Using Humiliation Wisely

Politics can be tiresome. Politics can be exhausting. Who can stay angry all the time at just about everything, and then be told to look over there, there’s something entirely new that should outrage you. You are being insulted! No, wait – those people want to burn down the cities – that’s it – unless it’s something else. Those people hate Jesus and are mocking you because you like the guy. They’re out to get you. That’s all they think about – you, personally – but that’s unlikely. You know you’re not that important in the great scheme of things. No one is. But you know you’re supposed to be angry. You’re tired and have things to do – grocery shopping and whatnot – but you’re supposed to be angry. And you’re not. You’re just tired, and a bit resentful. Why the hell should you be angry anyway?

Adam Serwer considers that question and sees this:

After George Floyd was killed, Donald Trump sensed an opportunity. Americans, anguished and angry over Floyd’s death, had erupted in protest – some set fires, broke the windows of department stores, and stormed a police precinct. Commentators reached for historical analogies, circling in on 1968 and the twilight of the civil-rights era, when riots and rebellion engulfed one American city after another. Back then, Richard Nixon seized on a message of “law and order.” He would restore normalcy by suppressing protest with the iron hand of the state. In return for his promise of pacification, Americans gave him the White House.

Trump could do that:

Surveying the protests, Trump saw a path to victory in Nixon’s footsteps: The uprisings of 2020 could rescue him from his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. The president leaned into his own “law and order” message. He lashed out against “thugs” and “terrorists,” warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Ahead of what was to be his comeback rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June, Trump tweeted, “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis” – making no distinction between those protesting peacefully and those who might engage in violence.

He was relying on the chaos of the protests to produce the kind of racist backlash that he had ridden to the presidency in 2016. Trump had blamed the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri – a response to the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer – on Barack Obama’s indulgence of criminality. “With our weak leadership in Washington, you can expect Ferguson type riots and looting in other places,” Trump predicted in 2014. As president, he saw such uprisings as deliverance.

In short, all that civil unrest was pure gold. Nothing could go wrong now, but Serwer notes that it all went wrong:

Trump was elected president on a promise to restore an idealized past in which America’s traditional aristocracy of race was unquestioned. But rather than restore that aristocracy, four years of catastrophe have – at least for the moment – discredited it. Instead of ushering in a golden age of prosperity and a return to the cultural conservatism of the 1950s, Trump’s presidency has radicalized millions of white Americans who were previously inclined to dismiss systemic racism as a myth, the racial wealth gap as a product of Black cultural pathology, and discriminatory policing as a matter of a few bad apples.

Those staples of the American racial discourse became hard to sustain this year, as the country was enveloped by overlapping national crises.

And that meant that he was talking about something that didn’t matter all that much:

The pandemic exposed the president. The nation needed an experienced policy maker; instead it saw a professional hustler, playing to the cameras and claiming that the virus would disappear. As statistics emerged showing that Americans of color disproportionately filled the ranks of essential workers, the unemployed, and the dead, the White House and its allies in the conservative media downplayed the danger of the virus, urging Americans to return to work and resurrect the Trump economy, no matter the cost.

The pandemic made that impossible, and there was that other matter:

On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot after being pursued by three men in Georgia who thought he looked suspicious; for months, the men walked free. On March 13, Breonna Taylor, an emergency-room technician, was killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers serving a no-knock warrant to find a cache of drugs that did not exist; months later, one of the officers was fired but no charges were filed. Then, on Memorial Day, the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck and ignored his many pleas for help. The nation erupted. According to some polls, more than 23 million people participated in anti-police-brutality protests, potentially making this the largest protest movement in American history.

And there was Trump, calling for more police brutality to stop these people from burning down the whole country. More than twenty-three million other people wondered what the hell he was talking about. No one wanted to burn down the country. There were some asshole looters, and the usual perpetually hysterical anarchists, but they were few and they were stupid. America was turning into an explicitly antiracist nation – something entirely new. Serwer then takes a deep dive into American history to illustrate what led up to this.

But that doesn’t matter now. The New York Times’ Jeremy Peters covers the present:

President Trump is using a fear-based playbook that is as familiar to him as it is questionable in actually helping Republicans get elected in recent years. Some of the players have changed – instead of MS-13 gang members and migrant caravans, now there are rioters and looters – but the target audience and themes are the same: suburban communities that he claims Democrats won’t keep safe. The president is even reusing phrases and imagery from 2018, with slogans like “jobs not mobs” and ads showing Democratic politicians and liberal figures kneeling during the national anthem.

Democrats can point to the 41 House seats they picked up in 2018 to show that the Republican strategy did not work then, and that voters were more concerned about health care than havoc. Even Republicans say there is no solid evidence in their polling that proves the president’s tactics are helping him today.

But behind their confidence, Democrats acknowledge a real risk that Mr. Trump and Republicans could benefit by casting former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the Democratic Party as indifferent to the violence and unrest that has shaken cities across the country, especially in the Midwestern suburbs in Wisconsin and Minnesota where it is not so distant and abstract.

Serwer said the world changed, but Democrats fear that it hasn’t:

Fear – over crime, street violence, funding cuts to police departments or economic security – resonates with suburban voters of all demographics, said Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who oversaw the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy to win the House in 2018. “Democrats need to be in a place where they acknowledge the fear that comes with that and put the issue to bed. Then people are willing to listen to you,” Mr. Sena said. “But if you ignore the problem, then you open the door for the Republican strategy to work.”

Republicans point to Minnesota’s First Congressional District as an example of how the playbook can work. The Democratic candidate in 2018, Dan Feehan, narrowly lost after a scorching ad campaign. Ads from Republicans and their outside groups depicted him alongside images of a kneeling Colin Kaepernick and grimacing Hispanic men covered in tattoos, meant to evoke stereotypes of hardened criminals.

That still works:

The suburbs helped propel Democratic gains in 2018, suggesting that if voters were motivated by fear, it wasn’t gangs and migrant invasions they were worried about. Concerns about crime then and now are real, Mr. Sena said, “But not any scarier than the idea of someone taking away their health care.”

Republicans believe otherwise. The looting and property destruction that damaged more than 1,500 buildings and businesses across the Twin Cities and spread to other major metropolitan areas provided instant grist for Mr. Trump, Republicans and conservative media. Ignoring the fact that these bursts of violence were relatively isolated amid the mass demonstrations that drew millions of Americans from Whitefish, Mont., to Miami – and aware that many Democrats were loath to be seen as critical of the broader movement for racial justice – the president and his allies focused on the unrest often to the exclusion of anything else.

And then they accused Democrats of failing to condemn the unrest.

And then they launched the ads:

What followed was some of the bleakest and dystopian messaging of the campaign so far, with Trump campaign ads featuring fictitious unanswered calls to 911 because of cuts to public safety. An ad that went out in July shows a man prying open the door to an elderly woman’s home with a crowbar. When she reaches 911, a recording tells her, “Leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.” The man approaches, and the camera cuts away to a shot of the phone lying on the ground…

In Minnesota, the Trump campaign started running a new ad that opens with a jarring juxtaposition. “Lawless criminals terrorized Minneapolis. Joe Biden takes a knee,” the announcer says as an image of Mr. Biden kneeling during a meeting at a Black church appears, superimposed over video of a burning building.

And that’s how Trump wins, or maybe not:

“He actually is talking about issues that people care about, but he’s using language that makes it less effective,” said Frank Luntz, a veteran adviser to Republican campaigns who has been critical of the president.

“The problem with ‘law and order,’ is that if you ask voters they will tell you they think of cops hitting protesters over the head, and nobody wants that. Trump is using the language of 1968, and this is 2020,” Mr. Luntz said.

Peters illustrates that with an anecdote:

By the time Republicans were done with Sharice Davids in 2018, she barely recognized herself. In ads that blanketed her suburban Kansas City district during her congressional race, she was portrayed as “the candidate of the liberal mob,” an enemy of the police, a threat to children, and an ally of “radical left-wing protesters.”

As flabbergasted as she was by the strategy then, she said she was surprised Republicans were at it again, only this time in the presidential election.

“It didn’t work last time,” said Ms. Davids, who won her race by 10 points and is favored to be re-elected to a second term in November…

There’s a lesson there:

With more Democrats speaking the language of law enforcement, Republicans may find their approach even less effective. From Kansas, Ms. Davids spoke of being raised by a mother who served in the Army and then worked for a time in law enforcement. She said she has attended rallies for racial justice and sat down with police leaders. Somewhere in between, she said, is where most Americans are.

“I do think that there are a lot of people who really want us to have the conversation about racial justice and who really want us to be thoughtful about how we allocate our resources to police,” she said.

Perhaps so, but much of this may be beside the point. Something else may be going on. Tom Friedman suggests this:

The success of Joe Biden’s campaign against Donald Trump may ride on his ability to speak to the sense of humiliation and quest for dignity of many Trump supporters, which Hillary Clinton failed to do.

Try to understand that:

It has been obvious ever since Trump first ran for president that many of his core supporters actually hate the people who hate Trump, more than they care about Trump or any particular action he takes, no matter how awful.

The media feed Trump’s supporters a daily diet of how outrageous this or that Trump action is – but none of it diminishes their support. Because many Trump supporters are not attracted to his policies. They’re attracted to his attitude – his willingness and evident delight in skewering the people they hate and who they feel look down on them.

In fact, that’s his secret weapon:

Humiliation, in my view, is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations. The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money.

People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you make people feel humiliated, they will respond with a ferocity unlike any other emotion, or just refuse to lift a finger for you. As Nelson Mandela once observed, “There is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated.”

By contrast, if you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them. Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening – not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words.

And the alternative to deep listening is always disastrous:

I’ve seen firsthand the power of humiliation in foreign policy: Vladimir Putin’s macho act after Russia’s humiliation at losing the Cold War; Iraqi Sunnis who felt humiliated by a U.S. invasion force that pushed them out of Iraq’s army and government, stripping them of rank and status; Israeli Sephardic Jews who felt humiliated by Ashkenazi Jewish elites, something Bibi Netanyahu has long manipulated; Palestinians feeling humiliated at Israeli checkpoints; Muslim youth in Europe feeling humiliated by the Christian majority; and China questing to become the world’s dominant power, after what Chinese themselves call their “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers.

And it’s the same here at home:

When George Floyd was being held down by three policemen, one with a knee on his neck, as he pleaded for his mother and onlookers filmed on their phones, he was not just being restrained – he was being humiliated. Resistance to the daily humiliations of racism has fueled the Black civil rights movement from its inception to Black Lives Matter.

Friedman then recommends a good book on this matter:

In a much talked-about new book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel says “the politics of humiliation” is also at the heart of Trump’s appeal.

“Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer,” Sandel notes. These grievances “are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.”

Unless Biden finds a way to speak to the sense of humiliation felt by many working-class voters, Sandel warns, even Trump’s failure to deal with the pandemic may not be enough to turn these voters against him. The reason? “Resentment borne of humiliation is the most potent political sentiment of all,” Sandel explains.

And it’s not going away:

Sandel argues that the polarized politics of our time, and the resentments that fuel it, arise, paradoxically, from a seemingly attractive ideal – the meritocratic promise that if you work hard and go to college, you will rise. But this ideal sends a double message.

“It congratulates the winners but denigrates the losers,” he writes, because it creates the impression that a “college degree is a precondition for dignified work and social esteem” – while devaluing the contributions of those without a diploma. This has led many working people to feel that elites look down on them, creating the conditions for the “politics of humiliation” that Trump exploits.

And that’s why they hate Anthony Fauci. What makes him think he’s so smart? Perhaps that’s an absurd position, but that was always an inevitable position:

“Elites have so valorized a college degree – both as an avenue for advancement and as the basis for social esteem – that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate, and the harsh judgment it imposes on those who have not gone to college,” Sandel says.

“One of the deepest political divides in American politics today is between those with and those without a college degree. In the 2016 election, Trump won two-thirds of white voters without a college degree.”

And many of them were Democrats who had voted for Obama:

These traditional Democratic voters felt that liberal elites were looking down at them, new immigrants were superseding them and foreigners were laughing at them. And Trump became the fist-in-the-face that his voters threw back at all of them.

“Biden is right that Trump botched the pandemic, violated constitutional norms and inflamed racial tensions – all good grounds for throwing him out of office,” argues Sandel. “But Biden could win this argument and still lose the election.” He must find a way to show that he understands those who feel disrespected and are drawn to Trump for that reason – even though most of his policies don’t help them.

How does he do that? Friedman and Sandel suggest this:

Biden should go on a tour of Trump country, focusing on rural counties and towns in the Midwest, and just listen to Trump’s base, both to learn and as a sign of respect.

Then, at the first presidential debate, Biden should ignore Trump and his buffoonery and speak about what he had learned by talking to likely Trump voters.

Biden could talk about where he agrees with them and where he disagrees with them and why – the ultimate sign of respect. That is how Biden can get at least some Trump devotees to see that “working-class Joe from Scranton” – not “Billionaire Don, born with a silver spoon in his mouth” – is the one who really hails from their side of the tracks and can be trusted (a very important word) to look out for them.

When it comes to politics, a lot of people don’t listen through their ears. They listen through their gut, and Biden, more than any other Democratic leader today, has the ability to connect there.

If so, then it will all come down to this:

Trump’s goal in this campaign is to separate Biden from Biden voters by making it as difficult as possible for Biden voters to vote. Biden’s goal should be to separate Trump from Trump voters by showing that he respects them and their fears – even if he does not respect Trump.

They feel humiliated. Acknowledge that. But there’s envy too. Kevin Drum addresses that:

For the past several weeks Donald Trump has been trying to whip his base into a frenzy over all the “Democrat run” cities that are going up in flames. This is generally viewed as part of his law-and-order campaign spiel, with a side order of racial dog whistling, but it seems a little quixotic since, at most, he can only point to Portland and Kenosha as cities that are currently having problems with violent protesters. That’s a mighty thin thread for a claim that all of America’s big cities are in trouble, and it’s no surprise that it doesn’t seem to be working.

But before you write it off as a failed strategy, it’s worth remembering something else about America’s cities. Big cities are home to the lion’s share of job growth, and are where all the job growth is projected to be in the future. Conversely, rural areas are losing jobs.

In one sense this is a purely economic observation. But it also represents something else: envy.

Yes, envy might be useful too:

The people who live and work in rural America can see perfectly well that cities are booming while their own communities are barely treading water. But nobody likes to think that their community is literally the dregs of the nation. There must be something that’s better about living where they live.

This is what Trump is appealing to. Look, he says, maybe folks in big cities make more money than you, but these cities are awash in crime and violence. That’s the price they pay, and that’s why it makes sense to stay where you are. In fact, it’s damn smart of you, he suggests, to avoid the cesspools of New York, Chicago, and other crime-ridden metropolises.


That’s good to hear, isn’t it? Folks who live in small towns and rural areas are smart to stay where they are. It’s not at all a matter of not having the right skills or not having the energy to move. It’s just a simple, rational decision to trade off money for safety.

Even if Trump’s law-and-order shtick doesn’t end up doing much for him, it’s already had the side benefit of binding rural and small town voters closer to him. He’s explained to them why they’re smart to live where they live and they like that.

Naturally, they also like the person who explained it.

And now they don’t have to feel humiliated or be white-hot angry, but can Trump win if they’re not either?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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