The de­scent into mad­ness - Part II

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Dr James J Zogby

The roots of our na­tion’s cur­rent de­scent into mad­ness can be traced back to a se­ries of unresolved cat­a­strophic trau­mas Amer­i­cans ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion. In the short span of 8 years, we suf­fered a col­lec­tive loss of con­fi­dence in Amer­i­can lead­er­ship, in the abil­ity of gov­ern­ment to per­form its most ba­sic func­tions, and in the very essence of the Amer­i­can Dream.

Re­call that when Ge­orge W Bush was elected in 2000, the elec­toral process it­self had been con­fi­dence shat­ter­ing. Hav­ing been brought up to be­lieve in the in­vi­o­la­bil­ity of our demo­cratic process, ex­po­sure to “how the sausage was made”, caused great dis­com­fort. Nev­er­the­less, we moved on be­cause the coun­try was do­ing well both eco­nom­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally. We had emerged vic­to­ri­ous from the Cold War and in the decade that fol­lowed demon­strated our un­con­tested lead­er­ship, win­ning two rel­a­tively quick wars: Lib­er­at­ing Kuwait and bring­ing peace to Bos­nia. Then came the dev­as­tat­ing blow of 9/11. The fate­ful de­ci­sions taken by the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion in re­sponse to that at­tack only pro­longed and ul­ti­mately deep­ened the trauma of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks. They mis­led the coun­try into two wars, telling us that vic­tory would be “quick and clean” and cer­tain - we would be her­alded as lib­er­a­tors, and the spark of democ­racy would spread through­out the en­tire Mid­dle East. Five years later, with thou­sands of Amer­i­can lives lost, a tril­lion dol­lars of our trea­sury spent, grow­ing anti-Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment world­wide, and both wars far from over, Amer­i­cans had lost con­fi­dence in our world lead­er­ship.


The Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion per­formed no bet­ter on the home front. While the pres­i­dent was given credit for say­ing “Is­lam is a re­li­gion of peace” and cau­tion­ing Amer­i­cans not to tar­get their fel­low Arab and Mus­lim Amer­i­can cit­i­zens, his Jus­tice Depart­ment un­der­cut that mes­sage by in­sti­tut­ing prac­tices that pro­filed both com­mu­ni­ties. Mass round-ups, in­flam­ma­tory press con­fer­ences, and the fre­quent abuse of “height­ened alerts” cre­ated fear and fos­tered pub­lic sus­pi­cions about the “enemy within”.

It was at that point that Ka­t­rina hit, deal­ing an­other blow to an al­ready reel­ing coun­try. Even “small gov­ern­ment” con­ser­va­tives ex­pect that gov­ern­ment will per­form well in time of tragedy. The Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­layed re­sponse and the bungling that fol­lowed only served to deepen the pub­lic’s loss of con­fi­dence in the abil­ity of gov­ern­ment to act.

The fi­nal blow came in the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s wan­ing days in the form of a deep and, for a time, grow­ing eco­nomic re­ces­sion that shook the foun­da­tions of our fi­nan­cial sys­tem and the pub­lic’s con­fi­dence in the Amer­i­can Dream. Within a few short months, ma­jor banks and man­u­fac­tur­ers were on the verge of bank­ruptcy, av­er­age Amer­i­cans had lost 20 to 30 per­cent of the wealth they had ac­cu­mu­lated in their pen­sion plans, the un­em­ploy­ment rate had dou­bled, and one in five home­own­ers were threat­ened with fore­clo­sure. Polls, which through­out the 1990’s showed two-thirds of Amer­i­cans con­fi­dent in their eco­nomic fu­ture, were sud­denly re­versed with two-thirds now say­ing that the coun­try was on the “wrong track” and the same twothirds no longer be­liev­ing that their chil­dren would be bet­ter off in the fu­ture.


This was the set­ting of Barack Obama’s vic­tory in 2008, the most re­mark­able as­pect of which was that it was based on the tri­umph of hope over fear cou­pled with a call to look for­ward to bet­ter days. In most pe­ri­ods of col­lec­tive trauma that I have stud­ied, the more typ­i­cal re­ac­tion is for move­ments to emerge that prey off fear and so­cial dis­lo­ca­tion and to ap­peal to the val­ues of a ro­man­ti­cized past.

This time was dif­fer­ent, but it only lasted for a short while. No sooner had Obama won, then the GOP be­gan plot­ting his demise. They did ev­ery­thing they could to block his agenda in Congress; they funded and pro­vided lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port for the Tea Party; they gave a wink and a nod to the “birther move­ment”; and, in ways sub­tle and not so sub­tle, they ex­ploited the basest of fears about the Pres­i­dent’s African her­itage and his fa­ther’s re­li­gion. Within a year of Obama’s elec­tion, a sub­stan­tial num­ber of self-iden­ti­fied Repub­li­cans said they be­lieved that the Pres­i­dent had not been born in the US and was, there­fore, not a le­git­i­mate pres­i­dent.

Polls have con­sis­tently es­tab­lished that both the Tea Party and “birthers” share some de­mo­graphic char­ac­ter­is­tics. They are white, largely mid­dle class and mid­dle aged. They had been dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­pacted by the eco­nomic col­lapse and felt that the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the cri­sis had been to fa­vor the rich and poor mi­nori­ties - at their ex­pense. They see them­selves as vic­tims of a failed gov­ern­ment that mis­led them and let them down.


De­spite in­di­ca­tors that point to an eco­nomic re­cov­ery, they re­main in­se­cure and are wait­ing for the “other shoe to drop”. They are afraid of “for­eign­ers” whom they blame for their eco­nomic de­cline, the ero­sion of so­cial co­he­sion, and the “ben­e­fits” they be­lieve are doled out to im­mi­grants at their ex­pense. They es­pe­cially blame Mus­lims for the dan­ger they pose at home and abroad. And they blame the pres­i­dent be­cause they see him as “for­eign” and fa­vor­ing the in­ter­ests of “mi­nori­ties” and Mus­lims over their own. [A re­cent poll showed that over 50 per­cent of all Repub­li­cans now be­lieve Obama is a Mus­lim, with over 60 per­cent of Trump and Car­son supporters be­liev­ing this and be­liev­ing that the pres­i­dent wasn’t born in the US.]

The Trump and GOP ap­peals to “Make Amer­ica great again”, to “stop us from los­ing”, or to “re­store our honor” are in re­sponse to the still unresolved col­lec­tive trauma ex­pe­ri­enced by the same group of vot­ers who com­prised the Tea Party. They are the anti-Obama mes­sage - ap­peal­ing to fear and not hope, and look­ing back­ward, not for­ward. Iron­i­cally, they are the themes on which Repub­li­cans might have based their cam­paign in 2008, had they not been run­ning to re­place one of their own in the Oval Of­fice.

For months now, the pun­dits and the GOP es­tab­lish­ment have dis­missed the dan­gers posed by the likes of Trump and Car­son and Cruz. Trump, they said, would be un­done by his in­sults and fab­ri­ca­tions; Car­son was a fad who would soon fade; and Cruz, be­cause he was so dis­liked, would go nowhere. Most re­cent polls, how­ever, show th­ese three gar­ner­ing be­tween 50 per­cent and 60 per­cent of the Repub­li­can vote. And as their rhetoric be­comes harsher, with naked ap­peals to in­tol­er­ance and even violence, it is time to wake up. Be­cause they speak to an en­tire group’s ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, tap into their deep reser­voir of re­sent­ment, and elicit vi­o­lent emo­tions, th­ese themes and their pro­po­nents must be ad­dressed.

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