“Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice and rage and they want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it…” – Donald Trump, June 18, 2019 Orlando, Florida
These are some of the most chilling words I’ve ever heard from a President or anyone who was involved in leading this country (with the exception maybe of James O. Eastland.) They echo the words of another world leader…
“We want to build up a new state! That is why the others hate us so much today….” – Speech at the Berlin Sportpalast on the opening of the Kriegswinterhilfswerk, September 4, 1940, Adolf Hitler collection of speeches 1922-1945
I am a firm believer that Hitler and Nazism, particularly as it relates to WWII and the horrific inhumanity of the Holocaust always deserve their own specific place and conversation. I do not conflate what we experience now with that darkest period of time in global history. Likewise, there is no comparing African slavery in the US or the genocide of Native people in North America with anything else. Each of these epic failures of humanity are unique and represent tragedies unto themselves. But it is worth noting how the politics of identity…the politics of “us” against “them” that led to those epic tragedies are currently contaminating our national conscience in a way that may ultimately be impossible to recover.
Embedded in Trump’s Orlando rhetoric (a speech that will live in infamy) is a deep and public fear about a loss of identity. This fear was the foundation for the entirety of Hitler’s ambition (see Mein Kampf.) Trump is relentless in positioning himself and his “base” as victims to a monolithic, a-moral and wholly unscrupulous “Democratic Party” that is bent on the destruction of the “real Americans”. I need not continue the parallel with 1930’s Germany to make my point. The important learning for today is that Trump has turned the two-party system into the two-identity system, possibly fracturing the concept of “American” into us vs. them for a very long time to come.
“Us”in Trump-world is independent, outside of traditional government, self-made and self-defined. “Them” is dependent on the nanny state, a fragile “snowflake” and overly concerned with political correctness to the point of paralysis. But contrary to what the Mitch McConnell’s of this world think, we are not living in a democratic meritocracy. He and his cronies may want to push the concept that armed with a good set of bootstraps and access to the ballot box “all men are created equal.” But their definition of “equality” is consistently biased and ignorantly subjective; case in point, not everyone is a “man.”
We live in an Identitocracy. It began with “We the people…” where there was always an implied parenthetical “them, the other” written in the margins. In fact, the “other” was originally codified in language that made it clear that enslaved people were sub-human and only valuable as property, that “Indians” should be steered well clear of and women were totally voiceless without any rights because the men in control of their lives did everything for them. Despite the essential contributions of other identity groups, the predominantly perpetuated foundational identity of the United States experiment is the independent, self-made, white male Christian. This is not to point a finger at white men today to say that they created this equation or that they are inherently oppressive or evil. Instead, it is to point out how none of us can ignore that centuries of maintaining systems where this singular identity has been favored, privileged, provided access, protected and lionized has had a long-term impact on what our systems of government and society look like (see the makeup of the Republican Congress for proof.)
Trump is more savvy than people give him credit for. He has stirred up this self-made, white male “bootstrapper” identity and he has motivated anyone who has proximity to it or feels affinity for this identity. It is obviously intoxicating to think of oneself having the ability to reap the benefits of Americanness based entirely on the merits of your ability and ambition regardless of race, gender or culture. The intoxication is sneaky because the primary mechanism of the “bootstrapper” identity is how easy it goes down…it is not just clear, it is invisible. According to the rhetoric, everyone can have it and there is no hangover. All you have to do is assimilate, go back in the closet, let your husband decide and don’t vote. But, like Trump’s wealth and stable geniusness, equality through the “bootstrapper” identity is a toxic and lethal myth.
Democrats, or indeed anyone who wants to dislodge the violent ideology of “us vs them” that has overwhelmed our politics and has now become a global rallying cry for isolationism and violent nationalism (Boris[h] Johnson…good Lord!) must recognize the real challenge. Wonky politics, practical policy strategies, being the ‘grown up in the room’…none of these approaches will work in our modern Identitocracy. The dominant identity that is being challenged will never feel invited to that party and it will always fight back. It will feel scolded and condescended to and more importantly, threatened:
“[T]hey want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it….”
Face it, American politics is officially a circus. Sadly, we must find a much more powerful personality, a distraction to pull focus from the current ringmaster. Ringling Bros. is dead for a reason; it is outdated and quaint. Politics and possibly the entire US way of government will need to go full-on Cirque du Soliel before we are able to get past this dreadful period in history.