A couple of weeks ago, when the President of the United States went off script and out of his way to defend the white supremacists in Charlottesville and invent fantasy left-wing marauders, I experienced a palpable panic, a panic that surpassed that of election night. Yes, literally almost everything about this presidency has been morally reprehensible and existentially frightening, but the sights and sounds of the president defending the motivations and violent actions of Nazis pushed me over a psychological line I didn’t know existed.
Yes, we always knew that Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot, but I think many of us took it as a kind of casual, passionless, bigotry of ignorance. Few of us who weren’t regularly on the receiving end of his hostility considered that Trump ever actively thought about how much he disliked non-whites or that racial minorities were something to be scorned because of their race. (We don’t presume he actively thinks about anything other than himself.) Many of us assumed, I think, that it was thoughtless. “The criminals” were killing people in Chicago, “the illegals” were committing violent acts and taking jobs, “terrorists” were sneaking into America, “elites” were keeping us from saying “merry Christmas,” the “politically correct” were policing language to the point of censorship, and “real Americans” suffered as a result of it all. The fact that the members of his selected out-groups tended to be black, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, or LGBTQ, and that the people he claimed to represent were almost entirely white, was (to him) coincidental and beside the point. He was a bigot who didn’t know he was a bigot.
But then he made up the “many sides” excuse for the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. His overdue, scripted condemnation of the Nazis and KKK was lifeless and grudging. He asserted that many of those marching along with the Nazis and Klansmen were “very fine people.” And he didn’t just toss out the thought or quickly muse on the possibility that there might have been a shred of merit to the Nazi violence. He forcefully, gleefully, and repeatedly insisted on it.
So I panicked. I experienced a literal fight-or-flight biological response to this conclusion I could not escape, that the President of the United States was a defender of Nazis. And as Chris Rock pointed out, “If 10 guys think it’s ok to hang with 1 Nazi then they just became 11 Nazis.” The sentence that rotated through my consciousness like a news ticker marquee was, “The president’s a Nazi. The president’s a Nazi.” Over and over again. My heart rate accelerated, and some part of my brain began constructing plans to spirit away my family and hide them from imminent danger. “The president’s a Nazi.” I felt trapped.
While not at peace, I’ve of course come out of my panicked reverie. And as I’ve thought through the events of the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that the panic was in a way unwarranted, but not because I was wrong about the situation, per se. It was unwarranted because Trump’s hostile and shameless racism is nothing new. Not new for Trump, and not new for the society in which we live.
I was helped to a dose of perspective from my Point of Inquiry interview with James Croft. He’s now a leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, but I knew him before from his appearances at CFI events and his excellent writing. Not only did I suspect he’d have a helpful secular humanist perspective on current events, but I knew that he’d had first-hand activist experience, having begun his work in St. Louis just weeks before the uprising and military-style crackdown in Ferguson. As a fellow nontheistic, well-meaning, smarty-pants white guy, I hoped he could help me process these horrible epiphanies.
James reminded me that “the system” as it is constituted is not only unfair to racial minorities and other oppressed communities, it’s outright hostile, designed from the ground up for the benefit of one particular group, of which he and I happen to be a part, and to grind down all others. Resentment, blame, and violence against minorities is baked into our society, and even someone with my liberal cred, who considers himself to be among those who “get it,” was blind to far too much of it. It is a problem that is staggering in its proportions and implications, so much so that to downplay it in one’s own mind is almost a form of self care, where denial is the only thing keeping you from, yes, panicking about how bad shit really is.
But then the president defends Nazis, and you can’t deny it anymore. And you – well, I – panic.
It’s not even that simple, of course. Ferguson, though it exemplified the degree to which the white establishment will go to contain, vilify, and terrorize resistant minorities, also amplified the injustice in action, broadcasting it, such that it could not be ignored and could not be denied except by the most cynical. People like me, who know so little about what these communities endure, now knew a little more.
Charlottesville was different. Rather than begin a new conversation about race and injustice through the courageous actions of the oppressed, it made explicit the intention of injustice that the police crackdown on Ferguson only illustrated. It spoke it out loud. It was a defiant declaration of racial hate and resentment, cynically and absurdly couched in the parlance of victimhood.
And those who turned out to march with torches in Charlottesville were just a tiny sample of the legions of (mostly) men across the country whose animosity is actively being stoked by Trump and his cult members. The Charlottesville Nazis were just a single spurt of molten rock, a volcanic warning shot, indicating that just barely below the surface there is an ocean of volatile magma, ready to erupt across vast territory, incinerating the landscape, poisoning the air, and blotting out the Sun.
Trump’s election was one of those eruptions. The cult that has formed around him is the lava flow that won’t cool, and won’t allow anything else to grow.
If we pretend it will all be worked out, that things aren’t really so bad, that America isn’t really so hateful, we simply won’t get through this. It’s about far more than the violation of political norms. We have to recognize that what put Trump in power will still be there after he’s gone (whether by election, forced removal, resignation, or natural causes). In all likelihood, that force will be more dangerous, more established in the mainstream, and certainly more emboldened. They will be part of those beloved political norms.
This is why we should panic. But once the panic has passed, we have to acknowledge how people like me have benefited from the oppression of others, and embrace our moral imperative to reject injustice, to listen, and learn how to be allies. Not just in hashtags and profile pics, but in word and deed.
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Photo by Ted Eytan • CC BY-SA 2.0