The mind of America is seized by a fatal dry rot – and it’s only a question of time before all that the mind controls will run amuck in a frenzy of stupid, impotent fear. Hunter S. Thompson
Is there anyone in the United States who can say with a straight face that the old adage, “. . . going to hell in a handbasket” doesn’t apply to the nation’s current zeitgeist? In today’s climate of snark, vitriol, and pandering to the extreme segments of society, it would be well to remember where the term supposedly originated. “The origin of the phrase ‘hell in a handbasket’ can be found in the practice of capturing the heads of guillotine victims in a basket, with the presumption being that these criminals would be going straight to hell for their crimes.” Harsh words, but realistically in light of the state of American democracy, who can deny it?
In the last decade, along with the respect for fellow citizens, the reins of government slipped from the hands of legislators, judges, and the president into the hands of those who would steer the country to achieve their own personal agendas. In a recent commentary posted on the political blog Rawstory.com, noted political pundit, Thom Hartmann, opens his article stating, “Now it’s official. Twenty-seven men run this country.” Hartmann rightfully points the finger at the boneheaded move by the Supreme Court a decade ago that gave legal status to Citizen’s United. The decision literally allowed unrestricted dark money from corporations and individuals to funnel cash into the political arena.
The result is seen in the partisanship that grips the three bodies of government. Where there once was a chance of bipartisan cooperation across the aisles of Congress, those days are long gone. Rabid partisanship is the rule not the exception. Extreme conservatism and unbridled liberalism butt heads on a daily basis. Those caught in the middle, vote not their conscious, but line up like sheep to support the political party who put them in a position of power. Courts are packed with judges who feel legislating from the bench is their right, regardless of what the Constitution says or intended by the Founding Fathers. The presidency is little more than a glorified empty seat of power. Presidents are no longer respected, but ridiculed, reviled, and hated by the opposition party both at home and abroad.
It is little wonder that the mood of the country reflects this contentious climate in towns and cities across the nation. America is more polarized now than at any time since the Civil War. Local city council and school board meetings are ground zero battlegrounds pitting citizens against one another on topics ranging from religion, gender issues, civil rights, and how and what students read or are taught in the classroom. Issues that once lounged in the shadow of the Constitution’s protection are now flashpoints that pit neighbors, friends, and families against one another with victory at any cost the only acceptable outcome.
Both on the national and local levels, vitriol that takes the form of personal attacks is all too common. Shaming one’s opponents is the tool often used in today’s climate of discord. No one should be surprised by this turn of events. Shaming has a long and unhealthy place in America’s history books. Like many forms of control, shaming others is often the bailiwick of those in power whether it be politically, economically, or socially. From debtor’s prisons to the stocks on public squares to dunce caps in schools, America used shame as a corrective tool against those opposed to the goals of the powerful. Today is no different. While a crude and unflattering example of humankind’s insensitivity, shaming is an effective and efficient manner of alienating blocks of people who do not fit into the expectations of what the powerful want curtailed or controlled.
Shaming is tied to fear and guilt. White Nationalists fear losing their place in America’s rapidly changing demographics which places their position of authority in numbers at risk. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this when he stated, “The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.” King’s words play out time after time when Donald Trump holds a rally. His Make America Great Again (MAGA) campaign is at its roots nothing less than a call to arms of those who identify with his belief that those who oppose him are worthy of nothing less than shame and condemnation. The MAGA phenomenon as crude and unseemly as it is, at its core, is understandable on some levels. These are frightened people unsure of their place in an ever-evolving society. They point fingers and condemn those who would work for change and social justice.
While they could be seen as pitiable on some level, in Trump, they found a sounding board that plays into their false beliefs and supports the fear of victimhood that permeates the movement. They are literally held up as the true America by Trump’s rhetoric and feed on a steady diet of claims like the Democrats are a combination of socialist, Antifa radicals, pedophile devils, and malcontents who are attacking the very foundation the America they believe they are protecting. The sheer hyperbole of these beliefs is reason enough to question the motives and connection to realty that the MAGA supporters harbor. Regardless, they feel justified in finger pointing to assuage their sense of persecution and estrangement from an increasingly fragmented American society. They think they are being shut out of the national dialogue conveniently overlooking their pro-violence, white supremist, and fascist/authoritarian mindsets which goes contrary to the Constitution and American civility.
When trying to understand the roots of the current climate of shame afoot in American society, MAGA supporters are the go-to low hanging fruit of those who would use shame as a tool to ridicule opponents. Their acts to preserve their place in American society are often deadly comical and certainly contrary to democratic thinking. Yet, they are widely seen as the torch bearers from everything from Stop the Steal to the January 6 insurrection played out on the grounds of the national capital. In a opinion piece published by Salon, Michael Gueldry writes of the roots of the MAGA movement stating:
“What we might call the Great Demolition plot includes establishing a corporate oligarchy, a neo-feudalist regime based on long-term minoritarian rule and a malevolent pseudo-Christian theocracy undergirded by state thuggery and social authoritarianism, all of it infused with an incoherent ideological blend of anarchic libertarianism (on guns and most forms of regulation) and fascistic nightmare (white supremacy, antisemitism and numerous grades of conspiracy theory). Salon
As stated above, MAGA followers are the low hanging fruit, simply because the amount of press they receive from conservative media outlets and from politicians trying to appease the former guy in hope of winning his backing. The truth is there is more than enough to blame in the dumbing down and caustic atmosphere that grips the nation. Liberal and conservative Democrats deserve just as much blame in fanning the fires of dissension as their conservative and radical Republican counterparts. To heal this rift in American politics and society, the tenor of our national debates must evolve to a more civil and constructive discourse in which Americans discuss the big issues that affect daily life. In today’s contentious climate of accusations and counter accusations from all sides, the outlook can only be seen as bleak and depressing at best.