Racism is one of America’s most effective distractions for keeping our country divided against itself. President Trump made this deadly game of distraction evident when he linked the school shootings in Parkland, Fl., to the “Obama-era guidance aimed at ensuring school districts aren’t discriminating against students while disciplining them. That directive, issued in 2014, sought to confront a systemic problem: that low-income students, minority students and students with disabilities are disciplined, suspended out-of-school and expelled more often than their white, more affluent peers.” (Wermund, et al., “Obama’s school discipline guidelines next to go?”, 2017)
Trump Finds Unlikely Culprit
Teachers’ advocates, such as Catherine Lhamon, former Education Department assistant secretary for civil rights, have said repealing the guidelines for student discipline will not help protect schools from mass shootings, saying the Obama administration’s emphasis was on decreasing discriminatory discipline.
“It is completely divorced and should be completely divorced from how to address external shooters,” Lhamon told USA Today.
The commission comes as the president has waffled on which policies to pursue after the shooting in South Florida left 17 dead (Delk, 2018).
Here’s How the Strategy Works
Trump is confronted with a national issue that raises the anxiety among whites about their kids.
Trump focuses on the anxiety and then stokes it by focusing on black, brown, and poor kids in white middle class schools.
He then appoints a commission to repeal an act that tried to prevent discrimination against such kids by school officials.
Trump’s followers now feel better because their anxiety has been reduced. Trump has lowered it by promising to fix something he used to stoke their anxiety: black, brown, and poor youth.
The fact that his followers feel better wins their immediate loyalty. Their lowered anxiety is personal proof that Trump is their fixer. The proof? They feel better.
The brain science behind this “new science of political emotions” was invented by political scientists Richard Nadeau, Richard G. Niemi, and Timothy Amato, who trenchantly argued in their essay, “Emotions, Issue Importance, and Political Learning,” that voters may forget the information they initially learned about the candidate, but they will hold onto their emotional attitudes.
President George W. Bush’s team studied this new science of political emotion. In fact, one of Bush’s advisors, W. Russell Neuman, who worked on information and security technology policy at the White House, literally wrote the book on this kind of political maneuvering (Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment, co-authored by George E. Marcus and Michael MacKuen).
Bush’s political strategies were based on what Nadeau et al call the anxiety/hope model. In this model, the politician who promises voters (or creates the expectation) that a threat to voter well-being will end wins emotional capital. In other words, if a politician can replace voters’ anxiety with hope, that politician will come out ahead. It’s a political confidence game. Here’s how it works.
- Takes an issue that causes anxiety among some voters.
- Turns it into a high anxiety issue for most voters.
- Offers up guaranteed hope and thus an expectation that the threat will be removed.
- Gains new emotional capital from voters because of new confidence in the leadership ability of the politician to end the threat.
- Becomes their confidence man.
The fundamental structure of this strategy draws on the formula for Christian faith created by sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians. Luther’s formula can be divided into the same five steps:
- Anxiety. The believer tries to please God on his own (without Christ or the Holy Spirit) and fails miserably because he is a sinner.
- Anxiety Heightened. Each repeated attempt by the believer to please God through works increases God’s wrath. God is enraged because He is being offered the man’s sin (unfulfilled Divine Commandments or “Law”) as if it were good works (fulfilled Law). The believer thus experiences an ever-deepening terror and humiliation in the sight of God. He comes to the realization that he is all flesh and not spirit.
- Universal Salvation Guaranteed: Christ. The believer now sees himself as God sees him (he’s a sinner). Being in complete accord with God’s vision and will is the human experience of faith. This experience of faith is the experience of the presence of Christ, who is present in the faith itself.
- The Human Feeling of Salvation While on Earth: Christ as Divine Mediator takes the sins of man upon himself. With this act by Christ, man is justified in the sight of God and no longer feels guilty.
- Confidence. Luther now proclaims that “[Any]one who teaches something different or something contrary — we confidently declare that he was sent from the devil….” By equating inner, personal certainty (a conscience at peace because it is united with Christ) with so-called objective truth (“Christians constituted as judges over all kinds of doctrine and become lords over all the laws of the entire world”), Luther made the emotional experience of extreme personal confidence the central religious experience of faith for many Protestants.
For Christians, Christ certainly deserves personal confidence. But Bush was not Christ. The confidence Bush asked for was of a completely different sort. What secular liberals didn’t understand was that when Bush used the anxiety/hope strategy effectively, it didn’t matter if the economy was depressed, jobs continued to disappear, the U.S. deficit was still rising, and Bush was still calling for more tax cuts and free trade. While liberals spoke policy-talk, much of Protestant America resonated to the affective force of Bush’s anxiety/hope strategy.
Here’s just one example of Bush’s mastery of this political strategy: Gay and Lesbian marriages.
- Anxiety Noted. Bush is told by “several prominent evangelical Protestants in Washington” that voter turnout by evangelicals is directly linked to his support of a constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage (New York Times, March 12, 2004). Thus Bush, when introducing his proposal for a constitutional amendment of marriage, first mentions the anxiety: the “uncertainty” caused among the American people by “arbitrary court decisions” and “defiance of the law by local officials” who have sanctioned gay and lesbian marriages at the state and local level.
- Anxiety Heightened. Bush escalates the anxiety into a universal, all-encompassing threat: a “few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization,” one “honored by all cultures and by every religious faith.”
- Guaranteed Hope Through Universal Salvation. Bush promises a guaranteed salvation: he declares his intention to “prevent the meaning of marriage to be changed forever,” by calling for the enactment of “a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America. Decisive and democratic action is needed, because attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country.”
- The Feeling of Political Salvation on Earth is Achieved. Bush now speaks of God. This time via a teleconference at the National Association of Evangelicals annual conference on March 11 held in Colorado Springs, which represents 30,000,000 members. Bush tells them they “are doing God’s work” and he thanks them “on behalf of our country.”
- Bush Becomes The Confidence Man. Bush now reveals the actual content of his political hand: confidence. Here’s how he put it during a fund-raising event on Long Island the following day: The American voters have a choice, “a choice between an American that leads the world with strength and confidence or an American that is uncertain in the face of danger” (New York Times, March 12, 2004). The issue, in short, is confidence. Bush is the confidence man.
Every major policy statement by Bush or his top administrators can be reduced to these five political steps. Try it. Read Bush’s statements on the Iraq War, its aftermath, his stance toward the United Nations, his tax cuts. He’s even used the formula on his opponent, creating voter anxiety about Kerry by insisting that John Kerry lacks conviction and is indecisive (New York Times, March 20, 2004). Once this negative association is made, Bush moves in with the message that he has conviction and offers the hope that he will be the decisive president voters need. The formula never changes.
Bush’s focused use of the theologically-based anxiety/hope strategy explains why most Americans believed, despite all the hard evidence, that he was a moral man, a defender of the faith, a Christian leader, and an American savior. In short, an elect man of God chosen to rule over others.
This kind of anxiety-provoking is not the work of God. It’s the work of a demigod.
A demigod by any other name is still a demigod when it trumps white American anxiety by proclaiming, “Watch the blackbird. Then, watch me make it disappear.”
Trump, again and again, says, watch the blackbird. He is a confidence man.
Delk, J. (2018, March 13). DeVos commission to mull Obama ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/378082-devos-commission-to-mull-obama-rethink-school-discipline-policies
Wermund, B., Lowry, R., Melman, Y., Raviv, D., Leaf, D., & Wilson, E. (2017, November 17). Obama’s school discipline guidelines next to go? Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://www.politico.com/newsletters/morning-education/2017/11/17/obamas-school-discipline-guidelines-next-to-go-027074