Angle of Descent: Demagogues and the Collective Situation, Part I - The Swiftly Flowing Current

(Introduction / Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four)

"If a man going down into a river, swollen and swiftly flowing, is carried away by the current, how can he help others across?" -- Buddha

Racism, nativism, xenophobia -- and Donald Trump, oh my! Novelist Richard North Patterson summarizes the current situation we face: "Trump personifies a fear and hatred of 'the other' embodied by some of our history's more frightening and despicable figures: Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace. This has led to some of our most shameful chapters -- lynchings, anti-immigrant violence, the internment of Japanese-Americans. Because such tragedies are so searing, we view them as unique. But they do not arise from nowhere. Nor did Donald Trump."

Indeed. Fear of the other, authoritarian responses to social unrest, and the rise of demagogues do not appear from nowhere. They are historical forces, angry ghosts lingering from our collective past. And at the heart of these forces is often an individual's tribal identification with a group, an identification so powerful it can often take precedence over an individual's own safety and lead to support of sociopathic leaders promising the tribe's survival and ultimate victory. In the United States, we are witnessing an upsurge of this tribal identification with the candidacy of Donald Trump. We are also witnessing associated ideologies revolving around tribal beliefs of white superiority, rooted in the notion that white Europeans are responsible for civilization and therefore worthy of respect above all others. And this belief did not come out of nowhere.

Most recently it was voiced by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who spontaneously declared during a panel discussion that he was sick and tired of fellow panelists dissing white people and suggested that whites were actually responsible for most of the good in the world. "I'd ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you're talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?" When asked to clarify if he meant white people, King retorted: "Than Western civilization. It's rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States of America, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That's all of Western civilization." In other words, what is good about civilization is rooted in the history of white Christians. His comments may have startled the other panelists, but they were not without historical context.

During the formative years of our nation's history, there was no ambiguity regarding white superiority over other races -- or men over women, for that matter. Both Native Americans and blacks were assumed to come from an inferior species, socially incapable of being civilized, intellectually not as good as whites, and legally less than a sovereign nation in the case of Native Americans and less than fully human in the case of African Americans.

The intolerance, fear, injustice, and negative stereotyping that we now call racism arose from the systematic prejudice of this past. Nineteenth-century studies declared that whites had superior intelligence based on their cranial size. Fears of the other were enshrined in our very own Declaration of Independence. In a cruel irony, the same document proclaiming the equal rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was also a public statement chronicling the threat that white colonialists felt from other races. Among the grievances set out against George III and the British government was the accusation of exciting rebellion among the slave population, referred to as domestic insurrection, and encouraging attacks from Native Americans, referred to as "merciless Indian Savages." The final grievance used to justify our war with England states: "He [George III] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction, of all ages, sexes and conditions."

From this history of unconcealed racism arose a new strain of institutional racism, a complex and interconnected set of policies, attitudes, and beliefs that first rang out as legalized segregation and then echoed into our educational institutions, and our health care, police, legal, and financial establishments. It was only in 1954 that separate-but-equal laws were overturned and only in the past 50 years that efforts have been made to reconcile past injustices.

There is still such a long way to go. In my own city of Oakland, there is a less than 10% likelihood that a graduating eighth-grade African American male will complete a bachelor's degree and a greater than 30% chance that he will be doing time in prison or caught up in the criminal justice system. Unless we believe in genetic inferiority -- the stamp of racist beliefs -- we must accept the fact of overwhelming social conditions that give rise to such outcomes.

As horrific as this is at a social level, something just as devastating is happening at a psychological level. The very impulse to address historic wrongs at the institutional level has been countered by an unwillingness to accept social and moral responsibility at the personal level. The attitude among many is "The past is over -- just get over it" or "I wasn't around for those injustices, so I have no need to feel responsible now." This has created a painful schism in the collective, a wound now igniting into violence and attracting a demagogic strong man to vie for the presidency.

Most significant, the impact of the past on the present has receded into the collective unconscious, so that we are simply unaware of it. Rather than striving to make the past a creative tension and source of renewal, we substitute a romanticized image of days gone by, a sentimental journey into a make-believe world where all was right, and whites, especially white men, reigned supreme.

One result of this fantasy is the emergence of a blunt-talking billionaire come to save white people, a personification of the collective's shadow. What would seem to many of us to be disqualifying personality characteristics -- blatant narcissism and a sociopathic disposition -- appear for others to be the very qualifications necessary to get the job done.

Somehow we have arrived at a moment in time when the entrance of a perceived tough and cunning figure with no need to talk in full sentences has become the advent of a savior, or at least a version of one from the bowels of World Wide Wrestling. What kind of savior is this? What collective pain can account for something so bizarre that if someone told me this was occurring in a parallel universe, I would ask how it was possible?

And so I did. I began asking what was behind the media's focus on the angry white electorate, as if anger somehow explained the collective pull toward driving off a cliff and yelling "Freedom!"

What struck me was how little I knew about the physical and psychological suffering that are pervasive in many white communities. It seems almost ridiculous to mention this in light of the institutional and physical violence directed at minorities and immigrants on a daily basis, but I have come to believe that it is a critical missing piece in progressive thought. It is far too easy to disrespect others we don't understand, to question their intelligence, to stereotype, and to even casually call people we don't agree with "rednecks" without awareness that this term is as implicitly racist as any other slur that suggests a group's inferiority.

We need to consider the possibility that fear has inflamed a tribal identity with racist consequences at the same time that we need a deeper awareness of the pain and grief that underlie such inclinations. Although I am white, I have always felt a double nature, never identifying fully with either majority or minority subgroups. It has allowed me to question both sides and seek a higher principle that honors our collective dignity.

I fear we have reached an unfortunate fork in the road where expressing concern for others whom we disagree with appears as betrayal to our own tribe. This is a most dangerous situation in a nation made up of so many diverse groups. I would like to break that pattern and take the road less traveled. Although it's true that whatever economic and psychological suffering of whites that I might speak of is equaled or intensified in most minority communities, this is exactly the problem. Empathy, the very glue that holds social relationships together, is being fractured by the dueling banjos of suffering and oppression that each group holds dear for itself alone. Can we instead seek a greater canvas on which all human suffering is drawn, and paint in brighter colors our collective aspirations for dignity? I believe this is the path with heart.

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