Friday, December 16, 2016

The Republican Fear Factor

As an African-American man who stands 6 foot 7 inches tall, it's pretty fair to say that I tend to stand out whenever I'm out in public; for reasons related to both my physicality and my ethnicity.

In order to maintain my sense of sanity and perspective, I've learned to simply accept that lingering stares and sidelong glances from complete strangers are a part of my everyday reality; one that I can't take personally or react emotionally to - it just" is" and I have to tune out what people who don't know me may, or may not project onto me.

But lately when I walk around in the grocery store or pharmacy, I've found myself looking back at the man or woman whose glance lingers on me longer than usual, and in my mind I catch myself thinking, "Did they vote for Trump?"

The moment that thought pops into my head I have to stop and remind myself that is ME projecting my own insecurities and fears onto someone else - and there's way too much of that happening in this country these days.

So much has changed in the 38 days since the November 8th elections shook the foundations of America's Democracy, but the abiding sense of fear that was such a strong undercurrent of the 2016 presidential campaign season seems just as acute; if not more so.

Just this afternoon a Washington Post article by Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima reports that both FBI Director James Comey and National Intelligence Director James Clapper are now in agreement with the CIA's assessment that Russia intentionally interfered with the 2016 presidential elections.

Something that only adds to widespread fears that the election of Donald Trump was a result of a combination of voter fraud, fake news stories and interference by the Russian government.
Psychiatrists and other mental healthcare professionals have been treating patients for anxieties related to the president-elect's statements and actions since as far back as May of this year.

EPA-nominee Scott Pruitt
His continuing stream of unhinged Twitter messages and appointment of key advisors who either harbor extremist right-wing views or have little actual policy experience has done little to assuage the concerns of the millions of people who voted for Clinton.

The selection of cabinet heads who actually oppose the mission of the federal agencies they're slated to lead have only exacerbated the fears of what a Trump presidency will mean to laws and regulations in this country. 

Case in point, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a environmental regulations-hating climate change denier who has spent much of his tenure filing lawsuits against the federal government on behalf of the oil and natural gas industry that he shills for - the idea that a guy like that is going to head up the Environmental Protection Agency is, well, scary.  

Republicans have been peddling in fear since the 1960's when they began targeted efforts to lure white voters by exploiting anxieties about race and the changing face of America during the civil rights era and later when rioting broke out in large cities in the wake of the assassination of Dr. King.

But the conservative exploitation of their overwhelmingly white voter base's fears in the 21st century has taken on a new dimension since the election of President Obama in 2008, as University of Colorado psychology professor Tom Pyszczynski observed in Rolling Stone back in October:

"I suggest that one of things frightening them is the de-whitening of America. I don't think people are afraid of illegal immigrants committing crimes against them - but they're bothered by certain kinds of immigrants diluting the whiteness of the country and the American identity that people get their sense of security from. The idea of 'taking our country back' after having a black president is a prime example of that."  
That quote was lifted from 'The Age Of Fear', an insightful examination of how fear has impacted the 2016 elections in an October, 2016 Rolling Stone article by Neil Strauss. (Which is a must-read.)

Strauss spoke with sociologists, neurologists and psychologists to analyze how wealthy Republican rainmakers like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and others who use their fortunes to funnel vast untraceable sums to political action committees that in turn influence partisan Websites, media outlets and even "mainstream" platforms like Fox News to expose people to a constant stream of content designed to keep them filled with anxiety.

And as Strauss observed, anxiety-ridden people are not only extremely susceptible - they vote.

Trump's xenophobic and racially divisive rhetoric was the same kind of "southern strategy" that got Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan elected, it's also rooted in the same kind of anxiety that George H.W. Bush's campaign exploited with the infamous Willie Horton political ad to help him crush Democratic candidate Mike Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race.

I work with an Irish-American guy in his 50's who voted for Trump; we had a lot of conversations about politics during the run up to the November 8th elections.

He's an Army veteran, staunch Catholic and gun and NASCAR enthusiast who repeatedly complained about how dangerous Hillary Clinton's missing emails were to the country - and that "she couldn't be trusted." 

Dangerous classified emails?
There were some days when he'd be so worked up about it I got the feeling that he'd spent the previous evening in front of the television watching hours of Fox News.

Now this is a genuinely decent man who treats others fairly and with respect regardless of their race or ethnicity - he goes out of his way to make sure that Mexican immigrants who work for the company are treated fairly.

But in the same way that Neil Strauss observed that people who are anxiety-ridden tend to see their vote as an easy way to assuage their fears, my friend would often point out deficiencies in local or federal government that he'd blame on Obama - then relate them to Hillary's emails.

For example there have been some issues with post office deliveries in the past few months, he'd blame that on Obama and say things like, "See, Trump would fix that!" - never mind Trump's trail of bankruptcy filings of his own businesses, the scores of lawsuits filed against him and his companies by vendors or suppliers who never got paid for their work, or his scam "Trump University. "  

For many American conservatives President Obama and Hillary Clinton represent this amorphous all-encompassing scapegoat for a laundry list of conservative anxieties about race, politics, government, foreign affairs and the changing landscape of America.

Think these folks voted to have Social Security cut?
Never mind the fact that the economy is now stable, the nation is in one of the longest sustained periods of job growth, the unemployment rate is under 5% and the stock market is at an all-time high.

Many Republican voters have been manipulated into seeing only the skin color of the president; and magnified the perceived flaws of Clinton while ignoring those of Trump.

In focusing on race and an imagined fear of immigrants, far too many Republicans have been blinded from seeing the deeper Republican political strategy that includes gutting Social Security and Medicare - programs many of those same folks at Trump rallies will depend on if they don't already.

And even though I may disagree with them politically, those folks aren't stupid.

What do they think as Trump offers up a tax plan with the lion's share of tax cuts going to top earners that depends on billions in government spending cuts that he hasn't spelled out yet?

As Trump assembles a presidential cabinet that includes billionaires, Wall Street insiders, CEO's who oppose minimum wage laws, and the current head of the largest oil company in the world, at what point are working class Trump supporters going to start to fear that they've actually been duped?

Eventually the emotional high of those rallies are going to wear off, Hillary's emails will be forgotten and the reality of who the president-elect really is is finally going to set in - and for many current Trump supporters, that's going to be really scary.

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