The Trump Presidency: Bigotry's Cause or Only Its Effect?
- Peggy Whiteneck
It has become fashionable to attribute the upsurge of hate speech, hate crimes, and hate-motivated harassment (AKA "domestic terrorism") to the campaign and election of Donald Trump. But that analysis confuses correlation with cause. The Trump White House is not the cause of an uncharacteristic upsurge in bigotry; it is merely the Frankenstein monster created by the ancient strain of bigotry that has always run deep in American culture.
America's brand of bigotry broke out in fratricidal rage during the Civil War, a war still being fought between North and South, red states and blue. (Even as black people don't just "get over" slavery as long as they have to live with its legacy, so white Southerners don't just "get over" what they continue to refer to, in language dripping with lingering resentment, as "The War of Northern Aggression.") But the bigotry is far older than the Civil War and its aftermath. It is as old as the Republic itself.
Today, this bigotry is largely consolidated in the angry White, working class demographic, whose fears and resentments have crystallized around the following groups: people of color; immigrants (legal or otherwise), especially if they don't speak English; Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who isn't a conservative/Evangelical Protestant; gay and transgendered people; women who don't know their Scripturally mandated place as subservient to their male family members; single, unmarried mothers; poor people and people on public assistance; and "the goddamn liberals."
America's brand of bigotry feeds on inadequate education and misinformation. While American bigotry accuses the poor of being lazy, it is actually bigotry itself that is lazy. Bigotry has "no time," no curiosity, and no inclination to vet bogus information, and that makes it a prime host to the parasites of fake news and hateful FaceBook memes. These distorted information sources also make Americans cynical about facts and science, ripe for exploitation by conspiracy theorists, and susceptible to bigoted impulses.
It must also be said that American bigotry is amplified by a peculiar brand of American Protestantism that supports bigoted perspectives on the world. A classic example of the latter is the declaration from the Old Testament book of Leviticus that it is an "abomination for a man to lie with a man," frequently cited by Evangelicals as a Biblical condemnation of homosexuals. Conveniently overlooked from the same book of the Bible is an extensive list of "abominations" and prohibitions that not even the most conservative Christian denominations consider binding today. A literalist interpretation of Scripture also regards African-Americans as descendents of the illegitimate Old Testament line of Ham, which gives Christians inclined to bigotry a warrant for discrimination against people of color.
Evangelical Protestantism also regards itself as the only true religion: no one who hasn't publicly accepted Jesus will get to heaven. That pretty well leaves out Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who isn't professedly Christian. And as for Catholics, conservative Protestant congregations have long regarded the Catholic Church as the "whore of Babylon," so Catholics aren't going to heaven, either - even as conservative Catholicism has long taught that only baptized Catholics will be saved. Because they aren't nearly rigid enough and even share common cause with political liberals when it comes to social issues, progressive Protestant denominations, too, are considered anathema by many Evangelical groups.
I am describing here a minority of white Christians. Progressive Protestant and progressive Catholic congregations have long served in the trenches for social justice and have consistently stood against bigotry. But it is also the case that religiously sanctioned bigotry infects large swaths of white Christian culture, including people with only the loosest possible affinity with any church but who still style themselves as "Christian." (Let us recall that even the Klan thinks it's Christian.)
How Does It End?
For the near term and as ironic as it may seem, just as the greatest hope for a Trump win in the election came from the most disaffected voters, so the downfall of Trumpism is likely to come from them. As pissed off as they are about the growing racial, ethnic, religious, and political diversity in the country, their major concerns are still about "about the economy, stupid." Trump is a strongman demagogue who has sworn to make the lives of average Americans better. Like every other strongman who ever made the promise to give "his people" heaven on earth if they'll only follow him off the cliff, Trump is lovingly embraced by people who believe in his Santa Claus/Easter Bunny narrative: that he can, at one and the same time, line the pockets of the wealthy with tax breaks and deregulation and make life easier for the rest of the 99%. Once "average voters" wise up to the reality that Trump deals - as he always has in his businesses - in voodoo economics and that he has little interest in improving their condition and when, by 2018, their lives are little better economically than they are now with no signs of better things to come, conservative white voters will turn their tail-slashing anger against the leaders who have so shamelessly violated their faith and will toss Trump's enablers out of Congress. Since the Presidency has only limited power without Congress, the American system of checks and balances should then work much better in Trump's final two years to confine him to a one-term Presidency.
But at some point, the nation will need to address the underlying problem that gave rise to Trumpism and which cyclically plagues us: the deep and wide vein of bigotry that runs through American culture. Bigotry feeds on its own closed loop. Most of the angry white voters who fear and/or hate black and brown people and immigrants never actually talked to one; who presume to condemn gay marriage not only never talked to a gay couple but also believe that infidelity within heterosexual marriage is a man's natural prerogative; and who claim people on public assistance just don't want to work don't actually know anyone on public assistance. Change (AKA "conversion") will demand the country's investment in programs and processes to break down walls between groups that never talk to one another rather than wasting taxpayer dollars on building Trump's "great wall" between the U.S. and Mexico.