Pity the poor white man; he just can’t catch a break in this country.
If that strikes you as an unpromising theme for a presidential campaign in the year 2020, you must not be an adept of the Trump cult. Seemingly running as the reincarnation of Jefferson Davis — the Mississippian who served as the one-and-only president of the Confederate States of America — Boss Trump travels from sea to shining sea appealing to the resentment and self-pity of those whose ancestors lost the Civil War.
Even if they had no such ancestors. Not every paleface who gets all tingly and aroused by Trump’s dark intimations of cultural warfare is descended from slave owners or rebel soldiers. Unrepentant racists are actually a dying breed across the South. Indeed, you’d think that the state of Mississippi’s decision to remove Confederate imagery from its state flag would give even Trump pause. Not to mention NASCAR’s banning of the Stars and Bars. Bad for business, you see. After all, who defends slavery anymore?
Actually, it’s more the George Wallace of 1968 that Trump appears to be imitating. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin digs up an apposite quote from that year: “The pseudo-intellectuals and the theoreticians and some professors and some newspaper editors and some judges and some preachers,” the Alabama governor said, “have looked down their nose long enough at the average man on the street.”
Everybody looks down on them, see. They are the real victims.
And you know what? It’s not totally imaginary. As the husband of an Arkansas girl in academic New England back then, we met with a degree of prejudice. A mild degree, to be sure, and only in academia, where she got used to being patronized to her face as a dumb bigot. Ordinary New Englanders would ask her questions at the general store just to hear her talk.
Then there was the colleague who sympathized with my own imagined discomfort as an “aristocratic Southerner” with minority students. I’m a person of Irish peasant descent from industrial Elizabeth, New Jersey — then, as now, an immigrant melting pot. Aristocratic? Hardly. I thought a professor who couldn’t spot an Irishman in Massachusetts, of all places, didn’t need to be lecturing anybody about diversity.
But these were minor episodes, essentially comic. Caricature is inevitable when cultures collide.
Nevertheless, we did take the precaution of leaving.
Less amusing are the growing number of farcical but dangerous confrontations provoked by Boss Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric as amplified on social media. Even as the president tweets out messages about “white power” and delivers ominous speeches about left-wing mobs supposedly seeking to “defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children,” online provocateurs are doing their best to inflame the gullible.
During recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Little Rock, cops seemingly tricked by Facebook postings went around telling people that mobs of antifa activists were holed up in a downtown hotel conspiring to loot and burn wealthy suburbs.
And then what? Return to their hotel rooms and watch porn, I suppose.
Needless to say, nothing happened.
Similar hoaxes have provoked armed vigilantes in Idaho, New Jersey, South Dakota and Michigan in recent weeks into taking to the streets to defend their communities against the largely mythical antifa. (Which is not to say there aren’t self-dramatizing fools on the left, doing their utmost to accomplish for Trump what their political ancestors such as the late Abbie Hoffman did for Richard Nixon in 1968, i.e., provoke a voter backlash against their ostensible cause. Joe Biden can’t proclaim his hostility toward arsonists and looters strongly enough.)
The Washington Post detailed a scary episode at Gettysburg National Cemetery this July 4th. Spurred by Facebook postings on a phony antifa page that promised an Independence Day flag-burning festival at the park (“Let’s get together and burn flags in protest of thugs and animals in blue”), a veritable army of militiamen, skinheads, bikers and right-wing zealots showed up locked and loaded to protect Civil War monuments there.
Almost needless to say, nobody showed up to incinerate any flags. The mob did find a Methodist preacher wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to harass, but park rangers got him away safely. All unaware, the fellow had been visiting an ancestor’s grave.
Post reporters Shawn Boburge and Dalton Bennett searched high and low for the phony antifa site’s author but came up empty. None of the persons identifying themselves on Facebook turned out to exist; all the photos were stock commercial images traceable to nobody. The whole thing was a malicious hoax cleverly designed to trick foolhardy armed men into pointing guns at their imagined enemies.
Armed men were goaded into a frenzy by Boss Trump, whose only hope of being returned to office lies in setting Americans at one another’s throats.
One day before too long, I fear, those guns are going to go off.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.