Resisting chaos, division and despair

Changing the channel on Trump

A display made in Civic Park, Kenosha, the site of recent protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
A display made in Civic Park, Kenosha, the site of recent protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

It’s getting harder not to be overwhelmed by bad news. The looming election, the hazy skies from Western fires that portend climate disaster, the end of summer and an ominous coronavirus spike as we head into winter with no pandemic finish line in sight — all of the ills of the world seem to be closing in, touching us personally. 

As if all of that weren’t enough, Typhoid Donald is holding another rally in Wisconsin today. This one, at a Central Wisconsin Aviation airplane hangar in Mosinee, follows his event at a warehouse in Nevada on Sunday, for which the venue was fined $3,000 for violating a state public health order against gathering more than 50 people in close quarters indoors.

Trump told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he is not afraid of getting the coronavirus from speaking at these events.

“I’m on a stage and it’s very far away,” Trump said. “And so I’m not at all concerned.”

This is toxic narcissism turned lethal. Trump’s friend Herman Cain died of COVID-19 after attending a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, maskless, with several other campaign staff who later tested positive. Trump doesn’t care.

And yet his base remains loyal. This week, Trump fans are giving him credit for bringing back Big Ten football. Down with reality! On with the show!

We are living in dangerous, unstable times.

Crazy, basement-troll rants that used to be confined to blocked accounts on social media now emanate from the highest levels of government.

Michael Caputo, Trump’s head of communications at the Department of  Health and Human Services, has apologized for accusing government scientists who are working on the coronavirus pandemic of “sedition” and warning of coming violence from left-wing “hit squads,” The New York Times reports. Caputo also urged his Facebook friends to buy ammunition and prepare for armed conflict in the streets after the next election — predicting it would be stolen by Democrats. 

Caputo is now on a health leave of absence, but this is not simply a case of one man having a very public breakdown. Caputo’s particular brand of paranoia goes to the very heart of the message produced by the Trump administration and the Trump campaign, which are pretty much indistinguishable. Not coincidentally, it is also in line with the strategy of chaos and division deliberately sowed by Russia in order to undermine U.S. democracy and help Trump win.

Ever since Trump installed him at DHS, Caputo has tried to suppress information from the Centers for Disease Control about the spread of COVID-19, helping Trump deliberately downplay the danger of the virus.

Caputo’s talk about armed insurrection is not a one-off either. As we witnessed in Kenosha, inciting a violent backlash against Black Lives Matter protesters is part of the Trump campaign strategy, too.

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We badly need to begin to reverse the division, tribalism, isolation and rage Trump has helped sow before it destroys our civil society altogether.

To do that, we are going to need to think outside of our increasingly fortified political silos.

I recently listened to a talk by psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, who poses the question, “How do we awaken from the contempt and hatred that causes so much suffering in our world?”

Letting go of our hardened narratives about other people’s badness is part of the practice Brach recommends. She describes how the more we retreat into a judgmental, black-and-white view of the world in which we have little tolerance for people who disagree with us, the more alienated and angry we become. Our negative thoughts can be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, shaping the reality around us.

The most tragic recent example of this was the shooting of three protesters, two of whom died, in Kenosha. Illinois teenager Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with homicide in their deaths, had answered a call to arms from a self-styled militia group on Facebook and rushed to Kenosha with the idea that he was “defending” the city against protesters. Rittenhouse himself sounded taken aback by his own actions, phoning a friend while fleeing the scene to say, “I just killed somebody.”

Just like that, a fantastical nightmare vision became a reality.

In Kenosha, Rittenhouse, and the police officer who shot a Black man in the back seven times, kicking off days of protests, were the only perpetrators of deadly violence.  

But on the internet and at Trump rallies, the distorted idea that dangerous protesters are threatening American lives and must be stopped is inflaming people — with horrifyingly real results.

Meanwhile, the more extreme and hateful the rhetoric at Trump rallies becomes, the harder it is for Democrats and progressives to talk to anyone who identifies as a Republican, seeing them all as white supremacist would-be murderers.

It’s quite a fix we are in, with people who voted for Trump in the first place because they felt looked down on feeling more looked down on and defensive, and what should be simple areas of consensus — like taking precautions to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic — going up in flames along with everything else in a political environment where everything is fuel for partisan conflict.

How do we get out of this dynamic altogether, so we can avoid living in Trump’s dystopian comic book world where a violent, anarchic America is riven by race wars? How do we defend a better vision?

As individual people, to cultivate a happier, healthier world around us, Brach says, we need to attempt to see other people’s humanity, to try, instead of pushing people away to make a connection.

Politically, there is also interesting new research on what kinds of communication really move people to change their minds.

On Tuesday, Rolling Stone published an article on a study by People’s Action showing that a strategy called “deep canvassing,” that involves listening to voters instead of hitting them with campaign talking points, is 102 times more effective than traditional campaigning — particularly in rural areas and small towns.

Whatever the outcome of the next election, we are going to need some strategies to combat the powerful forces that are accelerating the unwinding of our government, our society, and even our personal relationships. 

We all need a mental health break from the downward-spiraling news. And we need to reconnect with each other so we can remind each other of our shared interest in making things better, not worse.

“This is evidence that engaging people in a meaningful conversation is much more effective than throwing facts, arguments, or messages at them,” George Goehl, director of People’s Action, told Rolling Stone. “I think that quality of conversation — one based on curiosity and compassion — can shift elections, yes, but also holds some lessons for how we might more fully come together as a country.”

Sounds like a plan.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.