Those Who Downplay Bigotry and Extremism Enable Bigotry and Extremism

Posted in: Politics

After the 2016 election, mainstream news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and many others engaged in what at first seemed to be a healthy collective reassessment of how they had covered the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Unfortunately, that self-reckoning quickly skidded off the rails, with the corporate media giants deciding that their right-wing critics were right all along and that news reporters “just don’t understand the Real America.” Sackcloth and ashes became the order of the day, as media bigwigs decided that they needed to elevate the supposedly ignored voters who had unexpectedly turned what should have been a rout by Clinton into a non-majority threading of the Electoral College needle by Trump.

The ensuing frenzy of mea culpas quickly descended into self-parody. Armies of reporters and camera crews were sent to diners in the Midwest and South to talk to angry guys in NASCAR baseball caps, with the reporters sympathetically reporting back to the world at large that Trump’s win happened because oh-so-many snooty coastal people referred to the middle states as “flyover country” or because Clinton had used the word “deplorable.” It is worse than ironic that Clinton’s actual message in that speech had been that, yes, we needed to take seriously the views of alienated Americans who were still reachable. So in the process of blaming Clinton for alienating people, the reporters from the big news organizations failed to notice that she had tried to do exactly what they were breathlessly reporting that she—and, presumably, all of us not-Real Americans—should have done.

As part of the overreaction and misdiagnosis of what had happened that year, the major papers decided to bring in “outside voices”—which essentially meant people from small towns—to write about politics in America. I happen to agree that it would be great for the op-ed pages of The Times and The Post to break out of their ruts—with some pundits at those outlets having been in their jobs for longer than Supreme Court Justices—but what those two papers did badly missed the mark.

One particularly interesting hire, in this case by The Washington Post, was a columnist from southern Ohio named Gary Abernathy. Having taken a spin or two through a revolving door between small-town journalism and serving as a Republican Party operative in both Ohio and West Virginia, Abernathy had made news in 2016 by using one of the tiny local newspapers of which he was a publisher to endorse Trump’s presidential bid. As his Wikipedia page puts it, “In 2017, The Washington Post added Abernathy as a contributing columnist to diversify its editorial pages with a conservative viewpoint from outside the Beltway.”

Because of course they did. One of the nervous tics among those who wield the kind of power that The Post’s editors wield is to beg for forgiveness whenever small-town people (but only, of course, White small-town people) accuse the “elites” of being out of touch. They are in fact out of touch, but not in the way that those elites are willing to admit, even to themselves.

I offer this somewhat lengthy preface to frame the current situation, in which the media outlets that Republicans constantly accuse of being run by “liberal elites” bend over backward to placate their tormenters and overcompensate for their supposed liberal sins. Now, The Post can point to its roster of columnists and say that they have hired Abernathy and many others like him, which must of course mean that The Post is being reasonable and balanced. Yet somehow, this never results in Republicans/conservatives saying, “Good for you! Thanks for giving us even more of a platform than we already had.” Instead, no matter how much the major media outlets give column space and airtime to more and more conservatives, the drumbeat against “the liberal media” only becomes louder.

What Happens When You Give Not-Really-“Authentic” Voices a Megaphone?

Again, Abernathy is hardly an isolated example of the kind of person who has been given a prominent platform in the post-2016 media and political universe. He is a conservative political elite being presented as the regular-guy voice of the “unheard people” (again, White people). His case is mildly more interesting than others in that he subsequently turned against Trump and has not (yet) rejoined the fold. Even so, he seems to want to play a key role in the death spiral of the American experiment: the guy who tries to explain away bigotry.

Again, Abernathy is not a “small-town newspaper man” in the sense that Hollywood screenwriters imagine. Rather, he is someone who has been the executive director of a state Republican Party and who worked with inside-the-Beltway types including two US Senators from Ohio. Even so, in a column last month, he decided to use his AstroTurf version of credibility to try to explain why the people in his area of the state (although he is now a big-city guy, living in the Cincinnati area, along with more than two million other Real Americans) continually refuse to turn against Donald Trump. In the process, he absolved people of their own responsibility for making indefensible decisions, thus enabling Trumpism even as he says that he has moved on from Trump.

Early in the column, Abernathy justifies his 2016 support for Trump by pointing to “his disregard for political correctness, his independence from handlers and the promise his candidacy held to blow up the conventional rules and bring about a much-needed reset.” Standard right-wing grievance material, in other words, including the all-purpose (and meaningless) term “political correctness.” Even as he criticizes Trump’s behavior as “churlish” (a strategic understatement), Abernathy asserts that “his achievements in office were more impressive than critics admit.” Apparently, there was no need to explain what those “impressive” things were. They simply were.

Up to that point, the column was merely a familiar bit of sophistry and misdirection, recycling Republican talking points and offering unsupported, conclusory claims. The reason that this particular column is worth taking the time to criticize, however, is that Abernathy’s explanations for why his fellow White small-town Ohioans are still supporting Trump amounted to saying, “But they’re good people. I know them.”

I am not exaggerating. After admitting that “[d]ebate is futile” when dealing with Trump supporters who tell him that “the former president is the only candidate to be trusted, the exclusive remedy to our corrupt system, the lone meaningful defender of God, flag and country,” one might imagine that someone who has rejected Trump would ask in exasperation, “What is wrong with these people that they cannot see reason and are hopelessly loyal to a charlatan?”

Instead, Abernathy quickly assures us that he does not mean “to say Trump’s legion of admirers is a ‘cult,’ as critics like to claim. They are not mindlessly mesmerized by Trump. They are also not enemies of democracy.” That his own description of those people fits all of those conclusions is apparently beside the point, because “the Trump supporters I know are patriotic Americans who believe the country is at a tipping point politically and culturally, and that no other candidate is sufficiently impervious to the pull of ‘the swamp’ to effect a rescue.” (Note the casual insertion of “and culturally” into that sentence. Gee, I wonder what Trump voters think in US culture is at a tipping point. More on this below.)

What does one do when confronted with people who simply deny reality by continuing to believe—even though their guy had four years in the White House, during the first two of which he was supported by Republican majorities in both houses of Congress—that, in Trump’s infamous words, “I alone can fix it”? Abernathy predicts that neither “impassioned lectures from political elites” (again, notice the faux-populist framing) nor “indictments (or guilty verdicts) or blockbuster revelations” can “shake the faith of the faithful,” but will instead be “seen as evidence of a corrupt bureaucracy aligned against him.”

Again, why are they so loyal, against all evidence? Trump showed again and again that he cannot do what they think he will do, and in large measure he did not even try. His lackadaisical attitude toward “bringing back blue-collar jobs” like coal mining is but one example. (Not that that is even possible, which is its own indictment of Trump’s false populism.) Apparently, this loyalty is explained by Abernathy’s former townsfolks’ “sense of abandonment,” which is “profound and widespread.”

And then we get to the big payoff: “Critics like to say that Trump enflames those voters’ fears and plays to their racism. His supporters will tell you he inspires them to hope and assures them, without apologies, that they still matter.” He says that “if not for Trump, many of them would not be civically engaged at all. In their minds, other politicians ignored or patronized them. Trump met them where they lived and inspired them to care.” (And if they believe that he in turn cares about them, then they are even more immune to evidence than I thought.)

Is that a good thing? Well, no, Abernathy cannot bring himself to say as much, exactly. Even so, he assures us that “[t]heir belief that Trump is their last, best hope to avoid being left in the dust is partly disturbing, partly endearing and partly heartbreaking.” Abernathy concludes by admitting that Trump is not “the man they dream he is.”

The Bait-and-Switch of the ‘Real Americans’ Defense

In the end, Abernathy’s column is an exercise in misdirection. Is Trump a menace? Yes, but …. Do Trump’s supporters have valid reason to believe that he can make their lives better? No, but …. Did he “inspire them to care” about anything other than sticking it to the “elites”? No, but …. But what? But they are Real Americans, patriots who love their country, and they think Trump does, too. And that, apparently, is supposed to settle the matter.

As it happens, I grew up in a different corner of Ohio (near Toledo, on the Michigan border), and I well remember the sense that my state did not matter. But so what? It was objectively true that not much was going on where I lived, certainly by comparison to New York, Los Angeles, or Washington. The people I knew, however, had a self-deprecating sense of humor about it. No one came along and told us that we should be angry that “elites” thought that we were all backward huckleberries or tried to convince us that the worst thing that could happen to us was for some city slicker to be condescending.

We were not, in other words, snowflakes. And if we had become angry about being considered rubes, what would have been the point in supporting an obvious con man who simply played to our prejudices without once offering a workable plan to make our lives better?

The “but these are good people” defense, then, is based in large part on its own kind of condescension. In Abernathy’s telling, the fine folks of Ohio and other “forgotten” places are so desperate for attention that they cannot see straight, making them willing to ignore reality and continue to support a person who could not deliver after four years and continues to blame everyone but himself. (“The Deep State.” “Weaponization.” Be scared. Be very scared.) I always thought that the “common sense” that we were supposed to find in nonglamorous areas of the country would include the sense to know when people are being played for suckers. But people like Abernathy—who is very much a political elite—want to infantilize the people who used to buy his newspapers and who voted for his candidates.

Most importantly, however, the Good People defense is based on a false dichotomy. As I pointed out above, the column’s big payoff claim is that while “critics” claim “that Trump enflames those voters’ fears and plays to their racism,” those people will defend themselves by saying that “he inspires them to hope and assures them, without apologies, that they still matter.” But that is not a defense.

After all, the only way that Trump inspires people to have hope is by telling them that they are victims. Victims of whom, and of what? Of “politically correct” liberal elites who are supposedly favoring Black people, uppity careerist women, and other Others who are taking what by divine right should belong to Trump’s angry White supporters. In other words, this is where Abernathy’s casually planted “and culturally” seed blooms.

Along with other national Republicans, Trump is even telling them to hate LGBTQ+ people for the unforgivable offense of wanting to live their lives honestly and openly. And that is before we even get to the lie that LGBTQ+ people are trying to “convert,” “recruit,” or “sterilize” children— whereas time and time again the child predators are those who are most fervently anti-LGBTQ+.

If Abernathy is right that Trump makes his supporters feel that they matter, then, he does so only by telling them to hate other people, because those others evidently should not matter.

In the end, a ruthless demagogue can indeed inspire a certain kind of ugly hope in people, but that does not make the people who fall for his act blameless. American minorities are forever being told not to play the victim, even though the political and economic systems have very much victimized them throughout our history. Only Trump supporters are offered a soothing hand that says, “I know you’re hurting, and anyone who tells you that punching down on other people who are hurting makes you hateful and bigoted is just being a big meanie. If you want to destroy democracy in service to a would-be dictator, you go ahead, if that’s what you need to soothe your pain. You’re entitled to your feelings.”

There are systemic causes for people’s lives to go badly, and it is often not a person’s fault when they find themselves in a bad situation. What matters, however, is what people do when they are faced with a difficult situation. “I’m hurting, so I’m going to hurt other people more” is not a defensible response. We should respect people’s agency enough to hold them accountable—or at the very least not excuse them—when they take harmful actions that are gratuitous and unnecessary.

One might imagine that a political movement that extols the importance of personal responsibility would agree. Apparently, one would be wrong.

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