At the end of George W. Bush’s second term in 2009, few Americans were denying that the Iraq War had become a fiasco and that the federal government had failed both in its response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crash. Even then, though, much of the public avoided facing the political and economic causes of those failures and grasped instead at vague, easy hopes that then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama offered, but that his presidency proved unwilling or unable to fulfill.
The ongoing flight from reality only accelerated with Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, when millions of voters sought scapegoats to blame for rising dangers and craved simplistic directions to safety and salvation. Much of that acceleration can be blamed on Rupert Murdoch’s TV channel, Fox News, and his newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, as well other right-wing media, sundry impresarios and invaders of social media.
But democracy can be undone by a much older danger, inherent in human nature: millions of people’s incapacity or disinclination to pit reason against fantasy in the conduct of their own lives and public affairs. That disturbing tendency has been reinforced by Trump, as much as by destructive media, since well before 2016, intensifying public distempers that won't abate even if Joe Biden wins.
Unprecedented though this breakdown of public reason and trust may seem, American history itself offers ample reasons why matters have come to this. Whenever the republic’s civil society has been under great stress, defenders of its traditional values, joined by opportunistic free riders like Trump, who are driven only by power-lust and greed, have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies whom they’ve blamed for the crises.
In the 1690s, the enemy was witches, hysterical women and girls said to have been taken by Satan. In 1619 and in ever since, it has been African Americans and Native Americans, said to be inferior and therefore all the more dangerous to their oppressors. In the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, said by a presidential candidate to be besotted with “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds, and pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960s, it was hippies, inner-city rioters, and opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 9/11, it has been American Muslims.
Trump’s make-believe monsters
Trump drew much of his inspiration from another such paroxysm in 2015, when a yet another scapegoat was conjured up by another cohort of self-avowed civic champions, propagandists, opportunists, and keyboard-pounding alarmists (including more than a few sensation-hungry journalists). Civil society, they warned the public, was endangered by fragile, college-student “snowflakes” and petulant, censorious “cry-bullies”, obsessing, with their coddling, over-controlling parents, counsellors, and deans, about “safety”. According to this account, their perverse culture of “safetyism” censures all who don't follow its rules.
This was all well before the real threat to safety posed by COVID, which certainly does require that we follow strict rules. Yet public response to safety-obsessed college snowflakes was almost as intense as it had been in response to Puritan alarms about witches. A 7300-word article in Atlantic magazine, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, garnered over half a million Facebook shares with its claim that a new “movement” on American campuses was demanding protection from even stray phrases uttered in conversation or offending sentences in textbooks that might frighten discomfit students and their mentors.
Introducing readers to preoccupations with “trigger warnings”, “microaggressions”, and “safe spaces”, the authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warned that “safetyism” and “vindictive protectiveness”, driven by “generally left-leaning campus sensibilities”, was spawning pathological thinking, such as “catastrophizing”, a malignant pessimism that turns “commonplace negative events into nightmarish monsters”.
Keyboard-pounding culture warriors, many of them older white men, including some of my own college classmates, responded, often anonymously but with alacrity, raging from internet “safe spaces” at videos of Black students demanding apologies for racism and sexism. Some students’ demands were histrionic and destructive of civility itself, but residential undergraduate college campuses, at least before COVID, have been civil societies on training wheels, where young adults sometimes experiment in a politics of self-discovery through moral posturing. Some act like hypersensitive barometers or canaries in a coal mine, registering tremors of a much larger civic implosion that they can’t help but carry but certainly haven’t caused.
The same can't be said of their angry elders, presumably more mature but nostalgic for visions of their own youth (which they might wince to recall accurately). They exhibit “a distinctive attitudinal structure” that the political theorist Peter F. Gordon, in ‘The Authoritarian Personality Revisited’, reminds us has a “tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values”. In 2015, conservative provocateurs, editors, and reporters obliged these keyboard authoritarians by prowling campuses, notebooks and video-cams at the ready, to catch the “cry-bullies” in action.
Necessary though it is to challenge wayward students' and mentors' affronts to free inquiry and expression, it's just as important to understand what's driving them. But well-funded orchestrators of a grand-inquisitorial take-downs of leftish “social justice warriors” and "safetyism" developed a strategy that was embraced by then presidential candidate Trump. Knowing a successful marketing gambit when he saw one, he promised his followers “safety” from "political correctness" in colleges and, soon enough, from urban anarchists, feral invaders of suburbs, and other “nightmarish monsters.”
Make America Safe Again
Trump being Trump, he couldn't stop accusing his conjured-up adversaries of sins that he himself and his Republicans are guilty of: fear-mongering and craving the "safety" he supposedly defies; fomenting violence and the swamp of corruption that submerges his own family and supporters. In this year's campaign, “Make America Great Again” became “Make America Safe Again,” outdoing the obsessions about safety that the anti-"coddling" crusade had ascribed to college scapegoats.
“In Joe Biden’s America, you and your family will never be safe,” Trump told a Tampa audience in July. In a perfect instance of “catastrophizing”, he warned that under Biden, “rioters and criminals will be totally protected, law-abiding citizens will be totally disarmed, and American families will be at the mercy of the violent left-wing mob that you’ve been watching on television”.
Adopting a more-coddling tone, Trump assured senior citizens
in Fort Myers, Florida in August that “our groundbreaking therapies have significantly... improved our outcomes for elderly patients, but I’ll not relent until all American seniors are safe. You’re going to be safe — 100 percent safe.” Losing his train of thought in the midst of that talk, he added, “Suburban women want security, they want safety, they want law and order. They want their homes to be protected…. You know why they like me? Because I’m saving their homes.”
In a later tweet, he added, revealingly, “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood.”
Conservative safe spaces
The biggest irony in Trump’s "safety" gambit is that it doesn't really copy the campus left as much as it picks up a strong current in conservative thought that generated campus "safetyism" in the first place. In 1972, conservative activists David and Holly Franke wrote a book identifying towns – including Holly's hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts – that they deemed safe from the social upheavals and maladies of that time. Catastrophizing that half of Americans felt “afraid to walk the streets of their own communities at night” and that 47% predicted "a real breakdown in this country”, the Frankes’ commended “only one rational route possible for the law-abiding citizen: escape.”
Their book – ‘Safe Places’ – sold well through several iterations (‘Safe Places West’ and ‘Safe Places for the ‘80s’). But to revisit the book's fear-driven, fear-inducing assessments of American society now is to uncover an instructive irony. The conservative turn from demanding safety for suburbs that, in 1972, weren't truly threatened by inner-city invaders, to condemning the more-recent demands for “safe places” by students and mentors, many of whom were raised in precisely the “safe places” defended so ardently by the Frankes.
A second irony lies in David Franke’s own history, since his student days in the 1950s, of mobilising campus conservatives against leftist radicals. In 1970, two years before publishing ‘Safe Spaces’, he co-founded the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to train college students to counter “liberal betrayals” of “our nation's founding principles — limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy... ideas that are rarely taught in your classroom.”
“Imaginary escapes from nightmarish monsters have been peddled successfully for decades by conservatives.”
So when Trump rails against political correctness on campuses and danger in the suburbs, he's forgetting or denying that imaginary escapes from nightmarish monsters have been peddled successfully for decades by conservatives to millions of people burdened by harsh realities they were reluctant to face honestly. Huge, swooning crowds followed evangelical impresarios such as George Whitefield in colonial times, Billy Sunday in the early twentieth century, and a swarm of opportunistic preachers since the 1980s. Earth-bound salvation was promised by demagogues such as Louisiana governor Huey Long (fictionalised memorably by Robert Penn Warren in ‘All the King’s Men’) and the Communist-hunting Joseph McCarthy.
Trump is outdoing them all. Tens of millions of Americans have surrendered their independence of mind and even of body and property to him, mortgaging their liberties and material security for the dubious satisfactions of wreaking imaginary vengeance on false targets. Forgotten or excused are the greed and power-lust that drive both the coolest and the most impassioned dealers of such delusions
If there’s been little news lately about coddled, safety-obsessed campus “snowflakes” and “cry-bullies,” it’s because Trump's marketing of fear and false solutions has shifted public attention from political censure to political violence, not only by a relatively few looters, anarchists, and “Antifa” militants, but by uniformed murderers of unarmed young Black people, by militias with assault rifles converging on state capitols, by militarised riot cops, by the military itself in Lafayette Square, and by mysterious federal agents yanking peaceful protestors off streets in Portland.
Eruptions of “unsafety” have also come from financialised, market-mad distortions of civil society and governance since long before COVID exposed as much devastation as it has caused directly. Trump has ridden and compounded these distortions. His efforts to project responsibility and blame for the damage onto those who are protesting it were parodied unintentionally by Rudy Giuliani in his speech to this year’s Republican National Convention about New York City’s supposedly riotous crime and anarchy.
A better American response to Trump and his Republican Party came in the National Basketball Association coach Doc Rivers’ almost-plaintive, at one point tearful, lament after he’d watched the Republican convention:
“All you hear is… all of them talking about fear… We’re the ones getting killed... [We] protest…. They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns… [but] Nothing happens [to them]… My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops… It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad. If you watch that video, you don’t need to be Black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged.”
This election has shown that many Americans love their country as Doc Rivers does and that they’re determined to keep the republic and all that's been redemptive in its political culture. Many have voted to safeguard a pluralist, economically sane, civically rich society against its real enemies, who include Trump himself. Whatever Joe Biden's weaknesses, he said rightly that that kind of civic love really was on the ballot.