It’s 4:26 p.m. on inauguration day in the United States. Joe Biden has just become President of the United States in what represents a major shift away from Trump and a repudiation of his values. While it’s a day of celebration here in the United States it’s also a day of mourning and that mourning is twofold. As we count the dead and brace for the coronavirus pandemic to ramp up and become even worse, we’re also mourning the loss of reason in large swaths of the American population.
My social media feeds are filled with vitriolic hate. I can’t read a news article without absolute hatred spewed from the text comments of Trump supporters and sympathizers spanning every internet channel I’ve been on. It’s ubiquitous. It’s ominous. It’s telling.
When people are backed into a corner, the gloves come off and they tell you what they’ve been thinking all along. As they ditch their pretenses, we see that much of the Trump movement, even beyond those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6th, is in fact steeped in hateful propaganda.
One of the first tweets I read today likened the newly and duly elected Vice President Kamala Harris to a camel. The plays on words between Kamala and camel haven’t been missed on many who will boldface tell you, swearing up and down, that they’re not racist.
The other obnoxious trope that’s floating around is that Kamala Harris couldn’t have earned her way to the Vice Presidency without having sex with the right men. They’re saying she’s “swallowed her way to the top” and the point is to be as pointlessly inflammatory as it is cuttingly sexist.
That’s the blend of humor those aboard the Trump train prefer, the kind that’s meant to hurt, to inflict pain, and to dig up the old scars of sexual assault and trauma, all while reminding the recipient of the joke that they’re “less than” by white, male, heteronormative standards. These jokes aren’t just joking, they’re insults laced with cryptic venom and promissory claims of wholesale rejection of marginalized groups.
These “jokes” they make say the loud part quietly: we will never accept you, especially not now that you’ve won the election fairly. Full disclosure, this story may contain elements that make some people uncomfortable.
“READY ON THE RIGHT,” read one comment. That speaks to the readiness of the right-wing to engage in combat if needed in response to Joe Biden finally taking office. “Amen, I’ll defend my family by any means possible,” read another comment.
Someone else mentioned Revelation 13 from the Bible and said that this was Biblical prophecy being fulfilled. Biden and Harris were here to implement the literal apocalypse and were each the antichrist.
This comment thread on a local news publication came as the news station merely mentioned that Biden had taken office.
There was nothing more to fight about. There was nothing to disagree upon. And the hatred was spewed as comments rang in. The message was clear, that those who President Biden, Kamala Harris, and anyone who supported either of them are evil people.
And none of this was found on fringe sites. This was on Facebook.
All of this comes at a time when our nation needs unity. Joe Biden ran on unity. Kamala Harris has echoed his sentiment. We’re a divided nation with divisions that are fueled by one radically right-wing echo chamber that streams constant untruths into the eyes and ears of its viewers.
Immediately as the pandemic got underway in early 2020, Fox News was already dismissing it as a hoax and a smear tactic to make President Trump look bad in an election year. The virus they told viewers was fake for incalculable hours over the nation's most-watched TV network has now claimed over 400,000 lives. They were sued for this, but the case was thrown out because the United States prizes free speech (rightfully so). But just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right.
Like these lies, the mountain of similar lies surrounding the election are completely unfounded. One poll found that 90% of Republicans believed falsely that the election was stolen. Many others conducted in the months since the election have reported comparable results, with findings reaching the high 80% range. This is a huge problem. And this is only part of the reason they hate us.
And the vitriol is on full display now.
I’ll never forget when I was talking to a self-professed Libertarian some years and years ago. Somehow, Nancy Pelosi came up in the conversation. “I hate that woman,” he remarked. It struck me as odd. Pressing a little bit, I asked why. “What is it that you hate about her?” He couldn’t provide an answer. He just did. He just hated her because she was a Democrat and a woman.
I tried for about 15 more minutes because I really wanted to see if he could come up with an understandable reason for disliking her, let alone using the word hate. But he could not. The best explanation he could give was like the story of the scorpion and the frog, one that Trump told at rallies repeatedly.
The scorpion can’t swim. He needs to get across a river and promises a frog that if he can hop on the frog’s back, the two can get across the river and he won’t sting the frog. We all know what happens from there.
The two embark and about halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog, and it kills them both as they drown in the river. As they died, the frog asked why he stung him. It makes no sense. The scorpion replied, “Because I’m a scorpion and that’s what scorpions do.”
This story may sound like a cute little piece of folk wisdom at first. But it’s dangerous and it explains the hate that many of the people who are enraged have for us. It tells the story of rigid, fixed essentialism.
The tale says that we’re born one way and we can’t be another. If you’re a scorpion, the tale cautions, you need to be watched and looked out for. You can’t be trusted. You’ll make stupid decisions that kill us all if given an ounce of liberty to do so.
It also speaks volumes about one’s views on cooperation. “Others can’t be trusted. They’ll sting you in the back when you’re not looking and drown you, even if it means that they must die too. Because they’re built that way and there’s no use in even trying to fix it.” These are the messages that tale signals to us.
I’d imagine this story has been told countless times when justifying the hideous Prison Industrial Complex in the United States, one that houses millions of inmates. There’s no use in trying to educate scorpions, they say, all you can do is lock them up where they can’t sting you.
This binary view of the world is destructive. It makes two groups, the “good guys” and “bad guys”, and then strips all the worst elements of eugenics theory, the same theories that have been used to persecute Black people, Jews, and minorities for centuries, and marries it with anyone who stands against the Trumpian pursuit of power.
Anyone who’s against me having more power, the logic goes, must be inherently flawed — they must be a scorpion. This includes Black people, Jewish people, Hispanic people, immigrants, women, and even White Democrats. And these are the people we need to unite with.
And therein lies the problem…
Republican leadership and Trump supporters alike, from the top all the way on down, still can’t even begin to admit that the U.S. Election was the safest election in U.S. History. That’s Trump’s appointed Director of Homeland Security saying that, not me. He was fired for those words. Don’t you dare speak out against the cult of personality!
They are similarly saying that we’re going to hand the country to the Chinese, that there’s an underground cabal of Satanic cannibal pedophiles, and that we’re all hideously evil people. That’s how many Trump supporters see us.
None of this is true, of course. But how do we convince them of that? How do we convince people who’ve rejected facts for political dogmas?
Epistemological tribalism is where we are. Tribal epistemology is when someone judges the quality of the information they see based on how it will suit the political narratives they’ve already sworn allegiance to. It’s when people use group-identity to decide what’s true or false. And that’s where the Republicans are.
They’ve denied climate change. They’ve denied the humanity of Black people and Jewish people. They’ve denied the status of women as equals. They’ve denied the legitimacy of the safest election ever. They’ve denied that the Capitol attack was in fact, them, even while half their friends were posting selfies of themselves proudly wreaking havoc on the Capitol building itself.
So, how do you “unite” with that? You can’t. You can’t unite while living in two different epistemological realities. Not until concessions are made. Not until people admit that they were wrong and step back into the fold of reality. You can’t unite with people who hate you and have constant streams of information telling them it’s okay to hate you.
I mean, do we really need any more evidence than the storming of the U.S. Capitol and threats to literally hang Vice President Pence from makeshift gallows and kill Nancy Pelosi? Do we really need more evidence than an angry mob high on their own supply of disinformation, beating an innocent Capitol Police officer to death while carrying Blue Lives Matter flags? Crushing police on the steps of the Capitol building with an American flag as if that’s what “freedom” means?
The message is clear. Trumpism is composed of empty slogans and no purpose. There are almost no substantive policy views. Trump could support Universal Healthcare tomorrow and his followers would be for it, so long as they thought it would give them the political power that they crave. Political power that’s almost always used to taunt, intimidate, and abuse the people that they hate.
I say we unify. But not without concessions. We can only unify on the grounds of reality and with the certainty that such a misstep in American history will never happen again. So how do we get to that point? Well, that’s what we must figure out. For now, we shouldn’t let our guards down and allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of normalcy and a false sense of security.