When it comes to practicalities, most people these days seem capable of dealing with extremely complex situations, many of which are too complex for this old guy: from fixes on Microsoft forums which are introduced by a phrase like “all you have to do is” followed by mind-boggling gobbledygook, to the minutiae of health insurance protocols. But when it comes to ideas, as opposed to practicalities, we seem to be in an age of simplistic, almost childish, thinking.
What follows is not about right and wrong or good and evil, nor about conservative vs. liberal or educated vs. uneducated, nor about foxes and hedgehogs, nor about the old fact-based reality vs. the new belief-based reality. It has to do more with nemesis, with what-goes-around-comes-around, with how fascinating the path of history is.
Soon after Obama’s election in 2008 it became clear, from a widespread irrational and hostile reaction, that it had hit a particular multitude of Americans pretty hard. So many people became unhinged that polls showed that 50% of Republicans (calculating from Wikipedia figures, that’s about 19.5% of Americans old enough to vote) believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim, a Communist, and was not born in the United States.
My friends said that this maniacal, delusional reaction was the result of racism. At first, I disagreed. Because my political correctness antennae have become, out of necessity, oversensitive, my knee-jerk reaction to a claim of discrimination is usually skepticism. More to the point, I held the giddy, Pollyannaish opinion that we were living in a post-racial United States, what with Tiger Woods and all. But there was no mistaking the racist tone of the widespread vilification of Obama, and it gradually dawned on me that my friends were right.
Then there was Trayvon Martin.
Clearly, there is a large swath of Americans who harbor a deep-seated and adamantine prejudice against any of their fellow citizens who happen to be black. What a disorientating shock it must have been, for a dyed-in-the-wool racist to wake up one morning and discover that a black man was President of the United States. It would be like waking up in an alternative universe. It’s no wonder they went so crazy.
Their plight was slightly comical – what rubes, so out of touch! – and slightly pathetic – look at them, flailing around helplessly against reality! – but most of all, it was an opportunity for quiet, self-righteous self-congratulation – otherwise known as hubris.
Well, now who is out of touch? Now who is flailing around helplessly against reality? Now who feels they have woken up in an alternative universe? For half the people I know, just the anticipation of a Trump Presidency traumatized them and lead to insomnia, crying fits, paranoia, hints of sociopathology, feelings of rage, feelings of despair, paranoia, anomy, ennui, and/or depressive sloth, accompanied by the increased use of psychotropic medicaments and beverages.
Subjectively, of course, I empathize with my compatriots in the liberal tribe who have been psychologically undone by Trump’s election as I could not empathize with the inveterate racists who were psychologically undone by Obama’s election. I agree with them that the election of Donald Trump has destroyed America’s defining essence, which we have honored and voted for and defended ever since it was first discerned in 19th century Concord. However, looking at Trump’s triumph purely objectively: isn’t the march of civilization interesting? The most improbable things can happen!
A postscript about prejudice: We all have prejudices. We all are prone to prejudging people or situations before we know the particulars of who or what is confronting us. Prejudice is the ragged edge of instinct. Organisms which survive the Darwinian cull are those with the strongest sense of better safe than sorry. Healthy skepticism sometimes takes the form of healthy prejudice.
Prejudgment, however, implies that a revision of judgment is possible. As American history has progressed from the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s, racial prejudice has, to some extent, been overcome, as schools, neighborhoods, communities and (importantly, in my view) the visual media, have gradually been integrated. The Obama phenomenon was part and parcel of this trend. Often, in news stories after Obama’s election, some person-on-the-street would be quoted as saying, “I never thought I could vote for a black President.”
What I referred to earlier as dyed-in-the-wool racism is something worse than racial prejudice; it is racial bigotry.
For the sake of argument, let’s define racial prejudice as a rationally based, if mistaken belief – a holdover from what was respectable learned opinion coming into the 19th century – that persons whose brown pigmentation exceeds a certain level are inferior to persons with fewer brown skin tones. Thanks to the Abolitionists, in the 19th century that culture-wide prejudice began gradually to break down. Racial prejudice still exists, and still prevails in some swaths of American society, but it is no longer considered a respectable or rational viewpoint.
And let’s define racial bigotry as an ingrained antipathy to black people, an irrational knot of negative emotions – mostly fear, it seems to me – that harks back to prehistoric tribalism. Racial bigotry is more difficult to overcome than racial prejudice, but it can happen. Skinhead conversion has become a media trope.
The alienation felt by racists when Obama was elected and the alienation felt by Democrats (and not only Democrats) when Trump was elected is identical, but there is no parallel between the anti-Obama hysteria and the liberal anti-Trump hysteria at the root of that alienation. The prejudice – and that it was it was – we felt when Trump became a candidate in the Republican Primary, our prejudice against loud-mouth billionaires, would have eased if Trump, the candidate, had showed himself to be a rational human being (of any political stripe) who could speak in complete sentences on subjects other than himself. We would not have liked him, would not have voted for him, but his election would not have filled us with the same sense of having been transported into an alternative universe that racists felt when Obama was elected.
There is an interesting parallel between the racist bigotry of the anti-Obama faction and the prejudice against moneyed bad taste of the anti-Trump faction: both make exceptions for sports and entertainment figures. This post already is too long, so I won’t try to analyze why racists accept black athletes and entertainers and genteel snobs accept loudmouth athletes and entertainers. Whatever the reason for it – whether it is a matter of status, or a matter of power, or a matter of class – it clearly connects with the crazed disorientation each faction felt when one of its bêtes noires became the most important person in the world.