Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Still Faces", Right-wing Authoritarianism, and the Trumpthuglicans

The efforts to humanize and find empathy with the Trumpthuglicans is a cottage industry. To that end, the American corporate news media is still stuck on its "economic anxiety" narrative. As I and others have detailed extensively, said narrative is largely incorrect: white racism and sexism and authoritarianism amplified so-called white "working class" anxiety to win the American Il Duce the White House. And if the Democrats continue to adhere to that narrative--as opposed to understanding the power of white identity politics--they will lose across the board. Politics is a copycat game; Donald Trump and the openly white supremacist wing of the GOP have provided a model that other Republicans will likely follow.

But among the many facile "think piece" and long form investigative essays trying to make sense of Trump's allure for the white "working class" there are a few gems. One of them is Michael Bader's piece at Psychology Today which explores the role of child rearing, community, empathy, and human relationships in the appeal of Trump and Right-wing politics in America today.

Bader begins:
The worst scenarios are ones occurring in conditions over which children have no control, such as the dangers faced by the babies in the still-face experiments. When we are powerless to prevent our nervous systems and psyches from being overwhelmed, our physical, emotional, and intellectual development is disrupted. We call this trauma.

As a metaphor for adult life in contemporary society, the “still face” paradigm—the helplessness intrinsic to it and the breakdown of empathy that lies at its foundation—aptly describes the experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including government. And, as with Tronick’s babies and their mothers, when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger, and hopelessness. Such inattention and neglect lead to anxiety about our status and value, and a breakdown of trust in others. 
The pain of the “still face” in American society is present all around us.
People feel it while waiting for hours on the phone for technical support, or dealing with endless menus while on hold with the phone or cable company, or waiting to get through to their own personal physician. They feel it in schools with large class sizes and rote teaching aimed only at helping students pass tests. They feel it when crumbling infrastructure makes commuting to work an endless claustrophobic nightmare. And, too often, they feel it when interacting with government agencies that hold sway over important areas of their lives, such as social services, the IRS, building permit and city planning departments, or a Department of Motor Vehicles. Like Tronick’s babies, citizens who look to corporations and government for help, for a feeling of being recognized and important, are too often on a fool’s errand, seeking recognition and a reciprocity that is largely absent.

This problem is greatly exaggerated by the profoundly corrosive effects of social and economic inequality.
He continues with this powerful indictment of American society:
This pain is increasingly prevalent among working and middle-class Americans who have seen their jobs lost to technology and globalization, their incomes stagnate, and the promise of a better life for their children appear increasingly unlikely. Their interactions with their doctors, pharmacists, bankers, landlords, state and federal tax collectors, social service agencies, auto dealers, and cable providers are too often marked by frustration and feelings of dehumanization. Like Tronick’s infants, they can’t get anyone to even see them much less smile at or with them. Finally, to make matters worse, they also live in a meritocratic culture that blames the victim, even while these victims have little power to escape their lot. The old adage that “it’s lonely at the top” and that Type A executives have more than their share of stress is false. Studies on stress show that what is most stressful isn’t being in charge but being held accountable for outcomes over which you have little or no control... 
On nearly all measures of social life, Americans tend to have fewer and lower quality interactions with one another than their parents or grandparents did. Isolation has grown along with inequality. They go together. Societies with more economic fairness and equality are ones that encourage and privilege cooperation and mutuality. Societies like ours that are so exceptionally unequal encourage and privilege aggression, paranoia, and competitiveness, traits associated with the so-called “rugged individualist.” While sometimes adaptive, such an ideal also makes a virtue out of disconnection and trauma. 
The links between the failures of empathy in childhood and similar experiences in adult social and political life are not simple or straightforward. We cannot reduce white working class anger, for example, to childhood traumas, and it is certainly true that the feelings of neglect and rejection associated with encountering the “still face” of social institutions are ubiquitous and not restricted to the economically disadvantaged. As I already said, people of color, the majority of the working class, endure this neglect and rejection in especially harsh ways. Race matters, but so does wealth. It remains true that wealth and income can enhance feelings of agency and control and can “buy” greater responsiveness from those from whom we need help or support.
Donald Trump and the broader Right-wing nationalist wave sweeping Europe are a symptom of a larger crisis in political community and biopolitics. While we are correct to be disgusted by the Trumpthuglicans that voted for Donald Trump and the Republican Party, one should also focus on the broader systems level problems that forced this crisis upon the country and world.

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