We are two emotional nations at war

Antagonism flourishes, but it comes in different flavors

By Todd Gitlin

Published October 10, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Steve Helber)
(AP/Steve Helber)

This piece originally appeared on BillMoyers.com.

The cliché of the decade is that America consists of two nations which don’t like each other. Like many clichés, this one is rooted deeply in truth, but in ways that bear closer inspection. The country’s differences are mostly obvious, familiar to anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave (at least one without Wi-Fi). But something else is going on, too. Increasingly we divide not only according to what we think but what we feel when we oppose the folks on the other side of the divide.

On a host of issues, the great majority of Americans cluster around two poles of mutual contempt. “Issues” are not the issue: facts are at issue. Your “fake news” denies my “alternative facts.” Your up is my down. Amplification systems blare at each other — radio, TV, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, you name it. The universes of opinion not only diverge, they cancel each other out. They both abhor vacuums. Polarization is the buzzword.

The ways we polarize are uncountable, but they cluster around questions of identity. The issue is not so much what you think but who you are. (Leonard Cohen brilliantly caught one axis of cleavage in his great line: “There is a war between those who say there is a war and those who say there isn’t.”) You sign up for a tribe — usually from birth — and your tribe thinks and feels for you. The name of the tribe you belong to is all I need to know about you. The name of the tribe may change, but identity is always at stake. Not so long ago, the right to same-sex marriage was a crucial divider; now, it’s bathroom access. The opposite position is inconceivable.

The tribes run our political parties. What’s evident and decisive is partisanship. Americans don’t reason their way from opinions to party choice, they choose their party first and then subscribe to its list of favored opinions. The same goes for loved and hated politicians, none more than the fabricator-in-chief. Trump’s zealots glue themselves to his coattails so fiercely that they will abandon previously held positions (like budget hawkery) once they learn Trump’s position du jour.

Was there a precise moment when the words “one nation, divisible” erupted volcanically in the midst of the Pledge of Allegiance? Of course not. Civil War, anyone? Charlottesville showed that the Civil War did not end, it morphed. It’s absurd to accuse politicians of divisiveness, for it’s self-evident that two climates of American opinion claw at each other like scorpions in a bottle. “Divisible” is our middle name, if not our first and last as well.

There’s a geography of division, too. A continuing line of cleavage was the Cotton Curtain. It went by the name Mason-Dixon, and its variants continue to ricochet down the years. Less than two decades ago, the Continental Divide was declared to be something more anodyne: a line between blue and red states, the former clustering on the three coasts (the third being the middle one on the shores of the Great Lakes), the latter in the “heartland,” the “flyover states,” the “real America.” Now we speak of lines separating locals from globalizers, and those who left their home counties from those who never did.

Now, what does this have to do with feelings? It should come as no surprise that members of the warring tribes think ill of each other. Regardless of the distinct stories they tell of how their tribe is victimized by the other tribe, they make no bones about their mutual suspicions. Consequently, of antagonism there is no shortage, and where it will end is anyone’s guess.

Over the past two years, of course, the two tribes have crystallized into Trumpworld and Anti-Trumpworld. Some emotions the tribes share — fear and loathing, to name two. Contempt also ranks up there. Your tribe is not only different from mine, it’s incomparably inferior. Contempt draws a sharp boundary line between my worthiness and your unworthiness. It grants solidarity — however little you may think of yourself, you know that the members of the other tribe are truly worthless. You’re as right as the others are wrong. How could you esteem yourself if you didn’t loathe “them”?

We all want our country back from the usurpers. Trumpers hold in contempt “illegal aliens,” the “politically correct,” the members of an “elite” (or “swamp”) made up of people whom they believe hold them in contempt, not least the “fake news,” who are “the worst people in the world.” Anti-Trumpers, by contrast, are contemptuous of white supremacists, climate-change deniers, “p***y grabbers,” crony capitalists and those who would deprive Americans of decent health care.

Perhaps the capacity for contempt is humanity’s great uniter. Human beings being what we are, weak and frightened, almost all of us survey the landscape for threats, and where we find threats, rightly or wrongly, we find throats to leap at. This tendency cuts across all political, religious, ideological and national lines. The Buddhists of Myanmar are as culpable as the Serbs of former Yugoslavia. Where the left sees a war on women, the right sees a war on Christmas. Of course there’s a distinction: the former is rhetorical excess for right-wing policies that burden birth control, while the latter is entirely fictional. But no one can deny that loathing and horror cut across political lines.

With the politics of moralistic aversion comes disgust, which declares, We who would be pure have been contaminated by them. Disgust is not only cognitive and intellectual but aesthetic. The other side is not only wrong, it is grotesque and unnatural. It’s hard to say which camp is more easily disgusted in America today. Did the hard right feel any more or less disgusted at Barack Obama in the White House than the left feels at the spectacle of Donald Trump watching Fox News and tweeting there?

So we are one nation, under contempt, disgust and antagonism. Still and all, there are differences in what, and how, the tribes feel toward each other. There’s a striking difference between the emotional clusters that each tribe harbors toward the other. It’s a difference in the coloration — the flavor — the tone of their respective negativities.

Trumpworld seethes with resentment, hatred and aggression. Ordinary anger is directed against someone else because of what he, she or they do or say. Resentment feels wholly threatened by the enemy. His, her or their existence is an insult. The enemy not only threatens but undermines me by having taken what is rightfully mine.

Trumpworld seethes with resentment. It is not only misogynist but voices its misogyny with maximum venom: “Lock her up,” “Hang the bitch,” “Hillary sucks more than Monica.” By contrast, for its part, while Anti-Trumpworld never blew kisses at criminal bankers, Bernie Sanders’ crowds did not chant, “Castrate the bastards” or “Fry the capitalists.”

If I am right, though, there’s another mismatch between tribal hatreds. Anti-Trumpworld beholds Trump not only with fear and loathing but with embarrassment and shame. Anti-Trumpworld listens to this man thunder at the UN General Assembly and feels that our fair name — the name of all of America’s better angels — is besmirched. We, all of us, are dragged down in the muck he deposits everywhere. Whatever our feelings abut what’s lovable and leaveable about America, we cannot bear watching this man unload his unending falsification, venom and ignorance, and transgress everything we hold honorable and decent about America. The spectacle of him sliming the idea that America could ever stand for anything other than conquest and brute force feels like murder.

His sins and crimes judge us across the board. We did not bar him from power. However flawed his 2016 opponent, however toxic James Comey’s interventions, however wicked Putin and his Russians, however impressive our alibis, however bad our luck, however absurd our Electoral College, the sum of all our good and intelligent works did not bar him from power. This is our collective shame.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia University, writes regularly for BillMoyers.com and Tablet, and is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

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