Rising Above the Republican “Red Scare”
By Jonathon Jacobs, NLC Rhode Island 2014
I have a confession to make and I need to get this off my chest. I have a problem. I am increasingly suspicious of my fellow Americans.
In the not too distant past, I used to meet new people by engaging in conversation to establish a fundamental understanding of common ground. At social gatherings, such as workplace functions, holiday parties, fundraisers, or even children’s birthday parties, I introduced myself and broke the ice with the usual battery of questions: “What do you do for work? What do like to do in your free time? Where did you grow up? Etc.” But, now I find myself pursuing a more sinister form of small talk, designed to subtly read where a person’s needle hovers on the political Geiger counter. On one end is “safe,” and on the other is “radioactive Trump supporter.” My interactions with my fellow Americans are poisoned by the ever-present suspicion of their allegiance to America’s forty-fifth President and de facto leader of the Republican party. I resent their possible guilt by association through sanctioning the Donald’s degradation and defiling of the Constitution with their potential complacency or support. Frankly, I feel ashamed of allowing myself to be emotionally tilted this way. Because, the behavior of which I am guilty by suspecting and judging, nothing short of a new form of “red scare.”
If it is not already obvious, my political tendencies lean to the left and identify myself as a Democrat. There was once a time when I could agree to disagree, conversing logically and civilly with Republicans. The rise of the Tea Party challenged this to a certain extent. However, ultimately, their motivations and tactics could be written off as misguided. I could assume that, as strongly as I felt negatively about their right-wing insurrectionism, they felt equally as intense about my left-wing, bleeding-heart liberalism. Yet, we were both playing by a set of rules, avoiding ad hominem attacks and sweeping, overt, blanket generalizations of one another. Debate was limited to issues such as Right-To-Work, Trickle-Down Economics, Criminal Justice Reform, Military Intervention, etc. Those who supported arguments using conspiracy theories, circular arguments, anecdotal evidence, or bigotry were relegated to the fringes of the debate. Even discussing protected values, like reproductive and contraceptive freedom, or firearm safety measures, though tricky, could be done with sensitivity and tact. There was an unspoken agreement that motivated reasoning was a factor in such debate and, whereas one is entitled to one’s own opinion, one is not entitled to one’s own facts. Certainly, to believe in objectivity in political debate was naive. However, one could assume fairness would be checked and balanced by empirical data.
That was then. That was before the rise of Donald Trump. Now, in the age of the President who addresses the nation by dropping vulgar twitter-bombs to distract, discredit, and disrupt the great debates over the issues that face our nation in this, our American era of angst and volatility, Donald Trump robs us of debate. Through his sensational self-promotion and public shaming of those who dare to shed light on his personal shortcomings and defects of character, he distracts from analyzing the substantive policy agenda that will result in real and lasting results, and which deserves thorough and public debate. By regularly undermining the media’s credible ability to report his actions, thereby destabilizing truth itself, he discredits renowned and reputable news outlets who report facts he finds inconvenient to his personal brand. And, with his apparent disinterest and complete disregard for consistency with the platform on which he ran, for the people to whom he made promises, and of the effects of his words and actions on the lives of fellow Americans and fellow human beings, he disrupts the Constitutional success to which America continually aspires, and for which global respect of American governance is earned.
In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcom Gladwell writes,
“… extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound, and the sense that time is slowing down. this is how the human body reacts to extreme stress.”
That stress is something with which I have become all too familiar. That resulting tunnel vision results from the tempestuous storm cell of disbelief after disbelief, building in pressure to a vortex of cognitive overload, with golf ball-sized, media hailstones, painfully battering my sense of ethical relativism. It makes me wish that I believed in the simple philosophy of the categorical imperative, with moral absolutes of “always” and “never.” But, the only absolutes in my understanding and experience are math and the inevitability of change.
Politics, as negative a reputation as it reflects in contemporary America, is the means by which we as a nation attempt to solve our societal challenges without resorting to violence. I argue that Donald Trump, by his selfish, structurally divisive, blatantly dishonest, antagonistic verbal and social media assaults on individual people, entire races, religions, women, Americans with disabilities, immigrants, government agencies, and ally nations, has, in fact resorted to violence. Much of his success is due to his eschewing of the label of politician. Yet, rather than attempting to transcend “politics as usual,” he chooses to exponentially expand his insult-comic shtick. What started out masquerading as a presidential campaign, filling stadiums with fans, as he traveled the nation on his “Egomania Tour of America,” now occupies the White House. Trump supporters’ call-and-response, football hooligan chanting, and acts of physical violence against those exercising their Constitutional right to peaceful assembly and of a free press at his rallies, were then sanctioned by Trump’s overt encouragement, and now are vindicated by his electoral college victory.
Another relevant quote from Gladwell’s book reads,
“Understanding the true nature of instinctive decision making requires us to be forgiving of those people trapped in circumstances where good judgment is imperiled.”
At the risk of condescending to those perceiving the world from different cultural reference points, I will conclude by circling back to my original point. My suspicion of my fellow Americans for possibly supporting a regime that has replaced the familiarity of previous administrations is counterproductive. Reality and reality-television are blurred so drastically in the eyes of many Americans, who can no longer distinguish one from the other. Subsequently, bona fide, fact-based, issues-oriented debate is replaced with argument unconcerned with empowering others by changing hearts and minds, but rather focused on winning power over others. That is not a battle I feel good about fighting because power over others is not a prize I value. As one who possesses a natural inclination to debate, it is all too easy for me to fall into the trap of argument for its own sake. As one with a set of political values far left of center, it is all too easy to take the bait of blink-decisions about who is suspect of allying with Trump and his Republican rogue’s gallery.
Such distrust hearkens back to the McCarthy era “better dead than red” mindset that excused the atrocious behaviors out of which came men like Roy Cohn and his protégé, Donald J. Trump. I speak only for myself as I pledge to avoid further separating myself from, or raining liberal pedantry on, other Americans. Not only do I know it is useless to try to convert culture with facts, I simply find the wasted effort exhausting. Progressive values are best shared by letting my life preach. I believe in the value of Constitutional values and, especially, the importance of “We, the people of the United States of America …” I believe in fighting for the protection of people who I will probably never meet. I believe in prioritizing people over profits, and in expanding civil rights and social justice, as codified by the Bill of Rights. I believe in fighting for the rights and opportunities of people who may not believe in fighting for my rights at all. And, I can continue that fight without my daily interactions embittered by poisonous distrust of those who substantively disagree.
Jonathan Jacobs is a wingtip enthusiast and bow tie aficionado. A proud native Rhode Islander, he earned a degree in Theatre Studies and English in 2002 from Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. He works as an adjudicator for the State of Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. A 2014 NLC RI fellow, Jonathan stays active with NLC on the chapter’s advisory board and, more importantly, the NLC RI kickball team. He also writes policy for NLC’s national 501(c)(4). Jonathan and his wife, Michele, have spawned two unfathomably cute kids, both of whom the State has surprisingly allowed them to keep in their home in East Providence, RI.