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The “Contempt” Virus and Democratic Politics

Since the Institute’s inception nearly 15 years ago, we have dedicated ourselves principally to research, education and outreach aimed at serving the vulnerable in society. History teaches that democratic majorities have too often denied dignity, standing and rights to minorities in their midst, their vulnerable populations, and the American experience sadly attests to that truism. I am reminded of these realities as I contemplate a spike in drug and alcohol usage among those who struggle with addiction or have lost their livelihoods or worse during this pandemic. One must also witness the thousands of U.S. citizens, otherwise healthy and well positioned, flouting the pleas of government officials to follow basic public health guidelines to protect themselves and their fellow Americans from the deadly pandemic now raging across the country. Our efforts here at the Institute to serve vulnerable populations will likely prove still more difficult as we move ahead, and even more necessary.

The hyper-individualistic view noted above, the sense of angry entitlement that suggests that one owes nothing to others that has animated so many citizens during the present pandemic, is not simply the product of the individual imaginations of those evidencing it. It is, instead, the result of a decades-long campaign by the Republican Party to undermine even a minimal welfare state in the name of empowering a small minority of businesspeople to rule the nation. In this they have very nearly succeeded, led most recently by Donald Trump. Trump has shown little but contempt for his followers and detractors alike and will leave office having repeatedly disgraced himself, the presidency and those who would support him. He has done so while maligning vulnerable populations and governance while working assiduously and corruptly to enrich himself, his key wealthy supporters, cronies and family whenever possible.

Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote an essay for England’s The Guardian newspaper recently in which he argued that the willingness of millions of Americans to accept Trump’s behavior and to refuse to hold him accountable for it will constitute his “vilest legacy.” Here is how he put the challenge, underpinned by a profound and continuing governance crisis,

Trump has brought impunity to the highest office in the land, wielding a wrecking ball to the most precious windowpane of all—American democracy. The message? A president can obstruct special counsels’ investigations of his wrongdoing, push foreign officials to dig up dirt on political rivals, fire inspectors general who find corruption, order the entire executive branch to refuse congressional subpoenas, flood the Internet with fake information about his opponents, refuse to release his tax returns, accuse the press of being ‘fake media’ and ‘enemies of the people,’ and make money off his presidency. And he can get away with it. Almost half of the electorate will even vote for his re-election.[1]

This deliberate and very public embrace of undemocratic impunity is the central question facing not only U.S. self-governance, but also many other would-be democratic regimes around the world. The issue of why millions of Americans, for example, claim to believe Trump’s lie that he won an election that he lost by more than 7 million votes due to a widespread conspiracy that neither he nor his enablers have ever, in fact, explained or proven, provides a critical lens into a psychology that would sacrifice freedom and democracy in the name of fealty to an obvious charlatan. The ongoing concern this situation raises is why otherwise reasonable people from all walks of life would accede to such a Faustian bargain.

As it happens, during the holidays I found myself rereading a share of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Stories. Dickens published these for several years and all of them are well worth reading. One, The Chimes, might have been written today for the attitudes Dickens captured within it. There, Dickens told the story of an aging and poor porter who had the misfortune to meet and carry a letter for an aptly named Alderman Cute. The city council member, like the millions of citizens today willing to believe Trump and his lies, ignored the evidence before him and blamed the porter alone for all that had befallen him in his life, even as he heaped contempt on the man. Here is a sample of Cute’s rhetoric, as only Dickens could present it:

‘You see my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—"hard up,” you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? Ha! Ha! Ha!—and I intend to Put It Down. There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put It Down! That’s all! Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it!’ [2]

Then, as now, this contempt was fueled by an ardent belief that the rich should rule for no other reason than their wealth, and that differences and difficulties of any kind could and should be held in contempt and set aside for no real reason whatsoever, except the anxiety that difference itself can produce when one is unwilling to be open to, and learn from it. What mattered, Dickens suggested, was that the empty hatred and dehumanization Cute evinced gave those embracing it a rationale for believing themselves above the individuals they so cruelly treated. If this all sounds familiar in light of four years of Trump and more than four decades of the GOP offering just such arguments concerning the vulnerable, including those with disabilities, minorities, the poor, immigrants, refugees and women, it should. Trump began his quest for office by labeling refugees and immigrants “rapists.” [3]  In 2018, he dehumanizingly called them “animals.”[4]

Interestingly, another sharp-eyed writer, Zadie Smith, has recently offered a similar argument to that Dickens suggested in 1844. In an essay from her recent collection, Intimations: Six Essays, Smith likened systemic classism in Britain and racism in the United States as well as people in the United Kingdom and the U.S. flouting public health guidelines, as if no one else mattered, as no different in kind than the contemptuousness that animated the slave trader. Dickens would readily have recognized her powerful point:

Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion—contempt—from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. … And having thus placed them in a category similar to the one in which we place animals, he experienced the same fear and contempt we have for animals.[5]

This is to say, as Santiago Ramos recently argued in a review of Smith’s volume in Commonweal, that:

The enslaver is simultaneously objectifying the slave, categorizing her under a fixed essence that is a prison (‘people who like to be in chains’) and failing to see what is truly essential about her: her dignity, her freedom, her right to life. The three building blocks of the enslaver’s contempt are ‘They have no capital, not even labor. Anything can be done to them. They have no recourse.[6]

I can offer several observations based on these incisive works. First, Trump and the GOP are not doing anything new. Rather, they have found a fresh way to use basic human propensities to blame individuals and groups harmed by rampant social and economic inequality for the conditions that, in truth, their own policies and perceived interests have sustained and deepened, if not always created. Human beings have always been capable of rationalizing evil and blaming the victim for the travesties they have engendered. The GOP has successfully convinced millions of voters for several decades to redistribute income upward to a smaller and smaller minority on grounds of fear of difference and haughty hatred of the same in the name of self-aggrandizement and a loathing of self-governance—founded ultimately on the same foundation.

Second, there are no bounds to the cruelty this sort of thinking can justify, as slavery, Nazism, Jim Crowism, the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, the George W. Bush administration embrace of torture, and the incarceration of young refugee children in cages separated from their families under Trump, all attest.

Third, as Reich emphasized and I have argued previously, this ‘virus of contempt,’ once it has infected its targets, is extremely difficult to overcome, as its self-grandiosity and cruelty offer means for its agents to salve their own perceived wounds, whether real or not. That grotesquerie in turn, “justifies” their continued assault on the dignity and equality of those they demean. It is also difficult to overcome this virus democratically because, unlike the callousness its proponents offer, devoted democrats must dignify those they would seek to persuade of the singular viciousness of their chosen course. The Alderman Cutes of today’s world, exemplified by Donald Trump, are distinctly unlikely to reciprocate.

Fourth, the mendacity, vitriol and wholesale attack on the rule of law, freedom of the press and on truth itself the GOP embraced, and continues to embrace, under Trump have made freedom’s proponents’ efforts to overcome their handiwork exceedingly difficult. The individuals who have adopted these officious claims no longer trust even themselves, except to hate and loathe those they see as somehow different. Once dignity and legitimacy are lost to one party or another’s superiority posturing, it is surpassingly challenging to engage in meaningful, let alone, deliberative, dialogue.

Fifth, and of special moment for our work at the Institute, the unimaginative attitudes of knee-jerk contempt that Trump, especially, has unleashed in the public square will make it yet more difficult to ensure services to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens whom he has so often disparaged on no basis whatsoever, but to mobilize his followers by othering. As Smith observed, when one treats another with virulent contempt, one does not rise even to the level of expending energy to hate that individual:

[I]n the eyes of contempt, you don’t even truly rise to the level of a hated object—that would involve a full recognition of your existence. Before contempt, you are simply not considered as others are, you are something less than a whole person, not quite a complete citizen.[7]

This said, democracy cannot stand if its sustaining population loses its capacity to recognize the fundamental principle and aspiration that all human beings are politically equal and to be accorded equal standing under the law, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, economic situation or other specific characteristics.

As researchers, we can and must, in my view, play a role in ensuring the most effective and equitable delivery of services we can to all Americans, but especially to the nation’s most vulnerable residents, particularly under current political conditions. More deeply, we must also remind Americans in all we do that political equality and human dignity underpin their freedom. Jettisoning those in the name of scapegoating one or another group rather than addressing the issues the nation’s citizens can only successfully confront together will only sacrifice their own freedom over time. I know I speak for all of my colleagues here at VTIPG when I say that we look forward with hope to playing these vital roles in the furtherance of this nation’s now deeply challenged democratic experiment in the coming year.

Notes

[1] Reich, Robert. “Americans’ Acceptance of Trump’s Behavior will be his Vilest Legacy,” The Guardian, December 27, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/26/americans-acceptance-of-trumps-behavior-will-be-his-vilest-legacy Accessed December 27, 2020.  

[2] Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. New York: A.L. Burt Company Publishers, 1907, p.96.

[3] Staff, “Donald Trump Announces a Presidential Bid,” The Washington Post, June 16, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/06/16/full-text-donald-trump-announces-a-presidential-bid/, Accessed December 31, 2020. 

[4] Korte, Gregory and Alan Gomez. “Trump Ramps Up Rhetoric on Undocumented Immigrants: ‘These Aren’t People, These are Animals,’” The Washington Post, May 17, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/05/16/trump-immigrants-animals-mexico-democrats-sanctuary-cities/617252002/, Accessed December 31, 2020. 

[5] Smith, Zadie. Intimations: Six Essays, New York: Penguin Books, 2020, p.77.

[6] Ramos, Santiago. “Experiments in Living,” Commonweal, December 22, 2020, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/experiments-living?utm_source=PANTHEON_STRIPPED&utm_campaign=PANTHEON_STRIPPED&utm_medium=PANTHEON_STRIPPED&utm_term=PANTHEON_STRIPPED, Accessed December 30, 2020. 

[7] Smith, Intimations, p.73.

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