Today I want to talk about bigotry, why we excuse it and celebrate it, and why that is the road to hell.
Before I really get into this I need to address the giant elephant in the room. No, not Trump. He’ll come later. Many people talk about “political correctness” as if it is censorship or in diametric opposition to First Amendment Rights. It’s not. I’ll briefly explain. The Bill of Rights concerns the behavior of the government. In fact, here’s the text:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
(I got that from this site by Cornell which includes links to pertinent cases and definitions for your perusal.) So right off the bat we’re talking about Congress and law. We’re not talking about someone saying for example, “I didn’t invite you to the cookout because you’ve said some disturbing things about black people.” In that case someone who has made racist comments is being excluded from a social event. No rights have been violated. Several guys online have tried to tell me that I’m engaging in censorship for not allowing them to post on my facebook page. These men have called me rather nasty things in the past and tried to harass my friends. I am not the government and my choice not to deal with them or give them a vehicle to bother my friends does not stop them from saying what they want to say on their own page. I just won’t read it. Again, not violating their First Amendment Rights. Although arguably they’re breaking laws in regards to me and my friends depending on how far they take it. And that’s where the Brandenburg Test comes in as well as several other laws and statutes which have grown up about the First Amendment. You can — in actual fact — be legally quite offensive before you break the law. However, even if you haven’t broken the law your speech can have private consequences particularly where your speech is actually infringing upon other people’s rights. This is not censorship or a violation of your First Amendment Rights, it’s simply causality.
Speech has a lot to do with performance of status and group membership.
By 2015 and 2016 there was increasing social mobility across America. The gender wage gap was slowly closing and unemployment for all groups was down. People were doing increasingly well. But the problem is all people were doing increasingly well. White people were doing a bit better than people of color and men were doing a bit better than women, but they weren’t doing better by appreciable gaps. White men’s status then, was threatened. They were doing well, but not considerably better than everyone else. So the only way to defend their place in society, at the top of the pile, was to put everyone else down.
We’ve heard the excuse a thousand times in different ways: “he speaks his mind,” “he’s not afraid to say what he’s thinking,” “he calls it like it is,” “he speaks the truth,” “he’s not afraid of political correctness.” Supposedly, that’s why people voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and that’s why he’s still popular among certain demographics.
But, what does any of it mean and is any of it a good reason to support someone in office?
Let’s pull this apart. I’m going to dive right into the craziest part to start with. Donald Trump does speak his mind. That is undeniably accurate. The issue however is that Donald Trump is mentally incapacitated. I’m not just saying that because I don’t like him. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump details his myriad issues and why his Presidency is a danger to America and Americans. But even putting that entire book including the chapter where he’s described as an “extreme present hedonist,” to one side it’s clear that Donald is clearly a temporal creature. I’m putting this delicately. He contradicts himself. Late night comedians joke that “there is always a tweet,” and the standard refrain is that if he does or says a thing there is invariably a tweet where he said the exact opposite in equally bombastic terms. There’s now even flip-flops for it but in a stunning contradiction, no there’s not because I think they sold out. Trumps own aides and political allies have complained of his short attention span and “mercurial” temperament. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) famously complained that talking to Trump is like, “negotiating with Jell-o,” because Trump cannot manage to hold a position. So he is speaking his mind as it is right then and there, but he’s unstable so his position is likely to change at any moment. That’s not a good characteristic in any situation much less the Presidency.
But then, there must be a reason behind it, right? Or at least there should be. What purpose do these explosions of factual inaccuracies (read: lies) and actual bigotry serve? The Neustadt theory of Presidential power is that it resides largely in the personality of the President. I’m reading a few articles to suggest that that is no longer the case (most notably and recently this one), but for the sake of argument let’s just pretend it still is. And frankly, even if Neustadt’s observations of the Presidency are now passé he did directly observe the Presidency under Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson and these articles now assigning far greater power to the Presidency operate under the assumption that the President is politically savvy. That last — even if you like Trump — is simply not true of him. He is many things, but no reasonable person could call Trump ‘politically savvy.’ It’s highly unlikely Trump has read Neustadt’s works, but it is not a terrible leap of logic to assume one of his advisers might have. And that could possibly explain the lack of cartoonishly cane hooking him away from the mic when he goes on these rampages. The bigotry Trump openly espouses does not make him popular with most Americans, but it does reaffirm his ties to his base. Given the mass exodus of the Republican party Congressional Republicans are now increasingly politically beholden to extremists in their party which basically ends up being a work-around for Congressional influence. Trump isn’t able to derive his power from his personality because he has a terrible personality, he’s not able to derive his power from political savvy because he has none of that either, but by emboldening the worst instincts of the shrinking Republican base he’s forcing Congressional Republicans to capitulate to him.
So this brings us to Mitch McConnell. McConnell is behaving exactly opposite to how anyone could reasonably believe a Senator might. It’s actually surreal because even through an authoritarian or Machiavellian lens his actions don’t really make sense. Which is naturally why I’m going to try to explain them. Madison and Hamilton had it out in the Federalist Papers about just how well they needed to define specifically the Presidency and basically Hamilton won. If you read Articles I and II of the Constitution, even if you just look at their relative lengths, it’s quite clear that the Legislative Branch is far better defined than the Executive one. And basically the idea is that a President can derive their power in that ambiguity but will be checked by Congress and the judiciary. So, cool, basic civics. The first issue though is that the President is supposed to serve the entire country whereas each Congressperson is serving specific constituents. The second issue is that although the President’s term is only four years they will be known throughout the country and are less disposable than a Senator or Representative. I’ll demonstrate. Without looking it up name one Senator from Nebraska. How about Iowa? Rhode Island? Nevada? Oklahoma? How many Senators could you name? Now think of the name of your own House Representative. Can you name another from your state? Can you name two from a state you do not reside in? Again, how many Representatives can you name? Now name the current President. Can you name the 44th President? How about the 43rd President? How many Presidents from WWII to the present day can you name? I will bet that you did really well with the Presidents but not so well with the Congresspeople. Congresspeople, both Senators and Representatives are far more easily replaced in the hearts and minds of their constituents than Presidents usually are. So Congresspeople have a far deeper need for political success and far less political leeway than a President. This doesn’t mean public opinion doesn’t matter to Presidents — it absolutely does and it underscores their ability to enact policy and support any unilateral action they end up taking — but a President is far more “tanky” (yes, I game. move on) than a Congressperson. A President can take a pretty severe political hit or several whereas for a Congressperson it could end their career.
Logically then it would seem like the best interest of a Congressional leader like McConnell would be to use his legislative powers to limit Presidential power in general and unpopular policy in particular. This is the best way to keep the Senate relevant, keep the Presidency as an institution in check relative to the other branches, and ensure his own re-election. McConnell’s actions and statements regarding Justice Anthony Scalia’s seat are also so illogical that they are actually arguably unconstitutional. The Constitution requires that the Senate consider Presidential appointments to the Supreme Court. It does not require that they approve the appointments, but it does require they consider them. McConnell did not do that and said that if Hillary Clinton was elected he would keep that seat open through her Presidency. That’s really weird that he was willing to do that because he ran a huge legal and personal risk that could have had more ramifications even than him losing his leadership position or Senate seat. Constitutionally, politically, and ethically Sen. McConnell’s behavior is entirely illogical, and this weird behavior has been only punctuated with the January 2019 government shutdown.
But, if seen from an authoritarian perspective both his behavior and that of Trump make perfect sense. Both Trump and McConnell are in too deep. There’s no walking this back at this point. They have no choice but to see all of this through. So then what the hell is “this” that they’re “seeing through.” I spoke about ideological rigidity and it’s association to authoritarianism previously but the point to make about it in this context is authoritarianism is impossible or at least impossible to maintain where a true democracy is implemented. So if you are trying to consolidate authoritarian power or support an authoritarian leader you need to create ideological rigidity within the group which supports you specifically by alienating and then silencing dissidents. You also need to make people in your group fear being cast out of the group. With this in mind McConnell’s actions start to make sense and Trump being able to openly make statements which are untrue and contradictory serves a strategic value.
McConnell does not care about keeping his seat or leadership or having a good Senatorial legacy because if he is successful in his support of Trump none of that matters. Authoritarians can often manipulate elections of any sort and his legacy for better or worse is now as it relates to Trump. Him handing over institutional power to the Presidency makes perfect sense as long as he and Trump have an agreement. This only becomes a problem for McConnell if the Democrats take the Senate or if he is voted out of office.
And this is where Trump’s weird contradictory statements and white nationalism become crucial. Firstly, I’ve also spoken about voter suppression and how and why it targets usually people of color. (People were triggered by that post. It was cute.) But what’s actually strategically useful about specifically Trump’s blatant lies and contradictory statements is that they — well they do a lot of things including shifting the Overton Window, creating a form of “malignant normalcy,” and confusing the public in general — but the really nefarious thing about them is they make it clear exactly who is in and who is out. Believing Trump, defending his remarks, or even tacitly accepting what he says marks an individual as one of the in-group. These are the people who give Trump his power. They don’t need to be right, they don’t even have to be in any way a majority, they just have to perform this role of believing and supporting Trump even when he’s definitely overtly and unforgivably wrong. That keeps them in the in-group and the advantage to them is that it means they don’t have to worry about status threat and they have a fall-back community of people who won’t disagree with them even if they say or do something truly bigoted or even commit hate crimes. (And in fact the only legitimate terrorism problem the United States has within the 50 states is domestic terrorism motivated largely by some form of bigotry.)
All of that might seem like genius and in actuality Trump and people around him have claimed he — unlike everyone else — actually is one. But no. The genius of it is not Trump’s and it’s barely even that of his more strategic aides. It’s organic re-engineering.
We as humans love to make sense of things. We love to find patterns. This is actually where the anthropological concept of “magic” comes from. If an idol is quite good at something we want to also become good at we will mimic everything they do even where it has nothing to do with their actual skill. We will often attribute things which are random or in error as by design or even divine intervention. This helps us order our world and in some cases there are actually patterns. Trump is not one of those cases. But we really want it to be. The candidacy and Presidency of Donald Trump gave rise to a concept or label in the media known as the “Trump whisperers.” These are people who go on air to translate, defend, and walk back Trump’s statements or tweets. This is really weird.
Consider two things. 1. Trump’s justification for continuing to tweet without filter and reducing press briefings is that he’s speaking directly to the American people. But then usually what he says is so poorly written that the American people need it translated anyway. 2. No other President has ever needed “whisperers.” If Obama needed to say something to the American people it often had a lot of detail and pauses but he’d just say it and we all knew what he meant. There wasn’t any ambiguity and sure not everyone loved everything he said all of the time, but basically everyone at least understood the words coming out of his mouth. Bush — both senior and W. — Clinton, Reagan, Carter and so on were all the same. Even Nixon was easily understood. He kind of accidentally ended up with a reverse engineered doctrine (there’s actually a much better article for this in Presidential Studies Quarterly but it’s behind a paywall) when he was trying to take attention away from talks Henry Kissinger was having in London, but I think his most ambiguous statement of all time was, “Sock it to me?” (You’re welcome.)
What’s really going on with Trump is that he’s an impaired individual who, possibly as a symptom of his impairment says strange and often false or contradictory things which are then reverse engineered into policy.
At this point it’s pretty obvious that Trump can’t be trusted. During the 2016 election he already had a pretty poor record of telling the truth (over half his rated statements were false). At this point only about 30% of his statements are even half-true. (This is contrasted with Hillary Clinton for whom 72% of her statements are at least half-true making her one of the most honest politicians alive today.) But people with little or no neurological impairment and even some reasonably intelligent people are still willing to at least performatively believe him. This is signalling of in-group status. Many of Trump’s 2016 voters supported him because of his party affiliation or statements that he would adhere to conservative ideology. This was what I call the Evangelicals’ Deal with the Devil. What they were doing was Machiavellian and they knew it. What they didn’t know at the time is that it wouldn’t work. Most of that group has since peeled away, but Trump still has a core group of ardent supporters and while his approval rating has always been underwater with most voters, for those who remain with the Republican Party he’s doing quite well.
This is pretty standard for an authoritarian leader. People are scared and they are expressing their fear through ideological rigidity. Particularly in the Republican Party those who remain are gambling that by allying themselves with power they will be protected. Some of the “political incorrectness,” is fear based lashing out and scapegoating which plays into the authoritarian meme of relative deprivation due to the greed of out-group individuals, but some of it is quite simply in-group signalling.
There’s two problems though, with political incorrectness. First, the wheels are going to fall of Trump’s Presidency at some point and second political incorrectness is not what people think it is. Trump has done real damage to the Presidency of the United States and the United States in general and there are multiple books out about that. So that’s bad, but the United States government and democracy are slowly dismantling his ability to do further harm or even remain in office. The US immune system is working, it’s just not terribly efficient. We should eat better and get more sun. But the House was taken back by Democrats in 2018 meaning Trump has to actually negotiate and be reasonable, the special prosecutor assigned to Trump’s little situation is closing in, and even bar all that 2020 is fast approaching. He is unlikely to win a second term particularly as he’s lost a good deal of the support he had in 2016 and we all learned that it’s not nice to call a grandmother shrill simply because she’s the smartest person in the room. Even barring that term limits still apply and even barring that Trump is an old, very unhealthy man with clear signs of mental degradation. The biggest problem with electing an old or unhealthy authoritarian leader is that you only get to ride that for a short time regardless of how politically incorrect you were.
But the second issue — that of people misunderstanding what political correctness or incorrectness actually is — is possibly more damaging to society. This has been true for ages, but people who wish to engage in racist or sexist or homophobic behavior often justify it by saying those on the receiving end of the dismissal or insult are just being emotional or overreacting. It’s recast as an issue of strength and resilience rather than what it actually is, signalling hegemonic in-group status.
To this day people will try to call me some variant of “snowflake.” Such people are stupid and need not be heard, but I’m going to dissect this anyway because ironically their use of the term points to their own insecurities and weaknesses. There’s two possible definitions of the term snowflake. The first and most unlikely one is that it refers to ash which fell onto towns as Nazis tried to burn the bodies of the victims of the Holocaust. I’m relatively sure that only the worst people in the world are actually using the term in that sense and frankly if you encounter a person who does actually mean it that way you can report them to the FBI. And the ADL. In that order. The second more likely definition is based on the idea that each snowflake has a distinct crystalline structure, so “special snowflake” paired with the idea that … snow melts. Generally this is what people mean when they use the term. But the reason it displays their own weakness is because people using the term “snowflake” are unable to argue based on facts. They want to win on the basis of status, are threatened that people outside of their in-group are sometimes successful, and are using the term because they’ve already been called out on discriminatory behavior.
This is the issue. When we’re talking about “Political Correctness,” we’re talking about the wrong thing. The real name for Political Incorrectness is intolerance and the real name for Political Correctness is basic human decency.
Those of you who are male and reading this think back to a time when you were called out on sexism or even misogyny. For those of you who are white think back on a time when you were called out for racism. I bet you freaked, didn’t you? I will even go so far as to say that a few people reading this have equated being called out on intolerance with intolerance. So here’s the thing you need to understand. Racism and sexism is not the responsibility of minorities and women to solve. White people and men react very poorly to being called out for intolerant behavior. They often consider it an attack on their morality or person. And it is usually in this context when they come back with the “snowflake” accusation. But this is the problem. Acts of sexism and racism aren’t about hurting people’s feelings; they’re about systematically limiting access to society for certain individuals to the point that such individuals have inter-generational biological stress leading to shortened life-spans and poorer health and also excluding them from educational, employment, and leadership opportunities and so forth. But racists don’t don’t want to talk about racism for fear that their own racist feelings might get hurt.
Think about this in the context of sexual assault and rape. Generally what happens in theses cases is a woman or a young girl, sometimes a man or a boy is sexually assaulted or raped. In some cases their attacker may attempt to silence them or blackmail them. In a fraction of those cases the victim will eventually come forward. At that point they will be discouraged and systematically gaslit with the goal of getting them to recant. If those efforts are successful and the victim decides not to press charges or simply decides to stop pursuing justice their attacker is not only free to continue, but entirely exonerated while the victim for the rest of their life is shamed, pitied, and considered a liar. If the attacker is one of the very few who sees trial he (or in some cases she) is likely not to see jail time even if he is found guilty. This is usually justified by judges as wasting his potential. In the case of Ted Bundy who was a serial rapist and murderer after failing his LSAT the judge remarked, “You’d have made a good lawyer. I’d have loved to have you practice in front of me. But you went another way, partner.” The Judge describe as “a total waste” not the potential of the over 30 women Bundy murdered, but Bundy not being a lawyer. One need only search the internet for other examples of Judges making absolutely tone deaf statements in sentencing of rapists and murderers who’s victims were women or people of color. And online, flocks of men defend the actions of serial rapists with the hashtag “not all men.”
That may seem like I’ve gone off on a tangent but I’ll bring it back. The reason men defend rapists by saying “not all men,” is because they identify with the status of the usually male rapist more than they do with the humanity of the victim. The same is true of racists. Racists identify more with the status of white people than they do with the humanity of people of color. And weirdly, part of protecting male or white privilege and status is about denying that actually racist behavior is racist or in any way bad.
So let’s transition here, because that was an absolute horror slog. Let’s imagine that you the reader are a white guy or white lady who wants to do better. You want to be woke. Or you already are and you want to transfer the wokeness to your brethren. I’m also white so … take this all with a grain of kosher sea salt but I’m going to try an outline how to do this.
- If someone calls you or something you did racist do not shut down. Truly evaluate what it is you did and make a plan to be better. In RARE cases an accusation of racism is basically caltrops, but do not assume that ever. Even if it ends up turning out to be mostly caltrops there was probably an element to your behavior that did need to be evaluated. So evaluate it.
- Everyone’s a little bit racist. This includes you, Mr. Woke Deconstructed-Coffee vegan hipster guy. So it is your responsibility to go out and educate yourself on how not to be racist and use your privilege to promote women and people of color. This is sometimes going to be dramatic like standing up for someone on a train or even physically shielding someone from the police and sometimes it’s going to be really simple like saying, “actually, we should return to what Anita just said. Anita, could you repeat that?” in a boardroom.
- Never ever EVER make literally any excuse EVER for racism or sexism. If a person behaves in a racist fashion demand consequences. If a person got away with sexual assault and it’s now being discovered, demand consequences. It’s not okay because they’re from your political party, it’s not okay because you really like his acting, it’s not okay because he was in medical school at the time, it’s not even okay because he is currently only 16 or 17 years old. That last is actually one of our biggest problems as white people in America. We’re not imposing enough discipline on our boys and we are letting them get away with not just juvenile mischief but actual serious violent crimes that lead to injury and death for others. It is not okay. We know what would happen of boys of color behaved like that because boys of color have been executed on the street because, basically, police felt like killing someone and knew they could get away with it. And then we excuse the police because they were supposedly “scared.” No. No excuses for racism or sexism or homophobia or anti-Semitism, or ageism or hate towards Muslims or anything else literally ever.
- Hold white men to the same standards that you hold women of color.
- Put women and people of color in leadership positions. A lot of you are going to say, “oh, but that’s just quotas or affirmative action.” Well okay but see number four. If you truly are trying to do things based on merit alone then black women would rule the world. It’s only because white men are consistently preferenced for managerial positions and political positions that so few women and people of color are seen in leadership positions. White men are not any better than minority groups and in fact women have been earning the majority of University degrees and the majority of doctoral degrees and have surpassed the number of men in University since the 1980s.
- Do not EVER pretend that “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” are a thing. I know when I said that thing about women surpassing men at University a lot of guys went, “that proves discrimination against me!!” No, actually it doesn’t. I nearly lost my high school diploma because I took my friend who had been sexually assaulted to Planned Parenthood. Read that again. I was threatened with expulsion from my high school because I knew that a male classmate had raped my friend and the school was afraid that if I spoke out that white male student might suffer consequences for his actions. And if you read those articles I linked several of them point out that despite holding advanced degrees women still earn less. White men are consistently put at the head of the line for everything so if you as a white men are not earning what you think you should then that is likely what’s called, “relative deprivation,” meaning you are just not earning more than women and people of color and that’s why you’re mad. That’s racism and sexism.
- Do not pretend that the economy is the only problem and that it’s everyone’s problem. Economy is your problem and it’s your problem because only white men really have access to the entirety of the economy. Yes, the lack of legal protections and civil rights leads to numerous consequences for people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals and so forth which sometimes evidence themselves in economic form, but economic issues pale before everything else minority populations have to deal with. Fixing the economy fixes it for white men only. If you are fixing the economy and ignoring civil rights you are just creating a racial oligarchy.
- Think good and hard about “identity politics,” and what it truly means. One of the less visible or obvious racist or sexist statements I’ve heard floating about is, “I will vote for the best person for the job.” This is up there with “I’m colorblind.” Until we fix all the problems above we cannot ignore a candidate’s gender or race or background. We need female leadership and more ethnic diversity in political positions of power because white men are demonstrably poor at leading, because white men do not understand what it is their constituents need from them, and because white men more than any other group are easily seduced by promises of increased status. I can only think of one female authoritarian leader and it’s not for nothing that she became an authoritarian leader to take pressure off her husband who had by that point long been an authoritarian leader. It is possible for women and other minority individuals to fall into authoritarian traps, but because status is not as completely wed to their identity as it is for men they are more likely to avoid those traps than men. We are only going to get close to resolving our problems of racism and sexism once Congress and the White House and the Judiciary are at minimum half female and reflect our country’s cultural makeup.
My last thought for this is to link Stacy Abrams’ piece on Identity Politics. Stacy Abrams — for those of you who don’t know — ran in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race against a Republican candidate who was at the time Secretary of State for Georgia and pretty openly suppressing the vote particularly for minority Georgians. Stacy Abrams almost definitely would have won that race if not for the fraudulent acts of the Republican party and her opponent. She ran a superb campaign and she was ready to seriously address the issues of all Georgians. She is continuing her work and frankly I’m a bit confused as to why Beto O’Rourke is running for President and she’s not. (I don’t care how many times that dude goes to the dentist, he’s not getting my primary vote.) In this piece that I’m linking she answers any lingering questions you might have about racism, sexism, and identity politics and answers quite a few you probably didn’t know to think about. She’s brilliant, and she didn’t lose that race, Georgia did.