived, along with my stepmother. For eleven days we enjoyed their company, fed them and took them places. Now things are getting back to normal and I can think about blogging again.

What thought that have been occupying my brain these last couple of weeks have not been Donald Trump, but the people who support him. Trump has been true to his form, going from crazy to crazier. I no longer worry at all about him winning the election. As I said in June, Trump is toast. I’d like to think he is smart enough to realize this, but he is surprisingly tone deaf to things like his ultra high negatives and polling that shows him pulling farther behind Hillary Clinton.

He seems convinced that he will somehow pull this election thing off somehow, unless it gets “stolen” somehow. (What a strange concern from a party that has been putting up voting roadblocks for poor and minorities.) Even Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) has thrown in his towel. For months he was dogmatically certain that Trump had us all hypnotized. He had said he had 98% confidence that Trump would win the election because he excelled at mass hypnosis and persuasion techniques. I do give him credit for one thing: Trump certainly has his followers hypnotized. It seems there is nothing too wild that he can say (the latest is that President Obama “founded” ISIS) that will dissuade his followers from voting for him. Fortunately this is but a sizeable minority of the country. To quote Bertrand Russell, the rest of us aren’t hypnotized; we are “uncomfortably awake”. You know you are in trouble when my stepmother, who reads Bill O’Reilly’s books and watches Fox News told us she couldn’t vote for Trump. Hillary will get her vote.

This is not my first rumination about Trump’s followers. This is America, and we’re entitled to believe any crazy thing we want, which is why many of us are dogmatically certain the earth is only 6000 years old. We don’t give up our prejudices easily and I’m no exception. Rest assured though that if Bernie Sanders were the pompous, gaseous windbag that Donald Trump is I would have been the first to run away from him. A few of Trump’s halfhearted supporters have seen the light, which is mostly figuring out what side their bread is buttered on. Establishment Republicans are working hard to shut their eyes and stop their ears until after the election. They too live in the real world and they know a political disaster of potentially Biblical proportions is about to be unleashed in November against them. They are hoping their firewall of gerrymandering will allow them to maintain some modicum of political control, at least in the House. The Senate is looking likely to flip back to the Democrats.

The late Eric Hoffer wrote a number of interesting books, including The Ordeal of Change and The True Believer. It is the latter book that I am thinking about tonight. Most of us are true believers in the sense that we have certain core beliefs that virtually nothing can change. I fall into this category too. We are not open to evidence that contravenes our predetermined positions, which is why it’s very hard to get someone to change those opinions and beliefs they are most passionate about. Sometimes it takes cataclysm. In the case of Japan, it took two nuclear bombs to get them to surrender and a benevolent overlord (the United States) to introduce rational government (democracy). Just to be on the safe side though we clipped Japan’s wings, not allowing it to develop nuclear weapons or an army capable of fighting in a foreign war. In Trump’s supporters I see a lot of people behaving a lot like the Japanese before their surrender, i.e. true believers. Trump seems to be egging them on with a recent comment that suggested that those who favor the Second Amendment might unseat a President Hillary Clinton using their guns, which most read as his sanctioning her assassination.

The most dangerous day for our democracy since the Civil War may be the day after the general election, November 9, and what comes out of Trump’s mouth when he loses. Based on his bullheadedness and lack of impulse control, I would not be surprised if he asked his followers to rise up. After all, it will be the only way to “make America great again” if we unwisely choose “Crooked Hillary”. It would probably land him in jail, but it’s unclear if this would bother him, as stoking his ego seems to be all that matters. Would his supporters actually try insurrection? And if so how can it be prevented?

I think at least some will, with or without an overt call. Trump will probably call for it using weasel words that will sound like he is not directly calling for such an action, but his supporters will know what he is signaling. I think even if he says nothing at least some of his supporters will attempt to take matters into their own hands. It may be a handful of incidents or it may turn into something much more long term: attempts at insurrection that could look indistinguishable from terrorism. After all, if your cause is just, terrorism is just another tactic.

It’s hard for me to feel sympathy for Trump supporters. If any group deserves to hit the concrete, it will be his supporters. In reality, the whole Republican establishment could stand for a tar and feathering. We Democrats though are too nonviolent to do something like this. His supporters though are full of energy and certainty about the rightness of their positions. If we know anything about energy, a pocket of energy will eventually burst its container if it grows large enough. So how does an enlightened society gently prick this Trump balloon so rather than explode violently it gently drains away? How do we lead the Tea Party and Trump supporters to a better and more productive place?

Ideally, Trump would be statesmanlike enough to do this, but that’s not a likely option here. Part of the solution would be for key Republicans to forcefully and repeatedly state that insurrection and violence are not options. It wouldn’t hurt if Republicans said that anyone advocating these things would be expelled from their party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be a good person to say this, as his loathing for all things Democratic is hardly unknown. Speaker Paul Ryan can and likely would do the same thing, but he has considerably less influence and power than McConnell. Doubtless the Bush family, Mitt Romney and most of the Republican presidential candidates would say the same. It’s important though for these people to speak up on this now, be clear and be loud throughout the general election campaign. At this point none of these people seem to be entertaining the idea that anyone in their flock needs such a lecture.

They also need a plan for the day after the election that Tea Partiers can latch onto with some measure of hope. It will be mostly more of what they did after Obama was elected: promising total obstruction, something Mitch McConnell was quite effective in doing. It won’t make a President-elect Hillary Clinton happy but it may staunch a rebellion. Hillary Clinton probably can and will speak forcefully after her election calling for calm and making it clear that she will not propose anything more than modest gun control legislation. (She is already doing the latter, but Tea Partiers aren’t listening or simply don’t believe her.)

What will prove key is how President Obama reacts to any scattered attempts at insurrection. We still have a National Guard that has controlling insurrection as part of its mission. However, when incidents are scattered and low-key, they won’t prove effective using traditional tactics. We do have police forces with plenty of armaments more suited to warfare than policing. That will help.

My suspicion is that Obama is already all over this, and this is part of his daily national security briefing. There are likely all sorts of contingency plans and all sorts of discreet surveillance going on by the NSA and FBI to nip a lot of these in the bud. But not even the NSA can be everywhere and it’s easy to acquire firearms. More lethal armaments are likely out there for those with the money and connections. All we can really do is hope they are doing their job. If they are, the bomb that are Trump supporters may mostly diffuse before Election Day.

Running scared

The Thinker by Rodin

What would you do if you knew that your life, as you have known it, was going to change fundamentally? Great traumatic events happen to us in our lives, but none of us welcome them. When they happen, we tend to seek out the comfort of the known rather than confront the discomfort of the unknown.

Many Japanese warriors at the end of World War II preferred what they saw as suicide with dignity – crashing their aircraft into enemy aircraft carriers or self-immolation – to defeat and living in a world that was ordered fundamentally differently than the way they were raised. Others will instead find ways to resist. They think that change can be stopped somehow, and they will simply resist it to the last fiber of their being. And so they turn their houses into fortresses, buy arsenals of guns and create a fallout shelter stocked with years of food, water, medicines and other perishables.

Something like this is happening right now across much of Red America. They smell the winds of change. For years they have ignored it by expressing the opinion that while things may be changing out there it won’t happen here. At some point though the smell becomes too pervasive. Up go defenses and the barricades. For many in power though it means that they feel compelled to use it to their utmost advantage. It means highly gerrymandered districts allowing ever more extreme people to get elected to Congress. It also means creating laws that are clearly unconstitutional (like Missouri granting its citizens exemption from certain federal gun laws) to intrusive for people you don’t like (unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds for women prior to an abortion). It means that their values must be promoted with no exceptions. So out go textbooks that say evolution is established science and in come textbooks that promote creationism instead. You tighten the screws even more on the poor by reducing food stamps and making it harder to get on Medicaid. You sign laws that do away with early voting on weekends because you don’t want that kind to vote anyhow. You are running scared.

It’s quite an ordeal. In fact, the late Eric Hoffer wrote a book about it, The Ordeal of Change, which is an interesting read if you have the time. If you looked at our changing demographics and have read Hoffer’s book, what’s happening today should not be a surprise. In fact, it is entirely predictable. What’s going on in Red America has happened lots of times before and will keep happening in the future. We are now in the “no compromises to encroaching reality” phase of this ordeal of change.

Civilized people of course recognize that change can mean that long established social systems can be reordered. When it appears inevitable, we will seek to make change as easy as possible, to minimize anger and hurt. It’s not always possible, however. The denial phase seems to be in Red America’s rear view mirror, but the anger phase certainly isn’t. They feel terribly hurt because their society is fundamentally changing, and fear it will leave them in a less privileged place when complete.

So the anger gets expressed in laws that even ten years ago they would not have considered, such as transvaginal ultrasounds for pregnant women who want an abortion. They feel they must dish out in pain at least as much as they perceive they are receiving in pain. Why do they do this? Part of it is reflexive meanness toward those not like them, but part of it is also because when anger is served out, its recipients tend to hurt too. Most people give wide berth to bullies. By acting like bullies, they are ultimately hoping we will leave them alone.

In this context, a lot of what is going on in Red America and by Republicans in Congress begins to make sense. If you accept that the Affordable Care Act is the institutionalized law of the land then you realize that you can really only amend it, not repeal it. However, if your lines are drawn and your barricades are in place then you are left with a no surrender mentality. At least so far, there is no sign of surrendering to the rule of law. Republicans will accept nothing less than the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They cannot even come up with a coherent replacement for it, in part because they reject the premise that our old system was not perfect. If they reject what was, then in some way they must also agree that their values were either incorrect or unworkable in the modern context. That creates cognitive dissonance, so it is repressed through the mechanism that tells them, like it told Commander Taggert, to “Never give up, never surrender.”

It is increasingly clear that marriage will soon be available to anyone regardless of their sexual orientation. The Supreme Court has pretty much declared at the federal level that doing otherwise is unconstitutional, because it gives privileges to one sort of citizen unavailable to another. Moreover, because of the Supremacy Clause in the constitution, federal law trumps state law when the two conflict. Consequently, entirely reasonable federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws across the country, even in deeply red states like Oklahoma and Utah. While good for gays and lesbians, it is not so good for those whose values are invalidated through the process of law. To some extent, their anger is counterproductive, because it stokes more anger, and adds to feelings of oppression and righteousness.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Change driven by demographics and social trends can be temporarily stymied but is rarely thwarted. It would help if Red America could look at the larger picture and take comfort from it. Our worship of capitalism will likely keep a large and poor working class for them to look down on. Also, anti-abortion laws will ensure a large population of poor people. Their churches will still be around when this is over, but the demographics will probably mean fewer of us will be in church. The people around us will be more multihued, but they already are: Red America simply isn’t looking close enough. For the most part, people will continue to cloister by combinations of race and class, as they have always done. In short, a lot of the angst from Red America, while predictable, is perhaps too much ado about much less change than they thought.

This should be a source of some comfort. Ultimately though few will understand what all the fuss was about. Only cranks complain about mixed race marriages today. In twenty years the same will be true with those complaining about gay marriage. Getting to the tranquil future from the enraged present though is likely to continue to be trying.