I want to discuss a topic that is a challenge for all of us, but particularly here in the United States, where we seem to be doing a fine job of dismantling our government and way of life with the help of right-wing media and a handful of bored Russians. And that is: how do we move forward with half of the nation hating the other half? In spite of the many opinion pieces that give voice to the easy feelings, this is not an easy subject. It’s easy to cheer an op-ed about the Capitol riots that basically says, “Fuck unity; those guys are racist assholes.” It is much harder to deal with the realities of our current situation in ways that won’t lead to some very bleak outcomes.
Depending on who writes the op-ed, or which comedian is lampooning the Capitol rioters, it’s very easy to boil it all down to white supremacy, racism, misogyny, and the toxic Evangelical religion. All of these things are factors, but they are not the only ones. It is also easy to label these folks as “deplorables,” but quite another to engage with them, to the extent that is possible, as fellow human beings and citizens. 66.7% of the American population voted in 2020, and 46.8% of those folks voted for Trump. It is easy to dismiss one-third of our population as irredeemable, but if we do this, there is no roadmap to healing, there is no roadmap to a common vision of anything. There is only the road to ruin, for all of us.
I can’t really blame the media for not wanting to tackle such a thorny issue. There is no easy way to navigate this gray area without pissing people off. Fortunately, I have never been bothered by that. So let’s dive in.
First, let me state up front that there can be no negotiating with terrorists, and there is a small but vocal minority who fall into this category. This includes legitimate white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other assorted assholes, such as the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and so on. The list is long. We are not going to be able to approach the fascist elite, either, with any hopes of a reasonable exchange. Many, if not most of these people fall on the sociopathic spectrum, which includes a variety of personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and so forth.
Interestingly, after World War II, a group of psychologists devised an “F-scale” that rated the potential of a person to be sympathetic to fascist ideologies. There is a lot of debate as to how accurate this is, but as a general guide, I think it can be useful. “Authoritarian personalities,” as they put it, exhibit some of the following traits:
- They are hostile toward people of “inferior status,” such as minorities
- They are obedient toward people of so-called “higher status”
- They are very rigid in their opinions and beliefs, often adopting a Manichaean view of the world: everything is all good or all bad
- They defend what they perceive to be “traditional values”
This is not to say that every person who exhibits some of these traits is going to vote for Hitler. But among those who would, there would be a lot of shared ground.
Evangelical culture, in particular, would almost certainly rate high on the authoritarian scale. They are rigid in their thinking, are taught to respect hierarchy and authority, no matter how toxic, and believe that they are the chosen who have the right to punish the wicked. For example, here are some of the 30 F-scale statements that most Evangelicals would “Strongly Agree” with:
- Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.
- People can be divided into two distinct classes: the weak and the strong.
- What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, is a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.
- The true American way of life is disappearing so fast that force may be necessary to preserve it.
Although this test was written in the 1940s, it could easily have been written yesterday. These sorts of authoritarian statements sound familiar because Fox News and other right-wing outlets echo them on an hourly basis.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, roughly 3–5% of the population is sociopathic. This incidence is higher among males (3 out of every 100 people, as opposed to 1 out of 100 generally). So clearly the third of US citizenry who voted for Trump aren’t all sociopaths. They’re probably not even all authoritarian personalities, but it’s highly likely that many of them have been brainwashed by authoritarian propaganda from the right.
A lot of Trumpers say stupid things, even outrageous things, that trigger us liberal snowflakes. A lot of this comes from parroting the nonsense they read and hear in the right-wing media. These folks are not necessarily evil, but they are grossly uninformed and gullible. This should move us to pity, but instead we cheer every time a conservative loses their job for saying stupid things. This is the “cancel culture” that the alt-right complains about constantly, and while it may make liberals feel vindicated for five minutes, it also makes Trumpers angry and defensive, which is not a great place to have a conversation. In fact, fascism is fed by feelings of victimization and fear, and cancelling masses of people makes them feel victimized and afraid. Which makes the problem that much worse.
So when a Gina Carano says something kind of stupid on Instagram, then gets fired for it, she’s not going to be open to understanding why comparing Republicans to Jews persecuted by the Third Reich was problematic. And I don’t think Gina is a horrible person. She’s a rich, privileged person — her daddy was a pro football player and owns a casino — but otherwise, she’s probably like your average person, unaware of what she’s unaware of and not terribly introspective. Our entire society is focused on appearances and trivial nonsense, so it’s not surprising when people have zero insight into themselves.
I get that not every Trump cultist is going to be open to understanding anything, and it’s good to know when to cut ties and walk away. “Cast not your pearls before swine” is good advice. On the other hand, there are probably some opportunities to make a difference, and excoriating people for being ignorant is no way to get there.
For example, you may have heard of David Weissman, a former Trump supporter who mean-tweeted Sarah Silverman. Instead of writing him off, she engaged him in conversation. Turns out, he was in a lot of pain and was just lashing out. By showing him some compassion, Sarah was able to make a difference, and now David has a different worldview. That is great!
And just in case you think that hardened white supremacists can’t change, there are some who did. After participating in the Charlottesville rally of 2017, Ken Parker began to have a change of heart. Scott Shepherd, Arno Michaels, and Derek Black, whose godfather was David Duke, are also former hate group members who have renounced white supremacy. The thing is, none of this happened in a vacuum. It happened because people engaged with them in loving, thoughtful, and compassionate ways. It took work and time. The results are worth it.
There are a lot of bad actors in the world who want to convince Americans to turn against other Americans. Divided, we will definitely fall, and we will never be able to defeat these same bad actors who are the cause of our suffering and pain. It’s no accident that less than 1% of our population own most of the wealth. And they have plenty of well-paid lackeys on their payroll to ensure that this continues. These are the people who promote hate and brainwash the citizenry into believing that those other people are their problem. Propaganda makes things more difficult, but clearly it can be overcome. Some cult members can be reclaimed.
So, when do we engage, and when do we pull away? If you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, you should probably pull away. Look after your own mental health. But if you think that person has any compassion in them, they might hear you eventually. Some white people would rather go without something themselves — such as healthcare — than see a person of color get the same privilege. In those cases, they don’t even have compassion for themselves. That could be a hard slog, and I would probably walk away from that.
If the person is in pain and feeling victimized, like David Weissman, there’s a chance if you give them some empathy and understanding. Sometimes all the cult follower needs is to see that their beliefs were grounded in untruths. Ken Parker, who participated in the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, got to know a black film maker, and talking to her began to shift his thinking. He continued to talk to people in the black community, and eventually he had a change of heart. It can happen.
One of the problems we have in our atomized society is that we are lacking a sense of community and belonging. For some people, finding a toxic community is better than no community at all. Former skinhead Shannon Martinez said, “I was filled with rage and anger and the skinheads were the angriest people that I knew and I was kind of like, ‘Those are my people.’” But it’s not just about skinheads. FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, and Breitbart all function in the same way. They continually tell people, “We are your community. We are like you. THOSE people over there want to destroy you.” They are no different from the KKK or the neo-Nazis.
We may lose a few flock members along the way, particularly the authoritarian personalities. There are still Nazis in modern-day Germany, after all. But they are a small minority, and engaging in hate only makes them stronger.
It’s important to remember that the fascist needs fear most of all. It is their weapon of choice. It’s how they recruit their members. Fear can only be countered by love. It will not be countered by cancel culture, schadenfreude, and ridicule. From the first book of John, chapter 4, verse 18:
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.
I’m not a Christian, but that verse says it all. Fear and love are not compatible. If we truly want a better nation, a more just nation, then we need to practice love, not further fear. Will it be easy? No, it won’t. But we won’t get anywhere if we don’t try.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!