by Tony Wyman
Professional hysteric Alex Jones, host of the conspiracy-promoting website Infowars, was roundly mocked in social media this past Independence Day for claiming Democrats were planning to launch a second Civil War on the 4th of July.
“Father: Our troops fought bravely but were captured, proving that they aren’t heroes. Today, I wonder if there are good people on both sides. I can go no further. The bone spurs are just too severe. They said this war would be easy to win. Sad!” wrote GOP media adviser and The Daily Beast Columnist Rick Wilson.
Comedian Tony Posnanski penned, “Dearest, Well after a long battle I think we won. We were able to capture many MAGAs in the basement of a pizzeria that doesn’t have a basement. I will be home for dinner. Be Best, Tony”
And a tweeter by the name of Dr. John Sahin wrote, “Dearest Wife, Cheers from the Battle of Taken Knee. The redcaps fought hard, but our resolve was bolstered when CA Bear rose from his hot tub and distributed margaritas. Margarita Bear is not the hero we asked for He is the hero this war needed,” referencing a bear that spent the day at a California hotel, soaking in an outdoor tub and drinking margaritas left behind by guests.
But despite all the mockery directed at Mr. Jones, serious political thinkers have issued similar, while less hyperbolic, warnings in the past. What many of these writers have discussed is America’s history of lurching in the opposite direction of an advance in social or political freedom.
As often as the pendulum of American politics swings in one direction, bringing the nation closer to its founding ideals of liberty and justice for all, it tends to swing back in the opposite direction, bringing with it the self-destructive impulse to align with a rejectionist philosophy that does not reflect the visions of the Founding Fathers, they say.
This is what we are seeing in America, today. The Republican Party, founded by anti-slavery activists and proponents of classical liberalism, is now led by a man whose view of America couldn’t be more different than President Lincoln’s. Whereas Mr. Lincoln saw the good in people and sought to bring it out in all Americans, Mr. Trump harnesses the worst instincts in human beings and uses the energy he creates to bolster his political movement.
Here is the place where those with an understanding of America’s political history worry about her future. Historically, the worst actions, the greatest sins, if you will, committed by this country, came after a period where the country attempted to leap forward, rather than crawl at a more measured and sustainable pace, towards achieving the ideals of its founding: the concept that all men were created equal by God.
Look at it this way – what followed the successful conclusion of the Civil War was both an end to slavery and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. The integration of blacks into American society brought about racial segregation laws in cities across the country and triggered horrific acts of racial violence.
The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s brought about the fetishization of the Second Amendment as a means by which white America could defend itself against an increasingly assertive and powerful black community. The Equal Rights Movement of the 1970s led to a male backlash against feminism that still exists in mainstream American society today.
How Obama Led to Trump
In many ways, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is a similar backlash.
Regardless of one’s view of the efficacy of the Obama Administration or of President Obama, himself, what the first black presidency represented to many was an historic leap forward in equality. For the first time, the most powerful, wealthiest and aspirational nation on Earth was led by a black man. And, despite their protestations to the contrary, many white Americans didn’t like this.
With many voters, hidden behind objections to Mr. Obama’s politics, rested an uneasiness about the direction the country would go with a black president in charge, what it would mean to American society, as a whole, if a black man successfully held the most important position in the country.
I am not suggesting that opposition to Mr. Obama’s policies wasn’t real – I, myself, shared them – but that, underneath that opposition, existed an uneasiness about what would come from the country accepting the leadership of a black man.
Look at the contrast between the way Mr. Obama viewed race in politics and the way the GOP treated his presidency.
When, in 2008, Mr. Obama was confronted by the overt, anti-white racism of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, rejecting the idea that anti-black racism was common in white America, Mr. Obama said Rev. Wright’s comments “weren’t simply a religious leader’s efforts to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.”
Instead of joining in the anti-white rhetoric of Rev. Wright, Mr. Obama sought to find a middle ground, a place where he could acknowledge that racism still existed in the white community, while also stating that most white people had rejected anti-black bigotry and were working hard to make the country a color blind and just place for all.
While Mr. Obama was seeking to elevate the discussion about race, the GOP looked for every chance they could find to return the discussion to the lowest level possible.
The party ignored Mr. Obama’s comments denouncing Rev. Wright’s racist comments and sought to apply them to the president.
When Mr. Obama’s friend Prof. Henry Louis Gates was arrested for breaking into his own home, prompting the president to call the arrest “stupid,” the GOP accused him of being “anti-cop,” code for being anti-white, prompting the White House to arrange a “Beer Summit” with the arresting officer.
When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, the GOP, again discarding an opportunity to bring the country together on race issues, howled in outrage when President Obama said if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon.
While Mr. Obama consistently rejected the criticism of other blacks that he wasn’t doing enough to improve the lives of other Americans of color, stating again and again that he was elected to be president of all Americans, Republicans rarely missed opportunities to accuse the country’s first black president of racial bias against whites. And, by doing so, they were putting in the minds of white Americans the question of whether President Obama could be trusted to represent all Americans equally.
This was a similar reaction to the one some Americans had concerning President Kennedy’s Catholicism. And, as it was with President Kennedy, some voters questioned where the new president’s loyalties would lie. For that matter, some even went so far as to believe conspiracy theories that Mr. Obama wasn’t a natural-born American citizen, that his birth certificate was faked and that he was really a Kenyan Muslim, instead of a Christian from Chicago.
Birtherism and Bigotry
Donald Trump was, of course, the most prominent political figure espousing the idea that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America. It was upon this idea, that Mr. Trump rose as a significant figure in white American politics.
Look back on the beginnings of Mr. Trump’s political aspirations and what you will see is they were largely built upon thinly-veiled bigotry and fear of “others,” even before the rise of Mr. Obama.
Back in 1989, for example, he waged a city-wide media campaign against the Central Park 5, young black men wrongly accused and convicted of raping and beating a white woman in New York City’s largest park. He bought full-page ads in major New York newspapers demanding a return to “law and order,” claiming “these crazed misfits” were depriving New Yorkers of a sense of security in their neighborhoods, and calling for their execution.
And, even today, long after the men have been proven innocent of the crime by conclusive DNA evidence and the confession of Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, Mr. Trump continues to believe the Central Park 5 are guilty.
But Mr. Trump’s political aspirations really began in earnest with his leadership on birtherism, the belief that Barack Obama was hiding his true citizenship and was, therefore, ineligible to be president.
Birtherism, of course, was little more than an appeal to the racism of those who believe that blacks don’t share common American values with whites.
It further implies that blacks represent a culture and morality that is intrinsically un-American, and should be, therefore, excluded from leadership positions of importance. By leading the charge that the president was hiding his true citizenship, Mr. Trump was seeking to discredit his administration and sow doubt in the ranks of voters uncertain of Mr. Obama and unsatisfied with the GOP’s tepid response to his presidency.
What was more important than the actual facts concerning Mr. Obama’s birthplace, in the minds of those willing to listen to Mr. Trump’s accusations, was that someone of prominence was giving credence to their suspicions about the president’s American authenticity and was willing to fight dirty, if necessary, to confront it.
About birtherism and the impact it had on Mr. Trump’s political future, Nell Painter, professor of history at Princeton University, put it this way:
I have said, more than once, that we would not have Trump without Obama. And that is, on the one hand, we have this current, this running current, of white supremacy — the assumption that non-white people are sort of over there and they’re inferior, they don’t work hard. Black people are not supposed to be powerful. What is the ultimate defiance of that assumption? The ultimate defiance is the president.
By questioning Mr. Obama’s birthplace, Mr. Trump not only questioned the legitimacy of his presidency, but also questioned whether blacks in America are fit to serve in such a position, in the first place. Ultimately, the real message of birtherism is the presidency is too great an office for those who are not ‘American enough’ to hold.
A Society Moving Forward Too Fast
Birtherism was a clear signal meant to alert voters looking for a different sort of candidate that Donald Trump was their man. What Mr. Trump’s supporters saw in him was a candidate unashamed to appeal to their fears, who agreed with them that America was moving forward socially too fast and needed to be restrained before things got out of control. In “Make America Great Again,” Mr. Trump’s supporters heard “take America back” and it resonated with them.
And the 2016 GOP presidential slate showed Mr. Trump’s core that changes that frightened them were happening even in conservative circles. The roster of Republicans vying to replace America’s first black president included two Hispanics (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio), one black (Ben Carson) and one Indian (Bobby Jindal). It also included a woman (Carly Fiorina) and a man married to a woman born in Mexico (Jeb Bush) who prided himself on speaking Spanish to crowds during his campaign.
While there were candidates who were very socially conservative, ones like Rick Santorum, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee, none appealed to voters concerned about race the way that Donald Trump did, in large part due to the fact that they didn’t handle the subject quite to the radioactive extent that Trump did.
And not only had the Democrat Party succeeded in electing a black man to the White House, in 2016, they were trying to replace him with a woman, one that had survived her husband’s humiliating affairs, who had withstood the worst sexist abuse and emerged as a symbol of feminine strength and courage to millions of other women.
In Hillary Clinton, not only did Trump supporters see a candidate who would continue President Obama’s social agenda, they saw a woman who could change the relationship between the sexes in a way they didn’t support. They saw a strong, independent and resilient woman, one who survived her husband’s philandering and womanizing, rising to the forefront of American politics as a rejection of Donald Trump’s misogyny.
Why Trump’s Sexism Didn’t Hurt Him
Megyn Kelly’s “…blood coming out her wherever”, Carly Fiorina’s “look at that face”; Trump’s tweet comparing a picture of Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi to his third wife, Melania: his, “low IQ Crazy Mika” who was “bleeding badly from a facelift,”; his boasts in the Access Hollywood tape about sexually assaulting women and his sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels shortly after Melania gave birth, ostensibly should have had an impact on his campaign for the presidency. Should have, but did not.
When we understand why Mr. Trump appealed to voters desiring to return the country to a past age where white males were supreme, it is easier to comprehend why the real estate mogul’s serious missteps didn’t hurt him when it came to women. Many pundits assumed that his campaign was finished when Mr. Trump admitted to bragging about sexually assaulting women (“…grab them by the pussy. When you’re a star, they let you do it”.). But they, like most Democrats and NeverTrumpers misunderstood the reaction his fans would have to the story.
Instead of being revolted, as most people were, MAGAs (shorthand for Trump devotees), reacted very differently.
Certainly, some expressed revulsion publicly, but most shrugged it off. Why? Partly because his supporters liked the idea that Mr. Trump is a man who does whatever he feels like doing, no matter the rules that apply to all other men.
Beyond that, they saw Trump’s impunity in grabbing a woman by her genitals as the most vivid example of how men could assert their supremacy over women.
Misogyny was one of the anti-social characteristics political scientists studying Trump voters found as a common predictor of support for the president. The more hostile a voter was towards women, the more likely that voter was to passionately support Mr. Trump. And, according to researchers, misogyny was one of the most overlooked characteristics predicting support for the Republican. In fact, said researchers Carly Wayne, Nicholas Valentino and Marzia Oceno, hostility towards women was as good a predictor of whether a voter was willing to vote for Mr. Trump as was party identification.
To determine whether a respondent just had old fashioned views towards women, what researchers called “benevolent sexism,” or whether they harbored ill-will towards women, what they called “hostile sexism,” researchers asked a series of questions of voters, such as “In a disaster, women should be rescued before men” and “Men should be willing to sacrifice their own well-being in order to provide for the women in their lives.” Voters who answered affirmatively to these sorts of questions didn’t correlate to a vote for Donald Trump.
But those who answered positively to the questions designed to determine hostility towards women, questions like, “Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist,” “Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor women over men, under the guise of asking for equality,” and “Feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men,” showed a strong preference towards voting for Mr. Trump.
Researcher Carly Wayne of the University of Michigan said:
The hostile sexism is highly correlated (to a vote for Mr. Trump), but the benevolent sexism really is not. I found this result particularly interesting in the aftermath of some of the fallout from Trump’s tape. … There were a lot of Republicans saying they were against Trump’s statements because of their daughters and wives.
Researchers found that Mr. Trump wasn’t merely drawing support from voters who held old fashioned or traditional views of the relationship between the sexes and the role women should play in American society. He was drawing votes from those who were outright hostile to the advances women had made in the workplace, the courts and the home and who wanted to re-establish male supremacy over females.
And, if Mr. Trump could so boldly assert his supremacy over women in such a crude and direct manner, he could, in the eyes of his supporters, assert his supremacy over everyone else, too. This is how Mr. Trump’s supporters believed he would lead. As The Guardian’s Viv Groskop put it:
It’s not just about women, it’s about anyone who gets in your way or doesn’t let you do what you want. The “pussy” thing was a warning that this would be about vengeance. A lot of people like that kind of talk.
“Vengeance” is precisely what many Trump supporters are seeking. Not just the restoration of a set of ideals they valued that were eliminated by social advances over the past decades, they want the total annihilation of those who made those advances possible.
And so does Mr. Trump. This is where his presidency is not only setting our country back, when it comes to civil rights advances made over the years, but also where it sets us, as a nation, on a course where violent conflict becomes a growing possibility.
In Mr. Trump’s view, the world is a hostile and dangerous place full of “others” intent upon doing us harm. It is a place infested with “rapists” and over-run by gangs like MS-13, where cities are “war zones” full of enemies who streamed, unimpeded, over our borders to commit horrible crimes against us. It is a place where rivals, jealous of our wealth and power, plot against us and try to trick us into entering trade, military and political agreements that aren’t, somehow, in our interest.
And the only way to respond to these threats, in Mr. Trump’s view, is with strength, brutality and, if necessary, violence. When asked which Bible verse influenced him most, Mr. Trump replied “an eye for an eye.” Vengeance, Mr. Trump told Fox News in April 2016, is how he handles conflict. If he gets hit, he hits back harder.
What happens is they hit me and I hit them back harder and, usually in all cases, they do it first. But they hit me and I hit them back harder and they disappear. That’s what we want to lead the country.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump explained things he did, like the tweet attacking Ted Cruz’ wife as “counterpunching,” and said his support for the use of torture and support for military actions that amount to war crimes as “fighting fire with fire.”
“The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind,” Mr. Trump said in early 2016. Later that year, he said, “We have to fight so viciously and violently because we’re dealing with violent people,” referring to his willingness to use the tactics employed by terrorist groups like ISIS to win on the battlefield.
“Torture works, OK folks?” Mr. Trump said during the campaign. “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”
Mr. Trump’s stated willingness to employ any tactic, to lower America to sanctioning the same methods used by tyrants and terrorists, if necessary to win, appealed to voters frustrated by Republican impotence in the face of eight years of the Obama presidency, years where they saw minorities demanding equal treatment and better opportunities, where the LGBTQ community asserted itself in ways it never dared before, and where women were settling in seats at the head of the boardroom table.
They heard, loud and clear from their candidate, that the culture war Mr. Trump would fight when elected president wouldn’t be one held back by the norms of civil behavior. They knew the war to come – the second American Civil War – would be a total, all-consuming, fight to the finish.
Our Continuing Civil War
And that is precisely what Mr. Trump’s MAGA want. An all-consuming fight to the finish that re-establishing the civil order that existed well before the presidency of Mr. Obama, when people knew their place and when things were simpler, to a time before the culture wars that started in the 1980s forever changed the United States.
It isn’t what Mr. Trump is for that motivates his supporters, it is what he’s against that energizes them. And, because of that fact, it doesn’t matter if he achieves anything new as long as he rewinds the clock and reverses advances from the past, particularly the Obama past.
His voters, who believe we are in a life-or-death struggle for our national identity, are less concerned about taxes or jobs or whether the stock market is inflating or shrinking their 401ks than they are whether the unwelcome social changes made to American society over the past several decades are being reversed.
Are we slowing the browning of America? Are we pulling back and disengaging from entangling relationships with foreign governments? Are we making America great again my making it look more like it once did?
Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t care about health care reform; they care about young men pulling their pants up over their underwear. They don’t care about the impact of trade tariffs as much as they care about bilingual road signs in their communities. They are less troubled about Russian meddling in our elections than they are about the number of taqueria popping up in their mainstreet shopping districts.
The civil war we are fighting now isn’t over tax policy or military spending or whether to start a space force. Instead, it is over how the American culture is changing. .
Racial minorities, liberals and centrists, Millennials, non-religious people, Democrats, LGBTQ, all believe things have gotten better and need to continue going further in the direction they’ve been heading.
Whites, particularly working class and evangelical caucasians, social conservatives, and, in large part, Trump Republicans, think things are getting worse and need to change course.
Now, our divide isn’t so much over political policy as it is over who we are as a people. As the New York Times put it in 2017, this war is a culture war, one between Mr. Trump’s “white, working-class base … against ‘politically correct’ coastal elites.”
The problem with fighting a culture war is it leaves a nation divided while it produces virtually nothing concrete or tangible. Most of what is fought over is symbolic and, while important, it takes time away from addressing things like Russian aggression in Europe, out-of-control federal spending, trade issues with critical partners and education reform. It also leaves many casualties in its wake. DREAMers, refugees, the poor – people who don’t fit into standard-sized boxes and who are the most vulnerable to nationalism and populist policy prescriptions.
Regardless, this is the civil war we are fighting. Not the one Alex Jones wrongly predicted, but one that has consumed America for years and is likely to grow much more passion over the remaining years of the Trump presidency.