Loss and the American Right
It’s easy for liberals to bash conservatives now.
Their leadership are either mentally ill or nakedly self-serving, or both. Their loyal base are irrational conspiracy nuts. But one fact remains:
They are still people, like us.
So what’s going on? Why are they so desperate, eager to attack, and willing to personally revile their policy opposition? I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions and keeping as many conservative friends on social media as I can, to gain a window—however tiny and little—into how they think.
One post came my way that was something of a revelation to me. My wife forwarded it to me but couldn’t believe I wanted to spend valuable time actually reading it. Its authorship is unclear, though its style is certainly that of an American human being (rather than, say, a Russian bot), and it is making the rounds in conservative social media circles. Its thesis: “It’s not that we love Donald Trump so much. It’s that we can’t stand you.” Predictably, it goes downhill from there. In brief, it goes on to enumerate all the ways that the left “have done everything in your power to destroy our country.”
And that’s when it hit me: grief.
The American right, a predominantly exurban and rural folk, are grieving. They have lost their country, and they know it. The America they had is gone, literally. Beginning one hundred years ago, it moved out of the farm country for big cities. It shuffled off the gender roles that structured how they were supposed to behave around others. It began requiring fancy degrees attained in stifling classrooms just to get a decent job. It tolerated music and dress that defied their ability to determine who was acting within acceptable norms. It legislated the right of those with different skin colors to marry and work as equals, and then the very same rights for those who fall in love with others of their own gender.
Concurrently, jobs got up and left small towns. The American right’s work moved overseas, where people seemed to respect themselves less and are therefore less deserving of their empathy. And robots began to do their jobs, prompting urbanites to get even fancier degrees in systemic double-talk from liberal propaganda factories. This has led to a catastrophic open-mindedness that assumes anything might be possible and any point of view might be valuable, given ever-changing circumstance in a globalized economy. Where’s their America then? Gone.
And now they’re being told they are part of the problem, even though they weren’t the ones enslaving people of color nor denying women suffrage. Even though they were the ones devoutly believing in their god and working hard to get jobs done and keep life predictable.
To protect the country they had, they first tried for the Moral Majority, and now they claim the Silent Majority. But even in 2016 the majority of American people did not vote for Trump, and even fewer of them support him now. This isn’t news to them. The American right have lost their country, and they know it. They are in grief.
So, let’s review the five stages of grief:
Keeping in mind that these are only roughly (not precisely) sequential, we have seen years — nay, decades — of denial from the American right (see above Majorities). And we are now seeing plenty of anger. According to our current griever: “We consider you to be more despicable, more dangerous, more stupid, and more narcissistic than Donald Trump. Maybe allow yourself a few seconds of self-reflection to let that sink in.”
What we have not seen yet are any signs of bargaining (fuck your feelings), depression (no victim talk here), or acceptance (stand back, stand by). And herein lies the tragedy: The American right is forming a shell of denial and anger so strong that they are forbidding themselves from moving towards acceptance, where grief begins to dissipate into new possibilities and relationships. This emotional shell is undoubtedly leading to violence, and American security agencies consider right-wing domestic terror to be the largest current threat to public safety.
It’s not that we liberals are beholden to rescue right wingers from their own emotional morass. Only they can do that, individually and interpersonally. However, it is our responsibility as fellow humans to understand their grief — that it stems from real loss and that it constitutes a legitimate part of their experience of the world.