The Ideology that got us here is Anxious Imperialism. Or, The Maddest Lib

In order to keep things from getting really bad, we need to understand the thought process that is driving this.

As a current West Coast urban multiculturalist who was raised as an Evangelical in the small-town industrial Midwest, one of the biggest questions I've been struggling with following the election is what tie could possibly bind the friends and family I grew up with, who I know to be people with functional moral compasses, to a narcissistic and hedonistic Nationalist like Trump, a disturbing cultural supremacist like Breitbart's Steve Bannon, and overt, open white supremacists like David Duke? What would make 8/10 of my (former, I guess?) people believe that they're all part of that same camp? Why did my family and friends choose to put this far right, war-mongering hate-camp in power, and put society's most vulnerable citizens at real, physical risk?

Evangelicalism is where I initially learned most of my values, including the Sunday school message of racial acceptance that "Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight". Whatever the flaws of mainstream Evangelical culture, David Duke and, for instance, the childhood youth pastor who helped me get involved with my first anti-racism work make strange bedfellows in most ways. It's not an exaggeration to say that I've been in tears most days since the election thinking about this.

Any endeavor to describe 60 million voters in the space of a blog post is doomed, doomed, doomed, but as I was reading an intriguing, terrifying interview with Steve Bannon (HT to Mike Lescault) trying to figure out if he really is a white supremacist, something clicked. The coalition Trump built was not coincidental, and my people were not (exactly) duped, because there is a similar worldview that ties together the Trump movement. That recognition casts a shadow over lots of positive childhood memories for me, but it's important: understanding the structure of the worldview behind the Trump movement is essential for those of us trying to build tide walls against the coming Alt-Right wave.

1) A Coalition of Us vs. Them

If you don't have time to check out the interview linked above, the TL:DR version is that Steve Bannon himself is a classic ideologue in the sense that he has a specific understanding of the way things work that only partially lines up with reality, but which drives a grandiose sense of his place in the world that many from the outside will view as delusional. It's not exactly white nationalism, per se, but his worldview is relatively easy to summarize:
Christian Capitalists have created the most advanced civilization in history in Western Society, and are the most important force for good in the world. That civilization is under clear and present threat from Islam and secularism, and so the Christian West should strike out aggressively against those threats before they destroy us.
My initial response to his worldview was "That sounds a lot like a Christian version of ISIS propaganda. It is an ideology that could legitimately start a Holy War, or even genocide, if enough people believe it".

My second response was, "That sounds really familiar". The Christianity I grew up with taught basically the same worldview, minus the mumbo-jumbo about Capitalism, the focus on nation-states, and the thirst for blood. Essentially we believed that:
The Church is the one true hope for the world, and it is under threat from liberals, secularists, and Islam (among other things). We should strike out aggressively (but peacefully - through Evangelism) against those threats before they destroy us.
We could call the shared ideology here Anxious Imperialism, and Mad Lib its structure as:

Our (Important Value) is under threat by (People Group) so we have to (Aggressive Action).
It's a thought process driven by fear and insecurity, and one could argue that it reflects a standard human response to the feeling of being threatened. But it is also a mode of thought that people live in unconsciously and that is durable across time, even when there is no 'clear and present danger'. It is a way of thinking that gives life a structure and a purpose. Its advantage is that it is simple and easy to comprehend - with a clear problem and a clear solution. Its disadvantage is that it depends on seeing some people as "us", and some as "them". It is the very definition of tribalism and a foundational thought process for those who would dehumanize their neighbors. In some forms, the dehumanization is spiritual, but in others it is political and active - a belief system one assumes when they need to feel justified in killing another human.

But once that basic thought process is identified, the Trump coalition makes a lot more sense. Along with the Tea Party ideologues and Evangelicals, it was a coalition of people who thought some version of The Maddest Lib above:

America is the greatest force for good in the world and is under threat by radical Islam, immigrants, and China. (Nationalists)

American values and the Constitution are the greatest force for good in the world, and are under threat by the government itself - and especially big government liberals. (Constitutionalists)

The white race is the greatest force for good in the world, and it is under threat by blacks, immigrants, and foreigners. (White Nationalists)

All of these groups represent a spectrum of believers, from those who are extreme and explicit in their ideology to those who don’t recognize their worldview but operate according to these basic assumptions it because it’s the water they've always swum in. But this year they all decided on an aggressive action in voting for the Narcissistic Nationalist Trump.

2) Trump: the pro-Trump Anxious Imperialist

Trump himself seems to be something of a basic civic Nationalist, with his appeal to "Making America Great Again" and fear-mongering stories about terrorists getting through the refugee vetting process, illegal immigrants on murderous rampages, and the Chinese destroying us in trade policy. Because he changes positions so frequently, whether he actually believes these things himself isn't clear (I'm going to guess probably), but his most distinctive campaign strategy was pointing out the things people should be afraid of - things that are a disaster and require a guy like him to fix. The base of dread and fear seemed to already be there in much of American society (Bannon and his ilk have spent years building it intentionally), but his campaign was designed to create it even where it wasn't. His attempt to reach out to Black Americans by telling them that their world couldn't get any worse stands out as a transparent example.

Beyond Nationalism, the more salient point about Trump is probably his Narcissism, in the clinical, diagnosable sense. All indicators are that his Mad Lib would start with the belief that Trump is the greatest force for good in the world and can uniquely address the threats facing HIS country. (Remember the "I alone can fix it!" quote from the RNC?) It's a grandiose thought process that is common in Narcissistic personalities. And it is what set him up to argue, in a way that convinced people he believes it, that he was the needed, aggressive action to address America's pressing threats. This offer of a simple, clear, solution (TRUMP!! in gold all caps) made his rhetoric resonate with the Anxious Imperialists.

3) The Appeal of Deals with the Devil

One of the interesting/terrifying things Bannon said in his aforementioned interview was that, while he found Vladimir Putin to be terrible, he felt that America should partner with Russia in escalating the fight against Islam - as a "first things first" approach to global threats. In the implied advocacy for a new World War, the quote shows an important aspect of Anxious Imperialism, in that the mindset leads people to compromise in ways that they normally would find unacceptable in the face of threats that are perceived to be immediate and pressing.

I think this point is key to understanding how The Donald got away with so much this election cycle - and particularly how Evangelicals decided to swallow the Trump pill.

The Evangelical sense of being a part of a literally universal struggle between good and evil is a powerful part of its appeal, and in Evangelicalism, 'good' and 'evil' are real, incarnate things - not just abstract concepts. Islam was viewed, in my experience, as one of the greatest evils in Evangelicalism, and Trump's talk about stopping Islamic immigration and attacking Islamic extremists would have read as a commitment to fight evil. Other major concrete evils include abortion and homosexuality, so his suggestion that under his presidency, Roe v. Wade would be struck down: a commitment to fight evil. His innuendo suggesting that marriage equality may be rolled back under his leadership: a commitment to fight evil. His constant attacks on China are interesting because in Evangelicalism, the suppression of Christianity under the Communist Government is well-known, so his opposition could have been read as hopeful for Evangelicals. Even his commitments to 'build a wall' and his promotion of birtherism may have been read as cultural protectionism - a commitment to make sure outsiders were not corrupting Christian America unquestioned. Again, a commitment to fight evil.

Evangelicals are acutely conscious that they have been losing the cultural battle on these issues for years, and the majority of politicians, even on the right, have started to concede. Trump came in as a crusader making promises to end abortion and vanquish an opponent who would be ripping babies out of the womb at nine months. For the first time in years they saw the possibility of someone who could make progress on the issues that they saw as most important morally.

So, I imagine, most Evangelicals have deep moral concerns about Trump - and probably actively dislike him - but saw him as their most likely ally in the struggle between Western Christianity and its secular and Islamic attackers, and the most likely candidate in year to make progress on the "objective evils" that they see as most damaging to their communities. I think this at least partly explains why so many see him as good at heart despite the evidence of abusive behavior towards women and history of racially insensitive, and at times actively bigoted, behavior - aspects of his personality that most would see as antithetical to their faith.

It also explains why so many disparate groups let him get away with so much: they felt that he was one of them - the first candidate in a long time to share their fears and their desire for a radical, aggressive solution. And the first candidate who convinced them that he would actually carry the solution out with impunity. For those afraid of anarchy based on Occupy Wallstreet and Black Lives Matter protests, a Law and Order candidate was a hopeful solution. For many the perceived threat was from the government itself. The Donald could not credibly argue that he is better qualified to run a government than Clinton, but he is obviously more qualified to screw one up. And for those who feel the threat is outsiders, even if they don't believe he'll actually figure out how to "Build the Wall!" or keep out the Muslims, his continued insistence shows that he is just as worried about them as they are. Credible accusations of fraud, corruption and sexual assault are easy enough to overlook when you feel like your most important fears will be addressed for the first time in memory.

And so, in the name of protecting its values, America made a really fantastic deal with the Devil. The best deal with the Devil you've ever seen. America is going to be so happy it made this deal, I guarantee it.

4) Why some say "racist" when others say "misunderstood".

Recognizing that the pattern of thought is similar between the disparate groups of what I've called Anxious Imperialists, even where the fears are not, it makes the reflexive "racist" reaction thrown around by multiculturalists understandable, and only inaccurate in semantic terms. The recognition that this type of thinking leads people to stand by while others are marginalized, deported, or even killed in a society is the key point. When taken to its logical conclusion, it ends up with consequences that are particularly damaging to minorities. "Thrown under the bus" has the potential to become literal rather than figurative if we let this kind of thinking drive our government.

This pattern of thought is absolutely dangerous both domestically and on a global scale: true believers have already shown that they will overlook evil in favor of what they feel is a greater good. Not racist, maybe, but ready to register Muslims and break up millions of immigrant families in the name of law and order, so what's the difference?

Additionally, in the Trump campaign and in far right media, the threats to society were in many cases misrepresented, exaggerated, and even completely fabricated. And fear of fabricated threats produces an ideology that eventually leads to unnecessary and unjust war. It is the ideology of ISIS, and it was the post-9/11 reactionary ideology that allowed America to go to war with Iraq. It's the kind of ideology that will, as Bannon suggests, make our leaders feel justified in joining a Russian demagogue in bombing civilians and starting pre-emptive wars.

Trump's cabinet is being populated exclusively by these types of Anxious Imperialists, and his closest advisor, Steve Bannon, is arguably the most misguided and dangerous. So, what we have to sort out now, and quickly, is how to best interrupt America's shift from fear to aggressive action, and how to obstruct a government that already appears to be gearing up.


Anonymous said…
Hi Tim! Just found your blog via our mutual friend Kristi. Great post!