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By Robert A. Vella

For many years now on this blog and others, I’ve been warning of a buildup of cultural and ideological polarization in American politics which if left unchecked could culminate in an existential crisis for the nation.  Most reactions acknowledged the fundamental issues cited in my warnings, but typically dismissed my dire projections as hyperbolic.  Fair enough, cries of “wolf” should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Many dissenters correctly pointed out that America has endured such polarization in the past and still came through these crises intact.  While that is true, I would admit, it provides no guarantee that the outcome of future crises will be so fortunate.  History can tell us what, why, when, and how events occurred, and it can give us good rationale to forecast what might occur in the future;  but, our historical reflections of the past cannot determine what is yet to occur with any sort of precision.  That is up to us in the present.

Present day America is in a state of profound turmoil.  The nation is in flux on virtually every level – culturally, economically, politically, and socially.  These changes are transpiring so rapidly that they are stressing the adaptive tolerances of the general population.  It has created fertile ground for the rise of radical elements such as the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.  His political ascendancy, built upon the primal emotions of fear and hate, are now being met with a growing fury of opposition – much of which is belatedly coming from his own party.

However, this open confrontation between the Republican Party establishment and its fanatical populist base has the potential to escalate in intensity and scope which could eventually embroil the entire nation in the kind of existential crisis I’ve warned about.  History provides two painful, but classic examples – the American Civil War and the rise of Nazi Germany.

First, let’s examine the internal battles within the Republican Party.  From The New York TimesRank and File Republicans Tell Party Elites: We’re Sticking With Donald Trump:

From Michigan to Louisiana to California on Friday, rank-and-file Republicans expressed mystification, dismissal and contempt regarding the instructions that their party’s most high-profile leaders were urgently handing down to them: Reject and defeat Donald J. Trump.

Their angry reactions, in the 24 hours since Mitt Romney and John McCain urged millions of voters to cooperate in a grand strategy to undermine Mr. Trump’s candidacy, have captured the seemingly inexorable force of a movement that still puzzles the Republican elite and now threatens to unravel the party they hold dear.

In interviews, even lifelong Republicans who cast a ballot for Mr. Romney four years ago rebelled against his message and plan. “I personally am disgusted by it — I think it’s disgraceful,” said Lola Butler, 71, a retiree from Mandeville, La., who voted for Mr. Romney in 2012. “You’re telling me who to vote for and who not to vote for? Please.”

“There’s nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren — there is nothing and nobody that’s going to dissuade me from voting for Trump,” Ms. Butler said.

In Antebellum America, such political polarization became so heated that it resulted in Southern Democrats deciding to secede from the Union which precipitated the disastrous Civil War.  Many historians assert that the nation has never fully recovered from that tragedy, and that the animosities which triggered it linger to this day.  Not coincidentally, the political regionalism of that era still persists, although the party affiliations have flipped.  Back then, southern whites mostly identified as Democrats, today they are mostly Republican.

During the Interbellum period, Europe experienced similar regional polarization.  Populist discontent, fueled by the economic devastation of World War I, erupted in the nationalist movements (i.e. fascism) which seized political control of Spain, Italy, and Germany.  The latter country was especially seduced by the raving anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler whose rhetorical antics closely resemble that of America’s Donald Trump.  The German establishment, like America’s over the last few decades, simply waited too long to resolve the fundamental problems afflicting the nation and to counter the inherent danger of ideological extremism.  For example, here’s part of a NYT editorial from 1922 which dismissed the threat posed by Hitler long before he rose to power.  From Daily KosThe first NYT article on Hitler serves as a reminder about why we can’t downplay hateful rhetoric:

But, several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as bait to catch messes of followers, and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.

A sophisticated politician credited Hitler with peculiar political cleverness for laying emphasis and over emphasis on anti-Semitism, saying: “You can’t expect the masses to understand or appreciate your finer real aims. You must feed the masses with cruder morsels and ideas like anti-Semitism. It would be politically all wrong to tell  them the truth about where you really are leading them.”

That editorial expressed a similar casual dismissal as those issued in response to my previous warnings on cultural and ideological polarization in America.  Here’s what the NYT says now about Trump.  From Daily KosThe New York Times Calls Out Trump For What He Is, And Who He Represents:

Donald Trump’s flirtation with the Ku Klux Klan should come as no surprise. He has functioned for years as a rallying point for “birthers,” conspiracy theorists, extremists and racists who are apoplectic about the fact that the country elected a black man president. These groups have driven the Republican Party steadily rightward, helping to create a national discourse that now permits a presidential candidate to court racist support without paying a political price.

It’s too late, the crazy horse has already left the barn and is running wild.  Trump’s supporters will not back down.  An historical climax is about to unfold, and there’s no telling which way it will turn.  Nancy Lauro, a Brooklyn art teacher, appropriately described America’s political situation as she considered moving to either Italy or Ireland.  From The Washington Post via MSNPsychologists and massage therapists are reporting ‘Trump anxiety’ among clients:

“As phobias and fears go, this is not a pathological response to a normal situation, but a normal response to a pathological situation. Picking up one’s life feels impossible, but I keep flashing on those people who fled Germany when the writing was on the wall and those who didn’t.  When do you take action to get out?”

Indeed, it’s a prudent question.  If America’s leaders had learned the lessons of history, no American would be asking that question now.

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37 thoughts on “Witnessing History: The Tumultuous State of American Politics

  1. Absolutely a superb post, my friend. This quote I like particularly: “But, several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as bait to catch messes of followers, and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.” I’ve heard more intelligent people make this same argument about Trump than I can count. How very little we learn from history, and how very much we’re going to pay for it.

    • If there is one thing we learn from history it is that we don’t learn from history, ever. I think it points to the unchangeability of human nature which gets itself in the same pickle time and again, as if engaged in a compulsion to repeat a long-repressed trauma*.

      Yes, that quote was chilling, in so many ways. My attention zeroed in on this part:

      A sophisticated politician credited Hitler with peculiar political cleverness for laying emphasis and over emphasis on anti-Semitism, saying: “You can’t expect the masses to understand or appreciate your finer real aims. You must feed the masses with cruder morsels and ideas like anti-Semitism. It would be politically all wrong to tell them the truth about where you really are leading them.”

      This is a good illustration of psychopathic functioning in politics. The brazen manipulation of the masses by appealing to their most primitive drives is being justified — admiringly, by a “sophisticated” politician — as a means to a political end, the morality of which does not matter. And the naive (or psychopathic maybe) journalist who reported this, adding his (or her) appreciative spin (by gushing over the sophistication of that politician as well as Hitler), is part of the problem.

      The really tragic part is that this problem — of pathocracy as the preferred (?) default order of human affairs, political and other — seems to be intractable. It affects all political systems and human organizations, no matter what higher values and ideals they may aspire to and profess.

      *Compulsion to repeat trauma is a real thing in individual psychology; what it could mean for our collective, human, psychology and development — if at all applicable — is anyone’s (fascinating) guess.

  2. I agree with Inspired, great stuff. Watching the Trump rally earlier and was thinking to myself, “This is turning ugly.” There was that mob behaviour present when the protesters spoke up. Not as extreme, but hints of this in the air:

  3. EXCELLENT! Very insightful and thought-provoking. And, unfortunately, much too close to the truth of what we’re seeing today.

  4. Excellent post, Robert.

    We are witnessing an opening of a socio-political Pandora’s box in the US. If Adolf Trump is not a GOP nominee for some reason, he may go off in a huff and start his own party (which will be tremendous, folks, a really great, amazing party — of angry and not very bright, but very armed white men [and some women]).

    If he is a nominee and loses to Clinton or Sanders, his foaming at the mouth and armed to the teeth supporters are not going to be pleased any more than he will be. There will be blood, metaphorical and/or literal.

    If he wins… I’m trying to imagine what his presidency may look like, and my imagination fails. I’m thinking “maybe not that bad? not worse than Cruz’s, right?” but I’m also thinking “you haven’t seen anything like it yet.” And the latter is true, no matter what shape his policies may take.

    I saw a comment from a (male) Trump supporter — on HuffPo, if I recall — who said something like this (paraphrased; I wish I copied and saved it):

    I can’t wait for Trump to become president. We will finally show you what it has been like for us all these years. Prepare to experience the pain and humiliation we have endured all our lives. It’s not gonna be pretty, but what goes around, comes around.

    That’s a clear expression of white male rage that stems as much from genuine disenfranchisement as it does from aggrieved entitlement, which is a malady that predominantly affects Western and particularly American white lower-to-middle class men who see in Trump their avenger.

    Here is another good example of that: http://blog.dilbert.com/post/140353736681/a-letter-to-donald-trump-from-a-voter-not-me

    This letter is pure gold in terms of illustrating the pathology of Trump’s supporters and his appeal to them, and, more generally, the hand-in-glove fit between Big Psychopath socially dominant leaders and their little psychopath authoritarian followers.

    Mark Ames called these men, in 2004, “spite voters:”

    Spite voting is mostly a white male phenomenon, which is why a majority of white males vote Republican. It comes from a toxic mix of thwarted expectations, cowardice, shame, and a particular strain of anomie that is unique to the white American male experience.

    http://exiledonline.com/we-the-spiteful/

    Trumpism is an inevitable culmination of that spite which has been brewing in the America for the past few decades.

      • Tx, Robert.

        The thing is, as you know, that psychopaths are drawn to power — and therefore politics — and are skilled at bamboozling people into following them. There is very little that can be done to prevent their entrance to politics and subsequent influence.

        Trump is such a transparent example (of a narcissistic psychopath / not very bright con man) that we would think people would surely see through him at some point, even if not right away.

        And we would be so very wrong.

        It really is astounding. We are getting a textbook lesson in social pathology of political power so clear that one could not dream of writing something like this for the purposes of instruction. It’s just too bad it is not a school lesson or a morality play, but our reality.

  5. Landed here through variouspontifications.com and I’m glad I did. I’m not an American and though I love America as a country and enjoy being there, in times like these I’m relieved not to be an American. No offense intended, but the parallels between the present and 1930s Europe/Germany are worringly striking and I think we’re way past the point where Donald Trump stopped being a funny oddball. Good luck this year.

  6. Excellent essay. I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t think there were enough people in this country who were THAT racist and would be able to set aside their sense of morality to support a dangerously moronic psychopath like Trump. When I take the time to think about it I’m astonished.

    While I’ve known for a long time that corporate media in this country feed on hate and anger with no shame at all, I didn’t think so many people who appear to function normally in society could have their frustration so severely misdirected and amplified. We’ve had our civil rights eroded, our food supply poisoned AND taken over, our economy set up like a casino, the well-being of the entire planet put in serious trouble and innocent bystanders have had the blame put on them. To top it off, those at fault actually have someone who is truly one of their own in a position to become president. It would make an amazing hard-to-believe movie – yet it’s actually happening.

    Anyway, sorry for the rant. Hopefully, it’s all part of the plan to get Bernie Sanders in the White House. We can hope, right? Thanks for a well-written, provocative article.

    Peace.

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