Bad is good. Up is down. North is south. Ignorance is smart. Remember George Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak? Do you get the feeling that familiar anchors of acceptable societal behavior are slipping away? And if so, what is at risk?
It’s always been easy to target those on the periphery, those whose actions are so obviously outside the mainstream as to not even require comment. Criminals. Predators. Serial liars. But what we’re seeing now, and what is of great concern, are behaviors embraced by some previously considered rational members of society. And, frankly, the great majority of these behaviors are being exhibited by those of the radical right. What values are being shredded? Truth. Honesty. Decency. Respect for facts. Regard for others.
Why is this happening? Perhaps those who eschew such mainstream values have always been there, underground. But as our president regularly evidences behaviors that run contrary to these long-held common values—lying, misogyny, arrogance, a lack of curiosity, a lack of empathy, blaming, projecting onto others, imperiousness, racial superiority, and a lack of understanding of reality—others feel more free to act in similar ways. They have come to identify with him—“he’s one of us.” So they come out of the closet. He can openly trash immigrants, so I can too. He can call people names, engage in tawdry activities, show disrespect . . . so I will too. His radical behavior has unleashed a visceral volatility that has not been seen in decades.
Hateful actions do not, of course, occur in a vacuum. And we see them mostly by males, generally older and white, although a visible growing younger cadre of whites appeared in Charlottesville. Where do they fit into this new world? This activity is also fueled by fear, resentment, and ideology. People are uneasy as what they have come to know as “their America” changes in such fundamental ways that they no longer feel at home but, rather, feel threatened. Newcomers becoming a majority population in certain areas. Jobs passed from generation to generation threatened by affirmative action. Ascension of an African-American to the presidency. The mainstreaming of LGBT individuals, and coming to terms with what transgender means. I want my country back.” But are we no longer able to express such feelings rationally? Are insulting, invective-laced screeds our only avenue of communication? Why?
The radical right has become emboldened to lie and, generally, disregard any norms of behavior in order to achieve their ends, to make themselves more comfortable by slowing trends that they fear. Encouraging voter suppression by way of voter identification schemes means fewer minorities will vote, and things will not change as much as they fear. [In Pennsylvania, where SCOTUS recently refused to hear a GOP appeal of newly-drawn House legislative district boundaries, right-wing activists are trying to impeach justices of the state supreme court, who originally approved the plan.] What used to be considered political dirty tricks are crawling out of the shadows.
Take a look at the news. Recent articles recount how mosque-vandalizing ‘Make America Great Again’ mothers were arrested in Arizona.¹ Two women, along with their three children, vandalized and stole from the Islamic Center of Tempe. The children are seen climbing on the mosque’s funeral van, as their mother warns them about “dead Muslims” and “sex goats” that were once inside. As an onlooker reproaches one of the children, he replies, “Suck my dick.” Where is the shame?
The imam of the mosque commented on perhaps the worst part of this scene: “The thing that affected me most was those young children being drafted by their mom and being taught hate and intolerance.” Hate and intolerance: are there any better terms to identify the theme of the 2016 GOP campaign, backlit by violent confrontations? Remember “lock her up” and the violent tone of the rallies?
This is made worse by the fact that expressions of outrage by “normal” folks against such behaviors have become simply ongoing background noise. The usual subjects excoriate and condemn, but in terms too measured. We can only imagine if this situation were reversed, with “normal people” acting crazed, and GOP sympathizers acting “normal.” Can you imagine the extent of the ongoing furor?
These outrageous norms will eventually snap back to the periphery. Unfortunately, it will take time. We cannot rely on political parties for relief, especially the reticent GOP as captives of Trump and the radical right. The Democrats, too, were unhelpful, with the “basket of deplorables” remark. We need to confront them every time. We must remain vigilant, for as long as outlier behavior becomes normalized, our basic values are at risk of usurpation. But we have to dialogue in ways that can be heard; uncivil discourse results only in fewer willing to listen.