I’m not going to apologize or make excuses for Donald Trump. He’s the president-elect now. He has people for that. Likewise, I’m not going to excuse Steve Bannon or the campaign he helped Trump run, playing on the fears of white working class people, stirring racial animus, and perpetuating xenophobia. I state that at the outset because I’m going to defend them against a very specific type of criticism to prove a point. Part of it is going to feel silly even writing down, but here we are.
Trump is not Hitler. Steve Bannon is not Joseph Goebbels. That anyone would say they are can only be traced to disassociation our generation has to the Holocaust, its horrors and lessons.
Every racist is not created equally, nor is every act of racism. Not all bigots are KKK members, burning crosses and planning lynchings. Not all anti-Semites are Hitler. And not all people who voted for Trump are necessarily any of those things. This should be obvious. In fact, I have a feeling you needn’t look much further than your own family or Facebook feed to confirm that.
This is fear-mongering at its most pernicious—the very thing Fox News and the conservative media apparatus get rightfully accused of a constant basis. And it isn’t just fringe forces. Charles Pierce, one of the most respected political writers of our time, wrote that Steve Bannon was the same as having David Duke, the head of the KKK, in the White House.
The Daily Beast and Philadelphia Daily News compared Bannon to the infamous Nazi propagandist Goebbels.
These are mainstream news outlets with a simple message: be afraid, be very afraid.
That I even have to write that a 70-year-old Manhattan billionaire—whose biggest concern until this week was which TV company he was going to bankrupt—isn’t Adolf fucking Hitler…well, that tells you everything you need to know about our current political climate.
If you’re a progressive, Trump in the White House with Steve Bannon and a Republican Congress seems bad. Potentially catastrophic. It’s not “burn 6 million people alive” bad. And that nuance is critical, especially moving forward as the fissures in our culture turn to canyons. Vilifying your political opponent is one thing. Hitler-fying him is quite another.
Our hyper-partisan media culture and the rise of social media bore us the murderous smoke monster of outrage culture, as if from the womb of Melisandre herself. If something is even moderately bad, it’s the worst. If it’s only half-decent, it’s the best thing ever. You can’t just be insulted on Twitter, you get ethered.
Perhaps no single piece embodies this all-or-nothing, false choice like Jamelle Bouie’s column for Slate headlined “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter: People voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes. They don’t deserve your empathy.”
This is a literal call to essentially dismiss half the voting public as racists. No nuance. No attempt at understanding. Just straight up stereotyping. Try to process how unhealthy that is, not to mention hypocritical: stereotyping a huge swath of Americans while at the same time saying “don’t stereotype us.”
If you’re a progressive, or even just a casual Democrat-voting liberal, you believe in empathy for death row inmates (anti-death penalty), empathy for drug addicts and criminals (anti-mandatory minimums and pro-drug legalization), and even empathy for terrorists (anti-torture policies). But a Trump voter? Apparently, that’s a bridge too far.
Ironically, it’s exactly this mindset that got Trump elected. The academic elites of the Democratic Party ignored the white working class. Ignored their pain. Ignored their suffering. Meanwhile, from that pain grew an anti-government, anti-establishment sentiment that metastasized with anti-immigrant ideals, fomenting a movement driven by a feeling of being left behind. If Bouie is to be believed, we ought to simply leave them there. They’re racist rednecks after all.
Throughout much of this election, I’ve had a Kanye West line running through my head from his song “Power.” In it, he laments “They said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation. Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation.”
West felt as if he was being personified as everything wrong with the black community. That one man was being blamed for the sins of many. He was pointing out something that is the very definition of racism. He rightly and openly wonders how we can possibly move forward if that’s the starting point of the dialogue.
Stereotyping every Trump voter as any one thing is likewise faulty. If you were a white auto worker in Detroit and you haven’t had a steady job in 6 years, it might piss you off just a little to hear about your privilege and the fault you bear in the oppressive plight of others. Calling that voter a racist to boot isn’t a great way to bridge that divide.
Trump curried favor with white nationalists, refusing to denounce acts of hatred in his name and drawing the support of hate groups. That should be pointed out, and properly criticized. But that doesn’t mean every person who voted for Trump supports that kind of rhetoric. Many voted for Trump in spite of his racism specifically because they needed help. They voted at the height of rationality: their own self-interest.
And if you’re the worker in Detroit, you’re also sick of being condescended to by a group of politicians that have showed absolutely no interest in helping you. Even a racist might start to look appealing if he says “Look, I can help you.” Think about how bad things must be if so many are willing to overlook that racism, all of that in search of baseline acceptance. All they wanted to hear was, “I hear you. I see you. I want to help you.”
Their pain isn’t any less genuine than the pain being felt post-election by millions of people around the country. People of color, immigrants, women, all of whom have a right to feel scared about what is coming next. That pain on one side doesn’t justify the acts of hatred we’ve seen perpetrated post-election, but it likewise doesn’t justify blind antipathy on the other.
If we can’t have empathy as human beings for 60 million Americans, about a fifth of the U.S. population, then where do we go from here? What conversations can we possibly have? This is exactly the problem Kanye is pointing out. Politics as a whole, as well as the politics of race and gender, have become zero-sum games.
“The problem that we have in the country now is, some people only see the positive stuff and wave off the toxic stuff, and some people only see the toxic stuff and wave off the positive stuff,” CNN political commentator Van Jones said in a recent interview.
“You can’t have an honest conversation … It has been the most frustrating year and a half, trying to explain to people who think that they’re so smart and think the red-state people are so stupid that they are the ones sitting on train tracks. That the rumbling sound they’re hearing is not a Beyoncé song. Okay? It was ridiculous.”
That disconnect brings us fear-mongering identity politics. We can fully disassociate ourselves from the other side by turning them into cartoon villains.
John McCain was the worst thing to happen to women and minorities, at least until Mitt Romney showed up. Well, of course, at least until Donald J. Trump sauntered into the Republican party. Likewise Barack Obama was going to hail the end of America as we know it, at least until Hillary—possibly the most reviled politician for Republicans of this (or any?) generation.
How can we ever hold anyone accountable for anything when this is the political landscape in which we live? It’s an extension of something that has been going on for years and has gotten so bad even Bill Maher – the height of political leftist condescension to the right—called out liberals for “crying wolf” it in the run up to the election.
Let Maher explain:
“I know liberals made a big mistake because we attacked your boy Bush like he was the end of the world. And he wasn’t. And Mitt Romney we attacked that way. I gave Obama a million dollars because I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn’t have changed my life that much or yours. Or John McCain … They were honorable men who we disagreed with, and we should have kept it that way. So we cried wolf and that was wrong. But this is real. This is going to be way different.”
And he’s right. But in the same breath that he admitted to false alarmism, he’s created new alarm, undercutting his own argument. If we shouldn’t have believed you before, why should we believe you now?
None of that is to say Trump isn’t a uniquely alarming politician. He is. But we have set up a media dynamic that makes it impossible to hold him accountable. The conservative media has long accused the mainstream media of bias. The left-wing media has doubled down by embodying that bias, and now the American people don’t know where to turn. As comedian Lewis Black once said, “You can’t have two sets of facts (for each party). There’s got to be some fact facts.”
“Who are the referees?” wondered conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes in a radio interview. “Where do you go to basically say, this is the truth?”
He went on:
“Now you have Donald Trump comes along and the man says things that are demonstrably untrue on a regular basis. But my experience has been look, we live in an era where every drunk at the end of the bar has a Twitter account, has an email account, and maybe has a blog. And when you try to point out, OK this is not true, this is a lie, and then you cite The Washington Post or The New York Times, their response is, ah that’s the mainstream media.
“So we’ve done such a good job of discrediting them, that there’s almost no, there’s no place to go to be able to fact check. Now having said that, the mainstream media does have some responsibility here. For years and years and years crying wolf, accusing every single Republican of being a racist. Now, you have the real thing come along and we’re kind of at a loss.”
And here’s where we get back to nuance. The words we use matter, reverberating in our own echo chambers and amplifying like a game of telephone. And fear is the most effective way to twist the bloody knife of identity politics used by both sides. But if everyone is the worst, where are the levels? Someone has to be the actual worst, and someone else has be less worse, or the hysteria has taken over.
There’s an ocean of difference between normalizing the bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia that under-girded this campaign, and the actual Nazi movement. Trump is not the first politician to use these elements to get elected. The only historical examples aren’t Hitler and Trump – it seems axiomatic and ridiculous to even type, but people, seemingly smart people, are shouting this. We just saw this happen in the UK and there’s a similar movement percolating in France. Republican politicians in the U.S., including the ones being feted as “reasonable” now, have long used racial dog whistles to drum up white support.
But in a zero-sum game, it’s us vs. them. Good vs. evil. Trump’s campaign basically said “Oh, OK Democrats, you want to play identity politics? We’ll show you identity politics.” Maybe if we started treating voting blocs more like people and not homogeneous groups of mindless robots, we could actually tamp down the rancor of racial divisiveness and gender fighting that plagues our culture.
But then how would we keep score? The climate reflects a political media more concerned with the horse race politics and point scoring. Politics has become a team sport.
Read this story from The New York Times on the day President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law and tell me where it says what the ACA does. Spoiler alert: it’s not in there. There’s not one sentence about the policy itself, but plenty about the fight between Democrats and Republicans over how it was passed and where we go from here in the political arena.
These hyperbolic proclamations have become cudgels for partisans seeking to undermine their opponents. President Obama is a socialist, so the ACA – even if it helps people – is a socialist program and is therefore bad. President-elect Trump is a racist Fascist, so even if he spends billions on infrastructure that Democrats wanted, they can say “It doesn’t matter, he’s a white nationalist authoritarian.”
They allow us to retreat into our cocoons and tell ourselves we are the side of goodness and light. It insulates us against arguing any single detail because we don’t argue any detail. Instead, we issue broad dismissals. We cauterize the wounds identity politics have inflicted, and instead of progress, we have only regression and recrimination. If politics is a zero-sum game, we all lose.