Trumping Authoritarianism, Part One
“When fear becomes collective, when anger becomes collective, it’s extremely dangerous. It is overwhelming… The mass media and the military-industrial complex create a prison for us, so we continue to think, see, and act in the same way… We need the courage to express ourselves even when the majority is going in the opposite direction… because a change of direction can happen only when there is a collective awakening… Therefore, it is very important to say, ‘I am here!’ to those who share the same kind of insight.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk, The Art of Power (h/t Oliver Stone)
As someone who orientates himself and makes sense of the world primarily through language, I consider words to be nearly sacred in their power. In my younger, more idealistic years, I attributed even greater power to them, believing to my core that a right and true combination of words could solve any predicament or right any wrong. Though I no longer believe such a romantic notion, I still believe that words, carefully chosen, have an undeniable power. Given this, one would think, even in this Land of the Free with the right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment, that we would hold those responsible and accountable for the language they use in public discourse. To enforce such accountability, however, we must agree that language does, indeed, have power, and thus carries consequences with its use. One need only sample the vile rhetoric flatulating from the bowels of this year’s presidential election, predominantly on the Republican side where personal attacks abound and lie upon lie stands uncorrected, to see that accountability has gone out the window. The inflammatory language flung like shit by the media zoo monkeys and the politicians they cover amounts to a cacophony of noise and nonsense that only serves to isolates us from each other and tear us apart.
The willingness of the American people to give themselves over to the absurd rantings of a megalomaniac like Donald Trump, making him the current front-runner for the Republican nomination, never ceases to amaze – and horrify. The reality always presents a shock to the system when it appears, but we shouldn’t be surprised when Trump is merely a product of our own making, a symptom of a diseased culture that prizes anti-intellectualism and material acquisition over self-knowledge. Trump is us, the Ugly American raging on steroids and piles of cash. Watching video of fawning and robotically chanting fans at Trump’s rallies (“Build the wall!” is this year’s equally absurd “Drill, baby, drill” panacea), his supporters resemble so many lost children desperately seeking a mommy or daddy to tell them what to do and make everything all right again. Just observe how the mere utterance of the hollow phrase “Make America great again” makes them go all weak in the knees and gaga for the guy. Don’t bother asking what period of American greatness they have in mind (perhaps the mythic era when men were men and sheep were nervous?), since their grasp of historical fact is as real as believing bikini-clad babes will appear in their living room every time they crack open a Bud Light. As with fairy tales of Heaven’s pearly gates and streets paved with gold, frightened, ignorant and disenfranchised masses have come to believe we’re actually going to construct a massive wall along a thousand miles of our southern border, and we’re going to eject over 11 million people from our country at the same time that we keep a population of 1.6 billion Muslims from coming in. As the saying goes, “Wish in one hand and shit in the other, and what do you have?”
As crazy as all this sounds, there is a reasonable explanation. Much hay has been made of how anti-establishment candidacies such as Trump, Cruz, Carson, and even Bernie Sanders on the Democrat side, have been able to tap into a growing discontentment among the American people. To be sure, Americans don’t usually have a long memory, but they can’t very well forget what they’re still living. We have endured a deep recession in which those who put our nation and the world on the brink of economic disaster have escaped punishment and from which the majority of the nation has yet to recover. Our national security, not to mention our international “indispensability,” is being attacked by an Islamic extremism fomented by a decade-plus foreign war that has, in turn, further weakened our already hobbled economy.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to assert order and control, once-venerable institutions such as law enforcement, government and education have begun to turn on their own people who’ve grown frustrated with their leaders’ inability to bridge ideological divides and come up with solutions that benefit more than the power elite. In such a disruptive atmosphere that turns status quo on its head, it is perfectly understandable for people to turn to those who promise oversimplified and direct action against vastly complicated issues, those who claim to be able to cut through the bullshit of political correctness and dysfunctional bureaucracy. They’re looking for someone, in other words, who takes charge of the situation like a mythical Father Knows Best figure, someone who kicks ass and takes names in a way they can’t themselves. Trump’s emergence as a comic book superhero without the tights, a brash and impetuous attempt to fill the current vacuum of leadership we have in our country, is Oedipal projection, plain and simple.
Still, it’s baffling that a man who brags about his obscene wealth and flaunts a repulsive lifestyle would be able to attract so many economically damaged followers. It takes a very strong moral foundation to mask the tackiness of his affectations that simultaneously scream out-of-control ego and overcompensation: the ludicrous hair-wrangling to hide baldness, the spray-on tan that makes him look like a neon raccoon with white black circles around his eyes, the multiple marriages to trophy women, the assurance of his virility and penis size, the smug assuredness that vacuous statements uttered in third grade language contain profound meaning (“It’s going to be the best wall you’ve ever seen”). You get the idea. And sure enough, this moral foundation has proven to be strong enough to recast Trump as one of, or at least a champion of, the people rather than the unremittent 1%’er that he is, which is no small feat.
That moral foundation? Authoritarianism.
Georgie Lakoff, a cognitive science and linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkley, has written an illuminating essay that explains how the use of language highlights authoritarianism’s rise in the US and Trump’s campaign. Authoritarian language reflects the way “we tend to view the nation metaphorically in family terms,” evoked in such phrases as “founding fathers,” “homeland security,” sending “our sons and daughters” off to war, etc. Parents, or adults, in the family play different roles depending on whether you are a progressive or conservative. At the risk of oversimplifying, progressive parents tend to be nurturing, while the conservative parent tends to be strict. In the authoritarian family, the father is the ultimate authority, and physical discipline is often used to build an inner discipline and character that will make one successful in life. In authoritarian terms, if you are not successful, then you lack discipline. Physical discipline may be harsh, but it’s for the best, because father said so. Lakoff goes on to spell out a clear hierarchy within the authoritarian mindset: God is over Man who is over Nature. The hierarchy breaks down even further into adults over children, strong over weak, rich over poor, bosses over workers, and even Western culture over the rest of the world. By luck of the birth lottery, a white Christian male sits in the proverbial catbird seat and enjoys dominion over women, minorities and gays, pretty much everyone and everything other than the Big Man himself.
One could argue (as J. W. Cash did in The Mind of the South) that authoritarianism is baked into the culture and social hierarchy of the South. Here in what Esquire political columnist Charles P. Pierce calls the “newly insane state of North Carolina,” we’ve been up to our eyeballs in authoritarian rhetoric since the Republicans took control of the Senate and House in 2010 and the Governor’s mansion in 2012 for the first time since 1870. One gets the feeling they are attempting to implement policies and a social agenda that have not aged a day since the Civil War as well. They remind us almost daily that the drastic cuts they’ve enacted in their infinite wisdom to unemployment benefits, education and teacher salaries, Medicare and Medicaid (services, in other words, for those undisciplined weak and poor) are for our own good. Those who protest or complain – the people who, in other words, dare to challenge the authority of these legislators – are dismissed with the same callous disregard as those lazy welfare recipients, whom they tell us are more than likely getting drunk on the beer they bought with their unemployment and welfare checks while they sit on their asses all day instead of finding a job. Essentially, their stance is, “We’re lawmakers, and you’re not. Sit down, shut up and take your medicine.”
In just the last week as I was writing this, our herd-emboldened state lawmakers have blatantly contradicted their limited government and local control stance by calling a special session, to the tune of $42,000 in taxpayer dollars, in order to pass House Bill 2, discriminatory legislation that blocks cities like Charlotte from passing laws that would allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom of the sex with which they identify (HB 2 requires them to go by the “biological sex” that’s listed on their birth certificate and driver’s licenses). The legislation has not only earned the distinction of being the most anti-LGBT legislation in the nation, but has also prompted a lawsuit by the ACLU and has caused major businesses in and outside of the state to threaten boycotts or leave the state (PayPal was the first to announce they will cancel a planned expansion that would have brought 400 high-tech jobs to the Charlotte area). Oh, and the legislation also blocks municipalities from raising the minimum wage. What unmitigated, bullying assholes.
The Achilles’ heel of authoritarianism, as anyone who has lived long enough to witness the inevitable fallibility of a parent or authority figure knows, is that people in positions of authority rarely have the power or answers they believe they do, beginning with the delusion of man’s dominion over the earth and its creatures. There’s also the fact that far more arbitrary and subjective reasons typically play a role in these Powers That Be gaining their position of authority in the first place. Given authoritarianism’s propensity for promoting from within its own ranks, it tends to elevate the stations of the stupid and submissive above their collectively smarter and wiser constituents. And yet once in power, the echo chamber and inside-the-beltway shop-talk tend to solidify and even amplify this authority. This baptism by Kool-Aid poisons their brains with delusions of privilege, entitlement and permanent majority rule. Needless to say, this insularity creates a culture where mediocrity and the Dunning-Kruger effect – what happens when incompetent people lack the necessary intelligence to recognize their own incompetence – runs rampant, like a gene pool corrupted by in-breeding.
Once the people willingly give over their authority and power, they recognize too late another of authoritarianism’s problems. In a topsy-turvy, uncertain world, people become so desperate for leadership and guidance that they fail to recognize that authoritarian power (and money) flows only one way: up. It also has an insatiable appetite, with no limits or boundaries. It only cares about its constituents as long as they validate the authoritarian myth and prop up its so-called authority figures with votes. The people’s deference turns unintentionally comical by the use of such slogans as “Don’t Tread on Me” as the backdrop of their acquiescence. Authoritarians blow so much smoke up their ass and puff them up with so much righteous indignation over the way they’ve been treated that they don’t realize the authoritarian tune they dance to has sublimated their loss of power into a false sense of superiority over those deemed inferior and alien. This sleight of hand manifests itself in the way they continue to vote, in election after election, against their own best interest. Instead, they vote for the very authorities who show their gratitude by devising policies that further erode their ability to find a decent job and make a living wage, take away women’s rights to control their own bodies, and show a complete disregard for their civil liberties, such as when welfare recipients are forced to pass a drug test before receiving their checks, along with a list of what they can and can’t spend the money on (no lobster for you, you taker!).
Too often in our history, sadly, the people have shown themselves more than willing to give up a great deal of power in exchange for a modicum of creature comfort and security. Just look at Trump’s wives. As long as I can buy that flat screen TV on credit, zone out on all manner of lascivious entertainment and intoxications, what’s the problem? We’ve been seeing this play out for over a decade in the foothills of NC, where furniture manufacturing reigned for decades, during which time the factory workers had no problem remaining uneducated for a relatively decent wage and a job for life. Once tens of thousands of these jobs went overseas practically overnight, the “boss man” was curiously nowhere to be found to offer any help with transition to new work or training in new skills. (If they surfaced at all, it was only to stand alongside and echo the conservative politicians’ cries that these workers couldn’t fill available jobs because they were lazy and lacked discipline, as well as to beat up on the school systems for not producing the quality of job candidates they needed. In other words, “Feed us, feed us, feed us!”) Large numbers of those who lost their jobs were unable to forge new careers and identities for themselves because after so many years of being told otherwise, the new reality hadn’t sunk in that they, and they alone, were now the true masters of their destiny. Adding insult to injury, their helplessness ironically made them only more susceptible to the authoritarian’s siren call.
Thank goodness, there have been examples recently of underserved, disenfranchised and generally pissed off groups of citizens asserting their voices and reclaiming their narrative from the authoritarians. The empowering language they use casts the United States as the more hopeful, inclusive and equitable nation they wish it to be. Whether their protests culminate in the kind of transformational, revolutionary changes we have seen before in our history with the Age of Reformation, the New Deal or the Civil Rights movement remains to be seen. Even if so, those pushing for radical change must not only guard against their movements becoming institutionalized and co-opted by “authorities” once they’ve been accepted by the mainstream, they must also keep the movement’s leadership from becoming authoritarians themselves. For now, it’s invigorating to see the green shoot of protest actions such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Anonymous, WikiLeaks and most recently the Panama Papers continue to spring up, typically against overwhelming odds and obstacles, as direct challenges to an authority that has resorted to the tyranny of dead ideas and only cares about one thing: preserving its own power.