For those of us outside the hermetically-sealed echo chamber of right-wing media, it’s hard to look at what the GOP has been doing since the rise of Trump without shaking our heads and wondering, “how can they not see their own hypocrisy concerning family values and economic thrift?” It boils down to the fact that the GOP is largely controlled by white males, and that they themselves are affected to two factors: the greater effect that fear has on conservatives in general, and what today’s white conservatives are fearing.
The National Institutes of Health found that there is a statistically-significant correlation between the size of one’s amygdala (the part of the brain that - among other things - processes one’s emotions concerning perceived threats) and one’s political bent. Conservatives generally have larger amygdalae. This seems to be the reason why conservatives react more strongly to perceived threats: the more threatened one feels, the more conservative one tends to be. This carries with it the caveat that even liberals become conservative (at least temporarily) when feeling threatened.
One great example of this is in conservative political advertising: it tends to be fear-based. Look at Trump’s infamous quote when he announced his campaign:
“When Mexico sends people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems . . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”
We liberals heard that and decried it as the most odious racism espoused by a presidential candidate since George Wallace and his “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” rant…but Trump wasn’t talking to liberals. He was playing on the fears of the conservatives, and it worked. The more he told conservatives they should be afraid of brown people, the more they flocked to his standard, somehow believing he was the only one who could save them from the browning of America. Suddenly all his other shortcomings that would have sunk any other GOP candidate - his marital infidelity, his insults against POW’s and Gold Star families, his crude attitudes towards women in general, his voyeurism of girls getting ready for the Miss Teen USA pageant, his childish insecurity, his malignant narcissism, his constant stream of obvious falsehoods, and his slavish devotion to Putin - simply didn’t matter. All that mattered is that he most strongly pointed out to conservatives someone they were supposed to fear…and so, acting on the fear they feel so much more strongly than do liberals, the conservatives voted for him in droves.
How far we as a nation have fallen from FDR’s understanding that all we have to fear, is fear itself. Trump’s entire campaign could have been summed up in this one sentence: “Fear the brown people, and since liberals love brown people, you should fear the liberals and everything they stand for, too!”
This directly explains what we see today with the GOP rushing through the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court even though he is not only accused of attempted rape, but also apparently lied multiple times to the Senate during previous confirmation hearings. Why would the GOP be willing to ignore all norms and precedent and federal law? For the same reason that they were willing, even eager to refuse to give SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland even a single hearing for the last full year of the Obama administration: fear. When one is sufficiently afraid, one will ignore all laws, norms, and traditions in order to confront that fear. That is just how afraid the Right has become.
We on the Left don’t understand this because most of us do not feel the same degree of fear that they do. Yes, we’re feeling threatened because of everything that they’re doing to tear down not just everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve, from affordable health care to the Paris Accords on climate change, from Roe v. Wade to the Dodd-Frank regulations…but the degree of fear they feel is even greater. It’s just hard for those of us on the Left to even imagine it, since their deepest fear is of something that most liberals eagerly look to embrace: a true multiracial, multicultural society where white skin is no longer a gateway to privilege. It is as if to them, we liberals and the promise of said multiracial/multicultural society (first personified by President Obama) truly is what white conservatives would consider their worst nightmare.
Think on that: we’re supporting what they honestly consider their worst nightmare. Remember, we’re all Americans, but we’re also all human…and what have humans done so many times throughout history when fear has ruled their actions? War.
Yes, war. Of course that seems over-the-top, blowing things way out of proportion. I agree that we’re not facing an actual civil war, but I’m referring more to the way that the Right is justifying their actions. In war, the people care much more about victory, and much less about how that victory is achieved. The Right, having a wartime mindset, wants victory, and cares little that its politicians are ignoring norms, traditions, federal law, and the Constitution in order to achieve victory.
In other words, they see themselves as being at war with us, but we don’t see ourselves as being at war with them. That’s a problem for those of us on the Left, because it’s giving the Right a significant advantage by our continued false assumption that the Right cares for norms, tradition, and the rule of law. What’s even worse, if we on the Left decided to get just as deep down into the mud as they are, it seems likely that the Right would see that as license to push the envelope even further.
What, then, can we do about it? What’s the solution? I think Michelle Obama said it best: “When they go low, we go high.” The Right will continue as it has to use every tool (legal and otherwise) to preserve its hold on power, thus delaying the greatest of the white-male-dominated GOP’s fears: the aforementioned browning of America before which (in their eyes) all other fears pale in significance. But their bargain is Faustian of grand scale, sacrificing honor, courage, the rule of law, and even patriotism on the altar of white supremacy, while never grasping what will prove to be the utter futility of such a bargain, for while they may delay America’s shift to a browner and more inclusive society, the long-term demographic trends are all but inevitable…
…and when America reaches that point where the Right’s fear no longer drives national policy or influences our national ethos, we will be able to look back at this time in much the same way as we did the Civil Rights Era, taking pride in the courage of those who resisted, and casting shame upon those who failed to learn the lessons of history and tried to take America back to the days of Jim Crow.
As implied above, allowing fear to rule one’s mindset and actions is a major driver of American conservatism today. If we liberals understand that, then we can better prepare ourselves for what they may do next. At the same time, however, we cannot allow ourselves to fight them on their terms. If racism, misplaced pride, contempt for the unfortunate, and win-at-all-costs define their organizational paradigm, then honor, courage, dignity, compassion for the unfortunate, and magnanimity must define our own. They will continue to go low; we must, then, strive to go ever higher.