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Trump Voters: Should We Write Them Off or Try to Bring Them Back from the Dark Side: Part II

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(This is the second installment of a discussion begun here.)

The first installment of this two-part article argued that the election of Donald Trump demonstrates dramatically that the state of mind of the tens of millions of Americans who make up the Republican electorate is now at the heart of the threat to the well-being of America posed by the destructive force that’s taken over the American right.

That broken consciousness was not always such a driving force in the dismantling of America, as a brief review of the history of the hijacking of American “conservatism” over the past generation can show.

If we look back to, say, 1990 to investigate the state of this destructive force, we do not see any particularly intense sickness permeating the Republican electorate. The first president Bush was in office, and the people who voted for him were still quite recognizable to those familiar with the Republicanism of previous decades (from Eisenhower, say, onward).

Nonetheless, that destructive force itself — which has now brought Donald Trump to the pinnacle of power in America — was already in evidence. It consisted of some public faces, and behind them were some big interests. (If we look at the gathering web, we find things like the Powell memo, the consolidating Big Money Power (including the Koch brothers), Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, etc.)

The force had established its advanced base inside the top-down power structure, while the Republican base had not yet become the cesspool of brokenness — of a deeply false picture of what’s happening in America, of magnified hatreds and fears — it has since become.

Back in the 1990s, it was the job of some of the major public faces of that force — especially Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich — to undertake a program of poisoning the minds of the American people.

(The basic elements of this poison have always been there — e.g. the bigotries, the inclination to conflict over cooperation, the lack of critical thinking — but their role in the people’s overall patterns of thought and feeling was far smaller. The task of poisoning the minds of the people was, then, a matter of feeding the darker patterns, and starving the more benign ones.)

The poisoning of the minds of the people then accelerated during the presidency of W, with “Bush’s Brain” (Karl Rove) orchestrating his manipulative and deceitful propaganda. He (and Cheney) knew how to magnify the fears prompted by 9/11, and magnify them for their political purposes. And it was presumably Rove — never one to care about the truth — who announced the abandonment of any allegiance to reality, and declared that they could create their own reality.

Throughout, Rove and company assiduously sold a false, fact-free, distorted reality to their followers– eroding their capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood, and orienting their passions toward perpetual conflict based on the fear and hatred of enemies, foreign and domestic.

By the time W left office, the right-wing public was so far removed from reality that the Republicans could sell their policy of across-the-board obstructionism to people who regarded themselves as “American patriots.”

And by the time President Obama’s second term was approaching its conclusion, these Republican voters could support a monster — a bigot, a hypocrite, a narcissist, a wrecking-ball — like Donald Trump for president.

Thus. this sickness in the consciousness of the “conservatives” has only gradually grown to be such a central reservoir from which the destructive force that’s taken over the right draws its power to wreck the nation.

As it becomes more central to the overall battle, must not addressing this profound sickness among the American electorate become more central to our overall strategy to defeat this destructive force on the right?

*******************************************************

But there’s an important part of my friend’s argument not yet dealt with here. I have no doubt that my friend would agree that the people in the right-wing bubble (Fox News, Limbaugh, the GOP, Trump, etc.) hold a overwhelmingly false picture of our political reality. Nor would he disagree that there’s a real disconnect between their stated value beliefs and the nature of the political forces they support. And he’d concur, I suspect, that over the past several decades, their worse passions have taken over and the “better angels of their nature” have ceased to have any discernible voice in the political realm.

So I expect he would agree that bringing them back from the Dark Side would be desirable. But, he might well argue, that doesn’t prove that it is possible.

That’s a good point– in that no one, including me, has demonstrated clearly an ability to bring today’s “conservatives” back from the Dark Side. But since when does an uncertainty about the possibility of success, when something is necessary to achieve, justify not even trying? No one could guarantee in 1939, or even 1944, that the Manhattan Project would succeed, yet the United States embarked on that herculean effort.

Speaking of which, I have studied how FDR successfully led America to victory in World War II. And I believe there FDR’s approach contains lessons for Democrats today seeking to succeed in the dark battle in which we are now engaged.

My friend would want me to attend to more urgent political needs: how to mobilize down to the grassroots; how to confront Trump; etc.

What would FDR do? Here’s how I see it.

Yes, the immediate crisis has to do with how to deal with President(-Elect) Trump. But not only is that not the only component of the battle, but even the battle against Trump cannot be fought only head-on. Trump’s power will be quite directly related to his approval ratings. If that approval rating can be brought down below, say, 40%, Trump’s ability to dominate our national direction will be greatly curtailed.

(If it goes low enough, it is even conceivable that such major misbehaviors as we can reasonably expect could be treated as grounds for impeachment.)

But beyond that, we need to think of this struggle as a multi-front, multi-dimensional war, as FDR dealt with that global struggle. Not only did he have to deal with two wars against two major enemies, he also had to:

  • Turn millions of American civilians into an effective fighting force;
  • Maintain a complicated set of alliances, with not only Churchill’s Britain, but also with Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Chiang Kai-shek in China;
  • Gear up the latent power of America’s industrial might to produce aircraft and tanks and ships by the thousands;
  • Conduct challenging R & D like the Manhattan Project;
  • Prepare for the peace that would turn victory into a lasting benefit.

Now, we also have to deal with a complex struggle in a multiplicity of ways. It is not a matter of choosing one piece of the struggle instead of another, but rather finding the best ways of fighting them all in an integrated way. Among the various dimensions on which this struggle must be waged:

  • The political mobilization my friend calls for;
  • The role of the Democrats in Congress in minimizing the damage (and if possible maximizing the beneficial outcomes) from the Trump presidency;
  • A campaign to pressure the media to do the job American democracy requires of it during what will surely be an unprecedented kind of dishonest, constitutionally questionable presidency (this is another challenging task about which we cannot simply throw our hands up and declare it hopeless;
  • AND conduct a campaign to change the state of consciousness among America’s conservatives, both short-term to turn them against Trump and the Republicans, and long-term to bring them back from the Dark Side to greater sanity, greater alignment with both what is true and what is right. (And I am not claiming that my best efforts are the best way, and they are surely not the only way, to go about it. Perhaps another approach than mine will work better; perhaps a whole combination of approaches.)

Liberal America largely forfeited the battle over these people’s souls while they were being poisoned over the past generation. Our nation – and we as a political force – have paid an enormous price for that forfeiture.

Let us not forfeit that necessary battle once again.

  • John Farrell

    Andy – Liberal America did not forfeit the battle for the hearts and minds of what used to be called the Reagan Democrat or the Tea Party.

    What we failed to understand was that appeals to their economic self interest would not overcome their devotion to white supremacy as an integral part of their self-image and self-worth.

    Whether it’s Tricky Dick’s Southern strategy, Raygun’s appearance at Philadelphia or Bush and Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton ad, it’s been an essential part of the “conservative” appeal for 60 years.

    That’s the darkest part of the dark side that Fox and Breitbart reinforce every hour of every day and that none of us will ever overcome.

    Advances in power by women and minorities will always be understood first as a threat to that myth, thus the “Tea Party’s” inescapable racist memes were not an unfortunate side effect but the heart of their appeal.

    I won’t placate that part of the American electorate and pray to God that the Democratic Party never will again. (God forgive us for doing so for 150 years.)

    • Andy Schmookler

      “What we failed to understand was that appeals to their economic self
      interest would not overcome their devotion to white male supremacy as an
      integral part of their self-image and self-worth.”

      Having been engaged with conservatives in my area for almost a quarter century, John, I believe that you’re missing the larger part of the picture of what’s happened on the right.

      Yes, the Breitbart crowd, and the rest of the white supremacy crowd, are out there. But that’s a minor part of what’s going on.

      If you believed to be true all the factually wrong things that the people on the right have been indoctrinated to believe to be true — by Limbaugh, Gingrich, Fox News, Rove, the GOP leadership in Congress, and now Trump — that would take you a long way toward having the political impulses that they have.

      I would wager that if someone fact-checked the 50 main factual and politically- relevant beliefs that the “conservatives” of today hold to be true, their rate of falsehood would more than rival the 70% falsehood rate that Factcheck.com found with Trump’s campaign statements.

      This is not to deny the existence of racist, sexist, etc. feelings in that part of the body politic. And it is not to deny that the merchants of the lie have used those feelings in selling their falsehoods.

      But it is way too easy to reduce the “Others” to their worst elements, and to not notice the ways in which they have been deliberately led astray.

      Here’s one relevant article (by George Monbiot) about how the right-wing force has created a false picture to plant into the minds of those under their influence: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/30/donald-trump-george-monbiot-misinformation

      • John Farrell

        White male supremacy is not a minor part. Trump’s candidacy demonstrated that it is the “conservative” movement.

        It’s also a surprisingly significant part of our own party. Witness the entrenched opposition to candidates of color, like Justin Fairfax and Atif Qarni, from party leadership in favor or the white candidate.

      • Quizzical

        To me, this boils down to four questions:
        1. Where are they (the Trump supporters) getting so much false information?
        2. Where do we (non-Trump supporters) think that Virginia voters should be looking to get their information?
        3. What can we do to try to discourage people from believing false news and to trust reliable sources of information?
        4. What must we do to make sure that reliable sources of information survive?

        Concerning the first question, I didn’t think I was in a “bubble”, since I listen to Limbaugh and Mark Levin fairly often when I am driving and occasionally scan the headlines on The Drudge Report. During the campaign I probably listened to 5 or 8 of Trump’ speeches in their entirety. But I’ve now come to realize that Limbaugh and Levin in their shows seem to presume that their listeners are already familiar with the topic of the day. Also I was totally surprised to find out after the election that Facebook was spreading false news on a huge scale. So I guess I have been in a bubble. Seriously, where are they getting this crap?

        Concerning the second question, one of the constant refrains I’ve heard from both Trump and right wing talk radio is that the “main stream media” cannot be trusted. I’ve picked up a lot of distrust myself this election cycle. I do catch myself clicking through to stories where I have no idea of the credibility of the publisher. There ought to be an effort to identify excellent and reliable news sources across the political spectrum.

        Regarding the third questioning, how do you persuade people to stop filling their heads with crap? One way is to offer them something better, or support those who are offering something better.

        Lastly, the fourth question springs from the fact that excellent investigative journalismeems to be a craft that is in decline. Now we see the consequences. We’ve got to support quality publications to the extent we are able, either by subscribing or just clicking on their ads. If we don’t, they will disappear.

  • Elaine Owens

    Andy, there are several other reasons for the 6th District being conservative Republican and staying that way for a very long time. The area, especially in the Shenandoah Valley, is basically rural. People in rural and small town settings are more homogeneous and less likely to want government programs, even if they need them or benefit from them. They tend to be more insular, not wanting outsiders coming in, especially outsiders with different backgrounds, would also bet that the educational level overall in the 6th is lower than most of the rest of Virginia, with the possible exception of the 9th and Southside. Churches tend to be fundamentalist, and people tend to attend those churches more than in other parts of the state. Along with fundamentalist religion comes a greater stress on traditional roles for men and women, more acceptance of authoritarianism. Basically, I look to the young to bring change. Good luck in your efforts, though.

    • Andy Schmookler

      I agree with all that, Elaine. That corresponds to my own experience. Two things:

      First, my concern is not just about what we do, or don’t do, in our own region. My main concern is about the geographical level at which it is determined who has their hand on the American helm, and in what spirit they steer it.

      Second, regarding our 6th District, I am not expecting these people to become liberal Democrats. What would truly suffice is if they could see whether their own party was upholding, or trampling upon, the values they say they hold dear.

      If they stayed Republicans, but started insisting that their party show genuine respect for the Constitution, and reflected something of the spirit of the red letters in their Bibles, that would be a truly important change.

      When they support Republicans who violate the spirit of the Constitution with across-the-board obstructionism and delegitimization of a legitimately elected president; when they regard as Christian an institution such as Liberty University and its leader Jerry Falwell, Jr., who operates in the very opposite spirit from Christianity, then we have a problem.

      There’s a disconnect there. No doubt, there have ALWAYS been some disconnects of that sort. But now the disconnect is so extreme, and the consequences of it so dark, that it has become a major threat to the integrity and even the survival of the United States.

  • Jeanne E Russell

    Andy,

    I have read your two recent articles and I have to say that I agree with both. It is a multifaceted problem which requires action on many fronts. The question is how. How do we change the consciousness of the conservatives and even the democrats? How do we combat the insecurity and fear that permeates both parties? I certainly don’t have the answer but I think we need to find a way to link into people’s emotional intellect if that’s a thing. The atmosphere right now is pulsing with emotion on both sides. For year’s the back room republicans have been appealing to people’s secret fears and uncertainties. Who can I trust? What can I control? We need to find a way to get into people’s psyches and inspire them while calming the fear of the “other” which has been exploited so well by Trump. As I said I don’t know how to do this but that’s where my efforts will go – after the electoral college meets. Until then, I am still in my naive bubble of hoping for a miracle…

    • Andy Schmookler

      Thank you, Jeanne. Yours is the first voice to appear here that takes seriously the challenge that, in the first installment, I asserted to be “the central political challenge of our time.”

      I agree that it requires “action on many fronts.” And I also agree that at least part of the effort needs to deal with the emotional side of things.

      What I try to do is build arguments based on what I know to be the (stated) values of the conservatives. Arguments may not be the most effective way to move my target audience, but I always hope that the importance they attach to their values will give the arguments some force.

      I’ve been on this beat since 1992, since I started doing a lot of talk radio conversations. I was inspired (if that’s the word) by Rush Limbaugh. I figured his kind of conversation was so toxic it needed to be countered. And that’s what I tried to do on a local level– not as a liberal version of Rush, but rather creating honest inquiry in contrast with his dishonest manipulation.

      For many years, I felt that liberals were not taking seriously what was happening on the right. For years, the right was being taught to hate liberals and to regard them as the enemy, not as fellow citizens to work with to achieve common purposes. And in the meanwhile, liberals were still looking at the conservatives in a much more friendly way.

      But now we’ve achieved what seems to me an unfortunate kind of symmetry. Just as the conservatives are still completely writing off the liberals, now the liberals are returning the favor.

      Reminds me of how the South became inflamed in the early 1850s, and then by the time of John Brown’s raid on Harpers’ Ferry, the North was ready to return the hate.

      I’m hoping this Second American Civil War will be channeled into something more constructive. Somehow.

  • I’d say it’s more a matter of “comparative advantage,” biggest “bang for the buck” and where we focus our limited time/energy. Sure, in theory it would be great to win back some Trumpsters from the “dark side,” but that will be tedious, low-probability-of-success work with limited if any payoff. On the other hand, working to build up the Democratic Party at the local level could have major impact, IMHO, as could working on registering voters, helping with Democratic GOTV, phone banking, door knocking, and making the argument for progressive values and Democratic ideas in the media. Just seems like those things are the best use of Democratic activists’ time and talents than trying to convert Trump voters back to reasonable conservatism or whatever. Plus, again, we are the wrong messengers for this task – the right messengers should come from their own “team” (e.g., Evangelical Christians, Tea Partiers, conservative thought leaders), definitely not from anyone perceived as “liberal” or “progressive” in any way.

    • Andy Schmookler

      I agree in large measure that the best messengers would come from their own “team.” I do recall, however, back in the Bushite era, how any such messenger who deviated from the orthodoxy automatically was seen as “off the team” and therefore suspect like the rest of us. That’s part of how the right-wing media and the GOP worked to make the right-wing bubble impervious.

      So yes, we’re automatically suspect, tuned out. But so also are the others.

      So I have no illusions about the difficulty of the task. I am arguing first for its necessity. And as it is necessary, it must be attempted.

      And for those who feel no call to do it, because of your estimate of the probability of success or for whatever other reason, put your shoulder to some other wheel.

      But we really cannot afford to have so much delusion, so much poisoning of the minds, in our body politic. So I hope that some effort will be made from our side to find ways of changing that.

      And for myself, I hope that people here will look at my efforts in that direction, which I post regularly here, not in terms of “Why does this guy waste his time banging his head futilely against this wall?” and more in terms of “Is there anything here in this guy’s effort that models anything that I can do that might be of any use?”

      • My main argument is the best use of our limited time and energy would be on the things I mentioned…

  • Lee Scharf

    As you say, Andy, “We have to deal with a complex struggle in a multiplicity of ways.” You also said that we have to address this complex struggle in an “integrated” way. I agree with what you said first; I will differ with our ability to deal with these complexities in an integrated way.

    I think we liberals are so easily prone to hubris, to saying we know more than we can know, that we can deal with complexity in an integrated way (implying that we stand above the complexities). To say that we can respond to this reservoir of brokenness, to “cure what ails them” is hubris. Fixed beliefs and dark passions are not so easily “cured”, if at all, the reason being that we human beings are constituted this way: The Other is really Us.

    We all have a dark side. We need to admit the morbid fascination, the horror, the attraction we have to catastrophic change, probably enough fascination to let it happen, if not make it happen. We did this, all of us, those of us who voted for Trump, and those of us who did not, and his election, as you have already said, was a long time in the making. Trump has drawn this vitriol from our collective psyche. Who among us reading online pre-election articles and posts (its own techie privilege bubble) cannot admit that we all fed from Trumps horrific antics, that maybe we were addicted to the Trump transgression of the day, and maybe still are? His Cabinet of Horrors. We all know about the Taiwan call he took, right? I wonder what today’s tidbit will be. Oh, wait, here it is: “Guess who gets a big fat tax cut if Obamacare is repealed?” This darkness is going to spin itself out on its own terms, I think, but that does not mean we should not speak out. We should, and we must while we can.

    I do believe there is a way into a better future. It is to use our capacity to really listen. By listen I mean listen in person. And, by listening I mean just that. No comments, no positions, no suggestions, no cures. Listen and let go, hope that we have gotten a glimpse of goodness in another person and ourselves, if only for a moment. And, if when they are spewing alt-right rhetoric we listen to our own internal rebuttals and frustrations, we watch our own bile rise and own it; maybe this will clear our own thinking a bit. This is not an integrated approach, but it may be an honest one.

    And then I hope that we find the energy to work like we have never worked before by our own given lights. Look at all of these issues systemically, politically,economically, philosophically, artistically, musically, spiritually, whatever it takes, God help us, all of us, all at once. Please keep writing Andy, keep pushing us to think critically, to agree or disagree with you. Many more people read these columns than comment on them. Sometimes silence speaks more loudly than words.

    • Andy Schmookler

      One thought on the “multiplicity of ways” vs. “integrated way” question. Of course, you’re right that we hardly understand enough about how to accomplish this to be able to design something that hums along like a well-engineered engine with its various parts working together.

      What I would preserve of the “integrated” idea, however, is the idea that we should at least understand that what some people do might be potentiated by different things that other people do.

      To illustrate: I recall back in the 60s somebody saying that the presence on the scene of Stokely Carmichael (considered at the time a hard-liner in the Black Power movement) gave Martin Luther King, Jr. a better hearing from white America.

      It’s not as if there was an integration of strategy designed by anyone, but the parts had a way of (in some undesigned, presumably unintended fashion) working together.

  • ragekage117

    There’s no way we can write off Trump voters. Sorry, but Clinton and even Obama didn’t communicate a winning message. There was a winning message to be had, but Clinton didn’t pursue it in the right places. We need to now, absolutely.