Do you ever pause, put the paper down or look up from your tablet and wonder what’s really going on? Maybe we should all do that. Every day.
Texas Governor Gregg Abbott couldn’t find a real sanctuary city to attack in his state, so he threatened Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. Her policy on keeping undocumented immigrants in jail — basically she won’t keep them locked up unless the feds ask her to — is so lukewarm, so middle of the road, so far short of radical that she’s under attack from immigration rights advocates.
But Abbott sent her a letter threatening her with all kinds of legal and political mayhem if she didn’t agree to keep people incarcerated if they are “aliens engaged in or suspected of terrorism or espionage.”
Wait, wait, wait. She’s letting spies and terrorists loose? Really?
This is a moment when we need to look up from our tablets. In fact, you know what? If Moses had been on his way down from Mount Sinai with his tablets and saw a footnote there saying that at some date thousands of years in the future the Dallas County sheriff would be letting known terrorists and spies out of jail, I believe he would have stopped and turned back up the hill for clarification.
What would Moses have muttered to himself on the way back up Sinai? “That’s just nuts. That can’t be true.”
Because it is just nuts. And it isn’t true. Valdez hasn’t opened the cell doors for a single miscreant who the feds wanted her to keep locked up. She recently announced her department was going to review the status of undocumented immigrant prisoners on a case by case basis, which seems to be pretty much what the feds want her to do.
They’re not pushing her to keep people locked up for expired safety inspection stickers on their account, unless the prisoners also are wanted for more serious offenses, in which case Valdez does keep them locked up.
So what’s going on? Why would the governor send the Dallas County sheriff a letter threatening all kinds of wildly radical retribution if he knows she isn’t violating state or federal law? Why would he propose to punish her in ways he obviously knows wouldn’t be merely unconstitutional: His threat to seek legislation holding sheriffs financially responsible for harm caused by improperly released illegal aliens is insane. At every level.
Wait. Look up. Ask. What is this?
In fact, lift your gaze a little farther. Abbott is a red-meat, right-wing Republican. What about the red-meat Republicans running for president of the United States right now? Ben Carson, the leader in polls of Republican voters, recently declared his belief that archaeologists are wrong about the pyramids of Egypt. The pyramids were not built as tombs for the pharaohs, Carson declared, but as warehouses for grain built under the direction of the Biblical figure Joseph.
I don’t want to labor the craziness factor too much, because we are all aware of it. I want to go back to the why. Why does it work for them? What are they doing?
It’s a serious question. Come back in with me to Texas and the Abbott/Valdez matter. Greg Abbott is an intelligent, experienced political leader and a lawyer. Carson’s personality may offer a certain deeply disquieting medicated aspect when he steps to a microphone — as if he has a real excuse — but Abbott is sharp, shrewd and has none. And yet both of them — all of them — now consistently say things that are crazy, and they do it competitively.
Anyone who tries to rebut them rationally — Jeb Bush, for example — gets snickered off the stage for being a wimp. A kind of fool. So instead of sitting around grinding our teeth and shaking our heads about this, maybe we should consider the possibility that the crazy-talkers are right, or, if not right exactly in the sense of speaking anything like truth, they do have their fingers on some button.
What is Abbott really doing when he beats up on Lupe Valdez? He is delivering what his adherents think is a sharp slap across the face of a prominent public official who is also a woman, a Latina, a liberal, a Democrat and a lesbian. And he does it without having to say a single one of those words out loud.
If we back away from Trump and Carson and Abbott and cock our ears to hear the murmur, this is all dog-whistle code-talking about people of color, non-heterosexuals and anybody else who can be demonized as not members of the traditional tribe of white people.
In fact, we all hear it all the time at a certain level. We know this one. It’s really not a mystery. We just don’t like turning toward the answer.
The New York Times last week ran an op-ed piece raising the question why upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial Asian-Americans, who seem as if they should be Republicans in many ways, are so loyally Democratic. Two days later a New York Times blogger offered an answer:
“I can’t belong to a party that considers white Christian males true Americans and everyone else secondary,” SK, an Asian-American reader in Raleigh who holds some libertarian views, wrote of the Republican Party. “Why would I join a party that doesn’t really like me?”
We all hear these signals clearly, even if the speakers do get away with speaking in code. In that sense, the things they say are never intended to be taken literally as offerings of rational thought. In fact, the whole point is that they are not. All of the things Donald Trump says about building walls and nuking oilfields are a kind of vicious joke.
What the Republicans are saying is this: “We hate you damned immigrants. We hate you damned Muslims. We hate you damned people of color. We are the party of the post-war, baby-boom white people, and the rest of you can go suck rocks.”
And the crowd roars.
Jeb Bush comes to the mic and objects that people can’t really suck rocks, because rocks have no nutritional value, and the small ones pose a choking danger.
And the crowd roars.
The code-talkers know how to make the crowd roar for them and against Jeb Bush. That’s what they have figured out. That’s why Greg Abbott, an intelligent lawyer, fires off a letter to the sheriff of Dallas County that in any previous era of American politics should have gotten him laughed out of office. Now it’s the kind of thing that gets people laughed into office.
So, wait. It’s the crowd, right? These candidates and officeholders we’re talking about just want to win and hold power. If they can make the crowd roar, they can get what they want. But what in the world is the matter with the crowd?
Whatever is wrong with the crowd, it’s very seriously wrong and nothing to laugh about. And we don’t have to scratch deep to find clues.
A report published recently by two Princeton economics professors found an alarming uptick in suicides and opioid-related drug deaths among white people with high school and lower levels of education. The most distressing aspect was a very narrow focus on American white people.
Working class whites in Europe who have suffered equivalent economic distress do not have equivalent suicide and addiction rates. Black people and Latinos in this country who still live on less money and at a lower general status than their white economic peers do not show the same declining life expectancy.
The decline for whites can be attributed directly to drugs and suicide, an attack on white mortality that one scientist compared to “a missile strike.” The only parallel anyone can offer is AIDS.
Sympathy for the rebel-flag-wavers is too far a reach for me, even though I grew up with some of them. I was a full-time, blue-collar factory worker in Detroit in my early 20s when a job like that could pay for a new brick house, two new cars and college tuition for several kids.
Most of the people I worked with in the car factories were smart, unionized Democrats, so I don’t mean them. But I can see how some of the others might feel abandoned by Clintons, Bushes and Obamas. Maybe the prime beneficiaries of the post-World War II boom and white supremacy were the white people of the most limited resources who came out with a sweet deal anyway because of where and when they were born. Those days are gone for good, and I can't help remembering that anti-union, blue-collar, Reagan Democrats helped do it.
I’m not qualified to weave all of this into some universal synthesis, but I do believe that drug addiction and suicide are very often the most extreme manifestations of despair — the abandonment of all hope for the future.
I have written here before about white people born after World War II, boomers who want to spin the clock and take the country backward to 1960. I wrote then with some anger about the American reactionary movement. That was long before the Republican primary and obviously before this distressing news about mortality among less well-educated American whites.
I’m not angry now. More like scared. The dog-whistle code-talking by leaders in the Republican Party today, the crazy talk, works so well because it flies like an arrow straight into the heart of a crowd that is crazy — crazy with despair, crazy with resentment, fear, dark foreboding, pain and loss of hope.
My rebuttal in the past, to mock them for being crazy, was every bit as wide of the mark and out-of-it as Jeb Bush’s wonkery. Neither one of us gets it.
The Republican leaders saying the crazy stuff do get it. They know how to push that button. The pyramids weren’t built by those foreign, damn illegal alien, camel-jockey pharaohs. They were built by one of our own guys from the Bible.
The deeply troubling thing about mass craziness is that it can overwhelm a society that fails to see it for what it is. I try really hard not to fall into the trap sometimes called reductio ad hitlerum — playing the Nazi card in ways that trivialize the horror of the real Hitler — but in this case it’s a mistake to ignore the parallel.
When did we last see an angry, irrational, darkly romantic social movement rooted in reaction against modernity? Once that question is posed, how can we miss German national socialism in the 1920s?
And what to do about it? The only answer I can imagine for a massive loss of hope at a semi-organized social level is what FDR found for this country in the 1930s. New hope. Now ask me how.