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The challenge we face

Apr 27,2020 - Last updated at Apr 27,2020

In last week’s column, I cautioned that in the face of the severe economic dislocation currently experienced by so many families across the United States, we could expect to see the emergence of a number of political and social movements. Shocks to the system always result in such reactions. Sometimes these will be spontaneous, while in other instances they are fomented. And sometimes they are inspired by what Abraham Lincoln called “our better angels,” while others are led by those who prey on the fear and anxiety created by the dislocation.

We may have seen the beginning of one type of response this past week as right-wing media figures and organisations called for demonstrations in state capitals. They were demanding an end to the emergency lockdown measures that had been ordered to control the spread of the Coronavirus. The protesters carried signs decrying the lockdowns, playing on themes of freedom and individual rights: “You can’t quarantine the Constitution;” “My rights don’t end where your fear starts;” “My rights Trump your fear.” Signs supporting President Donald Trump and “Make America Great Again” were also prevalent.

For his part, President Donald Trump encouraged these protests issuing, in rapid succession, a number of tweets reading “Liberate Minnesota,” “Liberate Michigan,” and then, ominously “Liberate Virginia, and save your great second Amendment. It is under siege” – targeting only states led by governors who are Democrats.

This was a classic Trump and Republican tactic, shifting the blame to the “establishment” and decrying lost freedoms at the hands of those in government. In this instance, however, such an approach seemed ironic since Trump now heads the federal government, and he, himself, has issued orders promoting lockdowns.

The president also took another page from his tried and true playbook by preying on his supporters’ fears and resentments. In just the past week, he incited against China (which he holds singularly responsible for the virus), Muslims (whom he suggested were being accorded special consideration not given to Christians and Jews), immigrants (whom he charged were taking jobs from Americans) and, of course, Democrats (who were accused of threatening individual freedoms).

It appears, in all of this, that president and his party want to repurpose the tactics they used with some success after the great recession of 2008-2009. Back then, they also incited against foreigners (focusing on immigrants, who the party claimed brought crime and stole jobs from citizens); Arabs and Muslims (who were said to be threatening American values and security); Blacks and Latinos (whom the GOP claimed were receiving unfair advantages) and the Democrats’ efforts to expand health care coverage (which they charged would place health care in the hands of big government bureaucrats).

These tactics worked, creating the mass movement that ultimately gave rise to Trumpism. In the process, Republicans were able to turn many white middle class voters, who felt ignored, betrayed and anxious about their futures, into a base of support for economic policies that went against their own self-interest.

During the last decade, while Republicans were spreading this divisive message of fear, Democrats failed to find an effective response. They did project high-minded slogans, “We’re Stronger Together.” They advocated complicated policy goals, immigration reform focusing largely on the undocumented, and a trillion-dollar, job-creating infrastructure program. And they intensified and updated their fundraising and social media strategies. In all of this, they succeeded in energising what had become the Democrats’ support base of minority, young, and educated women voters. But they failed to erode the support for Trump and Trumpism. In fact, the way Democrats went about approaching these issues may have served to exacerbate the national divide.

Three examples are worth noting:

During the entire debate over immigration reform, I pressed the White House and Democrats to expand the discussion to include immigrants from other regions of the world. For example, official tallies show that there are tens of thousands of Irish, Polish and other Europeans who are undocumented. Why are they not, I asked, included in our discussion? My appeal fell on deaf ears and the issue continued to be presented as if only Latinos had a stake in addressing this concern

In 2014, following the Democratic Party’s devastating losses in the November mid-term elections, the party’s pollster made a presentation to a DNC executive committee meeting. His up-beat message was that, despite the losses, there was good news in that election because we maintained the support of the party’s base, minority, young and educated women voters, we just did not win enough of them. The solution he proposed was to expend more resources to expand turnout amongst these “critical base vote groups.” When I asked what were we doing to reach white middle class voters in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, where we had lost significant support, he responded “We aren’t going to throw money away going after folks who aren’t ever going to support us.” I replied that if that was to be our approach we were being as divisive as the Republicans.

Reflecting this same mindset, recall Hilary Clinton’s dismissive comment in which she referred to Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” That expression provided Republicans with a hammer with which to pound home what they said was Clinton’s elitism and contempt for the white middle class.

We can see in the protests against the Coronavirus lockdowns the unfolding of a strategy that once again preys on the same fear and resentment. Those who are organising these rallies know exactly what they are doing. And many of those who are demonstrating are most likely hardcore haters, the waving of Confederate flags and some of the signs and paraphernalia being distributed at these events make that clear. But they are only the vanguard, the messengers of a strategy designed to reach a larger audience of Americans who feel threatened by economic ruin, ignored by elites, and are frightened for their future.

What is required is a counter strategy that speaks to the “better angels” of all voters. It should be a message that is inclusive and respectful and speaks to every component group in society that is hurting. It should reflect an understanding of their hurt and even their anger at losing their jobs and the resentment they feel at living isolated from their families and friends. It should be as value-based and as challenging as Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression or Winston Churchill during World War II. It should be both explanatory and visionary, continuing to explain why the burdensome closures are needed and coupling this with a positive vision of the future, contrasting it with the dystopia that awaits us if these precautionary measures aren’t sustained. And finally this response should be both personal, and universal, identifying a victim or hero whose personal story can be elevated to a larger-than-life narrative that inspires hope, promotes empathy, and renews confidence in government.

I firmly believe that those who are being preyed on with anger, fear, and resentment will respond to a message that speaks to them with concern for their families, empathy for others in need, and concern for the common good. But to win their support, they must be addressed with respect by messengers they can trust.

It is a tall order to be sure, but the crisis in which we find ourselves and the expected reactionary response we see already unfolding before us demand more than just business as usual. While we cannot set a timetable for when a vaccine and/or cure will be found, given the work of medical researchers, I feel certain that this will be done.  What is not certain is the type of society and government we will have when this crisis is over. That is the challenge we face.

 The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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