Friday, February 24, 2017

Responding to Trump's Administrations: Scapegoats and Meaningful Resistance

Yesterday I was reading about René Girard and his understanding of how societies use the scapegoating mechanism as a kind of pressure valve to channel the violent energies caused by rising conflict: people collectively identify a sacrificial scapegoat towards whom they channel all that violent energy. They "sacrifice" the scapegoat to "the gods" and achieve a kind of catharsis that brings in its wake a temporary peace.

As I was reading, I was (naturally) thinking about the current administration. That administration, as I see it, has invoked a particular form of this scapegoating mechanism as part of an effort to win the support of disaffected, white, working-class Americans. I say a "particular form," because what the administration has done is invoked divisive us/them ideology that divides the world between an in-group and an out-group, and it is this out-group that becomes the scapegoat. Not an individual, but an entire class of human beings. "These others," they say, "are the source of our troubles, and when these others are removed or marginalized our problems will be solved."

This ideological othering is the most dangerous kind of scapegoating. It sets community against community, achieving the temporary peace within a community by putting itself at war (figuratively or literally) with another community. When the targeted others are already represented in a diverse community, then the war first begins internally, requiring a kind of purge. The potential for widespread and enduring horror is quite significant if the leadership of a nation is allowed to carry out a vision defined by such scapegoating of the ideological other.

So when there is a danger of this happening, or when it is already underway, resistance is essential. (I am convinced a resistance movement must be thoroughly nonviolent, for reasons I won't explore here.) But yesterday, as I was reading about Girardian scapegoating, I began to worry that some voices in the burgeoning resistance in the US were turning Trump into a scapegoat, trying to heap on him the weight of all that is wrong in American society so that his removal from office could become the sacrificial ritual that would, in the Girardian scapegoat mythology, make everything right again.

Thinking about this, I wrote up a quick little parable or drama, meaning to warn against this possibility. Then I posted it here.

Feedback from friends on social media as well as on this blog have led me to conclude that the parable was at best ripe for being misunderstood and at worst a dangerously misleading vision. More precisely, I worry that my little parable suggested a false equivalency between two very different things: on the one hand, the kind of threat posed by a presidential administration that lifts up and legitimizes ideological hate in the course of implementing policies that scapegoat whole classes of people; on the other hand, the kind of threat posed if those who resist that administration's efforts were to fall prey in significant numbers to the scapegoating instinct.

These two things are not equivalent.

What I want to say now is this. I think there is enormous danger when the reins of power fall into the hands of those who openly preach ideological division and encourage scapegoating of whole classes of people. Those who see this happening have an obligation to speak out about the threat, to repudiate the othering, and to stand (nonviolently) against the policies and policy proposals that would implement such scapegoating of entire groups. There needs to be a meaningful resistance.

I suspect that the sort of approach that Michael Moore lays out in his "10-Point Plan to Stop Trump" would (if a large enough number of people get on board) prove quite effective in neutralizing Trump's ability to enact his ideological agenda, if not pushing him out of office. But while an action plan is crucial to any organized nonviolent campaign, the spirit in which that campaign is waged is just as important, especially for long-term success.

Most importantly, a resistance movement must avoid becoming the thing it stands against. This means, first and foremost, that it must avoid ideological othering. But just as importantly, it must also avoid the milder scapegoating that treats Trump as the problem and his removal as the solution that will restore peace and prosperity to America.

If a nonviolent resistance movement against Trump's agenda falls prey to the scapegoating instinct, that is not in any way equivalent to an administration that is trying to implement us/them ideology on a global scale. Not even close. Our world will be safer if that administration fails to implement its ideology or, better yet, stops trying either because it has been rendered toothless by our checks-and-balances (supported by a strong grass-roots movement) or has been removed through impeachment or resignation. But my worry is this: a resistance that falls prey to mythic scapegoat-thinking will, if successful in removing Trump's administration, quickly move from the elation of success to the comforting sense that all is now well, as if the problem were solved.

Furthermore, if a successful campaign is defined by the scapegoating of Trump, this may actually fuel the us/them ideology in this country, worsening the divisions and the polarized animosity. Because here's the thing: Trump is the hero of a lot of people. He symbolically represents them. If it's just about ousting Trump--and his ardent supporters are seen as nothing but a bunch of idiots that deserve to be shoved back under the rocks they crawled out from--then the danger posed by Trump's brand of ideological leadership will be alleviated only at the cost of intensifying the divisions that put him into power in the first place. The next Trump who comes along can awaken the same forces, and they may be angrier than ever.

I have been in the habit of expressing these concerns by saying that Trump is just a symptom of a far deeper problem--a problem of ideological divisiveness that needs to be separated from the people who preach it and repudiated in much the way the Martin Luther King, Jr., repudiated racial oppression by insisting that racism, not racists, were the enemy.

But a commenter on this blog, raverroes, has pointed out to me that this is the wrong way to characterize Trump. Rather than being a symptom, he is a catalyst.

This strikes me as exactly. When he was campaigning, Trump's shameless indulgence in pugnacious rhetoric encouraged others who harbored divisive ideologies to step out of the shadow of shame that kept them from expressing their hate boldly. The social constraints against openly abusing Muslims and other minorities in public were, in Trump's rhetoric, lumped together with "political correctness" and dismissed along with its excesses. And when Trump was elected, that event carried a symbolic meaning for at least some of those among Trump's base who were most in the grip of ideologies of hate: The social forces that repudiate acting on our hateful feelings have been defeated. We are free to hate out loud.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that every Trump voter took home that message. A substantial percentage of Trump voters were never inspired by his divisive rhetoric and blatant us/them ideologies in the first place. They voted for him in spite of those things, perhaps not seeing them as the existential threat to our values and social life that I take them to be. I know people--who are surely representative of many more--who held their noses as they voted for Trump, finding him odious but thinking that his excesses would be restrained by the establishment and that his administration would make SCOTUS appointments that would favor a pro-life agenda. Others thought his promise of good jobs, of looking out for the working class, eclipsed his talk about Muslim bans and registries (which, they thought, was just talk and wouldn't be something he could implement anyway, it being unconstitutional and all).

But even if most Trump voters were not inspired by Trump's promulgation of ideologies of division, those in our society who did embrace such ideologies flocked to him and were emboldened by him. He became a catalyst. And that catalyst is now occupying the most powerful political office on planet Earth.

This, then, raises the question of what to do in response. The root problem is not any one person but an underlying pattern of thinking and acting. The root problem is divisive ideology and the illusory promise of tribal unity offered by sacrificing scapegoats. There are deep social structures and unconscious cultural forces that feed such ideology, that perpetuate such false promises. We need to work against these forces in a way that doesn't lead us to become seduced by their lure. But we also confront the reality that a catalyst for these forces now occupies the Oval Office. I'm not sure his aim is to be such a catalyst.  I suspect it is more about ego-gratification. But he remains a catalyst.

I remain convinced that we compromise any meaningful resistance to divisive ideology and its harmful effects if we turn a catalyst into a scapegoat. But raverroes has highlighted for me the crucial difference between symptoms and catalysts, and so I also think we compromise any meaningful resistance if we treat someone who has functioned as a catalyst as nothing but a symptom.

There is one final conditioning force that I believe any meaningful resistance needs to internalize. I think we lose the moral center that must define a nonviolent movement if we see only the catalyst and forget that the catalyst is first and foremost a person--a human person who has been thrown into a position he never expected to be in and who is plagued by his own demons. A person gripped by an irrepressible urge for approval while sitting in a role that by its nature draws relentless critical scrutiny. A person who is surely angry and miserable, whose spirit is layered with crud and who is desperately trying to get rid of the crud by rubbing it off on those around him. Where there is a human soul there is the need for the kind of compassion that reaches across the divides of human conflict and affirms our shared human condition even as we stand firm against the choices and behaviors that we are convinced are wrong and harmful.

The question is how to cultivate the right spirit and weave that spirit into an action plan that stands up for the vulnerable, that says no to ideological hate and scapegoating, that impedes the advance of injustice--and that can do so without falling into the scapegoating instinct even when such a potent catalyst for ideological division occupies the most visible and powerful office in the world.

I don't have clear answers, but I think we need to ask the questions.


  1. Trump has already set this country back for many years by the institution of his reckless policies. I agree with Michelle Obama that "when they go low, we go high" and also the point of your blog article. It is imperative that "progressives" mobilize nonviolently and with compassion to stop this insanity.

  2. This is a marked improvement from your prior reflection, Eric. Thank you. I must say, however, pedantic academic theories are far better at partial descriptions of phenomena than potent solutions to them. After all, how would you account for the fact that Trump's rise would not have been possible without the Tea Party movement, which itself emerged not because Obama scapegoated the right but in spite of him decidedly not doing that; in spite of him spending much of his first term desperately eager to forge a post-partisan politics? And yet here we are, eight years later, anyway. Indeed, the catalyst that Trump is, all he did was add a dash of nativist, nationalist flavor into the economic populism of the Tea Party, and the result, as we now know, has been nothing short of explosive. So, is this not just another case of you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't? Maybe the real lesson here -- certainly a practical one, at least -- is not so much that we shouldn't scapegoat per se, but rather that we should scapegoat better: less Girard, and more Niebuhr. Electorally speaking, after all, we're all here not because of Trump voters (, but because of those on the left who foolishly voted for third party candidates ( those on the left who lacked the phronesis to see that Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, was plainly the wrong candidate for scapegoating ( Maybe the left should start there next time, instead of spending most of the year maligning the only viable candidate -- herself already besieged on all sides by foreign and domestic enemies -- standing between us and the demagogue. I mean, I read left-wing publications last year. Sometimes even I couldn't tell if I was reading Salon or Breitbart. In any case, nobody in "the resistance" wants an American remake of the Reign of Terror. But neither do we have any use for a toothless, kumbaya kind of action plan that failed before -- mind you, Obama's signature achievement, the ACA, was passed without a single Republican vote, despite his sincere, assiduous efforts to court the Republicans -- and will doubtless fail again. We could afford failure when it didn't matter -- as I pointed out, the law passed anyway -- but we certainly can't afford failure now, not when the stakes are this high. And for what? To fulfill the prophecies of a dead man? I would rather we all listen to the living woman we have wronged (, to the woman we left "fighting for us" on her own ( Where is she now, by the way? Still roaming the woods of Lorien, is she ( Lord help her, and us all.

    1. You are certainly right that no academic theory offers a complete portrait of complex human realities. And a theory meant to understand social phenomena can help highlight what won't work--imposing constraints--it will not tell us what will. That takes creative human activity in the face of a range of contingent facts on the ground that no mere theory can account for. When it comes to ideologies of division, one thing that the theory tells us is that when two groups embody such ideology with respect to each other, it creates feedback loops that intensify the divisiveness and entrench the forces of hostility. But this doesn't mean that my side in a conflict avoiding divisive ideology is a guarantee against the other side will not, for different contingent social reasons, enact a divisive ideology with entrenched persistence. In other words, reaching across a divide in a spirit of friendship won't by itself break down deeply rooted us/them thinking on the far side of the divide. As I see it, the refusal to fall into us/them thinking oneself is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for an effective response. What more is needed? Specific solutions need to draw on specific features of a situation. What I learn from Martin Luther King (who, by the way, took Niebuhr very seriously), is that the refusal to hate or scapegoat the opponent needs to be combined with relentless repudiation of and noncooperation with what the opponent is doing, combined with creative strategies that call to vivid attention the harms of the opponent's policies and behaviors.

      I think the following article, which I read yesterday, is particularly insightful in terms of why nonviolent movements are more effective in overcoming autocratic regimes and acknowledging specific social realities in play in the US today that are relevant to any effort to resist an authoritarian push by Trump's administration:

    2. "the refusal to hate or scapegoat the opponent needs to be combined with relentless repudiation of and noncooperation with what the opponent is doing"

      Aren't you just mimicking the right's favorite mantra, "Hate the sin, love the sinner" here, and if so, can you provide one actual example of you doing that in real life? I mean, whenever I think of the white, middle-aged man who almost pulled my mother's headscarf after verbally harassing her in a parking lot just a day after the election, love is not exactly the thing that comes to my mind. Now, imagine someone doing that to your mother. Tell me, could you love him?