Whatever happens this week, our democracy and open society are in critical condition

Republicans are obsessed with "safety." But their malignant pessimism and bigotry are the real threat to America

Published November 3, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

A tattered American flag (Getty Images)
A tattered American flag (Getty Images)

Financier and philanthropist George Soros must have seen Trump coming as early as 2011. He certainly saw where a disturbingly large proportion of American voters were going. "The United States has been a democracy and open society since its founding. The idea that it will cease to be one seems preposterous; yet it is a very likely prospect," he wrote in the New York Review of Books in June of that year. 

George W. Bush's reelection in 2004 had convinced Soros "that the malaise in American society went deeper than incompetent leadership." The public had proved "unwilling to face harsh reality and was positively asking to be deceived by demanding easy answers to difficult problems." 

Will the American public now reconfirm Soros' observation? This year's campaign has given us plenty or reasons to worry.

By the end of Bush's second term in 2009, few Americans denied the harsh realities of the Iraq war fiasco and of failed federal responses to Hurricane Katrina's devastation and to tsunamis of predatory financing that were throwing millions of people out of their homes and jobs. Yet Soros insisted that much of the public, reluctant to face other realities, grasped at vague, easy hopes that Barack Obama's 2008 campaign offered but that his presidency proved sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to fulfill, especially against a Republican Congress after 2010. 

The ongoing public flight from reality only accelerated with Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, when millions of voters sought scapegoats to blame for rising dangers and craved simplistic directions to safety and salvation. 

Soros proposed that Americans' reluctance to face reality had been "coupled with the refinement in the techniques of deception" by Rupert Murdoch's and other right-wing media and by sundry impresarios and invaders of internet social media. But he also warned that democracy can be undone by a much older danger, inherent in human nature, that discredits the Enlightenment "assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality." That assumption "is valid only for the study of natural phenomena," not of politics, Soros wrote. Instead of standing "apart from reality, acting as a searchlight illuminating it," reason and rational analysis were of little help in understanding how even prosperous, well-educated people think and act in society.

That disturbing proposition has been reinforced by Trump ever since 2016 and by the public distempers he stoked on the eve of this election. Those distempers won't abate even if Joe Biden wins. American history offers ample reasons why. Whenever the republic's civil society has been under great stress, defenders of its traditional values, joined by opportunistic free riders like Trump who are driven only by power-lust and greed, have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies whom they've blamed for the crises.

In the 1690s, the enemy was witches, hysterical women and girls said to had been taken by Satan. In 1619 and ever since, it has been African Americans and other people of color, said to be inferior and therefore all the more dangerous to their oppressors. In the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, said by a presidential candidate to be besotted with "rum, Romanism and rebellion." In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds and pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960s, it was hippies, inner-city rioters, and opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 9/11, it has been American Muslims. 

Trump drew some of his inspiration from another such paroxysm in 2015, when a yet another scapegoat was conjured up by another cohort of self-avowed civic champions, propagandists, opportunists and keyboard-pounding alarmists (including more than a few sensation-hungry journalists). Civil society, they warned the public, was endangered by fragile, college-student "snowflakes" and petulant, censorious "cry-bullies," obsessing, with their coddling, over-controlling parents, counselors and deans, about "safety." According to this account, their perverse culture of "safetyism" censures all who don't follow its rules. 

This was all well before the real threat to safety posed by COVID-19, which certainly does require that we follow strict rules. Yet public response to safety-obsessed college snowflakes and cry-bullies society was almost as intense as it had been in response to Puritan alarms about witches and alarms about domestic Communist spies. A 7,300-word article in the September, 2015 Atlantic magazine, "The Coddling of the American Mind," garnered more than half a million Facebook shares with its claim that a new "movement" on American campuses was demanding protection from even stray phrases uttered in conversation or offending sentences in textbooks that might frighten or discomfit students and their mentors.

Introducing readers to preoccupations with "trigger warnings," "micro-aggressions" and "safe spaces," Atlantic authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warned that "safetyism" and "vindictive protectiveness," driven by "generally left-leaning campus sensibilities," was spawning "pathological thinking," such as "catastrophizing," a malignant pessimism that turns "commonplace negative events into nightmarish monsters."  

Keyboard-pounding culture warriors, many of them older white men, including some of my own college classmates, responded, often anonymously but with alacrity, raging from internet "safe spaces" at videos of black students demanding apologies for racism and sexism. Some students' demands were histrionic and destructive to civility, but residential undergraduate college campuses, at least before COVID, have been civil societies on training wheels, where young adults sometimes experiment in a politics of self-discovery through moral posturing. Some act like hypersensitive barometers or canaries in a coal mine, registering tremors of a much larger civic implosion that they can't help but carry but certainly haven't caused.

The same can't be said of their angry elders, presumably more mature but nostalgic for visions of their own youth (which they might wince to recall accurately). They exhibit "a distinctive attitudinal structure" that the political theorist Peter F. Gordon, in "The Authoritarian Personality Revisited," reminds us has a "tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values." In 2015, conservative provocateurs, editors and reporters obliged these keyboard authoritarians by prowling campuses, notebooks and video-cams at the ready to catch the "cry-bullies" in action.

Necessary though it is to challenge wayward students' and mentors' affronts to free inquiry and expression, it's just as important to understand what's driving them. But well-funded orchestrators of grand-inquisitorial takedowns of leftish "social justice warriors" and  "safetyism" developed a strategy that was embraced and adapted by then-candidate Trump: Knowing a successful marketing gambit when he saw one, he promised his followers "safety" from "political correctness" in colleges and, soon enough, from urban anarchists, feral invaders of suburbs and other "nightmarish monsters." 

Trump being Trump, he couldn't stop accusing his conjured-up adversaries of sins that he himself and his Republicans are guilty of: fear-mongering and craving the "safety" he supposedly defies; fomenting violence and the swamp of corruption that submerges his own family and supporters. In this year's campaign, "Make America Great Again" became "Make America Safe Again," outdoing the obsessions about safety that the anti-"coddling" crusade had ascribed to college scapegoats. 

"In Joe Biden's America, you and your family will never be safe," Trump told a Tampa audience in July. In a perfect instance of "catastrophizing," he warned that under Biden, "rioters and criminals will be totally protected, law-abiding citizens will be totally disarmed, and American families will be at the mercy of the violent left-wing mob that you've been watching on television."

Adopting a more coddling tone, Trump assured senior citizens in Fort Myers, Florida, in August that "our groundbreaking therapies have significantly ... improved our outcomes for elderly patients, but I'll not relent until all American seniors are safe. You're going to be safe — 100 percent safe." Losing his train of thought in the midst of that talk, he added, "Suburban women want security, they want safety, they want law and order. They want their homes to be protected…. You know why they like me? Because I'm saving their homes." 

In a tweet reported by the Boston Globe, Trump added, revealingly, "They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood."

The biggest irony in Trump's "safety" gambit is that it doesn't really copy the campus left as much as it picks up a strong current in conservative thought that generated campus "safetyism" in the first place. In 1972, conservative activists David and Holly Franke wrote a book identifying towns — including Holly's hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts — that they deemed safe from the social upheavals and maladies of that time. Catastrophizing that 50 percent of Americans felt "afraid to walk the streets of their own communities at night" and that 47 percent predicted "a real breakdown in this country," the Frankes commended "only one rational route possible for the law-abiding citizen: escape." 

Their book — "Safe Places — sold well through several iterations ("Safe Places West" and "Safe Places for the '80s"). But to revisit the book's fear-driven, fear-inducing assessments of American society now is to uncover some instructive ironies.

The first involves the conservative turn from demanding safety for suburbs that, in 1972, weren't truly threatened by inner-city invaders, to condemning the more-recent demands for "safe places" by students and mentors, many of whom were raised in precisely the "safe places" defended so ardently by the Frankes. 

A second irony lies in David Franke's history, since his student days in the 1950s, of mobilizing campus conservatives against leftist radicals. In 1970, two years before publishing "Safe Spaces," he edited "Quotations from Chairman Bill: The Best of William F. Buckley Jr." He co-founded the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to train college students to counter "liberal betrayals" of "our nation's founding principles — limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy ... ideas that are rarely taught in your classroom."

So when Trump rails against political correctness on campuses and danger in the suburbs, he's forgetting or denying that imaginary escapes from nightmarish monsters have been peddled successfully for decades by conservatives to millions of people burdened by harsh realities they were reluctant to face honestly. Huge, swooning crowds followed evangelical impresarios such as George Whitefield in colonial times, Billy Sunday in the early 20th century, and a swarm of opportunistic preachers since the 1980s. Earthbound salvation was promised by demagogues such as Louisiana Gov. Huey Long (fictionalized memorably by Robert Penn Warren in his novel "All the King's Men") and the Communist-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. 

Trump is outdoing them all. Tens of millions of Americans have surrendered their independence of mind and even of body and property to him, mortgaging their liberties and material security for the dubious satisfactions of wreaking imaginary vengeance on false targets. Forgotten or excused are the greed and power-lust that drive both the coolest and the most impassioned dealers of such delusions.

If there's been little news lately about coddled, safety-obsessed campus "snowflakes" and "cry-bullies," it's because Trump's marketing of fear and false solutions has shifted public attention from political censure to political violence, not only by a relatively few looters, anarchists and antifa militants, but by uniformed murderers of unarmed young Black people, by militias with assault rifles converging on state capitols, by militarized riot cops, by military itself in Lafayette Square and by mysterious federal agents yanking peaceful protesters off the streets in Portland.

Eruptions of "unsafety" have also come from financialized, market-mad distortions of civil society and governance since long before COVID exposed as much devastation as it has caused directly. Trump has ridden and compounded these distortions. His efforts to project responsibility and blame for the damage onto those who are protesting it — including some protesters who, yes, have been damaged by it — were parodied unintentionally by Rudy Giuliani in his speech to this year's Republican National Convention about New York City's supposedly riotous crime and anarchy. 

A better American response to Trump and his Republican Party came in the NBA coach Doc Rivers' almost-plaintive, at one point tearful, lament after he'd watched the Republican convention:

All you hear is … all of them talking about fear. … We're the ones getting killed. … [We] protest. … They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns. …  Nothing happens [to them]. … My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. … It's amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It's really so sad. [I]f you watch that video, you don't need to be Black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged. 

This election has shown that many Americans love the country as Doc Rivers does and that they're determined to keep the republic and all that's been redemptive in its political culture. They have voted to safeguard a pluralist, economically sane, civically rich society against its real enemies, who include Trump himself. Whatever Joe Biden's weaknesses, he said rightly that that kind of civic love really was on the ballot.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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Authoritarianism Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections George Soros Joe Biden