Who Is Mistral Dawn?

Mistral Dawn is a thirty-something gal who has lived on both coasts of the US but somehow never in the middle. She currently resides in the Southeast US with her kitty cats (please spay or neuter! :-)) where she works as a hospital drudge and attends graduate school. Taken By The Huntsman is her first effort at writing fiction and if it is well received she has ideas for several more novels and short-stories in this series. Please feel free to visit her on FaceBook or drop her a line at mistralkdawn@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

It's The Economy, Stupid

Hey Everyone!! :-)

Fair warning, this will be a long one, but it's been building for a while and I want to get it out. I keep hearing the narrative repeated that the people who support Trump are racist and that economic hardship doesn't have anything to do with it. I wanted to discuss that claim because I think it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamic between bigotry and poverty.

Because, yes, at this point, if someone still supports Trump or the Republican Party, in general, they have to be racist to some extent. But that doesn't mean they're all card-carrying Klanners or members of the White Nationalist Party. Like most things, racism is a spectrum, and in many cases the more subtle the racism the harder it is to combat. That's the bad news. The good news is that for those who aren't at the most extreme end of the spectrum, it's often possible to alter their behavior by making small changes to their environment. To be clear, this isn't a discussion about the morality of racism. All racism, or any form of bigotry, of any amount is wrong and should be fought. But as a practical matter, changing minds takes time, often a lot of time, but changing behavior that affects the day-to-day lives of others can happen far more quickly.

The amount of bigoted hysteria we're seeing in the US, and all over the world, is a direct result of the economic hardship caused by the 2008 financial crash and exacerbated by neo-liberal austerity measures. That's painfully obvious to anyone who hasn't had their head buried in the establishment sand for the last ten years. And it's not like this is a new phenomenon, either. Hitler didn't rise from a vacuum. He was born out of the economic desperation that the punitive measures that were taken against Germany post WWI caused. Yes, he tapped into, and capitalized on, a widespread pre-existing antisemitism, but he never would have been able to do that if not for the economic conditions that had people ready to pounce on the nearest convenient scapegoats. Trump and his ilk have done the same thing. Yes, the bigotry was already there, but active hate takes energy. And most people won't bother to expend that energy unless something has happened to makes them feel forced to take action. If things are good, people might still hate passively, but they won't take time from their families and daily lives to do anything about it. There's simply too much effort required for such activities, and people who aren't hurting most likely won't find the motivation to put forth that effort.

However, when people feel like they're constantly on the verge of disaster, it tends to make them more insular and protective of their "turf." Yes, there are exceptions but, for the most part, when people have barely enough to survive, it causes them to constantly be on guard against anyone who might potentially try to take some of what little they have. Which means their tendency to put people into "The Other" category is heightened. So any tiny difference between them and someone else gets magnified in their minds. Race, religion, national origin, etc are all convenient and obvious excuses to force people out of the "Us" group. And, of course, once a group of people is a "Them," they have to be dehumanized so that the "Us" doesn't have to feel bad about hating "Them." And, of course, existing bigotries make this even easier because half the psychological framework is already set up. When someone is predisposed to consider another group as "Less Than," it's not far to go to get to "Less Than Human." And that's when things get really, really ugly.

But up to this point, we've just been talking about generalities. Human nature and the predictable behavior patterns that result from it. So let's take a look at some of the specifics regarding how this all applies to Trump's base of support.

I think there are several factors at play. First, as I've already pointed out, there's the fact that economic injustice and racism are not as separate as most people, particularly Democrats, like to pretend they are. The economic landscape has been really bleak for most Americans for a really long time. It got even worse in 2008 when Bush tanked the economy, but it wasn't that great even before that. And it never really recovered for anyone except the wealthy. Regular people are, and have been, hurting, and the way things have been going there has been little hope for any help from our elected representatives. So, when Trump points at Muslims and Mexicans and tells his follower's they're to blame for all life's problems, it's not difficult for him to sell them on the idea. The prejudice against racial and religious minorities already existed, as did resentment against the idea that anyone "new" might be coming into the country and "taking" from the people who are already here. 

Again, I'm not suggesting this argument has any basis in reality, just that by making it Trump was able to tap into the unfortunate human tendency to otherize and look for easy scapegoats. Because if there's a "Them" to blame, then solving the problem isn't complicated. Just get rid of "Them." And, generally speaking, human beings prefer simple solutions to complex solutions. All many people need is a leader with even the slightest veneer of legitimacy -- for instance, someone running to become President of the United States of America -- to identify a "Them" who is palatable enough for the majority group to accept and blame, and they have their nice, simple answer. Which makes them feel good.

And that brings us to the next Joker in the Trump house of cards. Humans don't like uncertainty. We like to know. And in the absence of the ability to know, we make up stories so we can pretend to know because that makes us feel safer and more at ease. Don't believe me? What else do you think religion is?

There are a lot of problems in the 21st Century United States. Real problems that actually exist. And most of them are complex, multifaceted, and difficult to fix or even completely understand. The economic devastation of a large percentage of the population is one of those problems. And even people who don't suffer directly as a result of these problems don't like the uncertainty they introduce into society. Some people cope with this by pretending the problems don't exist and the people who suffer from them are just lazy whiners or weaklings who don't want to help themselves. That's what the old GOP largely was. And other people cope with the uncertainty by identifying a "Them" and deciding they're to blame for the problems and getting rid of them will solve the problems. 

And, again, this isn't unique to the US. I mentioned before a similar dynamic in 1930s Germany, but it also happened a lot during the 1340s with the epidemic of plague in Europe. Jews, women, "heretics," the disabled, and other marginalized groups were common targets. I bring this up to point out the fact that people who do this almost always pick a "Them" with very little power in society. Because what they're really looking for is an easy answer. So they can feel better. And it's always much easier to attack the poor and powerless than it is to attack the rich and powerful. To be honest, I've always thought of this as the coward's way of dealing with problems, but that's just my opinion.

There's also a segment of Trump's base who have built their identities and sense of self worth around the idea of, "At least I'm better than X." X, of course, can be any number of "Thems." Black people, women, non-Christians, Catholics, non-Catholics, Irish people, Muslims, Italians, Latinos, Jews, etc. They've all had their turns at being X at various times and places throughout history. People who are determined to remain better than X are usually people who don't have much and who aren't well-regarded in society. Also, the definition of "better than" can vary, but it usually involves more rights, privileges, entitlements, and/or access of some kind. And since these people have equated themselves with whatever aspect of their makeup that society has assured them makes them "better than," they feel personally attacked if anyone who doesn't have that quality or aspect is allowed to receive whatever their "better" is. Which is also what a lot of the old GOP was.

In the US, these tend to be white, straight, Christian men. Though, it's certainly common for white, straight, Christian women to also support this power structure. And before anyone starts whining about how I've hurt their feelings, no, I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong with being any or all of these things. And that's the point. Mentioning the fact that a personal characteristic allows an individual a certain advantage in society is not an attack against that characteristic. It's simply a statement of fact. But once people start acknowledging that the advantage exists, they might decide to do something to change it. Because it's inherently unfair and, theoretically, this country was supposed to be based on the idea that everyone, no matter who or what they are, should have an equal chance at success. And people who have traditionally benefited from those advantages are often loath to give them up. A tendency that is only exacerbated when those individuals are already on the brink of economic disaster.

These aren't the only possibilities, but most Trump supporters I've spoken to fall into one or more of these categories. And having a leader who tells them they're right, and the people who have been telling them they're wrong are just out-of-touch elites who want to take what little they have and give it to the undeserving, is the perfect recipe to make them follow him. Because he's telling them they're right, which is what everyone wants to hear. Human beings don't like listening to people who tell them they're wrong. And he's telling them their problems aren't their fault and aren't because of their mistakes or bad choices, but that there's someone else to blame. 

Which is partly true. Most people's problems largely aren't their fault, but are just due to their circumstances and chance, or are systemic problems with no, one source. But the way he sets it up, they don't have to do anything to fix the problems, either. His answer is that it's the "Them," so we just let the government get rid of the "Them" and everything will be good. No effort required from most people. Which is a much more pleasant thing to hear than that we all have a whole lot of work to do to fix the system that's causing the problems. So he's tickling their ears and making them feel good. And he's telling them they're good people who are on the path to righteousness. Because anyone who doesn't agree with and support him is evil.

So, like all cult leaders, Trump's appeal is a combination of telling people what they want to hear; building up the sense of worth of people who secretly feel bad about themselves, while simultaneously tying that worth to their allegiance to the leader; giving people who feel directionless and/or powerless a sense of control over their lives; and constantly reinforcing the message by making them feel good with praise and false reports of success. And telling them that anyone or thing that contradicts that message is lying and evil. It's a pretty standard operating procedure for cults. 

But it's also a con job that people are more likely to be susceptible to falling for when they are already feeling uncertain and afraid, which is how pervasive, unrelenting poverty leaves the majority of the population feeling. If people weren't constantly worried they were one paycheck away from losing their house, one medical emergency away from losing their job, one unexpected car repair away from not having food on the table, then they'd be a lot less likely to fall for this kind of bullshit. Or, even if they did believe some of it, to act on it. Again, think about it, who's easier to con into buying a "miracle cure?" Someone who is healthy or someone who is sick?

So, what do we do about it? Well, in the short term, we put the right people into elected office to take some of the economic pressure off regular Americans. In terms of the 2020 presidential race, Bernie and Warren are our best bet to combat Trump. Because they're the only candidates who will really do anything to shake up the system and make things better for regular people. Biden would be a disastrous nominee, as would any of the other neoliberals. Telling people that all we're going to do is put things back the way they were is the absolute last thing we should do. If people had liked things the way they were, Trump never would have been elected in the first place. To paraphrase Naomi Klein, if we just get rid of Trump, we'll be back to a situation that was so bad it created Trump.

To be clear, changing the economic situation for most people in the US won't do anything to solve the underlying problem of bigotry. A lot of Americans, far too many, will still be racist, xenophobic, islamophobic, misogynists. Fixing the economy won't fix that. But fixing the economy will make fewer people willing to put forth the effort to act on those underlying prejudices. Will there always be some? Sure. Because racism, like most things, is a spectrum, and those at the most extreme end will always be driven by their hate. But not the kind of numbers that made a Trump presidency possible. Which means the people who are suffering as a result of bigoted laws and policies will get some relief. And it will give the rest of us the time and opportunity to change the laws to extend more protections to vulnerable segments of the population. Because most people will go back to their regular lives and so there won't be as much push-back against the necessary changes. And, over time, as the changes in law become the new norm, fewer and fewer people will question them. 

As I warned at the beginning of this post, this is a practical solution for the short term, not a guide for changing hearts. Will bigotry ever go completely away? Nope. I really don't think it will. I think the tendency to otherize is too deeply ingrained in human nature. The specific group that's singled out may change, but I doubt there will be a time in the foreseeable future where people don't look down on some group. We can't legislate morality and people are going to think what they want to think. But we can defang and declaw bigotry, and confine it to a cage by making sure everyone has the same legal protections. And we can make people less likely to push against that confinement by making sure everyone has enough to feel safe and to feel that their families are secure and taken care of. Which brings us back to that classic observation, for practical purposes at least, "It's the economy, stupid."


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