Mean Streaks: The Political Problem of Needless Cruelty is Getting Worse

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Mean Streaks: The Political Problem of Needless Cruelty is Getting Worse

The right wing of American politics has a mean streak, and it’s getting worse under Donald Trump.

That’s not a shock: any random sampling of the president’s deranged Twitter feed sums up the state of political discourse in 2017. But beyond the deluded conspiracy theories of a hypersensitive autocrat are the practical effects of his policies, which seem designed to target the vulnerable and disadvantaged—refugees and immigrants, the poor, people of color and members of the LGBT+ community—by letting them know that the American dream is not for them.

Despite the role of that dream in defining modern conservatism in this country, the conservative movement has long had a troubled relationship with the American underclass that aspires to live it (or has given up on ever achieving it). In part, that’s a function of overt bigotry, though the broader issue has always been systemic: socioeconomic and cultural conditions in the United States have favored white men, particularly rich ones, from the start. As an economic and social philosophy promoting a certain vision of individual liberty, conservatism doesn’t explicitly exclude other demographic groups. But the white men who established what is now called movement conservatism in the 1930s seem to never have considered that being white and male confers certain advantages in the pursuit of all that delicious life, liberty and property. That’s what they were, that’s what they knew, end of story.

In the conservative view, people on the bottom rungs of society don’t need help from government handouts, they need the gumption to pull themselves up through sheer force of will, disadvantages be damned. According to this line of thought, ending public assistance programs is the kind of tough love necessary to spur individual initiative, which is essential for improving one’s lot. “I got mine and don’t worry bout his”—to borrow from James Brown—is not a generous position, but it’s consistent: studies have shown that conservatives tend to deny public assistance to claimants who they feel are responsible for their own predicaments, even in life-or-death situations, according to a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1993. Certain strains of conservatism view even the most dire poverty as a condition the poor have brought upon themselves.

Still, even if denying public assistance looks cruel—and the cuts to Meals on Wheels and school-lunch programs in Trump’s proposed budget most certainly look cruel—spite, as such, is not a motivating factor in ideological policy preferences, says Linda J. Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who coauthored the 1993 paper, “Providing Public Assistance: Cognitive and Motivational Processes Underlying Liberal and Conservative Policy Preferences.”

“The intent on the part of conservatives (or liberals) is almost never to be cruel,” Skitka says by email. “Liberals and conservatives are simply very focused on very different harms/benefits.”

In other words, gutting programs that help the poor or disadvantaged isn’t personal, it’s required by ideology.

More recently though, it has gotten personal. Now there’s a segment of the right that seems to exult in the supposed flaws and failings of people they perceive as opponents, as if such things prove those people didn’t deserve to succeed in the first place. They’re the Gamergate trolls threatening outspoken women in videogame culture, for example, or Milo Yiannopoulos acolytes directing racist venom at the comic Leslie Jones for her turn in the new Ghostbusters. The 2016 presidential campaign was full of invective demeaning “libtards,” “cucks” and “snowflakes.” And though such vitriol often fits on a left-right continuum, the author and commentator P.J. O’Rourke attributes it to a different sort of ideology.

“The war is between the frightened and what they fear,” O’Rourke writes in his new book about the election, How the Hell Did This Happen?, excerpted in The Times of London. “It is being fought by the people who perceive themselves as controlling nothing. They are besieging the people they perceive as controlling everything.”

There’s no end to the depth of irony that an ultra-rich reality-TV bully—who successfully skipped paying taxes for the better part of 20 years—made the case that he’s on the side of people who think they have been dispossessed by a changing cultural landscape and then proceeded to further dispossess them himself. Yet Trump isn’t the first to run a con of that magnitude. Newt Gingrich was ahead of him by more than 20 years.

Gingrich had his own “Make America Great Again” hustle in 1994 with the “Contract With America,” a collection of campaign promises signed by 367 Republican candidates for Congress that probably helped Republicans win the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich’s strategy then was as much about rebuking liberals—with stringent law-enforcement provisions that implied the left was soft on crime, and a plan to deny welfare benefits to teenage mothers, for example—as appealing to conservatives with planks calling for a balanced budget and opposing United Nations command of U.S. troops.

Gingrich’s bullheaded style represented a significant change from the happy-go-lucky optimistic conservatism that Ronald Reagan had projected, a difference underscored by the rise of right-wing media. Rush Limbaugh was already known for his caricatures of liberalism and political correctness by the time Fox News launched in October 1996 as a vehicle for right-wing orthodoxy. Soon liberals weren’t just ideological opponents, they were the enemy—a point of view Attorney General Jeff Sessions inadvertently endorsed during his confirmation hearings when he said, “This country does not punish its political enemies.” This was, of course, in reference to Hillary Clinton.

“Liberals-as-enemies” has been the subtext of American conservatism ever since. Soft-on-torture bleeding hearts were portrayed as insufficiently patriotic during the George W. Bush years, which ended in the 2008 financial crisis that gave rise to the Tea Party, which begat the special vein of petty know-nothingness including Sarah Palin and soon enough elevated Donald Trump to the White House. Here we are. What do we do now?

“History in the United States, ideologically, is kind of like a pendulum,” Skitka says. “Any time it swings too far in one direction, it’ll correct and swing back in the other direction. People can’t afford to be this upset chronically, so it will correct itself.”

We can maybe speed the process with dialogue. “The only way we’re going to persuade each other is really to take a deep breath, step back and try to really see the issue from the other person’s perspective and understand what they’re afraid of,” Skitka says. And not just online either. “Personal contact is enormous,” she says. “The people most frightened of sharia law, for example, have probably not met a Muslim.”

Liberals don’t get a free pass here either. Studies have shown they can be just as intolerant as conservatives toward ideological opposites: think liberals who scoff at religious faith, for example, or college students who shout down (non-racist) conservative speakers instead of hearing them out and engaging. “The more contact people have with unlikeminded others, the more moderate they’re going to become,” Skitka says. That is to say, if America is ever going to come back together after the end of this strange, tumultuous flirtation with empowered idiocy, we’re going to have to learn how to talk to each other again.