As we head into the Christmas season, perhaps we should pause to reflect on the parallel and intensifying attacks in this county on Islam and the Black Lives Matter movement. Much has been written about both developments, but too often they are considered separately. For want of time and energy, those who resist one form of virulent intolerance may not always protest when other forms appear. Yet we should examine these attacks together, for they derive from a common source and seek the same retreat into a world quickly disappearing.
A Desperate Rage in a Changing World
I have written before about the demonization of Black Lives Matter (BLM), which conservatives have angrily blamed for freezing the police into timidity and thereby causing a surge in lethal violence. The vilification of BLM began shortly after the movement took shape and shows no sign of abating. When a black protester began to chant “Black Lives Matter” at a recent Trump campaign event, he was set upon by some of Trump’s supporters, who surrounded the man, knocked him to the ground, and continued to kick him after he fell. When asked about the incident on FOX, Trump defended the assault. “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” he said. “It was disgusting what he was doing.”
Attitudes like this lead foreseeably to more lethal attacks. In fact, I write today from Minneapolis, where four alleged white supremacists are in custody for opening fire and wounding five people at a protest organized by Black Lives Matter in the wake of a fatal shooting of a black youth by a Minneapolis police officer.
Parallel to the attacks on BLM are the intensifying assaults on and threats against Muslims and mosques, which have accelerated dramatically since the shootings in Paris. Much has been made of Donald Trump’s reckless suggestion that Muslims in the United States should be forced to register with a federal database. As usual, Trump is merely the most explicit in his bigotry; The Washington Post has collected a number of like proclamations by prominent politicians, including several on the campaign trail.
Foreseeably, some take these expressions as an invitation to violence and intimidation, like the man who vowed “to come down to your Islamic Society of Pinellas County and firebomb you and shoot whoever is there in the head. I don’t care if they are (expletive) two-years-old or 100.” Or the man who published the names and home addresses of “Muslims and Muslim sympathizer[s]” who had the temerity to speak against a proposed anti-Sharia law at a town hall meeting in Irving, Texas.
As so often happens, the roots of this rage can be traced to irreversible change. Powerful demographic and economic forces are remaking the United States and upending formerly established truths. And in the wake of these changes, those who relied on fast-falling truths are becoming increasingly desperate to preserve a world they rightly feel is slipping away.
The United States in the 21st Century
Of the changes reshaping American life, the most important is also the most obvious: the country is becoming less white. According to the Census Bureau, the millennial generation, which is the largest in history and makes up more than a quarter of the country’s population, is more diverse than any prior generation. More than 44 percent of the Millennials are part of a minority ethnic or racial group. Yet the generation after Millennials is even more diverse, with more than 50 percent non-white. Projections indicate the United States will be a majority minority country in about 30 years, and majority minority among children under the age of 18 by 2020.
At the same time, the country is growing increasingly secular, with a record number of people reporting no religious affiliation. There are now more people who claim membership in no religious group than there are Mainline Protestants and nearly as many who describe themselves as Evangelical Protestants.
It is also becoming more urban. Major metropolitan centers in the United States are growing substantially faster than rural areas, and cities today are not only the economic engine of American life, generating 90 percent of our GDP and 86 percent of our jobs, they are also home to the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity that increasingly represents the American experience. Young people today are far more likely to start their professional lives in a major city than they were in the second half of the 20th century.
Finally, and not coincidentally, the United States as a whole is becoming more tolerant, with a widening embrace of diversity in all its manifestations, as demonstrated by, among other things, the growing acceptance of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, premarital sex, cohabitation, and interracial marriage. And once again, the young lead the charge; Millennials are not simply tolerant of difference, they embrace it enthusiastically.
Taken together, these demographic and cultural trends are producing clear winners and losers, and without question, the losers include the core constituency and public face of the Republican Party—viz., conservative evangelicals and Tea Partiers. The pollster Stanley Greenberg recently described the GOP as “the party of the oldest, most rural, most religiously observant, and mostly married white voters,” what we might call the FOX News demographic. And as commentators have decried for years, the core of the GOP stands in lonely opposition to the growing ethnic, religious, and racial diversity, secularity, and social liberalism of the 21st century.
Although Greenberg overstates some of the differences between the two major parties, it is certainly true that younger Democrats “embrace America’s multiculturalism as a unifying concept and welcome the seismic changes that have upended the traditional family, accelerated racial and immigrant diversity, and reshaped the metropolitan areas,” which places them in clear opposition to the Republican core. But most importantly, in the contest between Republican traditionalism and Democratic transformation, it is the multicultural view of the United States that is ascendant. The GOP is fighting a rear guard action against demography.
And that explains a great deal, for it is precisely its decline that accounts for the virulence of the GOP base. As Clifford Geertz described over half a century ago, when “the established images of political order fade into irrelevance or are driven into disrepute,” those who depend on them to organize their lives cling to them most fanatically. Paradoxically, it is precisely when cultural symbols are least stable that the attachment to them is most intense. And BLM and Islam challenge the most revered images in the entire iconography of the Republican Party.
Black Lives Matter upends the cherished ideal of order imposed on a quiescent black population, while Islam supposedly poses an existential threat to the ideal of the United States as a devout Christian nation. Together, they undermine the foundational symbols of the core Republican constituency—white hegemony and security guaranteed on the ground by the coercive power of the state and in the halls of power by a Christian-inspired reading of the Constitution.
And this is precisely what produces the insensate rage so much in evidence. In the zero-sum world of the Republican base, tolerance is appeasement, acceptance surrender, and equality defeat. It puts Muslims and black activists in the cross hairs, sometimes literally. They are the immediate manifestation of a declining world view, the front line in a state of symbolic siege.
One day the siege will end, the intransigent core of the Republican Party will fade away, and the resistance to irreversible trends will stop. Until that day, we must understand the rage against BLM and Islam for what it is: the death rattle of a declining demographic.