Obviously the answer is ‘yes’. Most of the people that I know and love in America are freaking out. Today, the tenor has shifted a little: there are more folks who are talking about staying strong, continuing to fight, living with dignity in a world gone mad. That’s good. The other thing that I see are people who are mad. Really, really, mad, and who think that freely expressing their anger is the best way to stand up for their rights. That’s less good.
I want to discuss why. I know that there’s a fairly common notion that righteous anger can basically be righteously expressed. If you’re mad as hell for a good reason then you kind of get a carte blanche. The other person has hurt you, and they deserve to get an earful – at the very least.
The first problem here is not that this is uncharitable, it’s that it’s dangerous. It assumes that your relationship with the person who you’re fighting back against is a) a relationship of roughly equal power, and b) a relationship of at least some mutual respect. If you have a healthy marriage, and your spouse keeps doing something that hurts you and you yell about it, probably they will at least start to back down. Fundamentally, they do not want to hurt you, they care how you feel, and they feel bad when you get angry with them. The expression of anger is not only right and just, it is also safe and effective.
The situation changes completely if your spouse is a narcissistic sadist.
Obviously, many (most) of Trump’s supporters are not narcissistic sadists, but I think we need to be realistic about the fact that this man has spoken to a lot of people’s darker desires. His tone and his behaviour enable and normalize behaviours that are really very frightening. In Trump’s world, when you hurt someone, and they get angry about it, you turn around and you blame them for their situation – and you threaten to sue them for blaming you. If someone is weak, they’re a loser – and losers deserve to lose.
In this world, the fear and rage of liberals and minorities is not reason for pause. It doesn’t prick the conscience. It’s not a motive for repentance and reconciliation. It’s just the noise a loser makes when they are losing.
Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen of die-hard Trump supporters this seems to be a pretty common attitude. A lot of them find it funny that liberals and minorities feel threatened. They take delight in the idea that their “enemies” are squirming. They know that they just won, that they have the power now. They honestly believe that you and your kind have been screwing them for decades. When you express righteous anger, they see impotent rage – and they get off on it. I know that’s unbelievably tough, but it’s a reality that needs to be taken seriously when considering how to respond.
In most of the situations that we might use as analogies for this, the answer to the question “So what do you do?” is “Leave.” Get out. Right now. Do not ignore the warning signs. Do not wait until it gets really bad.
Of course, at the moment we don’t know what kind of narcissist Trump is. It could turn out that he’s just a Nero – which might sound bad, but actually unless you were a Christian in the city of Rome or a member of the elite, life under Nero was apparently pretty good. The people loved him. Only the Senators and the Imperial family were really threatened by his temper tantrums, and he was surrounded by competent people who kept the Empire running while he was off being a rock star.
There’s every chance that this is how Trump will turn out to be: an attention seeking demagogue who doesn’t actually follow through on most of his ridiculous plans. A lot of evidence gives us reason to hope that this is what we’re dealing with. If this is the case, we don’t need to fear Trump himself so much as we need to fear the rise of the Alt Right and the anger that Trump mobilized in order to get into power.
But it’s also possible that we’re looking at the beginning of something far more terrifying. We don’t know what Trump’s real ambitions are, but it’s possible that they include flexing American military muscle in the form of nuclear weapons. Right now, I’m listening to a series of lectures about Hitler’s rise to power and the beginning of World War II. The parallels have certainly been overstated by some, but the fact that there are parallels at all should not leave any of us sitting comfortably.
Unfortunately, there’s every likelihood that we won’t know what we’re dealing with for some time. In democratic or republican systems, effective dictators usually begin by making Rome, or Germany, or wherever, great again. America may actually be about to enjoy a golden age – a revival of industry, a renewal of the heartland, a strengthening of her international position. It’s even possible that the American constitution will be able to harness that kind of energy without it leading to Armageddon. The system of checks and balances might be sufficient to ensure that if Trump really is that dangerous, he will be out of power before he starts World War III.
But these are all ifs. And ifs are seriously scary when we’re talking about the possibility of mass deportations and nuclear war.
So what do you do?
I’ll try to tackle that tomorrow.
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