December 9, 2018

Trump (and America) as victims – the implications

For decades civil rights organizations in the United States have toted up hate crimes, tracked and reported on the growth (and decline) of extremist organizations, and filed lawsuits against bigots who engage in tortious or illegal behavior. Their efforts have chronicled an America that is far more tolerant and accepting of differences than it was thirty, forty or fifty years ago.

Those measures of bigotry were taken as accurate well back into the 20th century as America was led by elected officials who either were unambiguous advocates of civil rights and acceptance (Obama, Clinton, Bushes 1 & 2, Carter, Ford, Johnson) or who were less eager, but not openly hostile, advocates of tolerance (Reagan, Nixon, Eisenhower).

The advocates of inter-group progress knew that political leaders (Southern leaders excepted for decades) were supportive of the general thrust for inclusion and diversity and the reduction in inter-group hostility. It’s hard to recall a politician with much traction over recent decades, other than George Wallace, who flaunted open hostility to ethnic, racial or religious minorities.

The metrics that were relied on are questionable in their applicability to the political situation we have today—-a president who flaunts the usual norms of civil behavior, who invokes unfounded conspiracy theories, who demonizes minority groups (Latinos and Muslims), who habitually lies, who traffics in conspiracy theories, who ignores conventional notions of truth and untruth, who evidences no humility or remorse in the face of error and who constantly claims to be a victim of others’ acts.

Having been a civil rights activist for over forty years and having been involved in combatting, exposing and monitoring hate groups during that time, I speak with some perspective on these issues; we are in uncharted territory. When the president of the United States engages in conduct that many of us have spent decades teaching young people and our peers to avoid, it’s not clear what the measurements we have long relied on for decades mean.

Trump’s conduct has the potential to undo years of work. Young people can easily believe that it’s acceptable to make fun of the disabled, to caricature minorities as “criminals and rapists,” to demean whole communities as being so forlorn that they “have nothing to lose,” to treat women as objects and to assume that criminal suspects are to be roughed up (the Bill of Rights be damned).

But the most insidious aspect of Trump and Trumpism is his pervasive attitude of being a victim; someone else is ALWAYS to blame for what goes wrong.

Prior to November 8th, the system was “rigged” against him, the media was biased and in the tank for Hillary, illegal voters would skew the results, foreign governments were taking advantage of us, trade deals were harming inept and gullible Americans, etc. If he had lost the election, there would be someone or many someones to blame.

Since January 20th the media remain a foil, illegal immigrants and inner city dwellers are still to blame–as are the Democrats– but now, so are the Republicans (post Trumpcare’s defeat). America’s intelligence agencies, recently the Secretary of State was added to the list of victimizers—Tillerson (he “flinched” on Iran), “leakers” in his White House and assorted others are all responsible for the administration’s missteps and America’s ills.

This blame shifting, paired with the complete absence of introspection or willingness to entertain the notion that HE has contributed to his failures, all take place while we have an economy that is in decent shape and a world that is not in the grip of an acute crisis.

How will the excuses and the blaming of others work when a crisis or crises arise? That may be the measure of where we have come and how much damage Trump and Trumpism is doing to tolerance and civility in society.

In a memorable essay a couple of years ago, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, warned of leaders and nations that seek to blame others for the problems they face—when their view of themselves no longer comports with the reality of their position in the world. He noted that many nations face adversity and profound challenge, even humiliation—but the adaptive ones ask themselves “what did we do wrong?” They don’t look for someone or some group to blame.

The societies that view themselves as victims and ask “Who did this to us?” invariably lead to division, disharmony, and even worse.

For Jews, societies that acted this way inevitably led to tragedy—-from the Crusades to the pogroms of the Middle Ages to the Holocaust; societies that were unable to resolve the disconnect between past glory and perceived present ignominy looked for “causes” outside their own actions, and it proved lethal.

The diverse face of America has numerous “others” to blame and Trump has shown no hesitation to blame and target and cravenly exploit differences to absolve himself of any responsibility for what he says is “wrong.”

As Rabbi Sacks observed:

By turning the question “What did we do wrong?” into “Who did this to us?” it restores some measure of self-respect and provides a course of action. In psychiatry, the clinical terms for this process are splitting and projection; it allows people to define themselves as victims. [Emphasis added]

Leaders in Congress, leaders of both parties, religious leaders and opinion molders across the country must be vocal and uncompromising in rejecting the insidious victim role that Trump purveys and which he seeks to impose on the country—to force us all to “split” and “project”; it is a dangerous game to play. It may offer short term political payoff for him, but the long term harm—for him and for us— is inevitable and incalculable.

As Rabbi Sacks warned, “Hate harms the hated, but it destroys the hater.”