March 27, 2024

“To have an Autocracy, you need people to Be Cruel.”

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The title is a line from a recent interview with author and historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat.

It was in the context of an article by Dean Obeidallah called, “‘He’ll never leave’: Why Trump’s dynasty, built on corruption and violence, won’t end with him.”

What is behind this phenomenon is a throwback to earlier days.

Ben-Ghiat explained that Donald Trump is leading a “right-wing counterrevolution against the loss of white male privilege,” aimed at taking America back to the time when women, non-white people and non-Christians “knew their place.”

Obeidallah had asked Ben-Ghiat about the times when Trump had made fun of people in front of his audience of adherents. Examples were mimicking President Biden’s stutter and ridiculing the attack on Paul Pelosi.

Nothing he says or does surprises me. It is the enablers who laugh along, feeding his desire to be cruel to those he feels threatened by or feels superior to, that turn my stomach and fill my desire to take fingers to keyboard as I am doing here.

Such a small-minded and empty-hearted man to cultivate cruelty in that manner. Such dark impulses in those who cheer him on. I don’t want to know them. I don’t want to associate with them. I don’t want to do business with them. Sadly, I have to since I don’t always know who secretly feels the way these people do.

They are our neighbors, family members, part of our social circles, business owners, people we sit next to at religious services and at the movies or on a bus, and drivers on the road with us.

Bumper stickers, lawn signs, MAGA merch and adjacent symbols of hatred, and trolling comments on social media tell us loud and clear the values that they hold.

But this is not simply an “agree to disagree” or “to each his/her own opinion” situation. At this point, we don’t have that luxury.

I was appalled by a news clip of attendees at a Kansas GOP fundraising event as some lined up to kick and punch an effigy created by a karate school of President Biden. The response was swift from some on the Republican side of the aisle, expressing vehement disapproval (as it should be) and indicating that these actions were meant to encourage political violence.

My question is: are people naturally inclined to be cruel, to drink from the well of hatred toward anyone they deem “other”?

On January 8th, 2021, two days after the insurrection, I wrote an article for Elephant Journal called “Which Is More Horrifying—The Actions of the Outgoing President or Those Who Enable Him?”

As I was watching the monstrous events unfolding on my tv screen, I wrote this:

Dear Trump Supporters:

Are you watching what is going on in D.C. right now? Protestors have stormed the Capitol. Instigated and perpetuated by the man you voted for.

This is what you bought and paid for with your vote. I am furious and frightened. How are you feeling right about now? If invaders from another country were doing this, you friggin’ know you would be all for immediate intervention.

This is terrorism, nothing less.

These are our fellow Americans.

A piece written in Psychology Today in 2009 predicted what we are experiencing now. The author, Alex Lickerman, MD, spoke about the concept of whether people are inclined to be cruel. It’s called the spirit of abstraction, a term originally coined by Gabriel Marcel in his essay “The Spirit of Abstraction as a Factor Making for War,” and is defined as the practice of conceiving of people as functions rather than as human beings.” He included enslaved people and Jews during the Holocaust, by which people were reduced to negative stereotypes, thus erasing their full humanity.

Sound familiar?

Trump’s comments about immigrants not being people. 

Trump’s comments about Black people.

Trumps comments about women.

Trumps comments about LGBTQ+ people.

As a therapist, I work with clients who have been bullied—some in childhood, some in adulthood. After acknowledging their pain, I remind them that most bullies have been bullied themselves by those who had power over them and were really quite insecure, even as they pretend to be tough, or have been trained to be narcissistic, believing that rules are for other people, not themselves. We work on strategies to help them cope and refuse to succumb to someone else’s view of them. We explore ways of disarming the bully.

One brilliant nine-year-old client said he did just that by asking the other kid, “If I’m such a loser, then why are you wasting time on me?” He said I could use his line to help others since it worked.

I ask my clients to break the cycle by refraining from bullying others. Because real power doesn’t come from overpowering others; it comes from buoying others up instead of bullying them down.

While Trump didn’t cause cruel impulses in the human race, he encourages it with his words. And so I wonder, what would have happened if the bully that Trump was throughout his life had to face consequences for his behavior instead of being rewarded for them or having them shrugged off and encouraged. Where would we be as a nation? Would we be a country that encourages kindness rather than cruelty?

Do you want an authoritarian bully in the Oval Office who firmly believes that he should be consequence free? Do you want to feed his insatiable ego with your energy, your darker impulses, and your vote? Or do you want to align with “the better angels of our nature,” as declared by a long-ago president who was facing another divisive era in our country?

Do you want an autocracy or a democracy?


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