In March 2016 (back when this situation was still avoidable), former presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a speech on the subject of the GOP primary candidate Donald Trump.
…We’re blessed with a great people — people who at every critical moment of choosing have put the interests of the country above their own. These two things are related. Our presidents time and again have called on us to rise to the occasion. John F. Kennedy asked us to consider what we could do for our country. Lincoln drew upon the better angels of our nature to save the union.
I understand the anger Americans feel today. In the past, our presidents have channeled that anger and forged it into resolve, into endurance and high purpose, and into the will to defeat the enemies of freedom. Our anger was transformed into energy directed for good.
Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press.
This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.
A thought struck me recently that called this quote to my mind. It might sound simplistic, but I believe human beings, on the individual level, are essentially divided creatures, torn between good and evil on a daily basis. Or really, between what they want and what they ought to want. Above, Romney references JFK and Lincoln as encouraging the latter side of humanity. And the best presidents, the best leaders, have always done this. Make people, make human beings, better, and you’ll make the country better too.
But that’s a hard path. And it’s very hard to campaign with a message that you, Joe Voter, need to be a better human being. Because the truth is that people want to be their worst selves.
Face it: we want to be told we’re already good and it’s others who are bad. We don’t want to have to change. We want someone to tell us that those desires, prejudices, and hidden thoughts that we fight against daily—are actually right. That our violent impulse is righteous, that our paranoia of foreigners is justified, that our political enemy is also the enemy of all that is good and holy and must be destroyed at all costs.
On the campaign trail Donald Trump gave voice to every evil thought that ever passed across a conservative’s mind. It felt good to know you weren’t alone in your feelings. At first you may have been innocent; you weren’t racist, you explained, you just wanted law and order in the land. And that isn’t unreasonable at all. But as the war waged on, you doubled-down again and again until Trump and his triumph became paramount, and that required more radical rhetoric, and those prejudices, whether justified or not, grew against the opposition until, for far too many, they escalated into outright bigotry and genuine hate.
Three years ago you would be ashamed of such feelings, but not anymore. Now you can spew it all out and you’ll still have friends, allies, people who will back you up and whose very existence persuades you that there is no need to feel shame. You are so angry you cannot see that you are angry anymore. Everyone else is to blame.
It makes life a lot easier, to feel that way. People want the worst of themselves validated. It feels so good to unleash those inner demons without worry of reproach or societal condemnation. Trump has let people feel it, let people express it, even given them a place to find others who feel the same way. Remember, Trump campaigned not on facts, but on feelings. He told people a narrative, and his supporters wanted it to be true so badly they lost their capacity to reason. The essence of the great con.
The right is not alone in this spiritual quandary. Both the left and the right draw out this state of mind in their preachings. The left justifies their moral anarchy with relativism and blanket tolerance for any and all deviant personal behavior and warnings of dystopian oppression if they fail to win. The right does it with Whataboutism and nationalism and warnings of end-days-level apocalypse if they fail to win.
Together these mindsets feed each other, ironically creating the very endgame they each warn against. Fueled by a like-minded opposition, they grow exponentially and create a fierce tribalism that will likely never fade away, perhaps even in the case of large-scale global tragedy.
The events of 9/11 brought us closer together for a time, but these days if North Korea ever launched its nuclear arsenal, do you think we’d all hold hands and pray (or “send out good thoughts” as the current trend goes) and embrace each other as brothers and sisters? No, it would simply ignite the fiery darts of the blame game, and when such conflicts are waged against the backdrop of something as horrible as a nuclear attack, it will seem entirely justifiable to finally do what you always wanted to do: attack your opponents with physical violence.
Some of our leaders still attempt to invoke those better angels of our nature and remind us of what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do. Senator Ben Sasse is a great example. But in response to his pleas for maturity and decency and personal responsibility, he is condemned for the social media crime of “virtue signaling” by people who for some reason prefer to signal their vices. Like the demons that pilot their souls, these people spew hatred at genuine righteousness, gnash their teeth at actual virtue, because light hurts the eyes of those that dwell in darkness.
This is what you want to be when you don’t have to try to control yourself anymore. You can vomit it all up, and it will only encourage your allies and enrage your enemies—and that is the only point of tribal warfare such as ours.
No happy ending lies in wait for a society split into tribes that hate each other. Did the Civil War end racial strife? Of course not. It is even rising up today, a century and a half later, ugly as it’s ever been. No, our modern conflict won’t end until both sides make an honest evaluation of their own souls. It’s a sad thing that honest religion is fading away, with deep partisanship and worship of mortals growing in its place. It’s one of the only reliable bridges to a change of heart.
But no, we don’t want religion and we don’t want to be told what we ought to do because we don’t want to be judged. Instead we want our demons justified. We want our baser natures accepted. We want our hidden hatred encouraged.
We want someone else to blame, even as we plunge headlong into the abyss.