Shakespeare’s most perplexing villain is Iago. What’s his motive? He has too many. He’s passed over for promotion. He suspects Othello has tupped his wife. There’s the race thing, and a great British actor even proposed that Iago had the hots for Othello. When foiled, he refuses to speak of any motive—I think because he doesn’t know, and in 500 years we haven’t figured it out.
Grab any one of the Capitol rioters, and you’ll probably hear the same. They’ll surely have a laundry list of motives, and we promote that simplicity by calling them fascist knuckle-draggers or white supremacists. But I’m not sure that they know, nor am I sure that my fellow progressives know either.
My mother might have voted for Trump. She certainly disliked foreigners, government handouts, and she decried that North Omaha was overrun with all those Blacks—she was terrified when she had to go there. But the strongest political statements I heard repeatedly: (1) In the early 1930’s, the farmers down the road were “on relief;” the government gave them a bushel of oranges, and their kids were playing catch with the oranges. (2) We lived in a two-room, rat-infested shack with no running water, my dad had abandoned her, she worked but paid out a lot for daycare, and applied for welfare: that office told her she could only qualify if she quit her job. (She didn’t: she trusted me, at the age of six, to take care of myself.) I heard that endlessly in her diatribe against welfare. And she liked politicians who said what they thought. Though hard to tell about Trump: she also had a strong bullshit detector.
She hated the fact that others were getting welfare, oranges, and sympathy, and she wasn’t, even though she worked like a mule. She’d have hated it more—hated progressives more—if someone had charged her with “white privilege.” Even if it came with elaborate footnotes and statistics.
She was a decent woman. We had our fights but we loved one another. And yet I feel she had many characteristics of the folks who demeaned themselves at the Capitol. Above all: the desire to see something—anything—happen.
When I was a kid, we couldn’t get fireworks in Iowa. We had to go down to the Missouri border and bring them back. And I loved to blow up cans. It really meant a lot to blow up cans. Otherwise, I was amazingly well-behaved for my neighborhood, but I loved to blow up cans.
For the rioters, it’s beyond that childish joy. But I think that’s there. In my mind, Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech, though in fact he never used the word malaise, put the thumb square on the sore spot. We don’t know where it itches, but it itches like hell. Progressives itch one place, reactionaries another, but it’s utterly maddening.
To my mind, it’s being oversold on the American Dream, promising reward for exertion plus fabulous sex, and feeling someone’s getting something for nothing—not billionaires, as they’re the proof of the pudding, but the poor, who get pennies but tons of sympathy. Of course that’s debatable. To some, the bottom line is race or sex or cis-ness or age. For me, it’s mostly money. Is it more virtuous to speak up against “white supremacy” or to lobby to change the tax codes that make the rich richer and the poor very pissed off?
In any case, understanding your enemy is not the same as compromise on the issues. It’s looking for other passageways in the labyrinth. If we can’t somehow find a common ground with our adversaries, we would surely do well to start arming ourselves. They have a head start.
I don’t see “hate” as the starting point of madness. Of course it’s a virus that lurks in us all, but very few get a thrill from succumbing to the infection. There are reasons for “hate,” sometimes stupid ones, sometimes true, though often misplaced. It’s not born in the baby, nor do I think it’s effectively taught. It springs from reaction: where?
I feel we need to do a much better job of understanding our enemy.