10 Plagues Unearthed By This Election
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
By Don Hazen, Kali Holloway, Steven Rosenfeld, Adele M. Stan, Janet Allon, and Jan Frel
This election laid bare what has long plagued us.
The clash between Trump and Clinton slit open the underbelly of America and a toxic stew has oozed out. Old, familiar race hatred and anti-Semitism have reemerged, newly swathed in the cloak of the “alt-right.” Misogyny has proved its enduring electoral strength. Anti-immigrant hysteria, ironically, has given validity to anti-American policy proposals. With Trump at the lead, all this has been married with old-fashioned fear-mongering, racial profiling and contempt and disdain for the “other,” be they Muslims, people of color, the handicapped, or even journalists just trying to do their jobs.
The U.S. was a divided and traumatized place before the election, but the coarseness of this campaign has made the environment more polluted. White Christians and working-class white men feel threatened by a world they see as passing them by. Their fear and anger has made them easy pickings for extreme right-wing media outlets including Breitbart, Alex Jones and far worse actors. Trump, whose presidential aspirations were built on the lies of his “birther” claims, embraced a number of their wildest conspiracies.
Unprecedented (and perhaps exhausting, tedious and maddening) is the only way to describe what we’ve all just gone through. The 2016 election was a tortuous 18 months long, all leading to an unthinkable verdict and offering a horrifying view of the future. This bizarre, mean-spirited, angry campaign season is a portent of more of the same ahead.
With that in mind, here are 10 of the worst plagues released by this campaign.
This election has made fundamentally clear that perhaps the most powerful factor that has contributed to the polarization, anger and pessimism prevalent among many in the U.S. is displacement and the trauma that can follow it.
Displacement is defined as “moving of something from its place or position.” Millions of Americans, for a host of reasons leading up to the election, have been feeling fundamental loss. Their displacement is a loss of culture, jobs, community, religion, economics, identity and hope for the future.
Displacement has exacerbated fear of the “other,” of immigrants, of minorities, providing increased permission for racism and misogyny. It can produce paranoid thinking, blaming-the-victim psychology and fantasies of reverse discrimination. It has played a role in generating a vicious troll culture that traffics in misogyny and has invented a kind of hipster racism associated with what is euphemistically called the alt-right.
Displacement can lead to new levels of loss and trauma. It exacerbates deeper levels of unresolved trauma from childhood and can trigger fear, anger and domestic violence. People who feel psychologically displaced and fearful are more likely to respond to authority figures who talk of law and order. Manufactured fears lead to the loosest gun laws imaginable despite the fact that whites in America are probably safer than they have ever been.
The feeling of being displaced can be a loss experienced so deeply it has led to increasing levels of addiction, alcoholism, violence and suicide. The trauma caused by various psychological and physical displacements has affected people’s thinking and helped to nurture an anti-science reality fueled by a wide range of conspiracy theories.
And the consequences of feeling displaced have led people to desperately embrace Donald Trump, a man has promised to bring America back to the white Christian past for which much of red America yearns.
“My best read of what’s happened on the ground is a combined economic and cultural anxiety, particularly among white conservative evangelical Christians. In addition to the cultural fears, about eight in ten white evangelical Protestants say they still think we’re in a recession today. They still feel economically distressed. I think that plays a role in this as well. It’s the combined sense that evangelical Christian values have lost their power in the center of American culture and that working-class jobs that make ends meet are hard to come by.”
As Jones underscores:
“What has become most important to the eight in ten white evangelical voters who say they’re voting for Trump over Clinton is that in Trump they see someone who is going to restore their vision of America. It is a vision which really does look like 1950s America. It’s pre-civil rights, it’s pre-women’s rights, and it’s before immigration policy was opened up in the mid-1960s. And most of all, it’s a time when white Protestants were demographically in the majority. But just over the last two election cycles, we’ve gone from a majority white Christian country to a minority white Christian country, from 54 percent white Christian in 2008 to 45 percent white Christian today.”
2. Economic Trauma
The election of 2016 proved just how little the economic recovery has affected tens of millions of Americans who live on the margins, and fear for their economic future. Loss of jobs, aging workers and the arrival of immigrants are all factors in the economic displacement of many Americans, but acutely among those 100 million Americans who did not attend college.
Nearly half (43.9 percent) of U.S. households live on the edge of financial collapse with almost no savings to fall back on in the event of a job loss, health crisis or other income-eliminating emergency, according to a report by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED).
Things are as bad or worse for those in retirement or on the brink. In December 2014, 42.9 million people received Social Security retirement benefits that averaged $1,328.58 a month, or roughly $15,943 annually before taxes. One-third, or 14.3 million people, derive almost all of their income this way. For most of the other two-thirds, Social Security provides over half their income. That means more than 20 million additional people live on less than $32,000 a year. These figures are averages and don’t reflect racial differences. For example, for every $1 white families have in savings, African Americans have just 5 cents and Latinos have 6 cents.
In terms of general poverty, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that “45.3 million people lived at or below the poverty line in 2013 ($11,888 for one person) for the third consecutive year.” Looking at this population broken up by race, blacks account for 27 percent; Latinos 23.5 percent; Asians 10.5 percent; and whites and others make up the rest.
For many of us it is almost incomprehensible to live daily life with this level of financial stress. But more than 100 million do.
Researcher Galen Buckwalter, the head scientist at Payoff, a company that researches the impact of debt, concluded that huge levels of financial stress and debt produce symptoms of PTSD, a state he describes as acute financial stress. He points out that, “In reality, a majority of us don’t have the natural cognitive and organizational styles of those who excel at the kind of thinking that financial planning requires, leaving many of us exceptionally vulnerable to chronic stress.”
Buckwalter offers that:
“Our studies led us to surprising findings: 23 percent of adults and 36 percent of millennials experience Acute Financial Stress at levels that would qualify them for a diagnosis of PTSD. We knew people were feeling under the gun and often anxious about their futures, but this degree of clinical stress was more severe and pervasive than we could have imagined.”
PTSD and acute financial stress, according to Buckwalter, change one’s beliefs and feelings:
“The world feels more threatening and relationships become difficult, leading to depression and isolation. Perhaps most important in all of this, PTSD symptoms results in hyperarousal, in which it’s chronically difficult for people to fully calm down, even in sleep. The mind and body are always prepared for trouble, leading to chronic stress that wears at all of the body’s systems, hastening the natural processes of aging the body and mind.”
Buckwalter’s research has found that financial stress affects cognitive processes. As Buckwalter told AlterNet, “It’s also damaging our bodies and minds, leading to deeply destructive health outcomes, leaving millions of Americans sick in ways we’re just beginning to understand. We know that stress disproportionately contributes to all-cause mortality nationwide, and stress over money is a significant, though widely ignored, contributor.”
3. Race and the Emergence of the Alt-Right
While anti-black racism was predictably common across the board among whites, multiple surveys have found that Trump supporters are particularly likely to hold negative views of African Americans, in one study describing them as “‘savage,’ ‘barbaric,’ and ‘lacking self-restraint, like animals.’” An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll found 67 percent of self-identified Trump voters hold animus toward Muslims, with a staggering 87 percent supporting Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. The overwhelming majority of Trump voters, nearly 70 percent, say immigrants “burden the country,” according to a study from Pew Research Center. And an Anti-Defamation League review of the precipitous rise in anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish journalists on Twitter found that the “words appearing most frequently in the Twitter biographies of the attackers were ‘Trump,’ ‘nationalist,’ ‘conservative’ and ‘white.’”
Trump has unabashedly stoked the flames of racial hatred throughout his campaign. From the moment he launched his presidential bid with a speech declaring the vast majority of Mexican immigrants lawless criminals, to his closing ad filled with anti-Semitic stereotypes and dog whistles, the Trump campaign has preyed upon the fears of white Christian Americans who feel they’ve been pushed aside in a country they believe rightfully belongs to them. Without doubt, the poisonous tenor of Trump’s campaign has contributed to a recent rise overall in hate crimes committed against both historically and more recently marginalized groups. Trump’s vitriol has also helped drive up the number of Ku Klux Klan chapters and anti-government militia groups that have now taken root around the country.
Trump supporters are more likely to live in areas where industry has failed, manufacturing jobs are disappearing and life expectancies are dropping off. There have been calls for greater empathy and understanding for those who made Trump president, who have had their trauma exploited by the campaign. But it seems far more important to recognize the trauma that Trump has already caused—and will only continue to cause—in the lives of those already vulnerable to this country’s ugliest and darkest biases.
4. The Rise of White Supremacists and the Militia Movement
There has always been an American militia movement, in which mostly white men and a handful of women embrace a mix of armed survivalism and self-proclaimed fealty to the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. This movement’s members have threatened to take the law into their own hands to defend a white Christian America. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 led to an exponential growth of these extreme anti-government groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks 1,000 anti-government groups, including more than 276 armed militias (a 37 percent increase compared to 2014) and “citizen” coalitions that do not recognize the federal government.
However, Trump has brought groups like Oath Keepers out of the woods and into the Republican Party, where they took it upon themselves to police urban polling places for “suspicious activities”—meaning anything helping Democrats to vote. Other groups (like the Three Percenters, who are named after the three percent of colonists who fought the British to win American independence) not only voice the same pro-gun, anti-Obama, anti-Muslim, anti-liberal views as Trump but also embrace using violence, if necessary, to advance their beliefs.
Trump has elevated and unleashed these dark beliefs. It remains to be seen what role they will play in his presidency, but because many are retired military and law enforcement officers, you can bet they will be eagar to help Trump with his deportation plans for undocumented immigrants.
5. Conspiracies, Disinformation, and Low-Information Voters
Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News have been the right-wing media triumvirate, the kingmakers of GOP politics for over two decades. That changed in this presidential election. As fiendish as those three are, this election has been deeply influenced by far more fringe-y media figures including the Breitbart news site, radio hosts Michael Savage and Alex Jones, and the cauldrons of hatred, paranoia and conspiracy that fuel their media empires. Alt-right is now part of the mainstream.
The reviled and mendacious Breitbart quickly emerged as Trump HQ since the primaries, knee-capping Trump’s GOP rivals at every opportunity and amplifying Trump’s wide array of hate-filled attacks on almost every minority group imaginable. Breitbart and Trump got so close he hired the company’s CEO, Steve Bannon, to run his campaign. Right-wing xenophobe and hatemonger Michael Savage hosted Trump on his radio show regularly throughout the GOP primaries and the national election to his audience of millions, and he rightly described himself as the “architect” of Trump’s constant attacks on Muslims and the need for a border wall with Mexico. Alex Jones, with a cult following through his radio show and online news and video, was the launchpad for countless bizarre conspiracy theories that ended up getting wider play in the mainstream media, including a variety of insinuations about Hillary’s physical and mental health.
Donald Trump has a long and rich history, traceable some three decades back, of speaking his misogyny aloud and on-the-record. He has not wavered in his sexism during the 2016 campaign, never letting a thing like “seeming presidential” get in the way of an opportunity to criticize a woman’s looks or body. For the last 18 months—though it feels like far longer—we’ve watched Trump shuttle from one misogynist moment to the next, leaving a trail of Twitter insults behind him. Perhaps the moment when Trump’s pathological views of women were on peak display came early last month, in a leaked video showing him boastfully describing what can only be categorized as criminal sexual abuse. In the ensuing flood of sexual assault allegations from numerous women, Trump’s alibi has been that none were hot enough to warrant his attention.
It makes sense, then, that researchers have found a key predictor of support for Trump is negative attitudes toward women. As early as June of last year—long before the Access Hollywood tape leak—a team of political scientists surveyed his supporters and concluded that “sexism was strongly and significantly correlated with support for Trump” and that misogynist attitudes among Trumpites were “equivalent to the impact of ethnocentrism.” In other words, Trump fans are as myopically misogynist as they are racist.
Trump’s legacy may include effectively driving up the number of callers to rape crisis lines, negatively affecting the body images of America’s teenage girls and triggering the pain of millions of sexual assault survivors. But also, this: Having a man who is so consistent in his disdain for women become president of the most powerful country in the world is a reminder that gender matters, and feminism is necessary, even in 2016.
In addition to being one of the most toxic campaigns in history, the 2016 election may well be remembered as the first time internet trolls played a role in shaping the tone of mainstream political discourse. They did this mainly by hurling abuse: torrents of racism and misogyny, lobbed both online and offline at those who spoke up against injustice on social media or in other digital spaces.
In Donald Trump, the candidate most likely to be baited with a tweet, those racist, misogynist trolls found both a kindred spirit and inspiration to become more prolific in their abuse. Under the guise of fighting for free speech—to say the most vile and disgusting things to the same groups of people they’ve always said them to—some of the worst trolls have gathered under the banner of the alt-right, a movement its founders proudly note is rooted in white nationalism and the fight against the creep of multiculturalism, race mixing and the “Jewish influence.”
Stephen Bannon, the CEO of Trump’s campaign, is also the chairman of Breitbart, a publication he refers to as “the platform for the alt-right.” Richard Spencer, who eschews the title “white supremacist,” even as he advocates for a white ethno-state and forced sterilization for people of color (which sounds pretty darn white supremacist by anyone’s definition), coined the term and has been a big fan of Trump’s campaign. Recently, Spencer told Mother Jones, “I think if Trump wins we could really legitimately say that he was associated directly with us, with the ‘r[acist]’ word, all sorts of things. People will have to recognize us.”
These are Trump’s people, and they have made the internet, and non-virtual life, inhospitable for millions. Alt-righties like Milo Yiannopoulos have attempted to turn it all into a bit of provocative fun designed to upset the “normies”; less light-hearted adherents such as Andrew Anglin, founder of alt-right site the Daily Stormer, have been less capricious in expressing their mission. “The goal is to ethnically cleanse white nations of non-whites and establish an authoritarian government,” Anglin has written. “Many people also believe that the Jews should be exterminated.”
Trolls—and that includes Kremlin-backed fakes like those exposed by Samantha Bee—amplify the ugly hatred present in American society to deafening levels. They intimidate and harass, using trauma and fear to shut down the voices of those who are speaking loudly for the first time. In other words, they embody, in many ways, the Trump ethos.
8. The Red-Blue Divisions That Will Remain Long After the Election
The final vote counts do not have to be in for Americans to be reminded of how deeply polarized the country has become, with blue states lining the coasts, and apart from New England, Colorado and New Mexico, most of the rest of the country red. Presidential elections stopped being national landslides years ago, when one party swept most of the states. Some of that is due to Republican redistricting after the latest Census, in 2010, when GOP state majorities redrew political boundary lines benefiting their incumbents and pushing Democrats into electoral ghettos.
Republicans didn’t realize then that they created a pathway for their party’s extremists, led by the Tea Party, to start winning their nominating primaries, which brought a new uncompromising crowd to Congress and state capitals. Trump’s candidacy is the consequence of a GOP that has no room for moderates—who typically describe themselves as independents to pollsters. Trump is the perfect standard-bearer for a political culture that now has more power than ever.
After the election, the GOP controls the executive office, more than 30 governorships and the U.S. House. Needless to say, Latinos, who comprise a growing segment of the population, will be increasingly powerful. Of the eight states with populations that are higher than the national average, there was only one in which Trump was expected to win: Texas. Parts of the South are also tilting blue, such as northern Virginia, eastern North Carolina, urban Georgia and southern Florida. But the GOP will retain its grip on parts of the nation where the population is older and whiter than the rest of the country, such as much of the South and Rust Belt. And because Republicans gerrymandered political districts after 2010, the conditions remain for stretches of the country to keep electing far-right extremists. That means the harsh political rancor will continue.
9. Pessimism and Dislike of Both Candidates
Disgust with the establishment and a deep pessimism that either of the two major party candidates would offer any meaningful improvement in the lives of most Americans was a theme throughout this long depressing presidential campaign. On Election Day, six of 10 voters were still saying they were dissatisfied with their choices, and half said they would not support the new president no matter who wins. Not quite the message of hope and change that resounded at the beginning of the Obama years.
Both major party candidates seemed flawed. Reality TV star Donald Trump was initially seen as a curiosity, a laughable addition to the overstuffed clown car, more a boon to late-night comedy than an honest-to-goodness contender. Hillary Clinton, the inevitable, establishment insider, seemed to promise more of the same-old-same-old system that was failing too many people. Bernie Sanders breathed some fresh life and new hope into people, especially for millennials, but his ultimate defeat left a bitter aftertaste and a return to cynicism. Of course, Donald Trump ignited some passions in people as well, but they were mostly dark, xenophobic, divisive ones.
Still, the equivalence, always false, ends there. While both candidates were historically unpopular, Trump represented dark authoritarian impulses, sexually predatory remarks, and stubborn ignorance about the world. Sadly, he turned out to know precisely what many American voters wanted.
10. Violence and Guns
Among the many false claims that Donald Trump made on the campaign trail is the big lie that Hillary Clinton intended to abolish the Second Amendment. Although PolitiFact rated the claim as false, the result was exactly what Trump’s endorsers at the National Rifle Association likely wanted: a surge in the sale of guns.
Since the onset of the presidential campaign, gun sales have climbed (for one company, Sturm, Ruger & Co., earnings increased by 66 percent in the quarter that ended October 1, according to CNN, when compared with the same quarter the year before). NPR reports that the FBI saw a major uptick in the number of background checks it performs: In October, the bureau processed 2.3 million background checks, an increase of 350,000 when compared with figures from October 2015. According to NPR, “October marked the 18th month in a row that the number of FBI background checks set a monthly record, putting 2016 on track to shatter the previous annual record.”
Although it has become American tradition that gun sales surge in advance of a presidential election, 2016 beats previous records. Trump, meanwhile, darkly suggested that “Second Amendment people” might take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton assumed the presidency. As AlterNet reported, at a Trump rally in Virginia, a vendor did brisk sales in gun targets with Clinton’s face superimposed on them, emblazoned with the tagline: “Chipping Away at Your Gun Rights Since 1993.” Now there are millions more guns in the hands of Americans who have been emboldened by Trump’s hateful calls to violence, and no doubt, by his ascent to the presidency.
IMAGE: Demonstrators protest against the election of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump in front of the White House in Washington November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque