‘Skittles’: Will this make America great again?

I’ve just seen the latest controversial Tweet from the Trump campaign. The image below was posted by Donald Trump Jr, a re-tweet originally posted by Joe Walsh, the talk show host and former Republican congressman for Illinois.

Joe Walsh’s ideas endorsed by Donald Trump Jr

Donald Trump Jr.

✔ @DonaldJTrumpJr

This image says it all. Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first. #trump2016

Many people have attacked the message for its content: people are not ‘Skittles’ and the logic of the argument raises questions about the police, guns and cars. Some people have attacked the punctuation: please learn the difference between commas and full stops/periods. Wrigley’s, the makers of ‘Skittles’ have distanced themselves from the ‘advert’ and Joe Walsh would just like a little more credit from the Trump campaign.

The sad truth is, though, that the message is out there and will, almost certainly, resonate with many US voters. The simple logic makes perfect sense: for the sake of the country, keep all Syrian refugees out. It says that there is obviously a risk so, play it safe and keep everyone out, whatever their problems, whatever their needs. Simplicity and security go together in straight-line, short-term, narrow-minded logic. The advert will not win many converts to the Trump cause but it will resonate with many supporters.

I am always interested in considering long-term forces at work in society. These factors become accepted and ingrained over the years, seen in the values that are passed on, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, in families, business and the media: the ‘soft examples’ of sexism and racism, the ‘harmless’ agendas around jokes and language, the ‘acceptable demands’ of conforming, the ‘logical choice’ of being loyal, of being a patriot, of honouring the flag, defending whatever is done in the country’s name. Those who breach the code, who ask the questions, who challenge the norms, who rock the boat, always disturb the majority, the accepters, the conformists and must be controlled or destroyed. The ‘poisoned Skittles’ poster will appeal to many US voters.

There is something very unhappy and angry at the heart of the 2016 election. Elections reflect the forces at work in a particular period, both the long term and the short term factors, and they give a snap shot of how people are feeling and thinking. Analysts in the social sciences love elections as they consider the non-voters, the demographic splits, the appeal of the candidates to voters based on ethnicity, age and gender, the way the swing states swung. Most of these factors are considered in the short-term, though, as the deep-seated issues are either too complex or too dull to be considered.

Give me your tired, your poor, 
 Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
 The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
 Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
 I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Emma Lazarus

‘Send me your tired, your poor…’

Long-term and short-term factors are, in many ways, like the climate and the weather. While the weather on a particular day or in a particular year may be hot, cold, windy or wet, the climate reflects the deeper trends and underlying values. The weather is what we experience with immediate effect but it occurs over a base provided by the climate. Likewise, the immediate experiences of life with regard to security, freedom, work or happiness take place over a set of values and expectations forged over many years in society. When the immediate, short-term things are under control and raising little cause for concern, elections tend to go smoothly; when there is discontent, the power of deeply held values come to the fore and something has to change. The unhappiness of the 2016 election means long-term factors are at work, and these are usually the darker forces.

The people of the American colonies (until 1776) and then the USA, always included a large number of immigrants. Until the late 1800’s, there was an almost ‘open door’ policy, which was reflected in the words on the ‘Statue of Liberty’ but that door began to close almost as the statue was erected and opened in 1886. The majority of immigrants up until the mid-19th century came from northern and western Europe, tended to be Protestant, learnt English and had customs and cultures that were easily assimilated. During the second half of the century, there was a shift towards southern and eastern Europe with more Catholics, Orthodox, anarchists and atheists, people with different customs and cultures, people who did not learn English as easily. The ‘new’ immigrants were a threat that saw the established ‘Americans’ become more united and hostile to the outsider, something which was exacerbated during much of the last century by the fear of Communism and which has now been replaced by a fear of terrorism. Although the USA is a fundamentally a country of immigrants, that history has been forgotten and a stronger tribal unity has now been established which comes to the fore during times of struggle and unease: the outsiders are to blame.

Another factor to consider is the on-going influence of the American Civil War and the end of slavery. The war may only have lasted from 1861–65 but its effects remain alive in the divisions between (and within) the Deep South and the rest of the country, in the issues around racism and in the tensions between the States and the Federal government. Washington is often portrayed as the enemy, the enforcer of unwanted laws and values that attack the rights of the individual. This is rooted in the ideas of the ‘Founding Fathers’ and those who fought for independence from the evil monarchy of George III who represented all that was wrong in the old world of Europe. When things are a struggle in the US, there is a tendency to blame the ‘central authority’, the President and Washington: ‘If only they would leave us alone, if only they got out of the way, if only we could be separate from the rest of the world’. The calls for a ‘Mexican Wall’, the exclusion of foreigners, the demands that NATO allies pay their way and the threats to potential enemies all reflect this. And the widespread outbursts of police violence against African Americans and minority groups may well have its driving energy in this same anger and frustration. The sense of anger, betrayal and even revenge is evident in much of the language of 2016.

In the USA extraordinary power is also exerted by religions, most notably in Christian Fundamentalism and the conservative values of the ‘Bible Belt’. While many early immigrants to the USA came in search of economic opportunity, many also left Europe to escape religious persecution. The opportunity to believe what they wanted and to worship how they wished saw many thousands risk crossing the ocean to establish their version of ‘paradise’ on earth. The pilgrims on the ‘Mayflower’ were just the most famous of the many who settled the land.

In Protestantism, the individual has a direct relationship with God so that, unlike in Catholicism, for example, there is no need for a higher authority as an intermediary, no priest or Pope to intercede on your behalf. Individualism and Protestantism were, in their own way, creative forces in modern American thinking. ‘In God we trust’ adorns dollar bills and no President can end a major speech without saying, ‘God bless America’, whatever their own beliefs., for being ‘one nation under God’ pervades the national psyche. As a part of this thinking, many in the USA see themselves as what the first letter of Peter describes as: ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Peter 2:9) When you believe you are ‘the chosen nation’ you take to yourself an elitism, an exceptionalism, a superiority that it is natural to both enjoy and protect.

So, the ‘Skittles’ tweet. It won’t appeal to Trump’s opponents but it will make perfect sense to his supporters. The most important thing may well be what it reveals about the deep, core thinking of many Americans: that the outsider is a threat to the tribe, those who are different to the tribe must be purified, those who question the tribe from within are the enemy and those who exert authority in a way that challenges the behaviour and absolute freedoms of the individual are the devil. These ideas are not unique or unusual but when they are at work in the USA, the whole world should take note.