The American Stain: When "The Enemy of My Enemy" Goes Wrong

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The American Stain: When "The Enemy of My Enemy" Goes Wrong

It’s a sunny morning just outside Atlanta, Georgia, and I’m writing this in the shade of the pines and black walnuts that cool the shores of Stone Mountain Lake, a plate of rippled glass reflecting a ring of trees, docks, fishermen, and the most racist rock in the world. I’m on tour with a rock ‘n roll band, and we parked our RV for the night in Stone Mountain Park, a state-owned plot about 20 minutes outside Atlanta. Stone Mountain is exactly what it sounds like: A granite monolith the size of a mountain. The park itself is lovely: Peaceful, sylvan, and well-kept by the state, it’s the most popular tourist destination in Georgia.

And it’s all in honor of slavery, part of the disgusting tradition of bad-faith ignorance that is the South’s drug of choice. If you don’t believe me, here are some notable Stone Mountain dates: In 1915 the Ku Klux Klan chose Stone Mountain as the site for their second founding ceremony, and for the next 50 years they held their annual Labor Day cross-burning there. In 1958 — in direct response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision — the state of Georgia bought the land “as a memorial to the Confederacy.” The state officially opened the park on April 14, 1965, and if that date sounds familiar, it is: A century to the day after Lincoln’s assassination.

Even the rock is racist. One face features an enormous carving of the likenesses of Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. Work began on the carving in the 1920s; it was soon abandoned, but in 1962 the state commissioned its completion, which wrapped in 1972. At night the park enhances the experience with fireworks and a laser show, which in one segment makes Lee’s horse appear to be galloping.

Then in 2015 — a hundred years after the second founding of the KKK — as part of the nationwide response to the 2015 Charleston, SC, church shooting, Georgia Democrats called on the state to sandblast the carving. But because state law makes it illegal for anyone to alter the likenesses — really — the state legislature would have had to approve the proposal, and you can guess how that went. Today the carving is the largest bas relief in the world, but against the massive scale of the rock it looks impotent and stupid.

I can’t think of a better metaphor anywhere in the world.

There’s a lot wrong with America. Obviously. But again and again I encounter the same underlying psychological phenomenon, which has a whole lot to do with racism, yes, but it also governs our politics and a lot of our personal lives. It’s mutant pettiness. Obstructive, destructive, and childish. Stubborn on steroids. I’m talking about our pervasive and pathological inability to admit when we’re wrong, or even more basically, to admit when someone else is right.

This is why we’re f*cked.

When The Enemy of Your Enemy Is Also Your Enemy

These days people on both sides of the partisan divide pounce on the slightest shift from anyone on the opposing side. On the left we see this in the rehabilitation of longtime conservative leaders such as Bill Kristol, Steve Schmidt, and Lawfare co-founder /James Comey confidant Benjamin Wittes (thanks largely to the part he played in publishing Comey’s memos). Even Ann Coulter has had her moments. And on the right we can see the same thing, such as when Trump gloats over favorable remarks or polls from mainstream outlets, or when the alt-right crowd elevates a minority person who shares some of their views.

It’s easy to understand the desperation, at least on the left. Thanks mostly to Mitch McConnell and his bloc of obstructionists, Democrats have been so soundly and unfairly shut down for so long that we’re rabid for anyone across the aisle who seems willing or able to bridge the divide. Any sign of “reasonableness” is a diamond. Hell, we’re grateful for anyone who extends even basic human decency as an olive branch. Take the remarks at John McCain’s memorial about integrity and respect, which in any other time would have been seen as normal, general praise but were instead read primarily as a pointed, personal rebuke of Donald Trump. I mean, we lauded Dana Loesch, of all people, simply for telling us not to make fun of someone.

It bears all the marks of an abusive relationship.

For instance, in the months after the election, liberals and the never-Trump crowd lionized Ivanka and Jared as normal, reasonable people who could “soften” and moderate Trump. Under the microscope, of course, they’ve unsurprisingly turned out to have always been fairly horrible people, and who are now either helpless, unwilling, or too callous to moderate Trump on anything. For instance, Ivanka inspired the first missile launch against Syria by showing her dad pictures of children injured and killed in a chemical attack, and it took Jared about a year to blow up the Middle East peace process by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, setting off violence that led to Israeli soldiers engaging unarmed Palestinians in a brutal turkey shoot. Both were involved in the Comey firing. Both have exploited their office for financial gain. Both have overseen systemic cruelty in their personal business. And yet we’d irrationally held out such hope for these two twits.

In the age of Trump we’re too quick to yield to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic. Though we might disagree with never-Trump conservatives (sometimes stridently) about policy, we believe we share a few priorities: removing Trump; shoring up our democratic institutions; restoring faith in justice; preserving the basic functioning of democracy; etc. I mean, this is all baseline stuff. But it isn’t healthy: “Enemy of my enemy” is an illusion, and it makes Trump a singular target, a figurehead and scapegoat, when at the root the problem isn’t Trump — it’s the people who have lifted him up and the people who now protect him, which is basically the entire GOP.

Last weekend, for instance, we saw Ben Wittes’s true colors — which are red — when Senate Democrats unearthed email correspondence he’d had with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about securing a Bush nominee’s confirmation. Wittes had not revealed his connections to Kavanaugh and probably hoped they never came out in the wash. The revelation blew a hole in his character and undermined his moral authority, which he’d based on his own exceptionalism of probity.

And that’s the danger of too readily embracing these people, of our vulnerability after having had our Overton window moved to somewhere in Oklahoma. We’re so astonished when someone actually admits they were wrong about something that it blinds us, and we lose sight of things in themselves. What, exactly, are we embracing? What, exactly, is the real problem we face? Because we shouldn’t get confused: the most important problem isn’t necessarily the one people agree with you about. The most important problem in America is written clearly on Stone Mountain, guarded by elected Republicans.

Of course, a few conservatives here and there have supported Democrats. Jeff Flake famously posted a photo of the check he sent to Doug Jones, but it literally took a child molester to get him there. The question is will never-Trump conservatives turn their caustic rhetoric on Trump voters and their hateful, divisive ideology? How about on Republicans in Congress? Will never-Trumpers advocate for a blue wave, for taking control of the House and the Senate away from the complicit GOP? And will they do that with full-throated fervor, or do they reserve that for Trump? Even if they do, will moderate and politically detached Republican voters follow suit? Will the lifelong-Republican reluctant Trump voter show up to vote blue for the first time in his life? Of course many millions of Republicans might hate Trump, and many millions might want him gone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll vote for it. They didn’t in 2016.

All the rhetorical resistance we see from conservatives, such as the anonymous op-ed writer, doesn’t necessarily mean they think Trump is their biggest problem. For some, he might not seem like any problem at all. Which brings up another question.

The Obama-Trump Voter

Our pathological stubbornness also explains the obsession (on both sides) over the elusive Obama-Trump voter. Sure, we want to learn what matters to them in hopes of securing votes. But more essentially, we simply want to know what in the world made these people admit they were wrong about something. That’s what most baffles us and what we most yearn for from the right wing today: Humility.

Of course, people who voted for Obama are on the whole more likely to be open to changing their mind than people willing to vote for Trump, whose entire platform rests on a zero-sum “us vs. them” proposition. Obama asked us to have faith in hope. He asked us to unite, because change will come, though slowly, if we all work together. Then along comes Trump who asks nothing of anyone beyond their vote, and who says everything is a lie. He speaks not of unity, but only addresses white people, telling them minorities are ruining our country and culture. You’ve been too patient, he says: Change must happen immediately, and the only immediate change is destruction. Working together is no good, either: I alone can fix it. Put faith in me, this pitch goes, not in lofty abstractions such as hope and change and fundamental democratic ideals.

It’s easy, then, for a voter to abandon Obama, to simply say he over-promised and move on. Obama didn’t build himself up on hate, and he didn’t ask you to wrap your identity up in his. Obama himself made it easy for people to look elsewhere: He sought debate and reached across the aisle, only to get rejected again and again and again. It’s much harder for a Trump voter to walk away, which would entail admitting, “I hated people for no reason, and I loved this psychopath and fell for his thousands of lies and I’m sorry for that.”

That’s just harder for someone to do. First you must come to grips with the fact you’ll be associated with everything openly sexist and racist and tribalist that’s at the center of his movement. You must then tell yourself you’re okay with all of that, that it’s all right you don’t value those things above a faux-populist message, and so you find yourself signing your entire identity over to this lying asshole. Then you get demonized for that, which you resent, so it grows even more tribal and you get more deeply entrenched and it all just feeds itself and so here we are.

And what’s more messed up is that Christian doctrine teaches not just love and acceptance, but also redemption and forgiveness. In the GOP that fundamental lesson is going unnoticed and/or willfully ignored.

Of course, it’s also true that some (not all) of the Obama-Trump crowd voted for Obama in 2008 and even 2012 as a way to excuse or cover their own latent racism. Four years later, the MAGA movement came along and gave these people permission come back to the fold. But there’s delusion even to this: We tell ourselves Trump supporters aren’t simply racists. That can’t be it, right, because that word is terrible and extreme. Or so it seems. It’s now become quite clear the Trump crowd doesn’t see things this way. Just look at Stone Mountain.

In contemporary America we’ve until recently assumed that being a racist is a shame of literally historic proportions. Ten years ago it was much more unacceptable to be accused of being racist, or to be seen exhibiting racism, than it was in 2015. That year, of course, after Dylann Roof murdered twelve black people in Charleston’s First Emmanuel Church, President Obama flew to South Carolina to give a speech and the Confederate flag that had forever flown over the state capitol finally came down.

But Republicans still wouldn’t erase what was written in stone — written in stone in 1972. Three months after Charleston, Donald Trump rode down his escalator and millions of Americans descended with him. Many of them have for years quivered at their core with bitterness about what they see as the historic unfairness of this shame, which they blame on liberals and P.C. culture, on the perceived obsession of our aspirations to moral perfection. They feel penned in by this radical tolerance we’ve forced on them, so they attack it as they feel they themselves have been attacked: “No, you’re the racist! So much for the tolerant left!” In reality, though, it’s just a refusal to reflect on themselves.

Because how the hell can anyone support this man and still feel clean? This monster who makes fun of the handicapped, who speaks the way he does about women and minorities. Who speaks up for Nazis. It’s indefensible. But because Trump’s supporters signed their identity over to him, it’s difficult for them to admit they were wrong about anything he stands for without feeling like they’re admitting they were wrong about it all. It requires guts to admit, “Yes, I identified with and supported a cruel, petulant, misogynistic, and racist movement that ripped children from their parents and rolled race relations back decades. I did that.” And that’s just not the kind of thing people susceptible to Trump’s message want to engage in: It’s a fundamentally selfish message, so rejecting it requires you to reject a version of your selfish self.

It’s actually pretty easy to see how it quickly becomes hard to admit, “Yes, I was wrong,” or, “Yes, you were right.”

#YouToo

Sarah Silverman  said something profound but obvious about this phenomenon in a recent interview. She was talking about the history of sexual abuse Louis C.K. engaged in, whom she’s known for decades, and she said something to the effect of, “When you know someone, you don’t always know more. Sometimes you know less.”

In other words you don’t have to be as awful as Trump — in all aspects of your life, public and private — in order to be awful. Take George W. Bush. Nice enough guy, and he’s now being inappropriately rehabilitated. But he’s also awful, and a war criminal. Or take Louis C.K., or Charlie Rose, or Michael Jackson, or your ex. Everyone has layers, but in this “enemy of my enemy” coalition it’s such a disappointment, and often painful, to be reminded of this human fact again and again, especially when a totem of thorough and inarguable dogshit lords over it all.

Liberals seem able to connect these dots. Take for instance Louis C.K.’s apology in the New York Times: He admits he didn’t realize he wielded power over the women he abused, but that power, he arrogantly says, was that they admired him. He uses that very word. Even after several women came out with their stories, he still believed he was such a great guy, so funny and charming and successful, that these people he subjected to serious psychological trauma kinda sorta wanted it.

C.K.’s half-assed apology avoids a difficult truth: He’s a dogshit person who abused his gatekeeper status to assuage his profound insecurity, all at the expense of female comedians who were vulnerable to his advances in a very specific way. This power has little to do with any good qualities he might have as an “admired” person. It’s as simple and cold as economics: He had, through hard work and a shit-ton of luck, elevated himself to a position above these women. He could have been a conduit, but instead he made them watch him flog his hog.

I go out of my way here to make this point: Louis C.K., you see, is a liberal. I too am a liberal, and I’m capable of saying Louis C.K. is a dogshit person and a social depressant without feeling any vulnerability in my politics or worldview.

I can also comfortably criticize Democratic politicians such as Bill Clinton, Al Franken, and Eric Schneiderman. The #metoo movement has taken down many popular liberal figures, but liberals have led the charge. You won’t see too many of us defending Harvey Weinstein. Donald Trump, however, endorsed Roy Moore — a credibly accused child molester — and then Trump supporters came out to vote for him. Al Franken resigned for something I highly doubt any Republican in congress would have resigned for. And when Franken did the ethically right thing and stepped down, the GOP celebrated it as a victory and as evidence of hypocrisy on the part of the moralistic left. Yet a few weeks later Alabama Republicans turned out in droves to vote for a pederast. Hell, the GOP used Franken’s jokey boob-grabbing pic to justify that vote.

So yes, it’s very hard for someone to say about themselves what I just said about Louis C.K. But it’s also why we truly admire people who can be honest, who can admit when they’re wrong. We’ve got to be able to do that ourselves, of course, but we’ve also got to make room for others to do the same for us. The problem, though, is that this quality is so scarce that we throw ourselves blindly at anyone who says something reasonable, anyone on the other side who agrees with us about anything. That skews reality.

Look, people are people. We’re going to get let down and we’re going to get burned, but we need to get back to a better place. Over the last few years, though, this phenomenon of obstructive I-am-rightness has gotten undeniably worse, and it’s proved corrosive. Self-reflection and personal compromise are part of the American experience, and essential to a functioning democracy. So get Trump out of office, yes, but also get those hideous people off that rock.

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