As It Has Happened Before
This weeks entry may be a foreshadowing of things to come in that for the first time, I want to drift aside from a primary focus on a trans specific issue. To be clear, this is related because the powers that be (which I will be speaking of) have always used the demonization of the “other” as a tool in pursuit of their objectives, and we as trans (and LGB) people certainly make prime targets for that strategy.
What I want to do here is offer a very brief (for the subject, not for my usual verbosity) overview of a particular throughline in American history that provides the foundational context for our current situation. Donald Trump is NOT the origination of our problems, he is the logical conclusion of this cycle. As the poet wrote, “the center cannot hold” and as the cycle turns around again and again the extreme of it’s reach grows. The core of this essay I owe to the work of historian Heather Cox Richardson. Though this is a general subject I was aware of, she has a remarkable gift for collating and organizing seemingly unrelated historical facts into a narrative the illustrates what the basic tension has been all along. But this is my own synthesis of what I got from her and other themes and any errors you may discover are mine.
Up until the last 200 years or so, the powerful and wealthy of the world had one huge advantage – knowledge. The rich could afford to have their children educated, those children in turn combined that education with family wealth to grow even more wealthy and powerful. Those not born to wealth had to expend considerable effort over most of a lifetime to acquire enough knowledge to step out of the lower classes. For the vast majority of humanity, the most knowledge you would ever aspire to is some simple reading and basic math. Perish the thought of knowing anything of history, philosophy, religious studies, or sociology (here defined as study of human nature and interaction). As such, you knew about the church, the king, the earl of your particular fiefdom precisely what they deigned to tell you (which didn’t necessarily have to be anything like true).
Upon this stage stepped the new American Republic. Whatever marginal improvements there may have been in literacy and public awareness, until the spread of public schools in the 19th century there was still an incredible disparity in knowledge between the rich upper class (among which most of the founders were counted) and the “common man.” This is fine insofar as the intentions of the powerful are noble, but a recipe for abuse when they are not. This sets the stage for the powerful to deny information to the commoner (who vastly outnumbered them of course, and thus needed to be “controlled”) or worse, deliberately misinform them. And this is precisely what the American upper class began to do and has sought to do ever since. One of those aspects of human nature that the educated class was ware of and e working class was not is that you can drive a man to irrationality by provoking him to fear and/or anger. And long experience has shown that a very good way to do that is to give the people you wish to control a target for their fear and anger that’s NOT you. Modern scholars refer to this as “othering” – creating (in the mind of your subject) a suspect class of people who need tobe opposed, repressed, controlled or even ejected or eradicated because their existence and presence is a danger to you, your family, and your way of life. The “Other” doesn’t have to be a newcomer, though often it is, just DIFFERENT in some major way from yourself.
We see this in American history as early as the Irish immigration which exploded in the wake of the Potato Famine. History is chock full of evidence of the Irish being demonized as lazy drunken freeloaders. And later dangerous because they were often Catholic. Even though they were white, a way was found to make them the object of bigotry (a hundred years later, some Irish Catholics including a notorious priest named Father Coughlin employ the same tactics against others). In doing so, the powerful realized, they could exploit the labors of the working class at will and if any felt victimized, why, jut point the finger at the Other and say “it’s all his fault – hate him!” It turned out to be very very effective.
Now, in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the power struggle in Washington was all about the wealth generated by slavery juxtaposed against the moral argument against it. There’s a straight line of events from the debate over westward expansion of slavery and the beginning of the war, and the fingerprints of monied interests trying to protect their wealth building engine (built on slave labor) from reform. Of course, you cannot hold a slave class of people unless you convince the other working folks that they were naturally better than the slaves. This appeal to vanity (and why wouldn’t a poor white dirt farmer want someone he could think of as lower than himself?) helped blind the population (in slave states) to the evil of the institution and men so conditioned were ready cannon fodder when it was necessary to take up arms to defend their interests. Even as education had begun to improve, WHAT was taught was still largely decided by the powerful. If one needed a passionate but ill-informed army of non-slaveholders giving their lives in defense of the rich man’s right to have slaves, well, there they were.
During the war, Lincoln and congressional Republicans enacted numerous policies which would, by the assumptions of modern politics, be called quite progressive for the time. For some years after the war and during Reconstruction the government took an active role in protecting the lower classes from exploitation under the thesis that a prosperous “common” class ultimately led to more wealth for all, but the rich chafed under these choices and used their resources to restore an order which funneled wealth upward. This vested self interest inevitably led to an economic crash in the 1890’s. In the wake of the crash, Progressive views regained the momentum (surprisingly to the rich and powerful of the day, pushed forward by Teddy Roosevelt) the cycle continued to turn, the rich regained ascendancy and exploited the nation right into the Great Depression. This led to the “New Deal” which was hugely popular in this country, across the political spectrum, for most of the next 40 years. All along the way, when the elites were on their heels they found they could advance their interests by pointing the finger at the Other and counting on the less informed population to take the bait. Always somewhere their was a lazy, ungrateful, good for nothing taking advantage while you worked hard for next-to-nothing. The rotten government (eventually “socialist” but that’s getting ahead of the story) was only too happy to take your hard earned dollar and give it to the lazy, even dangerous, Negro, or Chinese, or whatever – and if you couldn’t easily spot the “other” you were supposed to blame, you could always blame those sneaky Jews who were hard to see.
What does this have to do with today? Everything. The cycle didn’t stop turning and the mega-rich were not about to be content to be taxed to pay for things like dams and roads and rural electrification without complaint. Along came a young intellectual in the 1950’s named William F. Buckley. He wrote books, founded a magazine (a little thing you may have heard of called “National Review”) and built up, slowly over 20+ years, something that came to be called “Movement Conservatism” which took as it’s central message the same ought-to-be tired trope – “big government” was “stealing” your money (in reality, almost all of the taxes were being paid by the rich but please don’t notice that) to give it to “lazy” freeloaders. This picked up steam, of course, as the civil rights movement fueled resentment among racist whites and what took Buckley’s ideas from the fringes to the mainstream was very much the ability to make the black activists the “others” in the old narrative. The New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society were transformed in the eyes of many from programs designed to give purpose and dignity and a chance for success to all Americans to evil government schemes to take money from hard working whites to prop up lazy blacks. Witness Reagan’s success talking about “welfare queens” – which all his voters completely understood to be inner city blacks.
Upon this foundation was laid the huge Reagan tax cuts. Nevermind that the bottom half of the population wasn’t paying much – if any – taxes on average and the very wealthy reaped the vast share of the benefits, the narrative of “keeping my money and not giving it to freeloaders” was irresistible. But it only worked as a political narrative, same as always, because there was an Other to blame – an Other that wasn’t the rich who were actually exploiting them. Those two brothers in deception are still the driving force of American politics, indeed more so than they have been since before the Great Depression. The rich get richer at the expense of the working class, but the working class is easily distracted by being told the “Other” is out there messing up their life. The Blacks, the queers, the Jews, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the trans…whoever. Just blame the other, it’s there fault, don’t look UP. They will keep repeating the trope so long as it keeps working, and Trump is that mindset raised to purest form. Nevermind that it will inevitably lead t another massive crash – between now and then make every dollar you can.
“Here are all your enemies, only I can stop them, join me in my crusade” is the message for public consumption, and if I do wrong, well it’s not really me you see – I’m being set up because “the elites” don’t want me to succeed in stopping your enemies. Meanwhile, the billionaires and the Congressmen that they own are happy to let you be entertained by that distraction while they continue to soak up more and more wealth.
Why does it matter on a trans-specific blog? Because the passion against the “Other” always claims victims, the most vulnerable first…and that’s who we are. The folks most easily thrown under the bus because we are so few and so poorly understood among the masses. Don’t think they won’t come for you, they will come for you FIRST.
Photo by mahmoud9725