Here in Philadelphia, a sudden cold snap brought an abrupt end to a long and dazzling Indian summer. As the wind skittered across our garden and sent the dead leaves flying, I stepped outside and took a fond last look at the annuals. They were still bursting with blooms, but tonight would bring the first frost. Tomorrow they’d most likely be defunct, and a long winter lay ahead.
I left the flowers to their fate and thought about the despondent mood shared by so many Americans in the wake of Donald Trump’s improbable victory. It’s as if we were on the eve of a killing frost, and those of us who loved the warmth and color of American life had gone into mourning.
He did it. He really did it. The most unconventional, intemperate, uncouth and narcissistic presidential candidate in memory snatched an electoral triumph from the anointed one, the articulate and female one — the well-connected progressive globalist in the smartly tailored pants suit.
Who would have believed it a year ago? Who can believe it now, two weeks after the election? We’ve witnessed one of the most stunning upsets in American political history, and it’s still sinking in.
Sometimes, in my darker moments, I feel as if we’ve drifted into uncharted waters during the Age of Exploration. Many of us are wondering if we’ll soon be sailing over the edge.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a comfortable margin, so how did she blow the election? Simple: her campaign essentially snubbed the pivotal (and populous) Rust Belt states. Even more disastrously, she snubbed the downwardly mobile, demoralized, mostly white workers who used to constitute the rock-solid core of the Democratic base. Joe Biden never would have made that mistake.
Meanwhile, the Democrats focused on cementing their bond with minorities and the progressive elite — an unlikely urban alliance of the underprivileged and overprivileged: inner-city poor, well-educated people of all colors, student activists and affluent coastal chardonnay-sippers. They encouraged the ironclad grievance narratives of blacks, feminists, gays, transgender people and other self-conscious subsets of American society.
Identity politics surged to the forefront of Democratic discourse. The social justice warriors glowed with righteous (and frequently self-righteous) passion. Solidarity with progressive social causes became almost mandatory for admission to the more desirable social circles. Stepping off the “reservation” on any issue could mean ostracism, an unceremonious unfriending on Facebook and the gnashing of teeth.
Democrats like to style themselves as the party of diversity, and that’s fine. But their brand of diversity hasn’t extended to evangelical Christians, blue-collar workers, old white men, rural Americans, cultural conservatives and other untouchables. On the contrary, the social justice warriors blame these outcasts for most of society’s ills: not only racism, misogyny and homophobia, but gun violence, xenophobia, religious intolerance and stubborn opposition to science.
Many of these accusations are true enough, but they all depend on the kind of sweeping negative stereotypes that good liberals revile when they’re aimed at non-Christians and people of color. It doesn’t seem to matter. In some circles, whiteness itself is to be reviled and white history systematically stripped of honor. Down with Columbus, Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson and even that noble slaveholder George Washington!
Eventually the conservative white outcasts had all they could take. What happened next? They forged their own renegade brand of identity politics. They became conscious of their whiteness and their increasing marginalization by the forces of demographic and cultural change. You could say the Klan went mainstream; call it KKK Lite. It was an understandable reaction to being despised by the Democrats and threatened by the future, but it wasn’t pretty.
Even before Trump’s victory, we saw signs that a white resistance movement was brewing. The far right’s populist Tea Party revolt should have been a tip-off. Ditto for the perverse gun mania that proliferated across the republic, especially after well-publicized mass shootings. Ditto for the Obama Derangement Syndrome that afflicted so many opponents of the 44th president from day one.
Granted, much of the Obamaphobia was based purely on political differences. And yes, Obama could have used his bully pulpit to heal America’s deepening racial rift instead of reflexively siding with every Black Lives Matter grievance. But I still wonder how a thoughtful, mildly liberal biracial president could have provoked such over-the-top hostility from the right. The fact that Obama was smart, dignified, classy and morally above reproach seemed to infuriate his enemies all the more.
Suddenly Trump arrived on the scene as a conduit for their rage, and Trump Nation was born. Trump’s own racist propensities have been greatly exaggerated. He hasn’t maligned blacks, he doesn’t plan to harass Muslim Americans, and his proposed vendetta against illegal immigrants extends mainly to criminals and gang members. At least that’s what he tells us.
Still, it’s no exaggeration to say that Trump liberated a few decades’ worth of pent-up racial and religious animosity within the white outcast class. The orange-faced billionaire hustler from Queens broke the dam that had been holding all that resentment in check. His crass bluntness suddenly made America safe for bigotry.
The stormfront has been blowing in from the right. Exultant Trumpistas have been rampaging across the countryside with random acts of vandalism, fascist graffiti and verbal abuse. Neatly dressed Neo-Nazis have been hailing Trump and calling for the establishment of an Aryan state. This is not a joke, and the civilized world is aghast.
Trump publicly warned these fanatical hatemongers to “just stop it,” but it’s anyone’s guess if they’ll listen — or if he genuinely wants them to. Meanwhile, the president-elect has been filling his inner circle with an assortment of hard-line archconservatives and alt-right provocateurs. There’s not a single Mister Rogers among them. These dudes (and so far they’re all vintage white dudes) mean business.
Now the left is in full panic mode. Salon, Daily Kos, Huffington Post, MSNBC and all the other left-leaning news sources in the Western world are rushing to cite each new nugget of evidence that Trump’s triumph represents the second coming of the Third Reich. Children of illegal immigrants wonder if they’ll be yanked out of school and deported. American Muslims worry about internment camps.
Does The New Moderate insist that “it can’t happen here”? Not exactly. You could lose money betting on the sanity of a president who tweets at 3 a.m. and asks for equal time on Saturday Night Live. But I trust even a conservative Republican Congress to override President Trump if he starts emulating Herr Hitler.
The president-elect might not know his Constitution, but the saner heads in Congress do. Besides, I suspect they wouldn’t mind handing the sceptre of power to a level-headed right-winger like Mike Pence if Trump goes ballistic on the job.
Where do we go from here? Until further notice (or an unprecedented sleight of hand by the Electoral College in December), we have to accept Trump as our president. That’s the nature of a democratic (small d) republic. We can hope he makes good on his promise to revive American manufacturing jobs, restore our crumbling infrastructure and undercut the influence of lobbyists in Washington. As for the rest of his agenda, not so much.
Trump’s relatively magnanimous victory speech, his civil meeting with Obama and his reassuring demeanor on 60 Minutes gave me reason to hope that his ugly campaign was mere vulgar showmanship designed to bedazzle the disaffected masses. He’s been backpedaling on some of his signature wingnut positions: building the Mexican wall, locking up Hillary Clinton, denying manmade global warming. But no, some of his recent antics (e.g., insisting that theaters should be “safe spaces”) have convinced me that Trump will always be Trump.
Yes, I’m concerned about the Trump presidency that looms ahead. Many of us (myself included) feel that we’re entering a bleak dystopian world spun from the imagination of Orwell or Philip K. Dick. I’m not despairing just yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open.
As a diehard moderate, I’m even more concerned about the gaping divide between progressives and conservatives in this country. Their chronic antagonism, a long and venerated American tradition, has deepened into blind hatred. Both sides isolate themselves in their comfy ideological cocoons; they tend to read only the opinions that confirm their biases. And they’ve adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward the opposition.
Reinforced by hysterical fake-news headlines, one-sided Facebook memes and a chorus of like-minded peers in their amen corners, their biases have been growing into strange, malevolent creatures with lives of their own. It’s almost as if the left and right are evolving into separate and incompatible species, and all of us should be alarmed by this trend. We need to merge again, desperately.
Meanwhile, behold the sad ruins of what used to be a lush and vibrant garden. The frost is spreading, and the flowers are dying. Unless all of us can rally around the common ideals that used to make us Americans, I’m afraid we’re headed for a brutal winter.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
I had the craziest dream — one of those surrealistic nightmares that seem so improbably real while you’re dreaming them. You know the kind: they’re filled with plausible-but-absurd details that alarm and bewilder you — like a tyrannical math teacher demanding that you find the square root of Norway or flunk the course. You shudder and stammer while your brain shuts down. Then you wake up with a start and feel immeasurably relieved. You shake your head and wonder how something so palpably ridiculous could have riddled your mind with terror.
Let me tell you about my nightmare. I dreamed that the two major parties had nominated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for the presidency. Can you believe it? A corrupt billionaire con-artist battling it out with a corrupt establishment insider — two grasping, ruthless, vindictive souls engaged in mortal combat for the ultimate prize in American politics, an office once held by the likes of Washington, Lincoln and the Roosevelts.
Trump was the ultimate scary clown, a minor-league Mussolini who strutted and scowled with upraised chin while spewing sound bite after sound bite of vitriolic, fact-free promises and threats. His equally scary hard-core fans loved his candor and his comical outrageousness; he provided solid entertainment value in an age that prized entertainment above virtue, intelligence or character. Poor Jeb Bush never stood a chance.
Here’s where it got really frightening, though. Trump would utter the most outlandishly offensive statements… he’d find himself ensnared in one mini-scandal after another… stumbles that would have killed the campaign of any mortal candidate. But Trump became The Thing That Wouldn’t Die. Every time you thought his campaign couldn’t possibly recover from the latest disaster — that surely the accusations of a dozen sexually harassed women would bring him down — he’d raise himself up and keep lumbering toward his goal like some radioactive beast from a 1950s sci-fi film.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton pretended to take the high road. Her bright blue eyes blazing with intelligence and conviction, she insisted she’d fight for the middle class. She’d treat Muslim refugees and undocumented immigrants with classic American generosity of spirit. She’d make us proud to have elected the first woman president.
But here’s the scary part: the noble-browed Democrat secretly seethed with rage. Her temper tantrums were legendary. She comported herself faultlessly in public, yet the unwholesome whiff of chicanery clung to her like stale body odor. The Clinton Foundation and its mysteries. Those too-cozy Wall Street connections. Intimations of meddling to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ campaign. The revelation that she came to the televised debates a little too well-prepared, thanks to having been slipped a few key questions in advance by none other than the chairwoman of the DNC. And of course, those “damn e-mails.”
Hillary Clinton was the premier Jekyll-Hyde personality of American politics — or at least a female Eddie Haskell: gracious and unflappable on the surface, devious and malicious when nobody was looking. One could imagine her cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West in her private chambers.
Election Day was drawing near (we could count the days) and the scandals kept mounting on both sides. Trump was still standing, incredibly. Clinton was bruised but still clinging to a thin lead. And here was the thumping heart of my nightmare: we actually had no choice but to elect one of these reprobates to the highest office in the land.
If Trump won, we’d essentially become a rogue nation, led by a borderline psychopath… a land swarming with angry whites, angry blacks, and angry moderates who couldn’t understand how the “greatest nation in history” could elect such a malevolent clown to office.
If Hillary won, we’d simply continue down the inevitable path to oligarchy — and we’d still be a land swarming with angry whites, angry blacks and terminally frustrated moderates. The terror was starting to grab me and twist me in its grip. Trump? God help us! Hillary? Why not just let Goldman Sachs run the country? What to do… what to do?
I woke up, looked around, and breathed a long sigh of relief. It was 1959, Eisenhower was president, and all was right with the world. I could hear the birds singing outside my window and smell my mother’s brownies baking in the oven. A soft golden light filled the room. I was young and content.
Then the alarm went off and I woke up for real, shortly before the election of 2016. Reality — what a nightmare!
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
So the first presidential debate is history now, and the republic survived. The verbal slugfest garnered more viewers than any of its predecessors, and it was a remarkable spectacle on several counts:
- A female contender entered the ring for the first time in U.S. history
- After a reasonably impressive first round, the male contender punched himself out in response to his opponent’s quick left jabs
- The female contender looked poised, perky and well-prepared (some say a little too well-prepared, contending that she had been fed the questions a week in advance by partisan network brass)
- The male contender had an unaccountable case of the sniffles, undermining his perpetual pose of macho bravado
- The male referee appeared to favor the female contender
- The female contender forced the male contender to the ropes several times, trapping him into admitting that he paid no federal income tax, discriminated against blacks early in his career, and even (say it ain’t so!) dissed a Latina beauty pageant winner for packing on some extra poundage
- The male contender landed several punches (trade agreements, ISIS, 30 years of “bad experience”) without staggering his opponent
- Neither contender delivered a knockout blow, but the female contender earned a decision on points
- The male contender insisted that he won, then blamed a faulty microphone for his underwhelming performance
Of course, it was only the first debate. Obama slept through his first debate with Mitt Romney and stormed back to win re-election. But Trump will always be Trump, and Mrs. Clinton is just too clever for him.
Unless world-class hacker Julian Assange derails the Clinton Express with a damning election-eve revelation of criminal hijinks, we can probably look forward to inaugurating the first-ever female U.S. president this January. That’s not such a bad thing. Our current male politicians have been, with a few decent exceptions, an embarrassment to the venerable sex that invented philosophy, the electric light bulb and the eight-track tape player.
I respect Mrs. Clinton’s intelligence and preparedness for high office. I even like her compulsively bright-eyed public persona: she’ll always come across as the smartest kid in the class, she knows it, and I admire her unwillingness to hide it. I oppose her positions on numerous policy points, but on the whole I prefer them to her opponent’s irresponsible, scattershot (and frequently scatterbrained) approach to the issues.
So why, I wonder, was a small but obstinate part of my brain rooting for Trump to acquit himself in the first presidential debate? Could I be an irredeemable male chauvinist? Am I a covert member of Trump’s downtrodden white supremacist cheering section? Do I harbor a national death-wish — or at least a desire to see American politics transformed into yet another grotesque reality show? (Too late; it’s already happened.)
Here’s how I’d explain it. In common with so many less-educated Americans, I’m increasingly hostile toward the global elite that pulls the political strings in Washington and elsewhere. This self-appointed ruling class straddles political lines; the Clintons and Bushes alike are members in good standing, along with those pampered denizens of Wall Street, Davos, Bilderberg and other richly carpeted sanctuaries for the top one percent of the one percent.
For all his storied wealth and bluster, Trump is still an outsider. He looks like an outsider; he talks like an outsider; he thinks like an outsider. (Of course, the same could be said of Hitler, so outsiderness alone is no qualification for leadership.) For a purported billionaire, Trump has something approaching a common touch: in his case, the ability to tap into that uniquely American strain of vulgar grandiosity… the driving need to be (as Frank Sinatra once sang) “king of the hill, top of the heap, A-number one.”
Trump is loose; he’s unsubtle; he’s the anti-Hillary. I could imagine him being more at ease than his opponent at a black church gathering or a firehouse dinner. For an autocratic braggart and bully, he can be endearingly self-deprecating. He makes comical rubbery faces to put his fans at ease.
Trump also emits sparks of danger and unpredictability, which appeals to people who like danger and unpredictability. By contrast, Mrs. Clinton is eminently safe and predictable; she’s been given the Goldman Sachs seal of approval.
And what about the nominees’ shared penchant for playing with the truth? Trump is a blatant and perhaps pathological liar; no mystery there. Mrs. Clinton is merely a master of devious behind-the-scenes manipulation. She doesn’t lie so much as create artful deception.
Would I vote for Trump? Not unless he happened to be running against Attila the Hun. But an admittedly primitive, puerile, contrarian part of me was eager to see him rattle the complacent Mrs. Clinton and her sniffish progressive minions. He didn’t. Not yet, anyway.
Of course, anything could happen between now and November. But this much is fairly certain: no matter who emerges on top when the final votes are tallied, America is in trouble.
If Clinton wins, we’ll be looking at four to eight more years of unofficial oligarchy, with an unsettling undercurrent of white anger in addition to all our chronic black anger. If Trump wins, we’ll be looking at four to eight years of… TRUMP.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
All material copyright 2016 by Rick Bayan.
Did somebody toss a bucket of water at his head? Suddenly Donald Trump is melting before our eyes, like the Wicked Witch of the West. Every day brings fresh news of eye-popping gaffes and head-slapping consternation among the Republican faithful. I can’t remember anything like it in presidential campaign politics. Even Michael Dukakis, the doomed 1988 Democratic nominee, survived respectably until November.
Trump was an unlikely nominee to begin with. He coasted to the Republican convention on sheer chutzpah. He had a genius for winging it, based on his own stratospheric self-confidence and a cheerful disdain for details. A political amateur and an unapologetic vulgarian, he also seemed refreshingly uninhibited, unscripted, un-PC, unafraid to speak his mind.
So what if he was vague (or downright ignorant) on policy issues, or prone to proposing extravagant follies like the Mexican wall, or blisteringly crass in his pronouncements on women, immigrants, journalists and anyone reckless enough to prick his monumental ego? Unlike most politicians, he told it like it is… right?
Here was a maverick billionaire (at least by his own reckoning) who would defy the crony capitalists — the elite global plutocrats who supported the likes of Obama, the Bushes and the Clintons. He’d singlehandedly terminate the stifling reign of political correctness and identity politics, halt the corporate outsourcing of American jobs, manage the deficit, stem the flow of illegal immigrants from Latin America and block those potentially dodgy Muslim refugees from countries that harbor terrorists. As he proclaimed in his acceptance speech, he’d even put an end to crime as soon as he took the oath of office. What’s not to like? (Well, plenty… but more about that later.)
Big man, big promises… big bluffer? I’ve concluded that Trump is more performance artist than politician. He wants to be president more than he wants to serve as president. Remember, he said he’d delegate both foreign and domestic policy to his vice president. Trump would simply be in charge of “making America great again.”
In my more cynical moments, I like to believe that the Clintons, ever-calculating and ravenous for power, persuaded their friend Donald to seek the Republican nomination. A non-ideologue with a flair for showmanship, he’d relish the attention and sow such discord within the GOP that the party would crumble before Hillary’s juggernaut.
I wonder if the Clintons began to squirm as Trump’s candidacy gathered momentum like a runaway truck rolling down a mountain road. By June he was already the presumptive nominee, his brassy brand gleaming more garishly than ever. What if he actually (gulp!) won the election come November? This wasn’t supposed to happen; it smacked of Broadway satire, the way Springtime for Hitler, the surefire dud concocted by the hapless con artists in The Producers, unexpectedly became a monster hit.
Always dogged by his own intemperate sound bites, usually taken out of context or willfully distorted by the pro-Hillary media, Trump started to implode during the Democratic convention. The trigger came without warning, but it was classic karma.
Trump had bragged about the sacrifices he’d made as a mega-rich businessman — even claimed that his risky youthful sexual adventures were his “Vietnam.” So what better way to needle the cocksure, Islamophobic chicken-hawk than to trot out the parents of a heroic Muslim-American soldier who gave his life in Iraq?
The dead soldier’s father, the dignified and articulate Khizr Khan, used his pulpit to lambaste Trump for his warped definition of “sacrifice,” not to mention his ignorance of the U.S. Constitution. It was strong stuff, and Trump took the bait. His retort was mild compared to the provocation; he simply wondered aloud if Khan’s wife declined to speak because she was required by her religion to be submissively silent.
Of course, Trump shouldn’t have taken the bait at all. Professional politicians learn to grow thick skins, and Trump’s is paper-thin. Immediately the chattering class pounced on him for insulting a patriotic Gold Star family. Then the deluge began: the accusations against Trump began to resemble the list of grievances leveled against King George III in the Declaration of Independence:
- He referred to Hillary Clinton as “the devil” (He actually said that Bernie Sanders “made a deal with the devil” by endorsing her)
- He invited Vladimir Putin to hack Democratic e-mails (a sarcastic comment referring to the DNC’s alleged plot to assure the nomination for Clinton)
- He didn’t know that Russia had already swiped Ukrainian territory (OK, geopolitics isn’t his strong suit)
- He declined to disclose his tax returns (Is he in debt to Russia, as some rumors have it? I’ll reserve judgment until the facts are in)
- He accepted a Purple Heart medal from a grateful veteran and quipped that this was the easiest way to get one (He was joking)
- He refused to endorse war hero and fellow-Republican John McCain in his re-election bid (McCain had criticized him)
- He balked at endorsing House Speaker and fellow-Republican Paul Ryan (the way Ryan balked at endorsing Trump)
- He further risked his Republican street cred by slamming the Koch brothers as donors to “political puppets” (Bully for him!)
- Last but not least, the insensitive brute ordered a crying baby out of his rally! (He handled it with humor, folks… you had to see the video)
I don’t mean to make excuses for Trump. He deserves much of the scorn and criticism heaped upon his famous thatched head. He’s rude, crude, narcissistic, demagogic and willfully ignorant. No matter how slight the slight against him, he must retaliate. His mannerisms during his acceptance speech eerily recalled the puffed-up posturing of Mussolini. He’s been luring white supremacists out of the woodwork. And yet…
He’s a victim, too. Now that Trump has secured the nomination (at least partly a result of generous coverage in the media), the media have been pouncing on him at every opportunity. They magnified the Khan flap until it overshadowed everything else about his campaign, yet they essentially ignored Hillary’s alleged brush-off of Pat Smith, mother of Benghazi victim Sean Smith. (Mrs. Smith returned the favor, calling Clinton “a liar” at the Republican convention.)
For that matter, the media have largely airbrushed the deeper implications of the news that DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz, a former Hillary Clinton aide, effectively sabotaged Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Did she undermine Sanders with Hillary’s blessing? Did Clinton actually instruct her to spread damaging rumors about Sanders throughout the South? We’ll never know — unless Putin hacks those missing e-mails, of course.
Trump could have attacked Hillary Clinton’s vulnerable underside (an unfortunate image, but I can’t think of a better one)… yet instead of scoring valuable campaign points at her expense, he continued to wrestle verbally with his detractors. It was all about him and his image, as it always is. And he said a mouthful.
Merely to quote Trump’s words verbatim is to miss the often jocular nature of his loopy pronouncements… but of course politicians need to realize that their words will find their way into print or online, raw and unvarnished, without the video emoji of a wink or a smirk. Words can precipitate scandals, and scandals will kill a campaign.
Exasperated by Trump’s sillier and more damaging remarks, the Republican faithful are starting to jump ship. Bad enough that both Presidents Bush refused to attend Trump’s coronation, or that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also a Republican, endorsed Clinton at the Democratic convention. The exodus continues as more Republicans throw up their hands and head down the gangplank.
Rumors surfaced earlier this week that RNC Chair Reince Priebus, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich were actually planning to stage an “intervention” — a desperate attempt to talk sense with their foundering nominee. There was even talk of a contingency plan in case Trump dropped out of the race. Notable figures (including Obama, naturally) have warned us that Trump is temperamentally and intellectually unfit to be president.
Mother of Mercy, is this the end of The Donald?
What’s saddest about Trump’s unraveling campaign is that he had a chance to give a legitimate voice to that most despised and neglected American caste: poor, working-class and downwardly mobile white Americans. These earnest, Bible-believing provincials are the last demographic we still feel free to taunt with impunity. We call them rednecks, hillbillies, white trash — as if they have no value as fellow humans. They’ve had to watch helplessly as their jobs departed for Asia or Mexico… as liberal urban sophisticates mocked their religion or substandard spelling… as the LGBT community challenged their age-old morality… as the Ivy-educated children of black doctors and lawyers lectured them about white privilege. And they weren’t allowed to talk back.
Because lower-status whites didn’t have a voice, their bitterness seethed inwardly for years until it finally burst forth, with Obama’s ascendancy, in a half-demented eruption of race-hatred, gun-worship, religious fanaticism, Confederate flags and anti-government paranoia. The talk turned combustible, and Trump helped fan the flames.
A better, more sensitive man might have guided that talk so that it stopped short of racism or xenophobia… so that underprivileged whites and underprivileged blacks might have come to understand each other’s grievances and appreciate their common bonds. He might have calmed his constituency’s not-unreasonable fears of a Mexican Reconquista or an Islamist insurgency without demonizing innocent Mexicans and Muslims.
But Trump was only Trump: the brash, buoyant salesman with the insatiable ego and an arguable deficit of human empathy. Once the blinding flash of his primary campaign had faded, even his fellow Republicans began to feel the sting of buyer’s remorse.
At this point, the only person who can save Trump is Trump. And that might not be enough.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
Copyright 2016 by Rick Bayan.
It’s not the steamy weather that alarms me, although I’m increasingly inclined to wait until sunset for my daily walks. It’s not even the rapidly melting glaciers, the plight of African elephants or the prospect of a costly sewer line repair outside our house, although all those things are alarming, too.
No, what really alarms me this summer is that our world is starting to resemble one of those dystopian tales on the order of 1984, Fahrenheit 451 or Soylent Green. Nearly every day now, the news drops some fresh horror onto our battered heads — and we’re not even engaged in a major war. We’re simply looking at everyday life during the past month of a bad year in a mostly-disastrous century.
- As a relatively mild preface to this month’s horror show, the United Kingdom voted (narrowly) to exit the European Union. The “Brexit” caused panic and discord in Europe, a temporary stock market swoon, and disgruntled rumblings among the liberal-leaning elite that such vital matters shouldn’t be entrusted to ignorant voters. (In other words, democracy has its limits!)
- On Bastille Day, a radicalized Tunisian-born French Muslim drove a truck more than a mile through a crowd that had gathered to enjoy the fireworks along a waterfront promenade in Nice. The 31-year-old terrorist managed to obliterate 84 innocent humans (including at least ten children) and injure scores more before he was mercifully euthanized by the police.
- A 17-year-old Afghan refugee armed with an axe and a knife terrorized a train near Wurzburg, Germany, slashing at least five passengers before police took him down. The teen had pledged to kill infidels and was heard to exclaim “Allahu Akbar!” before entering that peculiar paradise reserved for dead Islamic terrorists.
- In Turkey, an attempted military coup ended in disaster as President-and-Aspiring-Dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan quashed the revolt with a little help from his police. Nearly 300 died during the upheaval, and angry mobs demanded the death penalty for some six thousand rebels. A vast purge is now underway: Erdogan has fired 45,000 military and public officials along with 15,000 educators (including all university deans). Their professional futures don’t look especially bright at the moment. Meanwhile, Erdogan blamed a 77-year-old Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania’s Poconos for instigating the coup and demanded his extradition. (As Dave Barry used to write, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)
- The much-anticipated Rio Summer Olympics could sputter out in a miasma of polluted water, Zika infections, rampant crime, decimated attendance, political instability and the possible expulsion of the entire Russian team due to performance-enhancing drugs. What if they threw an Olympics and nobody came?
- Puffy North Korean chieftain Kim Jung Un launched three ballistic missiles into the sea as a test designed to simulate a pre-emptive nuclear attack on South Korean ports and airfields. As South Korea’s primary ally, the U.S. is committed to respond if the North ever attacks the South. Calling Dr. Strangelove.
Of course, the United States hasn’t been immune to the July madness. Two more black men — Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — were executed by police during what should have been routine stops. It’s almost always the same story: nervous confrontations, misunderstandings, threats, hair-trigger reactions, sudden death, grief and anger. Those two men should still be alive, but there’s no going back.
Because the victims were black men shot by police, their tragedies made national headlines. (We almost never hear about the white men fatally shot by police, even though — surprise! — they outnumber black victims by a ratio of roughly two-to-one. Are white shooting victims less newsworthy? Would they muddy the narrative? Maybe they’d help focus the narrative more on overuse of lethal force and less on race.)
The Black Lives Matter people staged reasonably peaceful protests in response to the two executions, and they were entitled to do so. Even though their fears and resentments are based on a distorted narrative fed to them by the media, those fears and resentments are genuinely felt. They wonder why their people seem to be disproportionately targeted by the authorities, and naturally they worry that any encounter with the local police could quickly turn fatal.
Then the unthinkable happened: five cops assassinated by a militant black sniper in Dallas, and another three methodically gunned down in Baton Rouge, scene of Alton Sterling’s death. The latter assassin, also a black militant, traveled nearly 800 miles from Kansas City to carry out his revenge.
The two black assassins saw their victims as symbols rather than individuals with distinct personalities, families, hobbies and personal histories. The cops became interchangeable representatives of a hated group. The Baton Rouge shooter might have been unaware that one of the assassinated officers, Montrell Jackson, was a black man beloved for his kindness and decency and, ultimately, for a heartbreakingly sympathetic Facebook message that stands as a testament to his character. In the end, all that mattered to his murderer was that he wore blue.
That’s what terrorists do: they reduce three-dimensional humans to flat cartoon figures who conveniently represent The Enemy. Shorn of individual traits, virtues and quirks, they’re easier to view as targets.
Extremist ideologues do the same thing, without going as far as to commit literal murder. Their ideological opponents become caricatures, drawn broadly and grotesquely for the purpose of ridicule and political annihilation. Reduced to easy targets, they never gain consideration as individual human beings. They’re identical ducks in a shooting gallery. Progressives see conservatives as dangerously ignorant xenophobic yahoos with a gun fetish; conservatives view liberals as effete anti-Christian snobs who shield Islamists and advocate all manner of gender-bending depravity. As for whites and blacks, those labels alone imply that they’re opposites predestined to eternal conflict.
The United States is increasingly vulnerable to random acts of terrorism. Just as disturbingly, our republic has become fertile ground for the kind of intellectual terrorism that reduces fellow citizens to two-dimensional targets. On the left, “white male” is now a virtual epithet accompanied by vocabulary garnered from collegiate Grievance Studies seminars: patriarchy, hegemony, structural racism and the like. On the right, all forms of “otherness” are generally suspect.
Am I caricaturing the caricaturists? Perhaps. But I need to point out that such divisive attitudes are dangerous. They might not propel us toward a literal civil war (although I wouldn’t rule it out), but they’ve already launched a rhetorical one.
Extremist rhetoric is magnetic: it tends to pull unaffiliated souls toward the poles and away from the center. The ranks of moderates are dwindling while the extremists are gaining ground at our expense. The result: more anger, less tolerance, and the kind of July madness that we’ve been witnessing.
Our overheated July is coming to a head with the two national conventions. As I write this, the Republicans are going at it in Cleveland. No orgies of madness to report so far, other than the ominous cries of “Lock her up!” whenever a speaker utters Hillary Clinton’s name. The gun rhetoric has been less militant than I expected, even from the Duck Dynasty scion who spoke the first night and the NRA spokesman who followed him. Melania Trump’s surprisingly effective speech was immediately undermined by revelations of plagiarism — most likely not her fault, although extracting a confession from the Trump organization was like pulling half a dozen teeth. I’ve smiled quizzically at the D-list show biz celebrities called upon to address the assembled crowd. (Yes, it must be tough to come out as Republican in Hollywood.) I wondered why that crowd was booing the speech by Senator Ted Cruz, until I realized that he had no intention of endorsing Trump for the presidency. Trump’s grown children seem like models of filial loyalty, clean-cut attractiveness and good citizenship — hardly the spawn of Satan. (The man himself speaks tonight.)
On the whole, the Republican convention hasn’t looked much like the apocalypse. I suspect that the upcoming Democratic convention here in Philadelphia will follow suit. But the ground continues to rumble and simmer beneath the surface — here in the U.S. and around the world. The pressure builds, and the summer is only half over.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
So it’s come to this: the founder-editor of The New Moderate is politicizing the ghastliest mass-shooting in American history. Don’t those fifty dead and fifty-three wounded souls deserve better, you ask? Don’t we need to recognize their humanity, their innocence, their senseless victimization by a crazed fanatic, the plunging of their families into unimaginable grief? Yes, of course… all in good time.
I can’t help but notice, though, that the stalwarts of the left and right immediately pounced on the news with their airtight and predictable political narratives.
“It had nothing to do with Islam,” the progressive apologists were quick to tell us. “It’s a combination of virulent anti-LGBT bigotry, lax gun control, mental health issues and toxic masculinity.” No matter that 29-year-old mass-shooter Omar Mateen, an American of Afghan parentage, affirmed his allegiance to ISIS and his solidarity with the Boston Marathon bombers during his call to 911 from a bathroom at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Maybe he was just affirming his Muslim street cred before the authorities closed in.
“It had nothing to do with guns,” the right-wing NRA crowd was just as quick to inform us. “Ban our assault rifles, and the guy could just as easily have used a bomb. We need to ban Muslims instead.” No matter that a mentally unstable civilian was able to purchase a weapon capable of dispatching a hundred human beings in as many seconds. Or that he was able to buy it almost as easily as he might pick up a six-pack at the local beer joint.
Once again, America’s battling tribes have lined up on opposite sides of the field, ready for a skirmish. And once again, the truth behind the news is a little more complicated than either side is willing to admit. In fact, the Orlando massacre represents a convergence of so many hot-button issues that we probably need to examine the parts before we can understand the whole.
Gun control. We don’t allow individual citizens to own tanks, bazookas or other military-grade weapons. The only purpose of semi-automatic rifles and pistols is to mow down as many victims as possible in as short a time as possible. In other words, these are weapons designed for warfare.
Second Amendment diehards will insist that citizens need such weapons in case the government turns tyrannical. Well, good luck using your Glocks and AR-15’s against state-of-the-art U.S. military hardware, folks. And think about this: the incidence of mass shootings has skyrocketed in America since semi-automatic guns became the weapon of choice for psychopaths. (Even with the federal ban on selected assault weapons in place from 1994 to 2004, most gun nuts simply sidestepped it by using legal weapons with high-capacity magazines.) With tens of millions of semi-automatic guns already in circulation, it makes more sense to ban the high-capacity clips that feed such weapons and inflict mass bloodshed.
Yes, a psychopath intent on killing prodigious numbers of his fellow humans could detonate a homemade bomb. But, as things stand, it’s so much easier to buy an assault weapon at the local gun show.
A ban on high-capacity gun clips would pose no threat to the right of Americans to own simple handguns and hunting rifles. (The Founding Fathers were thinking more in terms of muskets.) They’re free to defend their homes or venture off into the woods to murder Bambi and his friends. If they’re any good, they won’t need to fire a hundred shots in succession.
Radical Islamic terrorism. The phrase that our president dares not utter is a phrase we ignore at our own peril. Islamic jihad is real, it’s an urgent worldwide menace, and it won’t go away by itself. With a few exceptions, the bloodiest terrorist attacks of our time have been perpetrated by Muslims with a radical interpretation of Islam.
Do we blame all Muslims? Of course not. Do we blame Islam itself? That’s a little trickier. The Quran, like the Bible, is a mixed bag of wisdom, history and legend. Like the Bible, it’s full of disturbing contradictions: parts of it espouse peace and brotherhood; other verses call for intolerance and bloody vengeance against the infidels. Millions of Muslims worldwide favor the latter course.
One of those Muslims, apparently, was Omar Mateen. He worshiped at his local mosque several times a week, beat his wife and had no love for the West. He resented (understandably) the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But he also expressed support for ISIS and its bloody agenda. In fact, those may have been among his last words. He was a radical Muslim, and he shot a hundred innocent people in one explosive outburst. Was he a terrorist? Most likely, but there are other factors to complicate the story.
Mental health. Omar Mateen was, from his wife’s description, an unstable man with a violent temper. She suspected he was bipolar, and he was given to frequent rages against her. Yes, most Muslim men expect submission from their wives, but Mateen went above and beyond — especially for an American-born Muslim.
According to Mateen’s father, Omar bristled when he saw two gay men kissing in public — reportedly in front of his young son. But there’s more. Reports have emerged that Mateen actually frequented the gay nightclub he ultimately terrorized. Several witnesses reported that he’d approach men at the bar, and probably not with the intention of denouncing them in the name of Islam. He was also said to have been a presence on a gay hook-up website.
A violent, radicalized Muslim male with imperfectly repressed homosexual tendencies — we’re not looking at a good mix here. This man had to be a walking powder keg. And yet he was able to pick up an assault rifle and a semi-automatic handgun at the local shop, no questions asked.
We should be asking questions. Do we deny gun ownership to anyone who has been treated for mental illness, past or present? Do prospective gun owners need to pass an emotional fitness test? Are we intruding too much? What if they’re sane when they purchase a gun but eventually slip off the deep end? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We just have to conclude that guns and mental illness don’t mix.
The LGBT movement. It’s probably no accident that the Orlando massacre happened at a gay nightclub during LGBT Pride Month. (Yes, June was given that official designation.) Gay marriage, transgender bathroom rights, fifty different gender designations on Facebook — the pace of change has been breathtaking over just the past decade. I can’t blame LGBT people for wanting to celebrate.
And yet (and you probably knew there would be an “and yet”), this moderate has to wonder if the LGBT movement has gone too public, too in-your-face. Why can’t everyone just live and let live, without parading our preferences or dissing those who differ from us? Why do LGBT people need their own month, or even their own “community”? (We’re all Americans, aren’t we?) Why is it bigotry to assert that biological males shouldn’t be allowed to strip down in women’s locker rooms? Social progressives should realize that it can be difficult — especially for older people and religious people — to do a complete “180” on traditional social beliefs formed decades ago (or prescribed a few millennia ago). You can engineer legal change, but you can’t engineer attitudes. Those take time.
That said, the Orlando massacre was not only a terrorist incident but a deplorable hate crime, perpetrated by a man who likely loathed his own homosexual tendencies. Gay pride rhetoric undoubtedly helps many confused people feel more comfortable with their orientation. In Omar Mateen’s case, it might have had the opposite effect. The result was brutal, premature death for mostly young, mostly Hispanic members of a historically marginalized and still-vulnerable group. I wonder how many cumulative years of potential life were lost that night. Fifty casualties with an average of fifty years left on the clock — you do the math.
The selective tolerance of today’s progressives. They welcome a diverse, multi-hued rainbow of humanity into their communal embrace. But let’s face it: they embrace some representatives of humanity more than others. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, atheists, Muslims, Democrats, LGBT people, feminists, and progressive white men who wear sandals all get a resounding YES. Texans, fundamentalist Christians, rednecks, working-class white ethnics, Republicans and Dead White European Males — not so much.
The progressives’ soft spot for Islam is a baffling one, at least to a slightly dense moderate like me. Here’s a religion/legal system/ideology that, when obeyed to the letter, stands firmly against nearly everything traditional liberals hold sacred: women’s rights, gay rights, religious tolerance, wine, pacifism and personal freedom. (Talk about strange bedfellows.)
I suspect that the progressives who refuse to see the Orlando massacre as an Islamic terror incident — who defend Islam against the likes of Donald Trump and his minions — are operating on the “enemy of my enemy” principle. They haven’t exactly forged an alliance with Islam, but they face a common enemy: the angry white Christian xenophobes who, to them, represent the messy and primitive rear-guard of society. The progressives will tolerate patriarchy and intolerance as long as it has its origins in impoverished countries, preferably those inhabited by non-Europeans. As violent and barbaric as the radical Islamists can be, the Crusaders were even worse — right?
We have to bear in mind, too, that today’s progressives aren’t necessarily liberal. Notice their current penchant for inhibiting free speech, censoring satirical treatment of sacred cows, prosecuting microaggressions against the accepted order. They seem to like rules and unanimity, and they tend to consort only with fellow believers. Maybe (is it possible?) they have more in common with Islamists than we would like to believe.
But enough about politics. In the end, the Orlando massacre has yielded a devastating human toll. Not only for the fifty souls who perished in a bloody and terrifying rampage, or the wounded victims who will carry their scars for life, or their grieving families. Once again, the entire nation has been shocked by the increasingly common spectacle of mass murder in a public place. You’d think we’d have numbed ourselves to the atrocities by now, but if we’re still human, we should never learn to accept them as the “new normal.”
That the shooter was an emotionally unstable, homophobic Muslim equipped with semi-automatic weapons is relevant to our story. But it’s not the whole story. The larger issue is how to restore some semblance of brotherhood to our brilliant but bumbling species.
We can enact legislation to curb gun violence. It won’t eliminate the problem, but it’s a start. We can search for ways to undermine the factionalism and fanaticism so prevalent in so much of the world — including our own country. (That’s what The New Moderate is for, although I can’t brag about the extent of our influence.) We can try to build bridges. But these are only vague notions. I really have no solutions, and it’s plain to see that we need solutions to keep the world’s premium breed of primate from self-destructing.
For me, one ray of hope comes from the transformation of the late Muhammad Ali. As an angry young champ, he bought the black separatist rhetoric and anti-white venom of the radical Nation of Islam. He even repudiated his friend Malcom X for leaving the fold. Then, somehow, he found enlightenment. He parted company with the Nation of Islam and eventually aligned himself with the more tolerant and philosophical Sufi sect of Islam. He became a citizen of the world and a force for unity.
The extremists among us could do worse than to follow his example.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
On the eve of Memorial Day weekend, 2016, my old next-door neighbor from back home, Kevin Buist, e-mailed three photographs to his family and a few selected friends (myself included). The photos were of his late father, Walter S. “Scotty” Buist, at three stages of his life: as a young airman serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II… in middle age, dressed in 18th-century colonial garb (complete with wig and tricorner hat), posed before the vast 48-star American flag that unfurled between a pair of trees in their front yard on national holidays… and finally, as an elderly veteran watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington. (See above.)
The last photo was especially poignant. Shot from behind, with only one shoulder and the back of his head visible, this image had us viewing the ceremony as if through my old neighbor’s eyes. I could only imagine the mixture of pride, humility and regret for comrades lost in long-ago battles over Fortress Europe.
Mr. Buist was a patriot, no doubt about it. He participated in numerous flying missions over Axis-occupied territory during the war, and his commander was none other than Col. James Stewart. (Yep, that James Stewart.) I always thought there was more than a little Jimmy Stewart in his own make-up: his frame tall and lanky, his manner folksy and unassuming but undergirded with the steel of irreproachable character… gentle and good-natured to the core… a devoted father and genial neighbor.
I never knew whether Mr. Buist was a Republican or a Democrat. It hardly mattered. What mattered about Mr. Buist was his decency. He was, just possibly, the most American man I’ve ever known — American in the way foreigners used to perceive us in the days before right-wing tea partiers and left-wing grievance warriors commandeered the national stage. Just one of those modest Yanks who stepped up to help save the civilized world.
When Mr. Buist left us five years ago, at the well-seasoned age of 86, his America had already split into warring factions — each spewing contempt for its mortal enemies on the other side of the cultural divide. I’m guessing that Mr. Buist knew nothing about the vicious tribal squabbles that had erupted during the last few years of his life — and if he did, I’m sure he would have scratched his thatch of white hair and frowned. He would have wondered what happened to the singleness of purpose that united us during the war, propelled us to victory and led to a half-century of mostly-benevolent leadership over the free world.
Of course, not everyone approved of FDR, our wartime president — and yet the America of Mr. Buist’s youth united behind him, respected his decisions, took pride in his firmness and eloquence. Today our presidents and other politicians rank somewhere between advertising executives and penny stockbrokers on the scale of public esteem.
It’s an angry and vicious place, this latter-day America. The extreme left and extreme right, like powerful electromagnets, have sucked the life out of the center with their damnable distortions, lies and foolhardy certainties. They’re diabolically skilled at winning converts and reinforcing their biases with hand-picked news (or invented news) designed to keep their precious narratives alive.
Those polarized narratives have finally crossed the hazy boundary between political grievance and paranoid hallucination:
Obama gave a conciliatory speech at Hiroshima? A week before Memorial Day? Sacrilege! What else can you expect from a socialist black Muslim Antichrist who wants to steal our guns and destroy America!
A columnist for the campus newspaper questioned whether the Black Lives Matter movement has gone too far? Defund the paper! Report the columnist to the Bias Response Team and give him a one-way ticket to the “re-education” camp!
Meanwhile, is there anyone left who can see both sides of an issue? Anyone who can chuck the obligatory script, find the nuances, and understand why some of our fellow Americans might put a different spin on our pet narratives?
The abortion controversy has at least two legitimate sides… so do taxation, immigration, automation, the wealth gap, race relations, the size of government, military intervention, healthcare, welfare, transgender bathroom (and locker room) rights, God, guns and free trade.
Do we have the patience to tease out the threads of truth on each side? Can we discuss these matters without resorting to mutual ridicule, flame wars, threats, and silly one-sided memes on Facebook? Preaching to the choir only entrenches our biases and makes us more likely to hate those who think differently. It’s time to step out of the choir and back into the real world.
Polarization has made at least two separate nations of us: sniffish white progressives and their minority allies on one team… obstinate lower-middle class and rural whites on the other. Eventually, as progressives mingle only with progressives and conservatives with conservatives, we might evolve into two separate and reproductively incompatible species. Wouldn’t that be an achievement!
This isn’t Mr. Buist’s America. Some will celebrate the passing of the old values and virtues. I don’t. I wish my old neighbor (and millions more like him) were still here, breathing their decency, friendliness and common sense into the communal atmosphere.
Do we believe in the primacy of the individual or the community? It should hardly matter. To men and women of good will, decent individuals will make a decent community. And decent individuals who think and work together toward noble purposes can reunite this fractured republic of ours.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.