Know your enemy


On Friday morning, after a night of insomnia fueled by worries about raising children in a collapsing society, I opened my eyes, started reading about efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to seize control of the state’s elections, then paused to let my tachycardiac heartbeat subside. Marinating in the news is part of my job, but doing so lately is a source of full-body horror. If this were simply my problem, I’d write about it in a journal instead of in The New York Times. But political despair is an issue for the entire Democratic Party.

It’s predictable that, with Donald Trump out of the White House, Democrats would pull back from constant, frenetic political engagement. But there’s a withdrawal happening right now — from news consumption, activism and, in some places, voting — that seems less a product of relief than of avoidance. Part of this is simply burnout and lingering trauma from Covid. But I suspect that part of it is about growing hopelessness born of a sense that dislodging Trump has bought American democracy only a brief reprieve.

One redeeming feature of Trump’s presidency, in retrospect, was that it was possible to look forward to the date when Americans could finish it. Covid, too, once seemed like something we’d be able to largely put behind us when we got vaccinated. Sure, Trumpism, like the virus, would linger, but it was easy to imagine a much better world after the election, the inauguration and the wide availability of shots.

Now we’re past all that, and American life is still comprehensively awful. Dystopia no longer has an expiration date.

Last week in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg worried about the future of our American democracy.  Like thousands/millions of others, I share her concern, and so should you.

The problem isn’t just that polls show that, at least right now, voters want to hand over Congress to a party that largely treats the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as heroes.

(snip)

What’s terrifying is that even if Democrats win back public confidence, they can win more votes than Republicans and still lose. Gerrymandering alone is enough to tip the balance in the House.

(snip)

Meanwhile, Republicans are purging local officials who protected the integrity of the 2020 election, replacing them with apparatchiks. It will be hard for Republicans to steal the 2024 election outright, since they don’t control the current administration, but they can throw it into the sort of chaos that will cause widespread civil unrest. And if they win, it’s hard to imagine them ever consenting to the peaceful transfer of power again.

(snip)

I look at the future and I see rule without recourse by people who either approve of terrorizing liberals or welcome those who do. Such an outcome isn’t inevitable; unforeseen events can reshape political coalitions. Something could happen to forestall the catastrophe bearing down on us.

Here’s a hopeful sign: two long-time contributors to Fox News giving a thorough and public explanation of why they just can’t take it any more.

…there are still responsible conservatives [at Fox News] providing valuable opinion and analysis. But the voices of the responsible are being drowned out by the irresponsible.

A case in point: Patriot Purge, a three-part series hosted by Tucker Carlson.

The special—which ran on Fox’s subscription streaming service earlier this month and was promoted on Fox News—is presented in the style of an exposé, a hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism. In reality, it is a collection of incoherent conspiracy-mongering, riddled with factual inaccuracies, half-truths, deceptive imagery, and damning omissions. And its message is clear: The U.S. government is targeting patriotic Americans in the same manner —and with the same tools—that it used to target al Qaeda.

(snip)

This is not happening. And we think it’s dangerous to pretend it is. If a person with such a platform shares such misinformation loud enough and long enough, there are Americans who will believe—and act upon—it.

This isn’t theoretical. This is what actually happened on January 6, 2021.

Over the past five years, some of Fox’s top opinion hosts amplified the false claims and bizarre narratives of Donald Trump or offered up their own in his service. In this sense, the release of Patriot Purge wasn’t an isolated incident, it was merely the most egregious example of a longstanding trend. Patriot Purge creates an alternative history of January 6, contradicted not just by common sense, not just by the testimony and on-the-record statements of many participants, but by the reporting of the news division of Fox News itself.

There are still many real conservatives who recognize that the Orange Emperor has no clothes, and who have not drunk the toxic brew that has let so many Republicans (and others) show true feelings they have always keep secret, until now.  Jennifer Rubin is one.

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, Never Trumpers (now largely ex-Republicans) warned that he would corrupt the party in every way imaginable. His misogyny would morph in the party’s toxic masculinity and degradation of women, they cautioned. His infatuation with brutality and violence (boasting he would kill terrorists’ families, exhorting his supporters to slug protesters) would metastasize to the party as a whole. Boy, did those predictions pan out.

You only have to look at the vicious imagery showing the murder of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) deployed by Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), the verbal attack on her from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) last year — and Republicans’ defense of both — to understand that their refusal to dump Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape came to light was merely the prelude to an era of normalizing violence (especially against women), culminating in the Jan. 6 violent insurrection, which many Republicans, including Trump, tried to paint as nonviolent.

Threats and portrayals of violence against women have turned into a badge of honor for a party in which traditional notions about gender (back to the 1950s!) have become a key predictor of Republican support. Casting men (even a Supreme Court nominee) as victims of aggressive, “nasty” or unhinged women accusing them of wrongdoing has become standard fare in the Trump party.

Rubin cites Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, who is willing to lay the blame for the violence we’re seeing now at the core of Republican party voters: White evangelicals.

Today, for an alarming number of white conservative Christians, the mark of Christian faithfulness is not a love that inspires them to lay down their lives for their friends, but a defensiveness that lures them to take the lives of their fellow citizens.

The anti-democratic and white supremacist core of this worldview snaps into focus as soon as we ask just one question: What is the “America” they are saving? This question is at the heart of the MAGA ideology that has now fully overtaken one of our two major political parties.

That second “A,” for “again,” is the hermeneutical key that unlocks the obfuscation.  This nostalgia for a White Christian America has become the weapon of choice in the culture wars. In that vision of the country, white law and order reign, and with refreshments and pats on the back, white vigilantes are informally deputized as partners. And Black people protesting in the streets or even shopping in the local CVS are seen as suspect for not playing their properly deferential roles or staying in their assigned subservient places.

If Trump has done anything for us, he has peeled back a thin veneer of patriotic- and Christian-sounding words to reveal the core claim underneath it all: That God intended America to be a white Christian nation. That claim has literally generated—for those among the chosen— a license to kill anyone who threatens that norm and the confidence that those actions will not only be free of negative consequences, but be rewarded both here on earth and in heaven.

“Christian nationalism” is the threat.  Let’s start by defining the terms, thanks to Paul D. Miller at Christianity Today.

There are many definitions of nationalism and an active debate about how best to define it. I reviewed the standard academic literature on nationalism and found several recurring themes. Most scholars agree that nationalism starts with the belief that humanity is divisible into mutually distinct, internally coherent cultural groups defined by shared traits like language, religion, ethnicity, or culture. From there, scholars say, nationalists believe that these groups should each have their own governments; that governments should promote and protect a nation’s cultural identity; and that sovereign national groups provide meaning and purpose for human beings.

What is Christian nationalism?

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square. The term “Christian nationalism,” is relatively new, and its advocates generally do not use it of themselves, but it accurately describes American nationalists who believe American identity is inextricable from Christianity.

What is the problem with nationalism?

Humanity is not easily divisible into mutually distinct cultural units. Cultures overlap and their borders are fuzzy. Since cultural units are fuzzy, they make a poor fit as the foundation for political order. Cultural identities are fluid and hard to draw boundaries around, but political boundaries are hard and semipermanent. Attempting to found political legitimacy on cultural likeness means political order will constantly be in danger of being felt as illegitimate by some group or other. Cultural pluralism is essentially inevitable in every nation.

Is that really a problem, or just an abstract worry?

It is a serious problem. When nationalists go about constructing their nation, they have to define who is, and who is not, part of the nation. But there are always dissidents and minorities who do not or cannot conform to the nationalists’ preferred cultural template. In the absence of moral authority, nationalists can only establish themselves by force. Scholars are almost unanimous that nationalist governments tend to become authoritarian and oppressive in practice. For example, in past generations, to the extent that the United States had a quasi-established official religion of Protestantism, it did not respect true religious freedom. Worse, the United States and many individual states used Christianity as a prop to support slavery and segregation.

There is much more here you should read.  Know your enemy, while there is still time to win the fight.

This is not about all Christians, or even all Christian evangelicals.  But those who think “freedom of religion” means everyone is free to practice their particular strain of Christian faith in their houses of worship and through the imposition of their religious beliefs in secular law, those who harbor a “nostalgia for White Christian America,” and who have been succeeding politically at achieving their goals since at least the days of the Moral Majority, those are the political enemies we need to get serious about defeating.  Right now, political despair be damned.

3 thoughts on “Know your enemy

  1. I never thought I would watch the U.S. experiment die.

    I know people who are waiting for the “word” from someone (Trump? Fox? someone else) to start killing liberals and Democrats.

    I know people I thought were logical and rational who admit that Trump committed treason, that he is a liar and a criminal and a grifter and a fraud and irrational and an egomaniac, and yet say that they will vote for him if he runs in 2024 or for whoever the GOP puts up in 2024 because whoever it is, he is better than any Democrat. (I have had this conversation with people. This is not hypothetical.)

    I know people who say that it is a sin for anyone to vote for a Democrat.

    I never thought I would see this, and I do not see a good way out.

    1. It is discouraging to see people you’ve admired fall victim to this plague of the psyche and of the soul. While it’s not an easy way out, I think repeated applications of truth are the most effective treatment for what ails them. Timely doses of prosecution of their leaders would help, too.

      Thanks for the comment.

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