What did the nut job who gunned down 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando have in common with the Tunisian thug who ran over 84 people in France, the Muslim couple who blew away 14 people at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, the two black guys who killed eight cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the white supremacist who slew nine people at a black church in South Carolina, Brexit voters, Black Lives Matter, Bernie Bros, Hillary Haters and Trumpanistas?
They were angry. Upset. Outraged. Whatever. Black, white, brown, gay, Jew, Christian and Muslim, nowadays it seems like everyone’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Even though unemployment, illegal immigration and crime are down, ISIS is on the run and Osama bin Laden is dead, nearly two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters they think the country is “on the wrong track.” Who or what is to blame for this discrepancy between perceived and objective reality?
There’s no shortage of suspects. Fatal officer-involved shootings also involving unarmed blacks have some people concerned, while others are just as perturbed by the loss of white privilege. Weak Obama, bellicose politicians, religious extremists, immigration, insanity, income inequality, too many/not enough guns, ISIS, PC, LGBTQ, globalization, climate change, nationalism, populism, sexism, racism, and perhaps a perfect storm of all of the above.
To that list must be added relentless media hype and internet trolling. Like burning fossil fuels, the sheer volume of vitriol spewing from the 24-hour news cycle and Facebook et al. has to be having an effect on the national mood. The question is what kind? Gotcha journalism and online hate speech may act as psychological pressure-release valves, enabling people to vent their angst in relatively benign ways. Or, they may help gin up a critical mass of fear, anger and hate that leads to conflict and polarization. As a general rule, too much of anything isn’t good, and if recent events are any judge, too much anger endlessly amplified and echoed through the media does not appear to be having a beneficent impact on civilization.
Unless you happen to be Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman turned Republican presidential nominee is hardly the first to attempt to channel base instincts into political power. Indeed, the strategy is as old as politics (and religion) itself. No matter what the meme says, when it comes to politics, love seldom trumps hate. And the more riled up people get, the more likely they are to self-radicalize, or at least vote to throw the bums out.
The final ingredient in a witch’s brew that can conjure a Donald Trump (or Bernie Sanders) is you. You as in you and I. You and I and every other member of society. Instead of letting shock jocks and attack ads push our buttons, what if we just stopped playing the blame game?
But encouraging people to buck up is not good politics. The textbook case occurred in 1979, when skyrocketing oil prices had Americans in such a funk that in a televised address, President Jimmy Carter told them they were suffering from a “crisis of confidence … that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” His antidote was to “have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation.” It became known as his “malaise” speech, although he never used the word, and he was widely ridiculed for being preachy and trying to blame the voters for his own failings. The result was Ronald Reagan.
Which makes it all the more remarkable when a politician tries to tell voters to calm down. Barely noticed at this summer’s Democratic National Convention was the cavalcade of Broadway stars who sang the 1965 Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard “What the World Needs Now is Love.” But it’s a theme that has been repeatedly struck by both President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump, not so much.
For example, after three police officers were gunned down July 17 in Baton Rouge, Trump employed the politics of fear by tweeting, “President Obama just had a news conference, but he doesn’t have a clue. Our country is a divided crime scene, and it will only get worse!”
At said news conference, the president had pulled a Carter and noted, “We don’t need inflammatory rhetoric. We don’t need careless accusations thrown around to score political points or advance an agenda. We need to temper our words and open our hearts. All of us.”
Ten days earlier, after five police officers were assassinated in Dallas, former Sec. of State Clinton expressed similar sentiments, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “We can’t be engaging in hateful rhetoric or incitement of violence … we need to be bringing people together, and I’ve said on the campaign trail repeatedly, we need more love and kindness, and I know that’s not usually what presidential candidates say, but I believe it and I’m going to be speaking about it from now all the way into the White House and beyond.”
Predictably, a story about her comments on the alt-right Breitbart website was headlined, “Hillary Clinton Blames Whites, Cops for Deaths of Young Black Men.” Weeks later, Trump hired the chairman of Breitbart, Stephen Bannon, to head his campaign.
It’s easy to accuse Trump of demagoguery, since he’s so obvious about it, but both sides are trying to scare people into believing this year’s election has apocalyptic implications — if crooked Hillary wins, she’ll force us to accept free stuff while taking away our guns, and if Trump wins, he might nuke The New York Times. But believe it or not, neither candidate is as bad as they say.
Whether or not they have been brainwashed by a vast right-wing conspiracy, Hillary haters have three main beefs: that she is a congenital liar; has bad judgement; and is a bitch. In 1996, when Clinton was the first lady, now-deceased Times columnist and Nixon speechwriter William Safire became the first to call her a “congenital liar” in a column about her prevarications regarding missing legal papers, financial dealings in Arkansas, and staff changes in the White House travel office. Today, she is most often accused of lying about Benghazi and emails. The problem is that like Israel, Hillary is held to a higher standard than other politicians, for whom spinning and dissembling are pretty much part of their job descriptions.
Her judgement, or lack thereof, is often evidenced by then-Sen. Clinton’s 2002 vote, barely a year after 9/11, along with 76 other senators, to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq. Bad call, as she has since conceded, but not one to disqualify her from becoming commander-in-chief. It’s harder to address the bitch factor, as it’s part sexist and part Freudian. Some dislike her because she’s shrill and has a cackling laugh, or is overly ambitious and ruthless, while others, whether consciously or not, view her not as a victim but an enabler to her husband’s many tawdry affairs. The fact that she stuck with her philandering husband really galls some people, even though it’s nobody’s business but her own.
Meantime, while Trumpism has exposed flaws in the American political system, the media and the voters themselves, if Trump were to win the election, it would not necessarily mean the end of the world. For one thing, if conservatives, liberals and the mainstream media are all apoplectic over the Donald, he must be doing something right. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that compared to the other candidates in the Republican primary, he’s a stark raving moderate.
True, Trump has said some intemperate to bizarre things about Obama’s nativity, Hillary’s health, immigrants, women, Muslims, Mexican-American judges, Gold Star moms, POWs, disabled reporters, rigged elections, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, NATO, nuclear proliferation and torture that go way beyond politically incorrect, and a Trump campaign event feels less like a rally than a beer hall putsch. But much of Trump’s bigotry may simply be political theater, or as The Times said of another rising political star in 1922, “bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.” OK, the rising political star The Times was referring to was Adolf Hitler, so maybe that’s not a good example.
In fact, Trump is less like Hitler than another Aryan, action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in 2003 co-opted a similar mood of anger and frustration in California to be elected governor, twice. Taking advantage of a sham energy shortage created by Enron, and Gov. Gray Davis annoying voters by increasing vehicle tag fees to balance the state budget, conservative operatives orchestrated a successful petition drive to trigger a gubernatorial recall election. But it was political novice Schwarzenegger who seized the spotlight when he went on The Tonight Show and told Jay Leno he was tossing his hat in the ring. Although Schwarzenegger had no previous government experience, California survived his administration.
The candidates’ supporters aren’t as evil as they’ve been portrayed, either. The right’s disdain for the left goes back to at least 1969, when then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, in reference to the Vietnam antiwar movement, opined that, “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” The left is no less contemptuous of conservative, working class Americans.
It’s ironic, as well as fitting, that the original white Angle-Saxon Protestants who built this country on the subversive premise that all men are created equal should suffer the same fate as the native Americans they displaced. Annihilation by modernity. As their number dwindles to less than 50 percent of the populace by 2040, they are losing not just their privilege but their jobs, dignity, status, morality, culture, history, even their flag. Little wonder they are attracted to a blunt, politically incorrect bully who thumbs his nose at the political, media and intellectual elites, and promises to make America great again. Still, it’s hard to imagine how someone who epitomized yuppie scum in the 1980s could become a redneck messiah today. Go figure.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible has a similar commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Comparable ideas have been expressed in the Koran, the Analects of Confucius and many other cultures. If each of us tried to be less angry and more empathetic, more loving, there’s no guarantee it would stop a single terrorist, break the gridlock in Congress, or in any other way change the world for the better. Then again, it couldn’t hurt.
— by H.B. Koplowitz copyright 2016
Nice column, H.B. You still have a great way with words.