As we look to the inauguration of the 46th US president, who will preside over our constitutional democratic republic, my mind travels back to January 6 when thousands of angry Trump supporters attempted to violently overthrow a free and fair election.
The rioters surely felt powerful as they stormed the U.S. Capitol, climbed its stairs and walls, bashed its windows with pro-Trump flag poles, trashed Statuary Hall and Congressional offices, and sat at the Senate Dias and in the Speaker’s seat.
But in the end they weren’t so powerful after all, their acts sparking an enormous backlash.
The insurrectionists had sought to instill Trump as president for four more years (or more?) but instead, Trump’s popularity plummeted with two-thirds of Americans calling for his impeachment, Cabinet members considered his removal via the 25th amendment or resigned in protest of his behavior, business leaders and the Wall Street Journal called for Trump’s resignation, and prominent political allies broke with Donald J. Trump — who admitted the day after the attempted coup that Joseph Biden would be inaugurated on January 20. Subsequently, many pro-Trump vandals were fired from their jobs and arrested.
None of that is very powerful.
Many Trump voters seem to be desperately seeking power, expressed on one end with violent sedition and at the other with “owning the libs” by making us feel upset, or something. Their daily banter on right wing sites reflects much of what we saw amidst the Capitol Hill seditionists: Confederate flags, “MAGA Civil War” shirts, a shirt reading “Camp Auschwitz,” and a noose set up outside the Capitol. Books about women in politics found in Congressional offices were also destroyed.
A weakened sense of self and personal disempowerment often spur an urge to put others down in hopes of raising ourselves up, and these rioters were clearly trying to put down women, non-whites and Jews.
Given the large gender gap among Trump supporters I suspect that all this, in turn, is tied to American notions of manhood, which we closely tie to power and privilege. Social scientists say American manhood revolves around four things: “No sissy stuff,” “give ‘em hell,” “being a big wheel,” and being a “sturdy oak.” Male Trump supporters may be “sturdy oaks” who work to be strong supports in the privacy of their families, but publicly they are all about demonstrating strength by “giving ‘em hell” and rejecting sissy stuff, while Trump’s apparent “big wheel”/big (apparent) success certainly adds to that appeal.
It all parallels domestic abuse. Whether in private or public, the batterer or the insurgent may gain a momentary sense of strength and superiority through insult and violence, but lasting, meaningful potency and prestige are not sustained, and everyone is left immiserated.
Personal empowerment is vital for both men and women, but if violence only creates a momentary sense of power and esteem what brings the real thing?
Part of the trouble may be that workers are increasingly losing work and good wages to automation, globalization and union busting. As the middle class get squeezed many panic and start blaming people of color and women for their loss. This scapegoating is encouraged by interests that gain by this economic restructuring and who seek to shift the focus of blame.
But blaming women and people of color won’t solve the root problem. Instead, we need higher earnings, whether through stronger unions, pressure on CEOs to pay a good wage, or tax credits that assure that anyone who is working is not living in poverty. Focusing efforts on that could create real change.
But the root problem may not be economic so much as the low self-esteem and felt disempowerment that comes from constantly comparing ourselves with others who seem to have done better than us. Here, white supremacists carrying confederate flags might learn something from African-Americans.
Black adolescents report higher levels of self-esteem than any other ethnic group in America. That is likely because African-American parents teach their children not to judge their worth by comparing themselves to others in a culture that holds prejudice and discriminates against them. Instead, they are told, look deep within, know who you are, and be proud of who that person is.
When we recognize our inherent worth and the inherent worth of others we will all be happier.
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