We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Andrés Miguel Rondón is a Venezuelan with an M.A. in Economics from the University of Edinburgh. This places him in the Venezuelan elite where he experienced the frustration of being in the opposition to the Chavistas. He wrote an article about that experience where he describes the opposition’s mistakes in a way that validates everything George Lakoff has been saying and also adds the idea of enemy:

The recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour. Capture their imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a good story. One that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption. Populism can’t cure your suffering, but it can do something almost as good — better in some ways: it can build a satisfying narrative around it. A fictionalized account of your misery. A promise to make sense of your hurt. It is them. It’s been them all along. www.caracaschronicles.com/2017/01/20/culturejam/ (it’s a good article, I recommend it highly).

Trump plays the same game. Hillary, the Democrats, the press and anyone else who opposed or criticized Trump during the campaign or now that he is president, are the enemy. And in the last week he has upped the ante calling the press “an enemy of the people.”

Some people think this is just his bullying, egotistical style. I disagree. I think it follows a very old plan and is an important part of his strategy.

1) The enemy story helps reinforce the frame.

An enemy may use any means to hurt us, including disinformation. When Donald Trump says that the press is the enemy of the American people, he saying that their words are part of a disinformation campaign designed to confuse, weaken and defeat us.

So even if the brain were really a logical, rational organ and even if we could use facts to change someone’s view of an issue, the idea of enemy would immunize that someone from the facts because the bearer of those facts is either an enemy or is inadvertently echoing the lies of the enemy.

This is not a new idea in American politics (nor the politics of the rest of the world). When Trump says this, he is reusing an idea that has been around at least as far back as the days of Joe McCarthy. Here are a few recent examples from a very, very long list:

"The greatest enemy this country has ever faced is the man sitting in the White House: President Barack Hussein Obama." helpingmisguidedvoters.com/enemy.html

"New Confirmation Hillary Delivered Secrets to America’s Enemies"new-confirmation-hillary-delivered-secrets-to-americas-enemies

"Enemies Within [movie] zooms in on the best-kept secret of modern politics. Almost no one is aware of the fact that fewer than 20,000 U.S. Communists, socialists and extreme “progressives” are able to influence the politicians and even write the laws that control the lives of over 300 million Americans.” hillary_clinton_americas_most_dangerous_enemy_within.html

"Rush Limbaugh’s frequent characterization of the establishment press as “an extension of the Democratic Party” is neither a metaphor nor an exaggeration. It is literally true." the-real-reason-mainstream-media-protect-hillary

Nor is the enemy story the sole purview of the right. Consider the 9/11 conspiracy theorists who see any counter evidence as a coverup.

2) The enemy story has a basis.

Every example I have seen of the enemy story includes some failure, some damage that is not obviously caused by the people who are being hurt. That failure or damage may not be caused by those being labeled as enemy, but there is at least the suggestion of a connection which forms the basis for the story. (I can’t prove that this is universal, but I have seen so many examples of it, from witchcraft trials to the rise of fascism in Europe to what is happening today, that I think it is).

In Venezuela there was economic and political decay before Chavez came to power that reduced the overall standard of living:

"Venezuela used to be considered a miracle country. Until the early 1980s, it was one of the only four Latin American countries certified by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income economy. It was also a stable, center-left democracy, quite an oasis in a region plagued by authoritarianism, insurgency, or unrest.

"Today, Venezuela is in ruins. It is one of the few Latin American countries to have had, not one, but two "lost decades:" the 1980s and the 1990s. Never really able to recover from currency and debt crises in the 1980s, Venezuela plunged further into economic chaos in the 1990s ...

"The electoral results of 1998-1999 demonstrated, not so much the popularity of the new president, which is unquestionably high, but rather the repudiation of traditional parties, which was overwhelming."

From the Harvard Review of Latin America, Fall 1999 http://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/book/venezuela-1980s-1990s-and-beyond

Venezuelans suffered harm and it seemed believable that the traditional parties, the business interests and the US could be the cause of the harm. Indeed, many analyses show they contributed.

Is the US similar to the Venezuela?

  • A major financial crisis in 2008-9 that cost many Americans their jobs and homes.
  • Discredited political parties and a system that seems broken.
  • Continued loss of good paying manufacturing jobs.
  • Contraction in the coal industry due to the ramping up production of oil and gas production.
  • Stagnant wages in most industries

American workers have experienced harm so it seems believable to them that the elites have used TPP and NAFTA to further their own interests at the expense of the American worker (in fact they did). It also seems believable that immigration, affirmative action, environmental protections and other “liberal” actions caused or worsened the damage (in many cases there were second order effects e.g. environmental protections contributed modestly to higher coal costs, though the main cause of coal’s decline was much lower natural gas pricing.) So the idea that some group of elites is the enemy has a plausible story behind it and becomes believable.

3) Denial activates the story

Lakoff frequently points out that when Nixon said “I’m not a crook” it didn’t convince anyone. It just activated the idea that he was a crook.

Denial is especially bad if some part of the denial proves to be false and what is false depends on your frame. “Free trade actually helps create jobs” is false to someone who lost their job because of foreign competition, no matter how many statistics you cite.

So what do we do?

1) Get out of our comfort zones and connect.

Find the people in your community (physical or virtual) with whom you disagree and talk to them. Get to know them. Listen. Respect their opinions. Let them know that you care. Work together on issues of common interest.

It’s easy to make an enemy out of someone you don’t know. It’s much harder when you get to know that person.

2) Be honest and admit it when something is wrong.

Obamacare wasn’t perfect – the individual mandate didn’t work as hoped, why deny that? TPP and NAFTA were not designed to help the working class — in fact, NAFTA helped cause an exodus from Mexico when cheaper imported American corn destroyed local economies. under-nafta-mexico-suffered Why not be honest about it?

Admitting that some treasured liberal program has some problems doesn’t mean abandoning the values or the goals behind that program. It just means being honest. And why should anyone trust someone who isn’t honest?

3) Stop lecturing.

I do a lot of work in natural area restoration and when restoration workers gather I often hear complaints about how “they” don’t understand the importance of what we are doing. Too often someone says “we have to explain to ‘them’ why our work is important.” This condescension is a form of dominant behavior which only increases distrust and suspicion. Instead, turn the discussion around. Show some respect for their intelligence and ideas. Let “them” tell us what is important and then see if we can figure out how our work relates to it. Listening and respecting someone’s opinion, even though we are honest about our differences, builds trust.

The enemy story is perhaps the most dangerous story that Trump is telling. As Senator McCain said, tyrants use the enemy story to intimidate and consolidate power, particularly by silencing the press. (john-mccain-donald-trump-dictators) We need to understand how the story works and think very carefully about how we respond.