I’ve lived my entire life among people with different political opinions. I come from a conservative part of the country, and even when I had my own political awakening in college, most of my casual friends throughout that experience leaned to the right. It was only in my 20s when I finally began hanging around mostly with politically like-minded people, but even then, big chunks of my family remained supporters of men like George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain. It reached peak frustration in the Bush years, but it never threatened to shatter the foundations of my daily life. Life, it seemed, would always go on, and though there was rage in my heart for all that happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and America, separation existed between these outrages and life at the dinner table. That safety net was called privilege, and it kept us sane.
I should give fair warning here that everything that follows comes ultimately a selfish perspective, even as it’s based on empathetic feelings—or the lack thereof—for people who suffer. An underlying question, and one I can’t even begin to answer, is how much each person should care about other people in the world, and at what point that caring can become detrimental due to the fact that there are some things we just can’t control. If I spent the entirety of each day in a state of outrage over every bit of suffering that happened around the globe—suffering which deserves outrage—I would essentially lead a miserable life, and still wouldn’t change anything. But I have been in a state of outrage since the child separation policy went into full effect at the border, and I’m not entirely sure of the difference. Part of it is that I find the cruelty within our own country intolerable, which means that despite recent events I still must have certain ideas about American values and hold us to a higher standard. Another part, I have to admit, is that I worry what this says about the general trend of our government, and what it might mean for my own future as a very minor but vocal anti-Trump journalist.
It’s uncomfortable for me to type that, both because any kind of fascistic American movement that results in punishment for me remains highly unlikely, and more importantly because it’s taking the real suffering of immigrants and their children and turning into an act of self-centered paranoia. That’s the last thing I want, and I’m genuinely hurt and angry and depressed over the fate of the poor people at our borders, but it’s also impossible to ignore the anxiety in my head about my own future. I may as well own up to that here, because it will be self-evident in everything that follows.
The argument I want to make is that for the first time since the election, we should be genuinely afraid of where this whole thing is heading. I had fever dreams of a terrifying dystopian nightmare after the 2016 election, but since then the Trump administration has been little more than a nauseous mixture of classic Republican bureaucratic inhumanity (the tax bill) and rank incompetence. Nothing to suggest the totalitarian state, in other words. But after the border nightmare, we’ve learned two critical things:
1. There is a fundamental meanness to this administration, and although we knew that already, we didn’t know that they’d feel so comfortable carrying it out in broad daylight. If not for a massive public reaction, it would continue unabated.
2. Trump supporters did not blanch at the detention of innocent children. The pictures, the audio of their suffering, the certainty of life-changing trauma—none of it mattered. They made excuses, they ignored, they posited absurd conspiracy theories (everything is photoshopped!), and they stood by their president.
This last reality brings me closer to my main point. The grim truth is that there’s a psychological phenomenon happening among Trump supporters in this country that we may as well call a purposeful self-delusion. People in general hate to admit being wrong, now more than ever, and the right-wing populists in this country have reached a stage where admitting that the border atrocities are just plain wrong would trigger a series of other consequences. Primarily, it would introduce cognitive dissonance—the appearance of contradictory thoughts in a single brain.
Thought one: I am a Trump supporter. Thought two: Trump did something wrong. In a normal brain, this would require some problem solving, and perhaps lead to a conclusion like: “I am a Trump supporter, but he went too far on the border, and it’s okay to speak out.” The problem is, our polarized discourse and the massive amounts of brain-washing have led them to a state of complete identification with Trump (for the record, there’s a similar but less intense liberal identification with personalities like Obama and Hillary Clinton), and that identification tolerates no doubt.
There can be no retreat for them, because their worldviews require full commitment to the Trump cult of personality. It’s what they’ve been taught, by everyone from Fox News to Breitbart to Trump himself—everything he does is correct, everything a “liberal” does is wrong. Subconsciously, they understand that it has become impossible to allow nuance to cast gray shadows onto the bright white lights of their extremism. As such, they can’t admit Trump might be wrong in any circumstance, because the minute they do, it would trigger an avalanche that threatens their entire mindset.
This is why, late last week, you saw conservatives seize with such fervor on the photo of the crying young girl who, it seems, was actually not separated from her mother. You wouldn’t think an error of that kind, resulting not from an outright lie by the photographer but a faulty assumption by another lazy journalist, would overshadow the grotesque reality of more than 2,000 children seized from their parents. But put yourself in their shoes—if you were mentally incapable of saying that Trump did something wrong, but you were also faced with a situation that any human with a trace of empathy could identify as heartbreaking and abnormally sadistic, what would you do? The only answer, of course, is to grasp for any small clue that the heartbreaking and sadistic event is, in fact, not real. So a meaningless error suddenly becomes proof of something larger—a conspiracy! A conspiracy which, reliably, confirms their own worldview and saves them from the pain of that awful cognitive dissonance; of admitting that Trump did something wrong, and that perhaps they were wrong, and have been wrong, for a very long time.
A New York Times article came out last week showcasing a few of these Trump supporters, and the quotes speak for themselves. Here’s one woman, on the leftist accusations that compared the border atrocities to other historical nightmares:
“It makes me angry at them, which causes me to want to defend him to them more,” Ms. Anders said.
Imagine seeing what happened to those kids on the border, and getting angry not at those who perpetrated it, but the people who criticized it! If that’s not indicative of a very specific, political kind of mental illness, I don’t know what is.
“Those cages and those families — that was actually filmed during the Obama administration, not the Trump administration,” said Clayton Smith, 57, a commercial lending underwriter from Cary, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
You see—a conspiracy. Not the truth. And thank God. Everything we believed up until now is completely fine.
There’s a million ways to phrase this type of zealous commitment to a personality, and oftentimes it comes with a phony disclaimer (“I don’t think he’s perfect, but…”). In the end, it all boils down to the same thing—comprehensive psychological identification with Trump doesn’t permit a seed of doubt. In fact, it’s going to get harder to sway them all the time, because the longer this goes on, and the more tyrannical and monstrous behavior they permit, the less likely it is that they’ll be able to overcome the high tunnel walls of their own minds. Once you excuse the essential imprisonment of guiltless children, what happens when something worse comes down the pipeline? If you were to react against the next thing, it would mean admitting that you were possibly wrong about the children too, and that would be a kind of confession that you were—let’s call a spade a spade—kind of a terrible human being.
Not very likely, is it? Once you’ve prioritized your own mental complacency over the suffering of others, you have opened a pandora’s box of inhumanity that you cannot close.
And that’s the problem here. We know now that there are likely no hard limits to the Trump administration’s cruelty, and we know that his supporters will stick by him through everything.
Which brings us back to the selfish anxiety of 2018. Is it probable that the administration will have the power and the will to crush all opposition, even among citizens, even among white people, even among privileged minor Internet journalists like me? No. But is it possible?
Yes. Of course the answer is yes. The only thing that will stop them is the size and fury of the opposition. It will not be their own consciences, because these people are fundamentally heartless. It will not be their own supporters having a sudden crisis of faith or drawing a surprise line in the sand, because these supporters are suffering a political brain disease that slaughters what little remains of their empathy. Trump and his people are only one or two elections away from having the power to crush us all, and I don’t delude myself for a moment—they’d act on that power with a quickness and glee that made our heads spin.
These paranoid thoughts would have seemed outlandish before the 2016 election, and there have been times since when it looked equally unlikely. But the child separation policy proves that beneath the incompetence, beneath the dark comedy, lies a viciousness so complete that it could consume us all, given the fuel. Conservatives would protest that the left holds them in equal contempt, but though this may be philosophically true, it is not materially or consequentially true—we all know which side holds most of the power, and we all know which side holds almost all of the inclination to violence.
Which brings me back to the concept of family. Fascism is a death cult, and it worships the death of its enemies. I am the enemy of Trump. A very minor, negligible one, but an enemy nonetheless. Since we have seen that his supporters grant immunity to no one, and will continue on this path unabated, what does that mean for my family? It means that if a journalist were thrown in jail for crimes against the state, they would invent a justification. It means that if political opponents were deemed too dangerous to remain free, they would rationalize it. It means that if protesters were assaulted or maimed or killed, they would invent the “greater good.”
And if one of those political opponents were me, my Trump-supporting family would be upset. But they would only be upset because it was me. If it were merely someone like me, they would find a reason to excuse, or maybe even to cheer. The broader injustice wouldn’t move them one bit. Watching them support the imprisonment of children in border camps has shown me a glimpse of the future—they would be just fine with the same thing happening to people like me.
The political disagreements of the past are like wisps of harmless smoke compared to the forest fire that rages today. It’s not a matter of simple policy, or minor racism, or differences in empathy. We are all of us at risk, if only, for the moment, in theory. They wouldn’t phrase it this way, they would protest vehemently against the logic, but the facts aren’t in dispute—if death is the end result of a successful fascist totalitarian state, then they have already reconciled themselves, in some hidden mental corner, to the death of those they allegedly love.
And this? This hurts.