Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.

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What Can a Man Do

A while back, I read an article, “I Slept With the Enemy,” by Sonya Huber.  Not only does it offer a compelling explanation for Trump’s appeal to men but it does so with compassion.  Without both, there’s not much hope to change the way the men are seen and how they respond to the condescending, demonizing glares headed their way.

I appreciate the article’s focus on the need for rebellion, the need to “flip a bird” to the establishment. It’s the rebellion that counts for them, not any particular ideology.  Huber is right to emphasize the growing isolation of this group of men, particularly from sources of education, support, common cause, and direction that labor unions had once provided.  The union movement had provided an alternative narrative, in which rebellion, persistence, and courage are essential to organizing and to strikes, where a channel for anger and aggression is sanctioned, even applauded

What Huber doesn’t emphasize—and I would like to—is that the rebellion we need is against the proper people: the Koch Brothers, Wall Street, the Republican Party, which has nurtured a racist culture for decades, with its “southern strategy,” its absorption of the Dixicrats, and its Regan-inspired union busting tactics.  These are the people who have captured large swaths of the American narrative, trumpeted by the right wing marketing machine and long symbolized by the Willie Horton ad.  That ad, as you know, was for George HW Bush, a president that current Democrats have decided was a good Republican.

I imagine that Huber went light on the idea of emasculation because it would take away from the article’s compassion.  But in my view, the social and economic emasculation of working class men is one of the main reasons that the rebel narrative is so appealing.  And if we were to go further into the theme of emasculation, we would also have to turn to the gender revolution that has been taking place for a half century.  White men of all classes have not only lost pride of place to outsiders, like Blacks and Latinos—to the “other”—they have also lost position to insiders: their sisters, wives and mothers.  And while there’s a way to at least try to distance themselves from African and Latin Americans, there’s no place to hide from the women in their lives, who are earning more money.  Or even the same amount.  And demanding that their voices be heard.

It is as easy to make fun of such men as it is to simply condemn the “yahoos” and their Confederate flags.  I saw many, many such men in marital and family therapy.  They didn’t want to come.  They kicked and snorted fire about that stupid girl’s stuff.  And once they appeared in my office, it was clear that they felt anxious and diminished on the foreign turf.  They had no real language to express their diminishment because it was an emotional language they didn’t speak.  Even worse, speaking of diminishment aloud was dangerous, forbidden.  To say you feel like less of man, to complain, to whine, to cry, means that you are less of a man.  So you bear the daily losses, the indignities, the insults in private and in silence, except through explosions and apparently “random” acts of violence, acts that you don’t really condone, against your own wives and daughters.  Or you simply run off with another, preferably younger woman.

There have been efforts to heal these masculine wounds but, in my view, most of the men’s movement has been almost completely ineffective.  It has been apologetic, which feels like more diminishment to me.  It has tried to inject “female” values and styles into the male psyche.  That often feels foreign, even alienating.  The various men’s movements have done almost nothing, other than re-introduce loin cloths and drums on weekend retreats, with the aggression that seems to be hard wired into the male species.  It has provided none of the exuberance, the meaning, fun and rage, nor even the sense of common cause and comradeship that, for example the union movement of the first half of the twentieth century and  the 1960’s Civil Rights and Anti-War movements had for men.

I want to emphasize the sense of belonging and common cause, of having a team to identify with.  There is almost no more powerful and defining experience for many boys than their athletic teams.  Being a member of a team, going crazy with joy when you win, having your pals around you when you lose.  That is a place where you can express your agony, even cry.  And there is virtually no substitute for it once they leave school.

Once you leave school, you become a loner, a Man, as defined by working class culture—or by almost any male culture.  You learn to suck it up when you are lonely or upset.  You can’t take it out on “the man”—you’d lose your job, if you have one; and your woman doesn’t quite understand, even though she keeps asking.  You are alone much too often.  “Bowling Alone,” as Putnam would say.  And, as post World War II sociologists made plain, it was that condition—thousands, millions of men separated from the people and institutions that had structured pre-war life—it was under that condition that people were readily mobilized by demagogues, like Hitler and Mussolini.  We stand too close to that flame right now.

So I stand with you, Sonya Huber.  I stand against the most obvious solutions to the loss of manhood, voting for Trump, Cruz, and the others who thumb their noses at the establishment only to offer cruel, often elitist alternatives.  We need to affirm the hurt, the loss, the anger, and the need to rebel against its causes.  We need to help to build an alternative narrative.  It is no surprise that both Trump and Bernie Sanders made such great strides this year.  They are not accommodating.  They don’t like the establishment.  They give voice to rage.  They don’t back down.  They fight.  They are rebels.  And Bernie Sanders, at least, is a rebel with a cause.

 

Trump and the injured souls of men

Most who join the Trump bandwagon say they have been wronged.  They feel left behind and bullied by big government.  Their freedom is in jeopardy.  They don’t have jobs, having lost out to “foreign” workers who are empowered by big capitalists who move business off shore.  Or they have jobs that barely pay a living wage—nothing like their parents’ generation and, therefore, their own expectations.  Or they fear that job loss is just around the corner.  In short, they have lost the dignity of good work, lost the secure ability to support their family, and they feel vulnerable all the time.

That’s the external side of things.  The psychology of their condition is equally troubling—and infuriating.  With the economic and social vulnerability comes insecurity and a loss of identity.  They don’t know who they are anymore.  They don’t fit their own definition of manhood—and the majority of Trump supporters are men.  For those who went to war, long the definition of manhood and courage, the return, without their team, the soldiers who ‘had their back,’ can be disorienting and infuriating.  Who did they fight this war for, anyhow.  Much as the British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, says that mothers hold their children, giving them a sense of belonging and connection, so the army teams metaphorically held each other.  And, as Putnam so poignantly wrote, the structure of American society no longer provides that sense of belonging.  The men, veterans and just guys “bowl alone.”  As we say about children who lack true family support, these men are “at risk.”

These are Trump’s people and their vulnerability expresses itself most often in anger, which momentarily hides their vulnerability.  When you are angry—for that moment in time—you often feel strong.  You get pumped up and you find external targets for your rage.  In today’s America, the targets have been easy to find: immigrants and Muslims, bankers and effete northeastern intellectuals or “media types.”  When there is someone who models and stokes anger as well as Trump does, it is contagious.  When you see someone who seems to bully the enemy, then he becomes a hero.  He is the leader they believe they need.  As I wrote in my essay on eighth grade bullies, these men and their passions are ripe for mobilizing.

Rather than elaborate again on the theme of mobilization, though, I’d like to take a moment to better understand their internal struggles.  Many, many of the Trump people suffer from what psychologists call “narcissistic injury.”  So what is narcissistic injury.

Let’s begin with narcissism, itself.  Here are some definitions.  1. “Excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.” 2. “Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.” 3. “Self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects.”  Sound familiar?  I think it captures Trump the way Matisse captures dancers with a few brush strokes.

Now let’s take this a step further. Here is a description of a “narcissistic personality disorder”:  “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”  What then?  He lashes out, as Trump has done with countless ‘enemies,’ the latest being Judge Gonzalvo Curiel, who presumes to sit on the Trump University fraud case.

Narcissistic rage is a reaction to narcissistic injury, which is a perceived threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth. (Google def).  Where does the disorder or injury come from? Some powerful, usually repeated childhood experiences in which the child’s need for love and nurture is unfulfilled, and the existential insecurity that follows that unfulfilled child through life.  For much of the time, people can control the fear, but certain kinds of events set it off.  Rokelle Lerner, author of The Object of My Affection is In My Reflection,  identifies three triggers.  1) The threat of losing the primary source of narcissistic supply, be that a job or a relationship. 2) A failure of old strategies to work, for example, someone challenging their power or trying to take control away from them.  3) An unexpected situation in which their “robust sense of self dissolves and they become desperate.”

The narcissist is in constant search for affirmation and admiration to calm his fears.  When activated, his “frantic need” for “narcissistic supply,” the “constant ego-stroking that sustains…the underdeveloped sense of self and confirms his grandiosity, entitlement, and superiority.”  The confirmation is like a drug that is essential to his well being.   When you interrupt the supply by neglecting him, paying too much attention to others, criticizing or blaming him or not giving him special treatment, you threaten his sense of superiority and call his entitlement into question.  That triggers the a narcissistic injury.

I trust that I don’t have to draw each of the parallels to the Republican presidential candidate.  But, as I suggested earlier, his narcissistic needs require a response from others.  Just as a tree, when it falls in the forest, needs someone to listen in order to know that is has fallen, Trump needs his followers in order to believe he has a self.

What often follows narcissistic injury is rage and blame and, sometimes, violence.  We all recognize this response.  We see it in husbands and wives, children and friends, and bosses when they have been hurt.  Narcissistic injury flows readily among us.  But the degree and the expression of the injury varies immensely.   When you need the rage to relieve yourself, and you need it often, you know that the situation is dangerous.  Like admiration when it comes, rage and blame are like drugs for the narcissists.  This is why Trump can’t get enough of his own ranting, and his followers need it almost equally.  They both need the supply.

Trump and the Power of the Eighth Grade Bully

When I was a boy of 14, the ability to “put down” others seemed like an essential social skill which I never had.  In fact, I couldn’t do it.  It seemed cruel and I was a sensitive boy.  Others were brilliant at it.

“Put downs” were simply efforts to humiliate others by pointing out their inadequacies or imagined inadequacies.  They targeted kids who were slow footed and didn’t make the sports teams, who were not quick witted or who seemed “too smart for their own good,” kids whose pubic hair was late coming in—oh the terror of the locker room.    There was no end to the wounds and fears that made us vulnerable to these verbal bullies.  My hairline was low, for example, and boys used to say that it met my eyebrows.  Why that seemed so devastating, only a pimply adolescent can tell you.

Some “put down artists,” as they were called, were bullies and big enough to push others around more directly if they chose.  Some were little kids, who managed their size by being the best “put down artists.”  You knew how bad it could get if you challenged them, and that made many of us timid.

I can hardly remember anyone defending the kids who were put down, except sometimes a really nice girl.  The girl who became my love when we were seniors in high school was chief among them.  And she seemed to do it without humiliating the bully too much.  But the complicity of everyone else was evident to all of us.  We even talked about our complicity, about our lack of courage, and found comfort in others who shared our cowardice.  But we never, individually or collectively, planned a counter attack.  Rather we took the bullying for a fact of life.

The guys—girls didn’t do it to boys in their presence—who were good at “put downs” were either loners or leaders.  I don’t understand how these two pathways converged in this way but they did.  The loners seem to guarantee their privacy and safety with their skills. The leaders could get other kids to pile on.  They could squeeze other kids out of a social circle.  They could get activities going.  You loved it when they hurt others who you didn’t like. You really wanted to be on their side.

These boys, all pimples and insecurity, were ripe for mobilizing.  Targeting others as scapegoats, proved a great relief.  In a small but very important way, this adolescent interaction teaches about the ripeness that foretells the rise of fascism.  According to Robert Paxton, the eminent scholar, fascism is not an ideology, not a clear set of ideas or an agenda for the future.  It is the “mobilization of passions,” mass passions, almost as chaotically at first, as the 14 year on put down artists.

The mobilization depends chiefly on the following conditions:

A sense of crisis. Demagogues succeed, according to Paxton, when there is “a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution.”  Donald Trump, the Republican nominee to be President of the United States, speaks to a white, largely male electorate who feel left behind, lost, and diminished.  They no longer believe that government can or even wants to help.  Over and again, Trump plays to America’s downward spiral, and particularly the loss of power to which the white working class is entitled. The psychology of crisis draws them in.

Feeling victimized.  “The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.”  In other words, the crisis didn’t arise from vague forces.  Someone made it happen: “Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.”  The sense of American society bowing before the forces of “foreign hordes” has fueled populist movements throughout our history and before. As in Europe, American culture is in the midst of a renaissance of such nativism.

“The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”  From the start of the campaign, Trump has put himself forward as the strongest, the one who is destined to survive.  He mocks Jeb Bush’s lack of energy and Marco Rubio’s sweaty underarms. They are inferior creatures destined for extinction.  Watching the Republic primaries, we saw how easily he turned those debates into eighth grade free for alls in which he, simply by putting others down, fulfilled his promise to survive and thrive.

“The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.”  We see this in Trump’s wall, in the segregation of Muslims, Latinos, and others—all in the name of “making America great again.”  This is the kind of ‘isolationism’ that is the kissing cousin of American exceptionalism.  For us to be great, we must believe that others are lesser beings.

Faith in the superiority of the leader’s instincts over evidence and reason. Trump tells us, over and over, to “trust me” because he’ll “make a better deal.”  He talks about his business experience but what he really means is that he was born to a certain kind of wisdom.  Like the pimply adolescents of my youth, Trump’s fans want toughness, decisiveness, confidence far more than thought and reason.  They love that he speaks spontaneously.  It feels authentic to them.  They don’t care about lots of thought. They don’t even like or trust it.  Thought and ‘excessive planning’ are effete.  Trump will know the right thing to do when the moment comes.  As Robert Tsai puts it in What Aryans See in Donald Trump: “He is the Aryan warrior, come to save whiteness itself.”

I have been following politics for over sixty years.  I was brought up during the McCarthy scare, which was horrifying in its indiscriminate scapegoating of “Reds” and the way that it made so many millions too timid to raise their voices against anything that wasn’t “red blooded American.”  Donald Trump may have the ability and the audience to replicate the Red Scare but, more importantly, he has the potential to go much further.  His bullying of all who oppose him, his racism, his convenient nationalism, his lack of any consistent set of values, his capacity to marshal the worst in American culture is more reminiscent, still, of Benito Mussolini.