Contrary to popular belief, there are things that can be learned from Trump supporters. It may be in an ethnographic way, the way anthropologists study a lost pre-Columbian tribe. But it’s educational nonetheless.
One of the things I’ve learned from them lately is that they really see themselves as victims. No, I mean REALLY. We all knew that to some extent: a huge part of the post mortem of the 2016 election was endless handwringing in the allegedly liberal “mainstream media” over how globalism had left enormous numbers of working class Rust Belt dwellers high and dry and susceptible to the sale of Trump brand snake oil. (Now with more snakes!). More incisively, other pundits zeroed in on the very real panic among a lot of white conservatives—particularly those of the Christian supremacist variety—that they are losing the demographic chokehold they’ve had on this country for its whole history thus far. Hence the vile battle cry “Take Our Country Back!” in all its not-so-crypto-racist glory.
As Yoni Appelbaum writes in The Atlantic:
In 2016, white working-class voters who said that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, or who said they felt like strangers in their own country, were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not. Two-thirds of Trump voters agreed that “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline.” In Trump, they’d found a defender.
(Blame where it’s due: I’ve also heard “Take Our Country Back!” from the left, with no discernible irony or awareness that the other side says it too. I get it, but as a slogan it has serious downsides.)
It’s true that, in the long term, white Christian conservatives are holding the short end of the demographic wishbone. Appelbaum again:
(M)any conservatives, surveying demographic trends…..can see the GOP’s sinking fortunes among younger voters, and feel the culture turning against them, condemning them today for views that were commonplace only yesterday. They are losing faith that they can win elections in the future. With this comes dark possibilities.
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I shed no tears for these folks and their “dilemma.” I’m a middle-aged white guy, but the only white people I know who are worried about this trend are those consumed with white identity politics, keeping other folks down, and advancing an agenda at odds with the pluralism and equality on which this country was founded.
In other words, racists.
I would not lump all Republicans in this ignominious clique, by the way, only a subset of them. But it’s a subset that the GOP has weaponized.
We’ll get back to that misplaced sense of victimhood in a moment. But first, let’s go to the movies.
BATTLE OF THE BANDS
Casablanca is often neck in neck with Citizen Kane atop many surveys of the best American movies of all time. (Distant third: Weekend at Bernie’s.) Among its most famous scenes is the one in Rick’s Café Americain (as in, “everybody comes to”) in which a group of Nazi soldiers in occupied Morocco are singing a raucous version of “Die Wacht am Rhein,” drawing the ire of Resistance leader Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.
Laszlo marches over to the bandstand and firmly tells the bandleader, “Play ‘The Marseillaise.’ Play it!”
The rattled bandleader looks to Rick, played by (do I need to say this?) Humphrey Bogart, who gives him the nod.
The band strikes up the French national anthem. The irritated Germans sing their hateful song louder. But one by one the other patrons of the café realize what’s going on, and join in the Marseillaise, until they have drowned the Germans out.
It’s one of the most stirring scenes in all of motion pictures, as these beleaguered French citizens, under the boot of the most murderous regime in human history, courageously stick a collective finger in Hitler’s eye. (We can leave the thorny issue of French colonialism out of the discussion for now.)
It’s worth noting that this act of theatrical protest results in the Nazis angrily shutting the cafe down, an order obligingly carried out by the collaborationist Vichy authorities in the person of Captain Renault (Claude Rains), on the famous pretext that he is “shocked, shocked” to find gambling going on in the joint. (“Your winnings, sir,” a croupier says immediately thereafter, handing Renault a wad of cash.)
Henreid’s command “Play it!” also echoes perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, when Bogart says the same thing to Dooley Wilson regarding “As Time Goes By”. (Oft misquoted, he never says “Play it again, Sam,” though Ingrid Bergman comes close earlier in the film when she says “Play it once, Sam.”)
Yes, Casablanca is a good movie.
Here in the greasefire that is the United States circa 2019, a scene like the singing of the Marseillaise resonates, and in a way that doesn’t require making exaggerated comparisons or violating Godwin’s Law. (In other words, yes, I know Trump is not in Hitler’s league. But he’s a fanboy.) It feels like how we feel every time that, in some small way, we win any kind of victory, no matter how minuscule or purely symbolic, over the tinhorn tyrant who is doing his level best to destroy everything that we hold dear as a country.
But here’s the problem.
The other side identifies with the Resistance fighters too.
No big surprise, really; no one identifies with the Nazis (except Stephen Miller). Of course, when choosing sides for this particular game of “let’s pretend,” the modern GOP’s resemblance to actual fascists does not help its case.
IN THE END, I BLAME SOCIETY
If you dive into the online conversation among a great many rank-and-file Trump supporters, you will find what seems to be a genuine, deeply aggrieved sense that they are under constant—and even literally physical—attack.
They see themselves as viscerally menaced by antifa, which in right wing world is a force as numerous, ubiquitous, and powerful as the Cold War-era Red Army (or if you prefer, gangsta rap-blasting super-predators of the 1990s, or the caravan of drug-dealing Central American barbarians barreling toward our southern border).
They commiserate over being afraid to put “Trump 2020” signs on their lawns or wear their red MAGA hats in public for fear of angry retaliation from their neighbors and strangers alike. (If that is so, I’m not sure what accounts for the proliferation of both. Perhaps these fearful Republicans live in San Francisco.)
They bemoan the hatred that they say is spewed from the left, the attacks on the president (often identified as “our” president), and the way that—in their view—liberals are sowing division in our country.
And above all, they believe that it is people like them—white conservative Christians, mostly—who are the Americans most egregiously discriminated against.
This last point is the one that has been most widely reported and is therefore least surprising—though no less batshit, or powerful as evidence of just how deep the white sense of entitlement goes.
Do conservative Americans really believe they are a besieged tribe in a society where all the odds are stacked against them? Where all the levers of power are cordoned off and unavailable to them? Where they have to fear for their lives every time they venture out of doors?
The Republican Party controls the White House, the upper chamber of Congress (and until recently the lower one as well), a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, an increasingly large chunk of the federal judiciary, and a majority of state legislatures and governorships. (And that of course doesn’t even take into account all the other advantages, tangible and intangible, that the dominant race, class, and religious group holds in this society.)
But by all means—they’re the underdogs.
This collective delusion goes beyond legitimate grievances of the white Midwestern working class against a Democratic Party that has been insufficiently attentive. It even goes beyond the illegitimate panic of racists and xenophobes who think if English was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for America. It is a confidence game-cum-conspiracy theory that has been carefully cultivated and spoonfed to these folks by a political party and the powerful interests it represents….and has now metastasized and become a dangerous distortion of reality internalized by millions of right wing Americans. In that regard, it sits perfectly within the Orwellian perversion of truth that is the sea in which Trump swims, and where we are all drowning.
“Victim” used to be a pejorative. Now it is a badge of honor that brings with it great power. For years conservatives sneered at it for that very reason, especially when deployed by folks whom they had a hand in victimizing and oppressing. For the right, it was emblematic of the “taker” class; they, by contrast, claimed to valorize rugged individualism and pioneer-style self-sufficiency. (Top pioneer skills: selling smallpox-laced blankets, pretending corporate welfare isn’t a thing, and not noticing public services like police, firefighters, and roads.)
In truth, of course, whites have always employed the same trope themselves. The fiction of white people as a valiant breed beleaguered by sinister forces—mostly darker-skinned—is as old as Western civilization. Similarly, when white Christian conservatives (men especially) complain about “political correctness,” what they’re really complaining about is being held to account for their behavior and denied the privilege they’ve traditionally enjoyed at the expense of others, like being able to treat women and racial and religious minorities like shit just because they can. That’s the country they want to “take back.”
But once the right realized how powerful victimhood was as a weapon, it didn’t take them long to embrace it. And with Trump, that phenomenon has reached its apotheosis.
Again in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes:
As the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning observed in their 2015 paper and later book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, whereas people were once loath to be seen as victims, domination is now “the main form of deviance,” while victimization attracts sympathy, “so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.” Sympathetic dollars can follow––as can political support. From the start, Trump has touted his supposed victimhood as no president has before, confident that his supporters won’t hold self-pitying whines against him.
Speaking of movies, in Kasi Lemmons’ new film Harriet, about the woman that Trump and Mnuchin won’t have on the $20 bill, there is an instructive scene that strikes at this very issue. A self-pitying white plantation owner who has fallen on hard times—Harriet Tubman’s former enslaver—tearfully describes feeling like a prisoner in her own plantation, surrounded by “black faces” as her guards. Later, when the woman is confronted by fellow crackers demanding restitution for the hardship that Harriet has caused them by freeing their slaves, she turns the mob to her side by appealing to their common race, and the idea that they are all victims of abolitionism.
Too on the nose? I know some will say so. But for my money, it ought to be required viewing, Ludivico technique-style, for all Fox News followers.
When it comes to claiming the mantle and attendant moral authority of victim, let’s return for a moment to Yoni Appelbaum’s recent piece in the Atlantic, titled “How America Ends,” and the notion that 2016 was the last chance to stop “America’s decline”—which, naturally, white reactionaries see as synonymous with their own loss of power. Appelbaum mentions the incendiary analogy made during the last presidential campaign by conservative writer Michael Anton that “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” That’s a metaphor that, to say the least, plays directly to right wingers’ self-flattering vision of themselves as underdogs and martyrs and heroes…..and, in case you missed it, one that casts Democrats and progressives as radical terrorists bent on mass murder.
It’s worth noting that even in that self-chosen metaphor the Republican Party ends up suicidally crashing the aircraft that is the USA into the ground, killing everyone onboard.
TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING
Speaking of the Marseillaise, ironically, our own national anthem has become a battleground in this very culture war.
Trump, with his preternatural schoolyard bully’s instinct for an opponent’s vulnerabilities—and his grifter’s instinct for a sucker’s weak spot—glommed right onto the NFL controversy as a way of ginning up his racist base. It’s as clear as the hood on his face. Per Samuel Johnson, patriotism is famously the last refuge of a scoundrel; that line was never more apropos than in the case of this man, the least public-service-minded dude ever, and one who predictably screams the loudest about the red, white and blue, needs the highest flagpole, and is leading the hunt for a lynching tree for Colin Kaepernick even as he actively works against the interests of the United States and for his own venal gain.
Given Trump’s original line of work, I am even fonder of George Jean Nathan’s quip that patriotism is the arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles. (As if Donald had any of the latter.) And of course, in the ultimate display of shamelessness, we have seem him viciously attacking the loyalty of true patriots who have unquestionably earned their stripes, from McCain to the Khan family to McRaven to (most recently) Vindman, Taylor, and Yovanovitch.
As there is no evidence that this draft-dodging con artist ever did a single thing in his life to benefit anyone other than himself, his cynical and dishonest exploitation of patriotism is the height of hypocrisy—yet also eminently predictable—as he embodies yet another famous quote, the one about American fascism arriving wrapped in the flag and carrying a Bible. The irony of Trump-as-patriot is twinned with the irony of this thrice-divorced serial adulterer, professional liar, cheat, greedhead, and preening porn star raw dogger as a paragon of Christian faith and virtue.
But the conflating of patriotism with blind loyalty to nation is as old as time and a staple of reactionaryism.
In the John Birch mentality, any criticism of the United States is by definition disloyal, if not openly treasonous. It’s an absurd position, of course, and one with dark, McCarthyite (or, yes, even fascist) implications when taken to its logical extreme. It is a further step beyond even that to equate the United States with its president, Louis XIVth cult of personality style.
Here we go back to the popular right wing bumper sticker of the tumultuous late Sixties: “America: love it or leave it.” The question is, what does it mean to “love” one’s country? Does it mean blind, unquestioning loyalty to what its temporary rulers say or do at any given moment? I’m gonna say, uh, no.
A related quote—and often similarly distorted—is US naval hero Stephen Decatur’s ”My country, right or wrong.” (Like “Play it again, Sam,” a misremembering. His exact quote, circa 1816, was: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”) With all due humility, I don’t think the Commodore was advocating blind obedience. On the contrary, I think he likely meant that we ought to be even more invested in redressing our failures and shortcomings when our country is in the wrong.
Let’s go then to James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Pride in one’s homeland can be an admirable and constructive thing; look at how we encourage it in oppressed communities struggling to assert their identities. It’s only when it tips into nationalism that it becomes toxic, as is often the case with powerful nations, or those riven with divisive internecine strife. (And nationalism of course is itself a kissing cousin of xenophobia and racism.)
The United States’ hyperpower status makes ostentatious displays of patriotism a bit icky. Even in international soccer, one of the few places where the US is a poor relation, it makes me feel a little awkward to be part of “Sam’s Army” chanting “USA! USA! USA!” (The choice of “army” itself is sketchy, either tone deaf to the rattling specter of American militarism or an example of it, predecessors such as the KISS Army and Franco’s Italian Army notwithstanding.)
The right fetishizes the shibboleths of patriotism—the flag, the military, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem—and insists that forced respect for them is a precondition of devotion to country. (Because nothing says patriotism like a mandatory display of coerced obedience.) There is no awareness of what those things are supposed to represent—freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom to dissent—and no more perfect example of that than the brouhaha over the NFL players kneeling in respectful protest over police brutality during the national anthem. Here again we see angry white people howling in outrage that a group of fellow Americans visibly wronged—targeted, beaten, and even killed in systemic fashion—have the temerity to mention it.
The right has long tried to assert a monopoly on patriotism, with its bellicose foreign policy (jingoistic, some might say) and ostentatious displays of flag-waving. That conservatives are the best stewards of national security has always been a canard, considering the disastrous foreign policy misadventures they have led us into, from the Red Menace and the arms race, to Nixon’s criminal and self-defeating prosecution of operations in Vietnam, to covert dirty wars in Latin America, coups in the Middle East, and of course the second Iraq war. (Democrats are not blameless either, particularly when it comes to Southeast Asia.)
And that was before Trump came on the scene. Since then, under his, er, leadership the GOP has made an even worse dog’s breakfast of US interests abroad, from getting played by Kim Jong Un, to the idiotic withdrawal from the JCPOA, to the undermining of NATO, to the appalling abandonment of the Kurds and resuscitation of ISIS, to the general emboldening of dictators around the world, to blackmailing Kiev while its soldiers died for want of Javelin missiles, and all of it baldly serving the overall objectives of Vladimir Putin and Russia. (Someone should look into that.)
But patriotism does not belong to conservatives, no matter how much they pretend it does. So let’s blow up the lie that right wingers own the Stars and Stripes, and the warriors who fight on our behalf, and love of country itself.
Indeed, when we look at the contempt it has shown for the rule of law and the most fundamental principles of American democracy over the past three years, there is a strong argument that the modern Republican Party is the most profoundly anti-patriotic organization this side of the Klaus Fuchs Appreciation Society. Internationally, it has become a willing arm of Kremlin policy—a headspinning turn for a party that once had Russophobia as its lodestar. Domestically, it has been ceaseless in its efforts to reject the pluralistic, diverse idea of the Founders in favor of something they explicitly opposed: an autocracy with a state-ordained religion.
And many of the most prominent Founders were slaveowners. The modern GOP is not even as enlightened as a bunch of guys who literally owned other human beings.
So, as televised impeachment begin and the resistance enters a new and dramatic phase, let’s assert our ownership of that. Love of country and commitment to the principles on which it was founded does not belong to Lindsey Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Devin Nunes, or Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway, or Fox News and Breitbart, and it certainly does not belong to Donald J. Trump.
It belongs to us.
So all I wanna say is:
Play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Casablanca (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz, produced by Hal B. Wallis, written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, cinematography by Arthur Edeson. A Warner Brothers production. Special shout-out to my friend Gregory Orr, whose mother Joy Page played Annina Brandel, the Bulgarian refugee who, with her husband, seeks Bogart’s help in escaping Casablanca near the top of the movie.