A Campaign of Mockery and Abuse

Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics.  But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of our public discourse.

We can easily trace the American penchant for latching on to conspiracies and fantasies back to the puritans, who sought to purify the society by casting out “witches.” The temptation to demonize groups and thereby convert our own problems and frustrations to an external source is woven deep into the American tapestry. McCarthyism set lose an even more destructive wave of fear feeding off of the vague threats posed by the rise of communist parties in the old Soviet Union, China and other sections of Southeast Asia.

Since then, Americans seem especially susceptible to finding secret and nefarious activities in African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Hispanic Americans, “liberal” college professors, secret societies, “the liberal media,” “Mexicans” Muslims, federal employees and the “deep state.”   These and other softened forms work as a kind of code. The mere mention in the presence of the right group—in both senses of that word–is enough to confirm the alleged threat, no evidence needed.  Defining a nation’s problems in terms of “outsiders” is not unique to the United States. We are just the leading example.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics.  But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of public rhetoric, partly through the conveyance of gleeful personal attacks using these terms.  He is his own touring circus of verbal abuse, for example, musing lightheartedly about a “liberal media” reporter recently shot in the leg, or a woman whose appearance is not up to his standard, or the bogus medical issues of opponents, or the “low ratings’ of opponents, who are supposed see that taunt as some kind of meaningful measure. And on it goes.

Most presidents have gently chided their political opponents, but they knew their mandate to cultivate inclusion was more important. And political liberals aren’t beyond finding their own demons. But none have allowed the world to be so completely shaped by an illusory museum of misfits that only exist mostly in the MAGA-fevered brain. The fact that so many supporters can tolerate this downward street fight naming is disappointing and ironic coming from a man who found ways long ago to stay far above the streets used by ordinary folks.

Chaos Voters

When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out a society’s various problems?  In 2016 I labeled this preference for disruption our “iconoclastic moment,” a conclusion since borne out by a recent study by several political scientists.

An interesting research paper by Michael Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen, and Kevin Arceneaux argues that “chaos Incitement” has become its own political objective for some voters. (“A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies.”)1  This often means abandoning the value of consensus-building, and at the same time demonizing enemies and violating long standing political norms.  While the conclusion of the paper isn’t surprising, it is sobering to see that many citizens, especially in the United States, are more interested in the destruction of institutional values than the refinement of them.  The authors found significant agreement among supporters of President Trump with the following kinds of agree/disagree items:

I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.
I think society should be burned to the ground.
When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”
We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.
Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.

Not everyone gave an affirmative response to all these assertions.  But nearly half did.  And this is clearly not the way a civil society is supposed to work.   Many would be more inclined to “troll” another than offer a constructive response. Alas, in tight elections they can make a difference.

The question remains as to whether democratic stalwarts in the west will right themselves after having been steered by some these folks onto dangerous shoals.

And it’s not just the United States. Part of Britain’s civil life has been trashed by the never-ending serial drama of Brexit.  Boris Johnson’s purge of 20 MPs in his own party last year, including former Chancellors of the Exchequer Nicholas Soames and Ken Clark, was unprecedented in recent British history. This act of putting a gun to his own feet, along with his backsliding on a Brexit agreement, has left the British leader with no easy finale in December.  This enactment of British nativism now has weakened Europe and seems destined to make our closest ally the Dis-United Kingdom.

Of course, this has played out in much the same way in the United States, with increased tariffs, punitive immigration policies, and sabre-rattling that unsettles our friends. Equally bad, there are signs that American businesses are hard-pressed to find enough service and farm workers: a former entry point for many emigres who aspired to live the American dream.

In different ways the yellow jackets of France were another manifestation of popular disruption disturbing the placid surface of French culture.  Immigration, jobs lost to mechanization, and a generally dystopian view of politics has humbled many western nations who could count on a degree of optimism to quell periodic rumbles of unrest.

France’s Emmanuel Macron clings to a vision of a thriving and diverse France. But Boris Johnson in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States seem to have become untethered from the usual obligation of a great leader to nurture a nation’s best values, among them: the pluralism that comes with being open societies. Neither are temperamentally close to being institutionalists like former leaders George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, or John Major.  They accept the chaos they have sowed, and have frequently doubled down, using denial instead of policy to steer through daunting challenges, including the ongoing pandemic.

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1PsyArXiv Preprints, 2018.