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Trump v. Omar: The Psychology of Fear, Prejudice and Ignorance in American Politics

The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

–Bob Dylan, “With God on Our Side”

Fear, prejudice, and ignorance make people do stupid things.  They are the trinity combustant for hate and intolerance, used as a match to fame the flames of discrimination to label some as disloyal Americans who cannot be trusted and deserve to be denied respect and rights.  One lesson of US history is that  appeals to Un-Americanism have been leveraged both by those on the left and right who claim God or  is on their side or that their cause is correct, thereby invoking an “end that justify the means” logic to dissenters that is dangerous.

America is a beautiful nation, often filled with hope and promise of a better life for us and our children. Yet this country has an ugly side to it that we often forget and ignore.  We often cloak fear, prejudice, and ignorance in the flag and persecute minorities or those with whom we disagree as the cause of our insecurities.  If only others thought like me, dressed like me, shared my values, some promise, then we could root out witches, communists, disloyal Americans, homosexuals,  immigrants, and terrorists and make the country safe for the rest of us real loyal Americans.

It was fear, prejudice, and ignorance in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, that led to the death of 24 accused of being witches.  Or over 125,000 Japanese-Americans forcefully interned during WW II.  Or to the McCarthyism and the blacklists of the 1950s. Or the beatings of civil rights protestors at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 or Stonewall Inn in 1969.  Or to all Muslims, Middle Easterners, and even Somalians seen as terrorists post 9/11.  Or to transgender individuals seeking to use the bathrooms of their choice as perverts.

There is something hardwired in American culture that celebrates fear, prejudice, and ignorance into virtues.  Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness, dissecting the Puritan mind, captures the fear of the earliest white settlers to North America.  It was persecution that drove them from Europe, a desire to for a new “city on the hill” as John Winthrop would call for;  founded on Christian values, that led them to the new world.  But they confronted one with strange new people and customs, a world seen lurking with danger, and a fear that the devil and evil was waiting to corrupt their enterprise.

It was a Manichean bipolar world of good and evil, God or the devil, grace or sin, and either you ere part of the saved or part of the damned, with no middle ground.  Difference, the inexplicable, the other as existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, were to be feared.  For the Puritans, as told brilliantly by Arthur Miller in “The Crucible,” the other were witches.  Richard Hofstadter, both in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, uncovered the distrust for facts, learning, and intellectualism and intellectuals.  From these Puritan origins, the us or them, loyal or disloyal, true American or Un-American ethos emerged.

But America’s story is one where each generation saw a different other as a threat, where  the new was scary, where relying on nativism, populism, and the fear of the masses justified intolerance.  The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 aimed to silence critics of President Adams and the Federalist party, Anti-Irishism and Anti-Germanism fueled discrimination in the nineteenth century along with fear of the Chinese.  The No-Nothing Party of the 1840s, later renamed the American Party, feared Roman Catholics and immigrants.  Anti-syndicalism acts targeted labor unions and dissenters to WW I.  Sauerkraut during WW I and french fries after 9/11 became liberty cabbage and freedom fries in response to anti-German and French attitudes.  John Kennedy was feared disloyal as a Catholic, Barack Obama seen as Un-American because of his name and lies that he was Kenyan and, even worse, a Muslim.

The Scope Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee put  science on trial as some feared Darwin would defeat God.  The Smith Act of 1940 along with the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy found communists to be threats, along with the interned Japanese-Americans during WW II.  The list unfortunately marches on–fear, prejudice, and ignorance have  left no group, cause, or idea alone.

Common sense wisdom is truth, what me and my friends know at the local bar or in my garage is the logic of truth.  We all live in the smug bubbles of our beliefs, convinced we, as Bob Dylan once mocked, “have God on our side” and therefore we must be correct.  Anything we do, even attacking others, is permitted as revealing the truth and virtue of our cause.

The point is that at critical points in American history fear, prejudice, and ignorance have  justified hate and intolerance.  And the same is happening now.  Donald Trump draws upon fear, prejudice, and ignorance on a daily basis to justify his policy agenda, with Fox News and Twitter serving as his microphone and his supporters cheering him on. White prejudice, privilege, intolerance, should not define orthodoxy. In fact, as Justice Robert Jackson powerfully declared in West Virginia v. Barnette,  319 U.S. 624 (1943) (a case about declaring Jehovah Witnesses as un-American because they would not cite the Pledge of Allegiance): “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein”.   The Jehovah Witnesses of 1943, the civil  rights protestor of 1950s, or the gay and lesbian at Stonewall in 1969 are the Colin Kaepernicks of today.

But as wrong as Trump is, so is Ilhan Omar.  Some will contend there is a false equivalency here, but it is hard to find how either Trump, Omar, or their supporters can claim the high moral ground here.  There are lots of good reasons to question US- Israel foreign policy and treatment of Palestinians, but labeling Jews  as Un-American is not the way to start and win a debate as some are now arguing.  “The end justifies the means, the words have gotten us to raise the right questions, so some say.”  But opening the door to fear, prejudice, and ignorance does no one any good.

Can one ever think of a time when appealing to them made us a better world, society, or individuals? Post 9/11, questioning the loyalty of Muslim or Somalian-Americans as Un-American was wrong.  Omar should know better that the weapons of hate directed at her and her family were wrong and do not justify her use of similar tactics.   Words matter, as  many say, and sticks and stones along with names may not just break our bones but hurt in other ways.  If one is going to take offense at words, then trying to understand how they effect others is  a first step in political debates. Turning the oppressed into the oppressor by stealing the weapons from former to be used by the later does not make it right.

The weapons and language of the oppressor are no more justified in the hand of the oppressed or the weak, and the rhetoric of hate from the right does not make it virtuous and correct when coming from the left.  It is just as wrong to label Omar as un-American and scorn her with hate  as it is for her to do the same to others.  Fear, prejudice, and ignorance should have no place in American politics.  But the sad reality is that it has, and even worse, that it has been effective and defended but those from a variety of political perspectives who see in themselves justified in using the three to suit their goals.

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David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.

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