She walked up the subway stairwell, smiling. Atop the Fifth Avenue sidewalk landing, a crowd had already gathered. Cheers broke out as the first glimpses of her were caught by the impatiently awaiting audience. Once on the sidewalk, she gracefully and confidently approached the prepared lectern and waived to the gathered masses. Her smile slowly faded.
“Our country is fallen,” she began. “The legacy of colonialism and racism still haunts our communities. From small towns to big cities, police brutality is destroying lives and ruining families. Hate crimes are on the rise. Our Muslim and LGBTQIA brothers and sisters are traumatized by hate speech on college campuses and in the media. White, straight, cisgender men are bringing racism, they’re bringing sexism, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” These apocalyptic images were followed by a few more depicting rampant bigotry and oppression and the all-consuming fires of capitalism.
“But today,” she continued, her voice brightening, “we say no more! Today will be remembered as the day when we all came together and dealt the first blow to the heteropatriarchy! Just as the spirit of our movement has inspired people throughout the land to resist fascist oppression by violently opposing the Nazis who question the self-evident truths of affirmative action and affirmative consent, so today I announce that it has inspired me to run for the highest office in the land.”
This never-before-encountered brand of leftist politics was a breath of fresh air to many — especially the multicultural cosmopolitans living on the coastal areas of the country. Lately, it seems, they had been forgotten by a nationalist regime beholden to backward interests such as the religious right, gun owners, soon-to-be-obsolete polluting industries such as oil and coal, and, of course, garden variety “racists,” “sexists,” and “Islamophobes.” In their new candidate, the coastal masses, heretofore unheard by the right-wing power-holders, saw a savior who would clean up the nativistic, nationalistic infestation at the nation’s capital and in the country.
As time went on, once-unquestioned assumptions about free speech and due process were attacked into oblivion. The candidate insisted that not only will her administration punish racists and sexists themselves — it will also punish their family members if they do not report their bigoted siblings, parents, and aunts and uncles to the soon-to-be established “Department of Hate and Bias Reporting.” Universities were likewise threatened with the withholding of funds if they deigned to allow student groups to invite controversial speakers who might “microagress” against vulnerable students, faculty, and administrators. The Department of Homeland Security was called upon to create an “online harassment taskforce” that would monitor citizens’ private and public communications for hateful rhetoric directed at minorities, government officials, and even abstract concepts such as “intersectionality.” The candidate even went as far as shaming specific yoga studios and Asian restaurants run by non-Asians for “cultural appropriation.” Death threats were leveled and the businesses closed.
And yet, the more the candidate spoke, the more popular she got. Liberals, libertarians, and conservatives who seemed horrified by the implications of the candidates’ policies were quickly drowned out with rally chants such as “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, right-wing bigots go away,” to the smirking approval of the candidate. Journalists and correspondents who dared to question the candidate’s contention that the country is overrun by bigots by invoking actual statistics on the matter were either ignored or had their sources maligned as “fake stats.” The candidate, meanwhile, boasted her “Ivy League” credentials and insisted that her education and subsequent experience as an activist shielded her from any and all accusations of being illiberal and despotic.
* * *
It is fair to say that the previous scenario is an exaggeration. And yet, two years ago, if I were to prophetically describe Donald Trump and his future presidential campaign, which exhibited many of the same illiberal characteristics (albeit of the right-wing, nationalistic variety), many would have believed me to be deluded. But here we are, lorded over by a president who seems intent on cloistering himself and the country by threatening to build walls and tearing apart trade deals. With Steve Bannon — his catastrophizing consigliere — in tow, Trump is intent on furthering a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world by aggravating all involved with ill-thought-out immigration policies and selective outrage.
My intent to depict the aforementioned scenario lies not in denying the very real threats to civil liberties under President Trump (especially under his appointed Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions), but to make the point that authoritarianism is not the monopoly of any one political party. Although Trump’s support is to some extent undergirded by authoritarianism (though perhaps it is grounded more in nationalism and anti-elitism) there is plenty of it on the other side of the political divide, as well. No better example of this comes to mind than the recent assault on free speech — as well as on persons and property — at U.C. Berkeley, whose Republican students dared to host the pro-Trump provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
Berkeley is considered the best public university in the world. Although there is some confusion about whether the rioters were Berkeley students or outsider anarchists, the vulnerability of elite university students to authoritarian thought and action has been demonstrated time and again. Remember that Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale have been overwhelmingly responsible for churning out American presidents and congressmen for decades. Chances are that one of the voices currently protesting Milo or railing against Nicholas Christakis will one day be giving the State of the Union address to the entire nation.
This is why, regardless of your political affiliation, if you are intent on fighting totalitarianism and bigotry, you should give ear to Michael Jackson’s famous refrain from “Man in the Mirror”: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and make a change.”
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