LAW AND ORDER, TRUMPISM AND “US AGAINST THEM”
Protests in the streets, mass shootings, police shootings, political gridlock. What in the world is wrong with our country?
I hear this all the time. It’s hard for a sociologist to answer. We have so many variables running through our brains, all of which we are, by training, locked into examining when confronted with such macro level questions. Inequality? Race? Gender? Institutional Structures? Identity formations? Knowledge structures? Discourse? Power arrangements? Where do we start? After all, our audience is often uninterested in the meanderings of sociological nuance. They want answers they can grasp and understand.
Unfortunately, they often get such answers from the worst possible sources. And those answers usually have something to do with “those people” causing all of our problems.
Now, however, we have a simple answer in the form of Donald Trump that everyone can understand. Donald Trump is the answer incarnate.
Look. Donald Trump is running his campaign based on a promise that he is going to hurt, even cause the deaths of, millions of people. The clearest elements of his policies include building a wall and blocking desperate refugees from violence and poverty from finding shelter in the United States, deporting millions of people and destroying their lives and families, punishing women for seeking abortions and shutting down community health care facilities that cater to women’s health, “bombing the shit” out of our enemies (presumably the bombs will miss the innocent civilians), and state harassment and surveillance of Muslims. When one considers his record with regard to racial and ethnic minorities, women and the disabled, it’s not hard to predict any addenda to this list of policy positions. He is running on an Us Against Them platform, with the “Us” being angry white men and the “Them” referring to everyone with whom the white men may have a grievance.
What’s more, this strategy has propelled him into a veritable takeover of the Republican
Party and a chance at the White House that is too close for comfort. Up against a seasoned, though embattled, politician such as Hillary Clinton who is running on none of the things mentioned above, this blowhard, bigoted demagogue is within just a few points of his competition. Fivethirtyeight.com gives Trump a better than 1 in 3 chance of winning the White House. Now, it’s unlikely that he will actually win…but he is going to get closer than any reasonable person should be comfortable with. That is the United States in a nutshell.
So the “Them” in the equation are experiencing a not unreasonable amount of paranoia. When it seems that more than thirty percent of the population and a major political party really are out to get you, concern for one’s social status is understandable. In the meantime, police officers who kill unarmed black men continue to walk free with little consequence. Undocumented immigrants must still look over their shoulders in fear. Women continue to lose access to health resources.
Furthermore, Americans continue to struggle with economic stagnation while the 1% thrives. The Obama Administration, in concert with the Federal Reserve, effectively ended the Great Recession, but the subsequent recovery has been woefully uneven. Despite rising productivity, wages remain stagnant. Families are buried in debt…which finances the productivity…just to maintain their standard of living. Contrast this with the folks who are funding our political process, and Hillary Clinton’s unwillingness to make public her paid speeches to Wall Street banksters. I guess she doesn’t want anyone to know how hard she was on them. Come on!
So people are agitated all across the board. Disenchanted white men, who have every reason to be disenchanted, are having their anger hijacked by a demagogue and thrown in the face of the least privileged and the least powerful in our society. A practice that is as old as our nation. Some folks are taking matters into their own hands, bullying, attacking and even killing Muslims, attacking LGBTQ and other minorities, spreading racism and misogynistic vitriol in a pathetic attempt to feel empowered over someone.
The targets of this anger and exploitation are doing what Americans have always done. Taking to the streets, disrupting daily lives, blocking traffic, making noise, all in an attempt to remind us that their lives matter. Some are taking their fears and frustration to violent levels, dealing with problems like police injustice by ambushing and murdering officers doing their jobs.
Add on top of this the easy availability of guns, the prominence of social media, and a news media dedicated to using conflict and violence to sell advertising space and what we have is a recipe for disaster. “Us Against Them” is elevated to a whole new level with those like Trump whipping the fear and anger to a dangerous froth.
Then Trump and the conservatives will turn to their historical rhetoric of Law and Order. By law and order, the right is referring to the “Us” imposing their laws and their sense of order on “Them.” Those who benefit the most from the laws and the established order, namely corporate scammers like Donald Trump and their political lapdogs, like the whole of the Republican Party, have the most incentive to invoke this particular discursive formation. The police, the military and the authority of the state is their instrument.
Unfortunately, when societies become seemingly unstable, and daily lives feel uncertain, people tend to gravitate to the Law and Order doctrine. Yet this doctrine does nothing to ameliorate the injustices that are at the heart of social disorder. Instead, the emphasis is on tamping down dissent. Law and Order is always a discursive one-way street. Trump will continue to whip up xenophobic angst for the sake of quieting the nation’s fears and anxiety. He has no reason to. It is a perfect catch 22 that works in his and conservative interests. The more he lathers the angry white men, the more he alienates the “Them” the more mayhem plays on the press, the more people turn to those who promise to restore Law and Order. This was a centerpiece of the Nixon campaign in 1968.
During such times, it is contingent upon the left to offer a counterpoint. The standard left response to social unrest is to address the injustices at the heart of that unrest. It is a message of unity in the face of discord. It is a message of humanity in the face of inhumanity.
Almost half a century ago American politics started to turn away from the communitarian promises of the New Deal and the Great Society, that we are a wealthy nation who can use our prosperity to improve the lives of all citizens and all we have to do is our fair share. But there were those who did not want to offer their fair share of the prosperity. They wanted it all for themselves. So they financed a counterclaim of individualism and libertarianism that allowed them to keep their share and accumulate even more. Their philosophy was odious and morally repugnant, but they had charismatic champions like Ronald Reagan and easy, dark-skinned scapegoats whom they accused of taking more than their fair share while the “Us” worked hard every day just to make ends meet. They whipped up this “Us Against Them” strategy while they reaped the rewards.
Now this odious, though successful, strategy is coming around. They’ve taken everything that the “They” is willing or able to give while offering nothing to the “Us” but shallow promises and pseudo-moralistic soundbites. Trump and his followers embody this historical culmination.
All of which is based on a false premise. The “Us” and the “Them” were, from the start, a lie. Policies pursued by the “Them” are those that benefit everyone, white, black, brown, male, female, gay, straight, believer, non-believer. They are the principles of collective justice: health care for all, education for all, work for all, support for all who fall upon hard times, dignity for all…justice for all. Nobody on either side of the debate, “Us” or “Them” is asking for anything special. They are simply asking for that which every just society provides.
The only ones who must sacrifice for this vision are…the Trumps. The Kochs. The Hedge Funders and their ilk.
So what’s wrong with our country?
What’s wrong is that we are confused about who constitutes the “Us” and who is among the “Them.”
This is intentional.
Note: Shorty after scheduling this post for publication I found this article by David Frum that speaks on some of the issues raised. I decided to link it.