Fear and loathing on Trump’s trail

One of the things I love about Twitter is the capacity to observe real events unfold in real time, filtered not through the eyes of the media, but through the eyes of the people who are there. Some of the eyes are trained: legal observers at protests, activists, journalists and other professional reporters. Others are voices from the mob. If you browse the hashtags, you can hear voices from ‘both’ sides of an argument.

This morning I watched as Trump’s Chicago rally fell apart. Yesterday, the news was full of Trump’s campaign manager assaulting a journalist while Trump fans harassed and intimidated protesters in the crowd – with Trump’s encouragement. That it escalated overnight is surprising only in its timing: this is the environment Trump is fostering. He has actively encouraged violence against protesters.

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This week social media has also been full of quiet horror at Trump encouraging crowds to raise their right hands and pledge support for him. The hashtag #heiltrump made the obvious Hitler connection. I’m also reminded of Orwell’s 1984. A key element of the control Big Brother exerts over the people is the daily Two Minutes Hate. People are required to gather daily at 1100 hours to watch on on-screen presentation where they are encouraged to hate the enemy (Emmanuel Goldstein). Behind the imagery of the figurehead of the enemy stream pictures of ‘the endless columns of the Eurasian army – row after row of expressionless Asiatic faces’. It takes less than 30 seconds for the gathered people to explode in rage, ‘the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically.’

Trump’s not Goldstein in this analogy, Trump is Big Brother, his broad orange face and manic comb-over everywhere, scowling out from plasma TV’s, phones, PCs, exhorting people to HATE THE OTHER: Muslims, Mexicans, even women. At his rallies, he whips up the hate, encourages them to vent their anger in violence.

Americans have a lot to be angry about. Real wages have stagnated. The rich have got hella richer, but ordinary Americans are worse off in 2015 than they were in the 80s, comparatively. In-work poverty has soared. The police are responsible for nearly 4 deaths a day.  Hell, the Governor of Flint, Michigan poisoned the water source on purpose and nobody has even been charged with a crime.  Trump harnesses that anger and directs it any easy target: anyone but the other rich, white billionaires who actually caused the mess America is in. And he does it knowingly, which in my mind makes him evil.

We used to believe that being in a mob turned us feral. Gustave Le Bon, whose theories of crowd psychology were based on his observations of the French Revolution (and who influenced Hitler), has dominated our understanding of crowd behaviour for most of the last 2 centuries but we now know that the reality is more subtle. Crowds can be a place of joy, as festival devotees will attest. Going on a protest march can be exhilarating: the sense of harmony through shared purpose strips away the usual social norms that make us reticent about social connection and allow us to express our shared humanity. Modern theorists like Michael Bond believe that altruism and solidarity are the default mode in crowds.

I’m encouraged by the Chicago protests against Trump. The big difference between the world of 1984 and now is we are not yet under totalitarian control; it is still possible to speak out without fearing for your freedom. I hope the protests encourage others to make it clear that Trump does not speak for America, and that collective energy is directed towards restoring sanity in public discourse. Psychology tells us that it can easily go the other way, though: today’s protests could be tomorrow’s riots. A lot will depend on how leaders, including the thought leaders in the media, respond. Commentators have warned against the politics of hate for decades but since 9/11 both sides of politics have employed it, and not just in the US. Trump is by-product of a broken political system where fear is used to manipulate the electorate.

The voices from Trump’s mob in Chicago are bewildered and angry. People freely assembling to freely say ‘enough’ is, they are convinced, somehow trampling on their right to free speech. They cheer when Trump advocates violence, but now want to decry violence by his detractors. They see this billionaire who inherited his wealth from his father as somehow being outside the establishment because, after whipping up their fear, he gives them permission to express it as violence.

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within 30 seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash face with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp (Orwell, 1984).

John F Kennedy famously said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. We need leaders who will lead us towards collective joy, not whip us up to be a feral mob, ready to turn on each other for the slightest fault. Which way will it go?

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