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On Looking at the Many Ways Hatred Serves as Political Impulse (with apologies to Wallace Stevens)



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As a community of scholars dedicated foremost to the vibrancy of American democratic politics, all of us associated with the Institute follow our nation’s public scene carefully, and the ongoing ascendance of Donald Trump in the Republican Party and his authoritarian bias have created a crisis in our nation’s politics. Trump has also continually degraded our public life. Indeed, many analysts and scholars have wondered aloud in recent days how Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump could possibly stoop any lower in his public behavior, but he continues to do so, as this partial list indicates:

  • He now owes more than $454 million in a civil fraud judgment for repeatedly lying in his business dealings;
  • He has repeatedly called other Americans “Communists and nation haters” and argued they are deliberately undermining the country on no evidence whatsoever;
  • He has constantly maligned those Americans serving in the U.S. federal civil service as constituting a swamp of inefficacy and called for firing them and replacing them with personal loyalists; again, on no evidence whatsoever;
  • He demands that all individuals applying for positions with the Republican National Committee (RNC) agree to the lie that the 2020 national election was “stolen” from him;
  • He has publicly made it clear that all funds raised by the RNC will now be used first to defray his own massive and mounting legal bills for the many criminal and civil indictments he now confronts;
  • He has repeatedly contended that those who desecrated the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 and murdered and maimed in doing so while trying, at his behest, to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in our nation, are “patriots” and “heroes” whom he will pardon if elected President. Approximately 467 of those individuals are now in prison while more than 1,200 others have been charged with federal offenses;
  • He has prevented action on a comprehensive immigration reform bill negotiated by his own party’s representatives to continue to be able to campaign on the issue of immigration and immigrants, whom he has dehumanized as “animals,” and as constituting a malignant force soon to undermine the United States—on no evidence whatsoever;
  • He has repeatedly undermined U.S. efforts to support a democratic Ukraine in its defense of its national sovereignty in the face of an unprovoked invasion by Russia, launched by its dictator, Vladimir Putin;
  • And finally, he has been shown to be a serial liar not only by the many criminal convictions of those whom he has labeled heroes and the mendacity revealed in the above bullet points, but also by the fact that Fox media, a major purveyor of Trump falsehoods, paid $787 million in a defamation case settlement with Dominion Voting Systems last year. The company maintained, correctly, there was no evidence whatsoever to support Trump and Fox’s claims that voting was somehow “rigged” in the 2020 national election via its machines.

        In the face of this long and partial list of facts, one might be forgiven for wondering how anyone could continue to support Trump’s grievous ethical bankruptcy, and that of his party, a major share of whose federal and state elected officials have gone along with his lies and worse at every step, apparently out of (electoral) fear of angering his core supporters. The upshot of this scenario is a party base whose membership, perhaps 30% of the American electorate, which has shown itself willing to rationalize virtually any cruelty and lie Trump concocts, however mindless. including his wanton and irresponsible instigation of murder; felonies and forthright calls for the abandonment of civil and human rights and democracy, here in the United States and abroad.

        Many commentators have offered explanations for this tragic scenario, including the fear and anger of many of Trump’s supporters arising from their sense that they are not moving ahead economically and/or are losing their social status with the nation’s changing demographics and rapid social globalization. Some have suggested racism, misogyny, knee jerk fear of change and unthinking ideological polarization as “explanations” for their choices. Without gainsaying that several or all of these factors and others might be contributing to the choices manifest by Trump’s supporters, I want to focus here on what it requires in behavioral terms for these individuals to believe that the former reality show host should be president, despite the major disqualifying realities outlined here, because he will somehow protect them, as he routinely contends, from the various grievances (often, lies) to which he routinely points. Such a stance requires that those adopting it abandon reality in favor of the hate mongering in which Trump traffics. To offer him such credulity demands, too, that those individuals, whether consciously or not, accede to contentions that set aside all calls for comity and charity and recognition of others as fellow human beings, whether those people are Americans, Ukrainians, Mexicans, Canadians, Ecuadorians, Thai or Japanese.

        It also requires that the evangelical Protestants and revanchist Roman Catholics who constitute a large share of Trump’s electoral base set aside their respective nominal faith traditions and rationalize an embrace of enmity that not only represents a disagreement with others, but goes much further to demean and to degrade them either as “animals,” in the case of immigrants, or as “radical communists” who hate America, in the case of anyone who might not agree with Trump on various questions. In Trump’s rhetoric, and these groups have continued to support him, the “terrible” actions of these targeted populations justify their imprisonment and extradition (immigrants) or systematic oppression (Americans whose liberties would be curtailed wholesale on grounds that “they” are less than and therefore undeserving because they do not support Trump or a share of his beliefs or claims).

        This ugly, hate-filled and often ignorant bombast is especially difficult to understand at this time of the year, particularly, when Christians—again, the faith tradition Trump’s strongest supporters purport to cherish—have just commemorated Easter, which highlights Christ’s charity for all. Christianity does not teach that Jesus Christ offered his sacrifice with an accompanying rationalization for hatred of specific groups out of fear or status claims, their complexion, alternate faith or any other factors. Pope Francis articulated this point in his Easter homily this year by arguing that the faithful should seek to emulate Jesus by removing the impediments in their lives that “block the door of our hearts, stifling life, extinguishing hope, imprisoning us in the tomb of our fears and regrets.”1 Christian theology teaches that Christ was called to his sacrifice by God and that he represents a perfect exemplar of magnanimity, charity and kindness. As a result, in the present season especially, it is incomprehensible that nominal Christians, Catholic or Protestant, and evangelical or not, can purport to reconcile with their faith their embrace of Trump, who embodies perfidy and who lies about everything as he preaches a cruelty-driven animosity against all he perceives as obstructing his will to power.

        I share this not to proselytize for one faith tradition or another, but to point up that the theological tradition of Christianity does not embrace lying or bullying, nor does it call for hating, demeaning or oppressing one or another group in the quest for status or power. Instead, it celebrates its namesake’s benevolence for all and calls on humans to act with empathy and grace toward all, and particularly society’s most vulnerable. Trump routinely asks his supporters, indeed demands that those supporting him, do precisely the opposite. The great paradox of Trump’s recent capacity to gain nearly complete control of his party lies in his supporters’ willingness to accede, often actively, to this strange and bitter reality.

        Wallace Stevens, one of the greatest of all modern American poets, wrote one of his most memorable poems in 1917 and entitled it, “'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”2 He used the blackbird to depict the relationships among humankind, nature and emotions. In two of the poem’s stanzas Stevens observed:

O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   
I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.3

        For Stevens, the existential challenge confronting humankind, those “thin men of Haddam,” was their recognition of the richness of the reality that surrounds them amidst their willingness to set it aside in favor of a panoply of competing constricting emotions. It was not that acknowledging reality, nature in the poem, in lieu of seeking false idols or “golden birds,” would make life easier. Rather, doing so would enable and ennoble the humans doing so as they worked to realize shared meaning and purpose amidst their interdependent existence with nature and each other. Trump, in contrast, is asking his supporters to diminish and demean themselves while also separating themselves from nature and their fellow human beings in the name of false idols of consumption, hatred and cruelty, which will be and are empty of meaning as Stevens warned, since they exist apart from the blackbird, which must inescapably be involved “In what I [humans] know.”4

        As Trump continuously finds new ways to degrade himself, the public sphere and politics as well as his supporters to gain attention as he crusades for smallness and darkness, those unwilling to constrain their vision to his lies and hatred, bear a heavy responsibility to continue to tell the truth and to call out his gaslighting, fearmongering and empty spectacle for what they are.

        At the Institute, we will continue to do so both in principle, because what Trump is advocating could well undermine U.S. democracy, and in practice, because his most insulting and egregious assertions are not about his obvious personal greed, venality and insecurity but rather, that Americans are incapable of making the diverse polity they collectively represent work and that they would rather cede their freedom than live amidst the heterogeneity that is both inescapable and inescapably too, their birthright. The challenge that Trump represents to freedom and democracy is real, but so are the strength and prudence of a people who have long treasured their liberty and practiced comity, if often fitfully and at great cost, amidst their manifold differences. We will continue to do all we can at the Institute to help address this heartrending challenge in our scholarship and in our community practice.


Winfield, Nicole. “Pope presides over Easter Vigil, delivers 10-minute homily,” Associated Press, March 30, 2024,, Accessed March 31, 2024. 

2 Stevens, Wallace. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackbird,” The Poetry Foundation,, Accessed April 1, 2024.

3 “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

4 “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” 

Publication Date

April 1, 2024