In this column, I hope to tie together several things that I have been discussing the last several weeks. I’ve talked about the conservative shift away from facts and how that has coincided with White County turning from dark blue to dark red. A few months ago I wrote about the differences between liberals and conservatives, and a couple of people pointed out to me that I was describing traditional conservatives, not present-day ones. And that is true, for the most part. A lot of conservatives do still believe in governmental fiscal responsibility, everyone getting a fair shot to work hard and become their own boss, lower taxes and fewer social programs to foster individual initiative. But I don’t believe White County residents’ attitudes about those things reversed between 2000 and 2004 (when Republicans started winning elections here). White County supported Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan. White County knew that Democrats were liberal in the 1990s, but still voted for them.
The change that occurred was not really about political theory or philosophy or objective facts. The change was due to a change in feelings. America, post 9/11, became a land of “truthiness,” where truth is defined by how you feel about it rather than what the facts are. And, after 9/11, what people felt was scared and angry. Threatened. In such an atmosphere it is easy to get caught up in “us and them.” “Them” was initially Muslims and/or Arabs but quickly expanded to anyone foreign, then to anyone liberal or a minority. All those groups came to be seen as threats to America - that is, America as the frightened people had known it. The Bush administration used that fear as a means to drum public support for their adventure in Iraq. The Republican Party made an art form out of using it to get votes.
When I heard hardcore Tea Partiers a decade ago, or hard-core Trump supporters now, they sound just like the people I heard around town in the years right after 9/11 when they talked about anyone Mideastern. Or South Asian, which is totally different, but is still “different.” I hear the same anger… and, behind it, the same fear.
And along comes someone like Donald Trump - a con artist who loves only money and his own hide - who is a master at stoking that anger and fear. Stoking it to the point of conflagration. To the point that large numbers of people are speaking seriously about armed rebellion with a view to executing their enemies in the street and imposing their own view of what America is. People who lack the historical perspective or context to understand what happened in Nazi Germany and why, and who may soon lack any historical perspective at all due to the Republicans’ war on teaching history.
And please realize, most Republican politicians do not really buy into what they are selling - they know their base has bought it and want to keep getting elected. Take notice that when Republican legislatures want to redraw districts, or impose voting restriction laws that target groups who vote Democratic, they suddenly have a brilliant grasp of math and computers. They know what facts are. They just don’t care. And their base knows what facts are, too, but all that is registering with them now is their feelings.
And here’s what they just don’t get. This chain of events - this slow-motion implosion - means that Osama bin Laden’s plan succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He wanted to bring us down by terrorizing us to the point we acted without thinking, turned on each other, and destroyed ourselves. If people in our country - and in our community -don’t get ahold of themselves, take a step back, take a deep breath, and calm down - and stop listening to Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson -we may well be handing bin Laden the win.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.