Like with tsunamis and Ebola, people in the US think “it’s not going to happen to me, to us”. Just as it has taken Western civilization more than three centuries to start realizing that emotions control people’s thinking far more than rationality does, there’s been in the US the unconscious belief that demagoguery can only affect marginal populations in their country.
People don’t understand the nature and power of demagoguery, and its ubiquity. I hear various explanations for why a narcissist and psychopath — vastly unqualified for the presidency — was elected, but they don’t confront the core issue which, when we understand, it we can remedy it. Some explanations have truth in them – like blaming the FBI director or Putin plus WikiLeaks – but it is the truth of the straw that broke the camel’s back; the truth of the last rain that tipped the balance for a mountainside that was already at the brink of collapse into a rock and mudslide that buried a town, after decades of clear-cuts in the forest, careless road cutting and climate change.
What happened in the 2016 US elections was demagoguery taking advantage of prime conditions for its spread, and the weakness of resistance. To say that it was also racism is redundant – because demagoguery always uses, and whips into a frenzy, the existing prejudices in the population it targets. Redundant, but it also needs to be said and understood.
Psychopaths, like Trump and others, intuitively understand, better than people with normal consciences, the weaknesses in others, the prejudices they carry (especially when it is not socially acceptable to voice them and they build tension inside). They have this acute instinctual knowledge of ways and opportunities for manipulating people – not because they are more intelligent but because they are psychopaths. They delight in the inhibitions that people with normal consciences have, which prevent them from effectively unmasking and resisting the manipulators. Some of these inhibitions are healthy, part of a moral conscience (like caring for others, withholding judgement until there’s enough evidence to judge or oppose, tolerance and inclusiveness, being willing to compromise, share, listen respectfully to opposing views – within limits — etc.) Psychopaths, not having such cares and restraints, will exploit them to the max – which is the reason they hold such power. They also exploit people’s less commendable traits, such as complacency, laziness, greed, power-hunger and cowardice. They not only exploit fears, but also concoct them. They will always catch complacent people unawares.
I’ve lived in the US for 30 years, feeling all the time like I am wading through thick molasses (wet cement would be a better metaphor) of conformism. People everywhere not willing to “make waves” by saying what they really think – and therefore not able to think clearly either because of subconscious defenses to the cognitive dissonances they would feel if they thought clearly. This thick layer, once activated by someone (in an organization, corporation, academia, movement, etc) instantly glues itself to the next person’s conformist goo, forming impenetrable barriers — impeding fruitful dialogue, realistic understanding and relevant action.
A huge opportunity for Trump was that social media has replaced mainstream media as a source of “news” for so many. Yes, fake news in social media was a huge factor – supported by the fact that already, for decades, Americans were sharply divided in the media they chose – absorbing sharply different “realities”. Fox News had been spreading fake news and demagoguery, polluting the well, for decades – yet where were the massive demonstrations demanding that their license to use public airwaves be revoked due to their unethical standards? And what are we to make of the so-called mainstream media, or so-called liberal media like PBS and NPR? They were part of the same game: keeping themselves in business by abdicating their responsibility to tell the truth. (AND THEY ARE STILL AT THE SAME GAME!) Very few were the courageous voices heard in the decades of build-up to the catastrophe of this election – and fewer the people shaken from their complacency by those voices. Now – after the fact – they sound loudly. Typical of our species to wake up only AFTER the avalanche is upon us!
Some people point to stupidity and ignorance in vast swathes of the US population as the cause – but what about the decades of dumbing down the population? Of course a demagogue is going to take advantage of the ignorance, superstition and prejudices of the population – we need to never lose sight of this again. Compromizing with those who would set us backwards in the teaching of Evolution and Climate Change science, as well as on the history of oppression of minorities and of other countries, and the vigorous training in critical thinking — in schools funded by our tax dollars — is NOT an option! Clearly the system of electoral college is flawed, and the gerrymandering of electoral districts is corrupt – but that doesn’t take away the fact that 62,000,000 US citizens voted for Trump. Even if Hillary Clinton had squeeked by – we are still left with the fact that 62 MILLION people were hooked by lies and fantasies. The fact that close to that number of people voted for G.W. Bush in his second term (after he had shown how destructive, cowardly and idiotic his administration was with letting Bin Laden escape for lack of guts to capture him when it was possible and instead launching a disastrous war in Afghanistan and an even worse one and less justifiable on Iraq – to say nothing of what they were doing to the economy) should have been reason enough for sane people to wake up to the powder keg that this level of ignorance and prejudice represented for the US democracy. Did our vast media and academia sound the alarm then?
In order to preserve a democracy it is imperative that demagoguery be understood and that we actively prevent the development of conditions that make apparently ridiculous demagogues such as Trump (and Hitler too at the beginning) ignite a firestorm of support. Rather than finding scapegoats for what happened – if we are really serious – let us use this rare moment of awareness, when many are finally shaken out of their complacency – to tackle the real problem: we allowed over decades the prevalence of the conditions for a demagogue to take over. DEMAGOGUES , PSYCHOPATHS, MANIPULATORS ARE ALWAYS THERE. We must never forget this and keep the defenses against them vigorous, unmasking them at every turn and denying space, airwaves, pulpits, schools, funding, tolerance, and cover, to their messages. It will cost us time, money and discomfort – but as you can now see – that is the price of democracy.
Claudia Chaves, author of “Why People Don’t Think For Themselves – How To Renew A Failing Democracy” http://www.whypeopledontthinkforthemselves.com