Angry Father versus Distant Mother: America’s Tough-Love Political Choice

In 2011, in the wake of the “Tea Party Rebellion,” I published an article in the Huffington Post, “The United States of Abuse” [1], in which I pondered why so many Americans are prone to acting out their political discomfort, the latter “even assuming a dominant position in our political discourse.”*

I wrote at the time,

These citizens are aware that successive Administrations have lied to them — about the wars, about the economy, seemingly about everything. They know in their heart of hearts that things aren’t getting better and may in fact get a whole lot worse, climate-change deniers notwithstanding. Yet they stand for patriotism in the form of slogans, empty symbols of rebellions long past. They spit upon their elected leaders. But they elect them just the same.
Their remedies seem to play into the hands of their oppressors, like “throwing out the bums” [meaning the popularly elected President], scapegoating immigrants and gays, and inventing new classes of villains, like environmental scientists and invisible ‘socialists.” Their entertainments seem to be playing with guns — often with fatal consequences — abusing prescription drugs, and listening to demagogues like Limbaugh, Palin, and Beck who play to the worst devils of our nature.”

The names of the demagogues have changed — now they include Donald Trump and his coterie, former Fox News CEO and woman-abuser Roger Ailes. Breitbart’s chief editor Stephen Bannon, and assorted anonymous members of the neo-fascist “Alt-Right” online menagerie. But overall, the American political situation is as critical and uncertain as it was in 2010, when the Republicans exploited copious dark money, the Supreme Court’s retrograde Citizens United decision, state-level gerrymandering, and widespread racism disguised as punitive voter-fraud laws –- to capture both houses of Congress and for six years doom Obama’s ambitious reform agenda.

I wondered why this was so given President Obama’s historic landslide election victory, only two years earlier, based on his campaign promises to increase social and political inclusivity, to conclude endless wars and invest the billions saved in new generations of Americans, and to overcome the 2008 “Great Recession” legacy of the George W. Bush administration. It was perplexing. Then I discovered at least one compelling reason.

The American people had elected “President Kool” — low-key, arm’s-length, and overly calm. What they were looking for, however, was President Good Father, the resurrection of FDR — emotional, connected, and passionate about doing what he considered right and in the people’s interest. Race for many undoubtedly played a part in this disillusion, but more Americans would have gotten over race if Obama’s persona reflected these other qualities. As I researched and wrote,

It made little sense to me. If it makes little sense to you, it may be because your experience as a child, like mine, was serene and positive, different from the experiences of many, if not most, Americans.
For ours is a nation of abused children, now grown up. Scientific surveys reveal that one of four female children, and one of six male children, will have been sexually, emotionally, or physically abused by the age of 18. Abuse counselors and psychologists in the field will tell you that the actual numbers are much higher — 40 to 45 percent of all female children and at least 25 percent of male children — are victims of abuse.
When pressed further, the professionals will confess that their surveys and anecdotal experiences are inadequate measures of abuse in America — that a majority of both sexes may very well be abused when psychological abuse, neglect, and the mediated horrors to which we are exposed each day are taken into account.
Those of us fortunate to have avoided the terrors of childhood abuse and neglect cannot conceive of the damage they do to the child and to the adult that the child becomes. An abuse victim learns early that the world is an unsafe place; that manipulation and deceit are essential ingredients of family life; that the administration of pain is an expression of love; and that no rescuer will arrive to set things right. It is literally a case of love it or leave it — and the one route of escape is into fantasy, turning the world on its head, making evil the supreme human experience.
So it is that a large minority, perhaps a majority of Americans, are prone to accept loving abuse from their political leaders, for whom they express baleful but dutiful allegiance. A hundred million beaten and bruised Americans vote with their broken hearts. A bond has formed between their elected oppressors — themselves victims of abuse — and the damaged electorate. The politicians are obviously abuse victims themselves: their bizarre behaviors — illicit (as they term it) sex, drug taking, “born again” religions, and supporting obviously untenable, suicidal national policies suggest a cruel chain of causation.

About the same time, Berkeley linguist George Lakoff made a similar argument from the standpoint of critical linguistic theory, that abused grown children seek a strong father figure — the Strict Father — who unflinchingly, disciplines his children, meting out painful punishment disguised as “tough love.” His thesis makes sense. However, I disagree with his conclusion. I contend that these victims are looking for a weak and abusive man disguised in strong rhetoric, a verbal slap down. I give you Donald Trump, Angry rather than Strict.

In my Huffpo article, I proposed two solutions. My first solution — again similar to Lakoff’s, which he later elaborated in a guidebook written with Elisabeth Wehling, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic (Free Press 2012) — was to reorganize the Democratic Party. With the abuse theorem firmly in mind, its most mindful leaders (like Warren and and Sanders) must transform the Democratic Party from a grafting, grating, and self-serving political insiders’ machine into a genuinely progressive, participatory, and supportive social movement. This New Democratic Party, able to speak clearly and honestly, would be receptive and responsive to Americans’ deeper concerns, as well as their superficial political identities.

Clearly, that has not happened. America’s massive population of grown abused children, now swelled with the ranks of the millennials (who, cliché has it, are as a generation highly sensitive to self-criticism and propriety), still has nowhere to turn when it comes to politics, no organization in which it can do well by doing good, no way for it to work out its hurts and mitigate its members’ political harms and personal slights. One sees this everywhere.

My second solution was to recruit as party spokespersons “Caring Parents,” men and women genuinely able to empathize with the abused plurality or majority, express honest compassion for its plight, and advance policies to restore the confidence of the abused at all levels of government. This election season, only Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (when he wasn’t yelling) have manifested these qualities. Hillary Clinton, though she may favor such policies, has been so professionally worked-over during her career — an ardent political and feminist activist recast as an all-business, no-nonsense, neoliberal politician trained not to reveal her feelings — that it’s difficult for people to know her. What they know of her is mostly her so far unpersuasive reaction to the Trump Circus’ accusations that she is imperial, above the law, and remote — the perfect Distant Mother.

Clinton may have this problem herself, as Mark Leibovich inferred in his recent political bio of Hillary Clinton.[3] Clinton may know who she isn’t, but she certainly isn’t sure who she is. Caught up in her personal and professional complexities, policy wonkery, and political intrigues, Distant Mother Clinton appears unable to corral Angry Father Trump, who with his most recent “rigged election” claims, is endangering our American tradition of honoring the vote. No wonder so many grown-up abused children both right and left revile Clinton, who appears to them unable to connect and unwilling to come to their aid. Calling Trump’s supporters “Deplorables” only reinforced their exaggerated sense of betrayal, of loss, of Hillary as Distant Mother. In that case, allying themselves with Angry Father, at whatever cost to their liberties and prosperity, may seem the only way to ensure that they will be protected from harmful demons beyond their ken and across our borders.

In point of fact, Trump despite his outpouring of mock-sympathy for the white, male, put-upon middle and working classes, has revealed over and over again his contempt for his lessors — anyone not as brilliantly self-serving as he has been. Trump is not particularly canny, as superficial analyses of his “success” to date may suggest. An circus showman and experienced media player, Trump and his team studiously sample and then repeat the insecurities and prejudices of the hoi poloi, turning up the volume. Trump’s own inner rage is implacable, however, as he regularly demonstrates with his savaging of women in videos, on Twitter, and in person. Aside from these frailties that his supporters with great intention overlook, Trump is the perfect Angry Father, he who must be placated before he administers greater physical, mental, and spiritual pain as a tonic for all that ails America.

So there we have it, the American Dilemma. Our still young democracy, accommodating so many grown abused children, confronts a world that seems (and in many ways is) increasingly dangerous, unpredictable, and unfair. Rather than solutions, this election season we are offered a choice between personalities, ethos, and action. It’s a tough-love choice for sure: will we choose Angry Father or Distant Mother as the parent on whom we as a society must rely to safeguard our futures? And then what?

The real test of our national fiber begins on November 9. Having cast our lot with an individual possibly even more defective than most of us, we will be mightily called upon to cast off our fears, allay our confusion, be vigilant but also remain open to innovation — in short, to make of our land what we want it to be. Not as beat-upon children, but as whole and healthy adult Americans. Literally, it’s the challenge of our lives.

PS I am voting for Hillary Clinton. Keep hope and our democracy alive.


1 “The United States of Abuse,” Huffington Post, May 25, 2011.

2 “I’m the Last Thing Standing Between You and the Apocalypse,” New York Times Magazine, Oct 16, 2016.

Photo Credits: Donald Trump, Wikipedia Commons; Hillary Clinton. US Dept of State.

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