Some longtime friends and I often find ourselves in some version of the same conversation about Donald Trump’s America.
Little is said about the president himself; it is stipulated that he is a despicable liar, an abomination. In the most important ways, he is the polar opposite of Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican president of our baby boom generation. Ike made sacrifices, exhibited heroism, had a sense of duty, was devoted to the common good, and possessed personal integrity. Trump seems to revel in eschewing such behaviors.
But instead of dwelling on Trump, we talk about how wrong we may have been about the country itself.
Each of us has long viewed America as a noble, democratic land of opportunity. We thought we were gradually moving beyond a troubled racial history. We saw people of color and women as making consistent if gradual strides. We believed that there was more to unite us as Americans than to divide us. We believed in a common economic good.
Yes, there were the haters, racists, white nationalists, ignoramuses, however one describes them, but they lurked in the shadows of decent society, scorned as losers and seldom heard from before the internet.
And then 2016 happened.
The nation we thought we knew proved itself capable of electing Trump. And now most of his supporters apparently stand behind him from one obscene news cycle to the next.
It makes us wonder if we simply had been naïve all along. This spirit of self-reflection is driven less by fury than by a sad bewilderment.
The thing is, the media talks about how rage across the American political landscape was ignited and now fueled from both sides of the ideological spectrum. It is this notion of “bothsidesism” that bothers us.
This concept of a misguided bothsidesism was best defined in a New York Times column during the 2016 campaign by Paul Krugman, headlined “Both Sides Now?”
In it, he contended Trump was a demonstrable liar and an awful candidate, but the media had adopted bothsidesism, which he defined as “the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.” Krugman alternately described it as the “cult of balance” and the practice of “false equivalency.”
That most of today’s political rage emanates from the right seems obvious to many of us.
Beyond dispute, I think, is that middle-aged and older white men make up the critical mass of this Trump-enabled base of resentment. After Trump’s victory shocked the national media, we have been treated to more than two years of news stories from the hinterlands about how these guys think the rest of us discarded them and didn’t care.
They complained about “line-cutters” — pretty much anyone who is not white and male — and how “those people” undercut their rightful status at the top of any pecking order. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has reinforced this attitude, and when the rest of us pushed back against the demonizing of vulnerable groups, we were dismissed with that all-purpose indictment of being “politically correct.”
Granted, there certainly are plenty of such men for whom the American Dream is in tatters.
As deindustrialization and globalization ravaged factories, the right cleverly succeeded in convincing the working class to blame effete intellectualism on the left instead of the rapacious capitalism of the right. The right has thus far won the argument, in part, because it’s easier to sell self-interest sprinkled with racial and gender resentment than altruistic notions of a we’re-all-in-it-together common good.
You might think, with their hero in the White House, that these Trump backers would now seem happier, but you’d be wrong. They seem as angry and aggrieved as ever, led by their hero Trump, the enemy of their enemies.
Yet we always seem to be told that this ferocious anger comes roughly equally from both sides.
In a New York Times analysis last month headlined “No Hate Left Behind,” Thomas B. Edsall cited polling showing that disdain for political foes was worsening, or, as he put it, becoming more “lethal.” He cited a poll in which 42 percent of people in each party viewed opponents as “downright evil,” that about 20 percent thought members of the other party “lack the traits to be considered fully human.” About the same number thought the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.
Edsall called this dangerous territory, and the author and psychologist Jonathan Haight, quoted in Edsall’s piece, predicted things will worsen. Haight cited how social media is “drowning us in outrage” while trust in institutions is further declining.
Along similar lines, a recent magazine article in The Atlantic was headlined: “The Real Roots of American Rage.” In it, Charles Duhigg, an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote that as recently as 2012, fewer than half of voters were deeply angry at the other side’s presidential nominee. By 2016, that figure approached 70 percent.
In explaining the roots of the anger, Duhigg chronicled how the country has “corporatized” outrage. A former Fox News producer told Duhigg that his network realized that anger was entertaining and that hearing one’s indignations given voice by a bombastic host was irresistible.
Duhigg implored readers to turn anger toward change: “Ours could be a moment for progress, if we can channel our anger to good ends, rather than the vanquishing of our enemies.”
Though both articles were perceptive, both seemed to imply shared blame — even equal blame — for today’s incendiary political landscape.
People in my ideological posse are saddened, confused, and yes, bewildered, by Trump’s outsized appeal to working-class Americans when he, in fact, consistently puts the interests of the one-percenters over working people.
But we are not, for the most part, filled with anger toward fellow Americans seeking a pathway to a better future for their children and grandchildren.
Despite the bothsidesism, the hateful emotions in politics are not at all equivalent.
To quote a Billy Joel lyric, we didn’t start the fire.