Missing: Empathy

[He] sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse. … As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, [he] is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.—Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine

The above passage was not written recently. It does not describe anyone in the news right now. It was written in 1964 and published the month of the Presidential election that year in Harper’s. Its title is “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

Hofstadter was an historian who found himself concerned with the angry political rhetoric that was emerging that year and he re-discovered that there was little new to it, that in fact a “style” of rhetoric could be identified that regularly emerged and re-emerged in our history.

The “paranoid style” is back in America. Perhaps it never left.

Of course, Hofstadter admits, he is using the term “paranoid” as a pejorative and he makes no claims about possessing psychological expertise. “The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds,” he wrote. “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Being paranoid in style if not psychological substance, it is often expressed with the language of fear, and that fear is often if not always of what one might render as “The Other,” a population so different from the politician and his voters that none of them may have ever even met a member of the population of The Other. Whenever the majority population feels unsure of status or economics, it turns to the simplistic. Hate is the ultimate simplifier in politics. Racism is almost always the template used to organize that hate.

Nationalism morphs into xenophobia. When scarcity becomes an economic reality, which it has in European nations since 2008, accusations of others hoarding resources are sure to follow. It is happening here, too. Our southern border became suddenly porous in description if not reality, a quality it seems to only possess in troubling economic times. Further, whether the majority hates all minority groups, many, or any of them, and blames them for their real and perceived troubles, nothing good follows. It never has. It will not now.

One voter was quoted in 2015 as saying, “Donald Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” The speaker is Richard Spencer, a leader in the “white nationalist” or “white identity” movement, and he spoke on the record with Evan Osnos of The New Yorker (subscription required).

Spencer has appeared in many articles since Mr. Trump’s election last month. (More famously, he was punched in public last winter and that punch led to debates abut whether or not it is okay for pacifists to handle Nazis with violence.) Spencer told Osnos, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he stated that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it.” Spencer is a big fan of Mr. Trump’s.

In difficult economic times, we are all disenfranchised, and it matters not whether that disenfranchisement hits us all equally or hits some of us more unfairly. No matter what, we start to fight over the crumbs falling off the enfranchised peoples’ tables. We start to fight over who is more disenfranchised and fight to deny others’ (The Other) the privileges we perceive disenfranchisement earns us. The majority (white) population in this country has spent the last seven or eight years declaring that it is the more disenfranchised population, and, having seen what it regards as the unfair success of identity politics used by minority groups, is using the language of disenfranchisement to fight an impending apocalypse, a conspiracy, a something. Doom.

Here are three quotes from three different political eras. From 2015:

If this deal is consummated, it will make the current administration the world’s leading financier of radical terrorism. Billions of dollars under the control of this administration will flow into the hands of those who will use that money to murder Americans.

And this, from 120 years ago:

For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. … Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of this international ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.

And this, from 60 years ago:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. … What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. … The laws of probability would dictate that part of … [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.

This country has loved its fear of The Other almost since its inception, it turns out. We are always about to be taken advantage of. The Other is a group of people that lives in our shadows and is perpetually just around the corner, is about to leap on us, and wants to steal all the good things that we true Americans hold dear or even need to survive. Our money, our jobs, our security, our lives. And politicians running for the next higher office—or to retain the office they already possess—often invoke The Other, and they just as often claim that the opposing side favors The Other, either openly or, worse, secretly.

In logic and in politics, it is difficult to prove a negative: “I am not secretly supporting this or that group” is akin to declaring one’s support for this or that hated group.

In different eras, politicians have cast different groups of people in the role of The Other. Masons, Mormons, Catholics, people from Asia, people from Ireland, Jewish people, people who support the gold standard, people who support silver, militant anythings, anarchists, terrorists, Communists, international bankers, radicals, people of color, unemployed people, immigrants. Muslims. The Other is always the aggressor—or is about to be the aggressor—if we do not do something about their sudden appearance on our shores. We true Americans are always about to become victims. Perhaps this is how one knows one is in the presence of a true American.

Majorities often run the risk of losing philosophical coherence by the fact of being a majority, by acquiring new members with new causes; focus is regained when a sense of impending persecution is successfully sold.

Self-declared impending victim-hood prevails in nervous times, and the thinking is so damn seductive. Empathy is the first tool we cast out of our emotional toolbox. “Don’t need that anymore,” we seem to say to ourselves.

Time and again the majority sees (or thinks it sees) a group outside it complain about being denied admittance and then complain and ultimately win admission and the majority wonders: “What if we do that, too? Won’t we get more of what we feel we need?” This is how a beloved member of the 1% wealthiest Americans won acclaim this year among voters who do not earn as much in a month as he might have paid for his wallet.

The solution the politician always offers is the only part that never changes: We must elect this person to office, where he will stand up for us. “I am your voice,” Mr. Trump yelled at us at the Republican National Convention. The politician always disappoints the true believers in The Other, however, for one of two reasons, and we are seeing this with some of Mr. Trump’s white supremacist supporters who are disappointed in some of his Cabinet nominations: because the politician discovers once he has been elected that his fight was against an idea and was not against anything that exists in reality, so there is no legitimate legislation to be pursued; or later, when he discovers that lots of angry speeches make him sound like the boy crying wolf and he gets ignored everywhere, including the voting booth.

The quote about terrorists and deals is from 2015, and was spoken by a sitting United States senator who ran for the next higher job: Senator Ted Cruz. (I was more afraid of Cruz winning the White House than Trump. Shows what I don’t know.) The quote right after his quote is from 1895 (found in Hofstadter’s essay in Harper’s) and was written that year as part of the Populist Party’s platform for 1896.

The third quote was spoken by a United states senator who like Cruz also possessed a gift for the enraging turn-of-phrase: Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

There is one other unifying thing about this specter of The Other: whomever the population is that the politician is decrying as evil, as powerful, as taking advantage of our previously fair system is almost always in fact a dispossessed minority or is a group that has no hand on the levers of power. The concept of The Other draws vitality from the conceit that The Other holds power, even when it does not. Especially when it does not. Often, it is a group that we would otherwise view as an underdog, if empathy had not been the first tool we tossed out of our emotional toolbox.

The quickest way to win votes is to find a portion of the electorate that feels bullied, blame the woes on a non-powerful part of society—a portion that can not fight back, because it has no power—and then claim that the lack of a push-back is confirmation of the other group’s power. Hofstadter wrote five decades ago: “The paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.” Osnos quotes Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego: “The more complicated the problem, the simpler the demands become. When people get frustrated and irritated, they want to cut the Gordian knot.”

The fight on the right in 2016 in this country was the fight over who could come up with the stomach-punch-simple description of current troubles that simultaneously sounded like a stomach-punch-simple solution. When that fight is available in a country, that fight is always a demagogue’s dream-come-true.

At any given moment, there is always a portion of the population that is ready to hate, and some of these people vote. At any moment, there is always a portion that feels that some mythic yesterday is better than today is and that tomorrow will be worse. Some of these people vote. Seven days a week, there is a portion of the population that feels ignored and does not notice that this feeling of being ignored is all that they care about. Ironically, they vote for politicians who reinforce this by telling them that they are being ignored. If they are being told that they are being ignored, they aren’t. Ah well, those voters can feel like attention is being paid, even though it really isn’t. Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” was neither of those two things and neither is Mr. Trump’s, but once again we elected as President a man harumphing his way toward building a coalition of the not-at-all-disenfranchised and yet perpetually angry.

The more things don’t change, the more they stay the same. Resistance is insufficient. Rejection is the barest of beginnings. Empathy, not for those who arrogantly demand empathy and who won the White House on that demand, but for those about to be kicked to the curb by the next White House—the disabled like me, minority populations in both ethnicity and religion, the people who have been labeled The Other for the last two years—is essential, the barest of beginnings.

* * * *
Some of this first appeared in August 2015.

I will continue writing about prisoners of conscience in 2017 and beyond. This will become a domestic as well as a foreign beat.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 9 asks us to reflect on the word, “Missing.”

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  1. nonsmokingladybug · December 9, 2016

    Empathy, yes it is missing. I fear that the next four years will be bad, but still hope I will be wrong.


    • Mark Aldrich · December 9, 2016

      I hope so, too. Tina Dupuy wrote something this week that I should have gotten into this column. In “So We Elected an Autocrat,” she wrote: ” We are going to need smart people who can counter an erratic hateful ignoramus who’s surrounded himself with giddy arsonists. Americans have never seen this in their own country. This is a man who kept Hitler’s speeches in his bedside table. Whoever says they know what Trump will do, is wishful. Whoever tells you it’s going to be fine, is wrong. Whoever tells you it’s going to be bad, doesn’t know how bad.” That is what is inspiring me as we embark on this next chapter. Because I am a target (disabled person in a country that wants to end/”privatize” Social Security and “make people work”) and I know many other people who will be targets for reasons of religion (I’m Jewish), ethnicity, or activism. (A woman working as a water protector lost her arm at the DAPL stand-off last week; she is the sister of a close friend of mine. There is no story too far away that we—you, me, all of us—do not personally know someone who is involved.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • nonsmokingladybug · December 9, 2016

        For the first time in my life I am speechless and disappointed. Disappointed in the country I love so much. It has been more than a month and I still hope I will wake up and all of it was just a dream. I have nightmares during the day now.

        When I was a child they told me something like Hitler could never happen again…they lied.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Keigh Ahr · December 9, 2016

    The next book on my reading list is Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”, a 1951 psychoanalytic study of what drives people to totalitarian figures. From what I know about Hoffer, he expands on many of the themes in your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · December 28, 2016

      I will be checking that out. Thank you for guiding me.


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