Trump opponents have been celebrating polls showing that only around 36 percent of the population approve of his presidency, with about one quarter of the country doing it enthusiastically. Horserace politics aside, there’s nothing here to celebrate and a lot to be terrified about. These numbers tell us that despite near daily scandals, outrages, and horrors for more than 200 days, a third of the population thinks we can and should endure more. And one quarter is downright enthusiastic about the racist, misogynist, fascist, kleptocratic, and environmentally apocalyptic direction of the country.
I wrote earlier that rather than have any coherent or consistent political agenda, Trump is just a bully getting his jollies trolling the American public. In short, he’s an asshole. Yet, even as he careens off the rails, his follower are hanging onto his crazy train. His approval rating really hasn’t radically veered from the 46 percent that got him elected. Though he lost some of the anti-Clinton voters who just hated her more than him, he kept his base despite the reality that his attacks on healthcare, the environment, and labor disproportionally victimized them. Only 16 percent of Americans support his healthcare positions, but twice that number still support him, including many people who will lose their healthcare and probably whatever savings they may have if he triumphs. He’s looting our government of its assets to enrich himself beyond our comprehension, but a third of the population stands behind him and a quarter love him.
Burning down the neighborhood
Anyone who’s ever driven on the New York State Thruway or anywhere near Boston understands that indeed it’s possible that a quarter of the country are assholes. And it’s got nothing to do with political policy. There are all kinds of assholes. People spend money they don’t have to modify their diesel pickup trucks to belch black smoke and oily ash onto cars driving behind them. It’s called “rolling coal,” with Prius drivers being the main targets to get rolled on. In assaulting people simply because they drive Prii, the “rollers” reduce the life and performance of their own trucks. It’s like watching an arsonist setting a fire that you know is going to burn the entire neighborhood, including your home. But you don’t stop him because you want to watch your neighbor’s house burn, too. This goes beyond being an asshole. It’s about hate. Intense hate.
This is the crux of asshole politics. Political assholes will destroy themselves to watch others suffer as well, living a dystopian evolution of reality TV culture. And they hate most everyone who is reading this column. They hate us so much that they will destroy themselves to see us suffer. It’s like the jaywalker who steps in front of your car and stares you down, knowing if you hit them they might die, but your life will be fucked as well—and that’s an acceptable deal. Why do strangers hate strangers so much? And why don’t they hate Trump?
This is the question. How did a New York billionaire-by-birth, sociopathic hedonist who branded himself with the phrase “you’re fired” transform into Bubba Trump, Grand Klaxon of All Assholes? And how did he get this fratricidal lot to join into a unified political movement hell-bent, literally, on ending our grand experiment in democracy? The answer, I think, lies with us, the pompous assholes.
We’re the worst type of assholes
Everyone needs community and eventually finds community with those who accept them for who they are, or who they envision themselves as being. Isolate them because they, with no malice intended, used the wrong pronoun or stumbled on identity terminology, and you push them toward people they can talk with more comfortably. If someone doesn’t know the meaning of the word ”cisgender,” for example, which is not in my 2,214-page Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (2001 edition, which is the most recent print edition I could find), it does not mean they are gender-insensitive or deserving of your rolled eyes crumple face.
We’re the worst type of assholes—sanctimonious assholes who believe ourselves to be ideologically superior to other assholes. And we let them know it, every fucking day. Yes, Tina Fey’s recent viral cakeeating anti-Nazi screed video, when deconstructed, dripped of white privilege—the privilege to self-indulge in cake while Nazis terrorize people of color, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and a plethora of other non-Tina Fey types. Duh. This ain’t social rocket science.
The thousands of social media posts stating the obvious primarily serve the posters, excited to parade their own superior ideological purity and crumbs of knowledge. The problem here is that our lives are being threatened by Nazis with allies in the White House. Tina Fey is an anti-fascist ally, and her post reached tens of millions of people in a blow against Nazi racist branding. It ain’t cool to be a Nazi. Fuck Nazis. The anti-Fey social media posters, some of whom bask in their own privilege, undermine the evangelical effect of Fey’s ability to preach an anti-Nazi message to a larger audience—maybe reaching into racist asshole communities. This is a meme war. Fey’s video is part of a diverse array of tactics. And yes, it’s white privilege. I get it.
The future isn’t going to work out very well unless we learn to speak to assholes. It doesn’t mean we have to tolerate asshole language or ideology. It does mean, however, we have to be careful not to unnecessarily alienate folks and push them into the asshole camps. And this is partially what happened in the 2016 election.
Hillary Clinton, asshole pride, and white supremacy
Donald Trump alone did not build an army of assholes. It was the one-two punch of assholes Trump and Hillary Clinton. When Clinton dismissed half of Trump’s voters as being in a “basket of deplorables,” she inadvertently launched the Asshole Pride movement. Clinton’s statement was likely correct, and arguably generous, but she was an asshole for voicing it. In the fallout, not half, but all of Trump’s supporters identified as “deplorables.” The “Adorable Deplorable” movement transformed assholes into victims, and further opened and glamorized a cultural space to be an asshole. It was only a matter of time before this cultural space was colonized by white supremacists.
Most Trump voters did not enthusiastically support Trump at the time of the election. He and Clinton were the two most unpopular candidates ever to run against each other for President. Once Trump was in office, however, most of his voters took ownership of his presidency. People are defensive about their bad decisions—especially assholes. They don’t like to admit mistakes. No matter where Trump goes, what he does, or how much he hurts them, their families, and communities, and no matter how much he undermines their values, one third of the electorate will stick with him, even as the crazy train goes to Nazi land. There is no alternative camp welcoming them with open arms. Their leader has the grandest podium of all and they have each other. Trump went from a brand to a cult.
The Nazis among us
The Internet allows and encourages people to live in their own universes where everyone and everything shares and supports their worldview. These online communities become support networks facilitating assholes who were previously more isolated. The emergence of hate-based personal universes and an asshole cult POTUS has emboldened racists to come out from hiding, take off their robes and masks, leave the Dark Web and emerge as proud assholes in the light of day, as we saw in Charlottesville and are seeing around the country. Once in the light we see who they are—especially when they illuminate themselves with tiki torches. These are asshole pride rallies as much as they’re racist events.
Hatemongers were always among us. The rise of Trump first as a fascist demigod and his subsequent ascendency to presidency served to draw these assholes into the light an identify themselves. This is where things get tricky. There’s a tactic to out them—when they’re identified in photos at racist events such as Charlotte’s tiki torch march where participants chanted Nazi slogans and threatened to burn a synagogue, to let their neighbors, co workers, customers and community know where they were and what they were doing. In the case of Charlottesville, some outed Nazis were fired from their jobs or socially exiled from their larger communities. But long-term, what’s the effect of this tactic? When racist assholes are fully isolated, they have nobody to turn to, to work for or associate with but themselves.
Most of us did stupid things when we were young, or not so young. The road to intellectual and emotional maturity is not always pretty. Talk honestly with many anti-racist activists and you’ll learn about their struggles to confront their own racism. Some did hurtful things they’d rather not talk about. Today we’re seeing people attend “mainstream” political rallies for candidates representing the dominant political party in the country, and wind up chanting nationalist or xenophobic slogans. Or innocently attend a Boy Scout jamboree and wind up cheering a fascist.
Maybe it felt good to be part of something larger then themselves, felt empowering to be part of a mob. Maybe it felt so much better then the unease or shame of being ostracized by their self-righteous college peers who never wanted to hear them out or explore why they believed the things they believed. These are folks who got their own highs condemning rather than engaging this different type of asshole, who missed an opportunity to effectively challenge a fellow student on the path to becoming something very ugly and dangerous. Maybe all this led our boy to Charlottesville—just to “support a historic statue”, just to “support free speech,” just to “talk about his own civil rights.” Once there he was in a full fledged Nazi march, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
There was a time when he could have walked back from this, when there weren’t as many cameras as marchers. That time has passed. Our relentless surveillance culture and social media ended the era of private mistakes. Yes our boy is an asshole and he participated in traumatizing people who may never feel peace or security in their lives again. And personally, I wouldn’t shed a tear if he fell on his tiki torch and died. But, since in all likelihood he’ll live many more years, I’d prefer he wasn’t a Nazi who wanted me dead. This is where the strategy of isolation may be a two sided sword that we ourselves are falling on. Once the tiki torch lit up his face, our hypothetical boy will be a racist asshole for life, because no one else will talk to him.
It’s important to call somebody out for their hate. But it may be more effective to call them in, to try to find common ground and nurture the good in people, before they learn to hate you and everything you value. It’s also much more difficult. I know students who tried to organize a cross-political dialog with Trump supporting students on different campuses. They consciously tried to shed their own dogma and any vestiges self-righteousness, reaching out to find and celebrate common values—which we know we have.
When I checked back in with them six weeks later and asked how the project was going, the response was ”You can’t talk with those assholes.” When they tried to dialog, the Trump students just parroted vapid slogans and fake news memes at them. They were right: You can’t talk to those assholes. But Trump can. Pence might be able to. That’s the problem. And it’s the architectural foundation of fascism. None of this is about policies. Trump is a billionaire kleptocrat who governs to enrich his billionaire cronies and politically empower bankers and corporate sociopaths. The assholes decry billionaires, bankers and corporate interests, but at the same time they are the political backbone of the Trump movement to empower and politically entrench their own enemies. They will support Trump no matter how much he hurts them, how worse he makes their lives, how much he endangers the very survival of their families, because Trump knows how to talk to assholes. And assholes are comfortable following Trump.
To a large degree this is about comfort zones. We’ve seen lots of progressive change in the last 15 years such as the inclusion of gender minorities in mainstream culture, the near universal adoption of green rhetoric (not so much action, however), a celebration of cultural diversity and a rhetorical condemnation of racist underpinnings of our language and culture. While to many of us, these steps were often too small and too slow in coming, to others it was all too fast, pulling people out of their comfort zones and off the rails. It might not be that they are more comfortable with Trump as much as it is that Trump is making the rest of us uncomfortable as well. Now we’re all uncomfortable. That’s something we have in common.
If we are going to avoid a civil war, we have to learn to talk to assholes—and to try not to be assholes ourselves. We certainly don’t have to accept hate and all the ugly isms that go along with it. But we have to learn to speak to assholes without being sanctimonious—because there’re too many of them and we don’t want to turn them against democratic values forever. We also don’t want to drive the majority of assholes who still condemn white supremacy to the Nazi camp by lumping all assholes into one big basket of Deplorables. We need to speak in a way that makes hate so uncool that not even an asshole would want to be associated with it. And we need to find that delicate balance of respecting comfort zones but not accepting intolerance. This is the difficult challenge of inclusivity.
We were on this road with Bernie Sanders, who spoke a message that was both populist and inclusive. The Democratic Leadership Committee fumbled the ball and allowed Trump to falsely intercept the veneer of Bernie’s progressive message even though his fascism is the polar opposite of Bernie’s Democratic Socialism. Now Trump has an unlikely cast of followers who, in defense of their own honor, are vested in his success. When we humiliate Trump, when we mock him in popular culture, we in turn humiliate many of them, pushing them further into the Trump universe. Trump is not a joke. We can only defeat his fascist threat by confronting it with the true progressive populism that people demand. This means that we, too, have to leave our comfort zones and build more inclusive movements. It’s a lot easier to mace Nazis, but the efficacy just ain’t there.
Michael I. Niman, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College.