I was born in eastern North Dakota, where my family were farmers. One of my earliest memories is of being woken from my bed and carried to the basement. It was almost dark, but as we went down the stairs into the cellar I saw my grandfather illuminated in the doorway by the awe- and nausea-inducing green light that suffuses the sky right before a tornado hits. He was in his undershirt and looked unconcerned, which for a North Dakota Norwegian of his generation wasn't a reliable visual cue of his level of concern, for I know now he must've been very concerned. My father wrapped my brother and me up in two old woven rugs that my grandmother had made; there must not have been time to take blankets from our part of the house. The rugs were scratchy and moist, but I fell asleep like children can.
In the morning, I woke to find my world transformed. The tornado that struck had spared our house and farm buildings, but the high winds and angry tendrils stabbing down from the cone had created scenes of destruction in the windbreaks that surrounded the farmstead and lined our fields. I walked barefoot in the thick, black slurry that big rains produce in the Red River Valley, my makeshift mud-boots protecting my feet from the splinters of eviscerated trees that littered the ground. The tiny copse of old broadleafs around the house and the pines that stood in long columns in the field like loyal soldiers were my everything. To see them shattered and twisted and borne to the ground was awful, exciting, tragic, magnificent: a power had come from beyond the landscape of my tiny life and wrought mayhem for some inscrutable reason.
I often wake these days to a more grown-up version of that experience. Like in the aftermath of a tornado, my world appears unrecognizable due to the damage done by Donald Trump and his followers. Although Trump's hate-filled, racist, and anti-Muslim rhetoric is a product of the far-right, it has come to influence conservative and moderate Americans, and it is even tolerated by a portion of the left. The most recent Republican primary debate was, as Simon Maloy writes, a menagerie of fear tropes, with all the candidates striving to make clear to America that every citizen should be "scared witless by the looming terrorist menace and worried that they will be the next to die." Nipping at Trump's heels, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz all took the tactic of dismissing front-running Trump as a carnival-barker while simultaneously restating Trump's words through slightly less pursed lips and under domes of slightly less primped hair.
As fears about Syrian refugees and "radicalized" American Muslims stand in for fears about demographic, economic, and cultural shifts of a more complicated variety, conservative whites in America find such universal, comprehensive fear-mongering apparently comforting. It makes difficult things to understand seem easy. It references a terrifying world like a father pointing toward the mid-distance, warning his children that "there are bad people out there." For the modern GOP, "safety" from these dangers is intentionally illusory, because the obviation of such dangers would take away the utility of the tactic. We must be perpetually afraid for the game to work. Safety thus becomes a concept deployed in the same basic way that that father tucks his kids into bed at night, making them as safe as one can be from the "bad people" for another night. The next day, the routine repeats.
Treated such a way, his children might decide to seek out ways to be afraid so that they can be made to feel safe. I don't think that this is too psychoanalytical, for the system of perpetually meeting fear with swagger is an incredibly successful strategy used by GOP politicians and, it would seem, many people in the country live their lives this way. They experience everything that happens as an opportunity to undertake an aggressive response to automatically threatening circumstances. Given the success that Trump has had in poisoning our national dialogue, I think it's fair to say that he's not only giving voice to hateful private thoughts, but also motivating people to adopt even more hateful attitudes and then claim, to themselves and others, that they believed those things all along but were prevented by PC attitudes from saying them.
The modern Republican is thus increasingly encouraged to believe that everywhere there are dark hordes, whose attacks are motivated by their racial, political, and sociocultural categories. Black, Muslim, lesbian, feminist welfare queens rip Bibles apart during their eighth Obamacare-funded abortion. Dancing gay men and bent-backed intellectual snobs post Instagram shots of the guns that they stole from hardworking grandmothers and God-fearing National Guard veterans. The new SUV you've always dreamed of buying with your hard-earned bitcoins and gold bullion is pushed into a river by communist goons from FEMA, which declared the shining vehicle an affront to the almighty polar bear in the sky. Sugar is pulled from your children's mouths by Michelle Obama, who then gives it to the Chinese so they can turn it into poison to sell back to America in the form of mandatory vaccinations. The television keeps showing you things that you don't understand, ergo bomb all the Orientals back into the Stone Age.
This is a problem. And I don't know really what we are supposed to do about it. I feel like it has become impossible to have a conversation with someone of the "other side." I'm sure they also feel the same way about "my side." I feel intellectually uncomfortable with the tactic employed by Democratic leaders, who tend to talk about hate-speech and hateful proposals as the "real" anti-American values. Obama seems to do this nightly. But idealizing what America "is" or what Americans "are" is well-meaning but totally wrong and probably isn't even effective in altering the debate. As 30 Rock's Liz Lemon says to her conservative boss, Jack Donaghy, when he uses the term "real America" to describe the South, "Jack, for the 80th time, no part of America is more American than any other part."
Maybe taking a more comprehensive view of what America is and what Americans are is essential to seeing our country through this troubled time. Indeed, just as Trump's garbled angst about the earth's 1.6 billion Muslims is representative of politics, so too is Bernie Sander's thoughtful statement on the Paris attacks and on combating ISIS. It can be easy to dismiss, as I've seen time and again, thoughtful and conscientious statements (whether from liberals or conservatives) as anomalies and thus not really part of politics in America. This kind of disgust with politics, writ large, is lazy and pointless—I'm sick of it, especially from liberals who like to act as if they are thoughtful and conscientious people who've had it up to here with "politics as usual." If you like what Bernie Sanders or any other liberal says, you should be glad that he and they are part of politics. Politics are what we make of them; they are what everyone makes of them. Americans are scared, and they are not scared. Americans are mean, and they are nice too.
As a society, we should be embarrassed by Trump and his effect on the GOP and conservative voters, but we also need to understand that, to some degree, politics in a democracy is about winning the right to shape the future. There are certain consequences, then, to beating back and outlasting the wave of hate and fear sweeping the country right now. Many Americans—tens of millions—will be crushed by Trump losing. We need to find a way to keep these people from winning, while also making sure that their alienation isn't so grievous and caustic that they make it impossible for any political movement to occur. Obama sensed this need and failed (both through his own faults and through no fault of his own) to find the appropriate method of engagement.
Perhaps the current propensity for right-wing hyperbole is indicative of a society-wide breakdown in simple manners. I have a close friend—a conservative—who, in a debate where I said I was tired of hearing athletes intone the same rote bromides about "giving it your all" and "leaving it on the field," said that he liked these kinds of things because they instilled a sense of decency and respect to a pursuit that is infamous for its arrogance. We talked about how this applied to politics, and I think now that he's right on that count. Maybe we should encourage each other to be relentlessly, even dishonestly, polite to each other. Maybe this would've arrested the GOP's decline into apoplectic madness. Then again, I wonder if it's like my tornado, which emerged out of a climactic mixture of cause-and-effect and accident to destroy what I thought I knew so well, its force and influence produced by almost untrackably rapid shifts in condition and growth. I know one thing, though: we cannot go to the basement to hide from this storm.