Hate, blame, greed, bigotry and fear have always been part of our politics. If you doubt that, consider these statements from our second Presidential campaign in 1800, which pitted Adams against Jefferson for the second time.
Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.”
Fast forward to one of our most revered Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, and you’ll see essentially the same hateful, divisive speech used against him. He was referred to as an idiot, a yahoo, the original gorilla, and many northern newspapers called for his assassination (yes, northern).
Franklin Roosevelt was called a fascist and a warmonger, and Wall Street and the big banks even tried to engineer a coup against him.
So, yes, hate fear bigotry, greed and blame have always been part of our politics, and there have always been idiots and haters among us.
Why this moment in history is different
There are several things that make this moment in history different.
First and foremost, unlike in times past, this president doesn’t try to stand above the fray and allow the basest of his followers to fan the flames of hate and divisiveness for him—he leads the hate parade; he ignites the fires of bigotry and blame; he scapegoats and actively and continuously appeals to the worst parts of our nature, and to the worst among us. He doesn’t only seek to use hate, he mobilizes it. His is a campaign of continuous and conscious attempts to wholesale hate and the “isms” he uses to create it. Thus, he doesn’t simply harness the hate of the marginalized and compromised among us, he seeks to expand the circle of hate to the mainstream.
Moreover, since Trump has no real interest in governing, he is in continuous campaign mode, whipping up fear and jingoism in tweets and on his frequent political rallies on the road. In fact, Trump has never really stopped campaigning, and for him, campaigning is nothing more than making people afraid, finding them someone to blame for their ills, and in general, distracting folks from seeing that he is not a populist and that his policies are a hodgepodge of ideas that favor moneyed interests at the expense of the poor and middle class.
There are other things that make this moment different. Our bizarre misinterpretation of the Second Amendment, combined with political fecklessness on the part of both parties, has allowed the crazies that Trump is whipping into a frothing frenzy to mechanize death.
For most of the 20th Century, the media was kept honest by laws that enabled the FCC to assure that:
- Americans were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints from a wide variety of owners;
- stations which spread lies and falsehoods were punished and reigned in;
- news stations presented opposing viewpoints.
But since Reagan and Clinton eviscerated these controls, information—or rather misinformation—mono-cultures like Fox “News,” IHeartMedia, and Sinclair have been allowed to spring up and proliferate. And with Trump, they have functioned as a state media to serve up hate, lies, and ignorance
Meanwhile, the mainstream media has been taken over by a few corporate interests and it has embraced “balance” and false equivalency as their canon, rather than factual reporting, the pursuit of truth, and the full exploration of context and nuance, so the lies from rightwing media and politicians—and yes, the lies, distortions and dishonesty are mostly found on the right—are allowed to stand. Liberal politicians still spin, exaggerate, and resort to hyperbole sometimes, but rightwing media and politicians have untethered their lies from any connection with reality.
Social media compounds the problem of media monocultures by allowing misinformed right-wing mobs to coalesce around outlandish and counterfactual conspiracy theories.
And finally, there’s no real opposition party. Rather than standing on values and representing the people’s interests, Democrats have chosen tactics and empty rhetoric so they could continue to get their share of corporate and fat-cat largess to run their campaigns.
But having a President who sows hate and blame, with what amounts to a state media is what makes this period in history unique, and uniquely dangerous.
There are signs that the people are beginning to come together to lead our leaders towards a more decent, humane, and responsible political world.
But without the support of a political party built around values, laws that constrain those who would feed our most evil inclinations, and limits on using money to buy influence, it will be an uphill battle, in which the voices of hate are spread with a megaphone, and in which the advocates of decency can only respond with a million murmurs.
Let’s hope it’s enough.