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The Politics Of Shame


This clip has been making the rounds:

Rick Wilson is from north Florida — born in Tampa, lives in Tallahassee — so he counts as a Southerner. You can hear it in his accent. As a Southerner, I’m not too worked up over this. I can take a joke. The funniest people you will ever hear making fun of Southerners is other Southerners, among ourselves.

As someone who does not want the left to gain any more power than they have now, I’m thrilled by this, however. It is exactly what you want your opponents to do if you are a populist: make fun of your supporters as a bunch of drooling rustics.

In the US, traditional Southern culture is a shame-honor culture. Millions more people have now seen that clip on social media than saw it on CNN. When Southern white people who voted Trump see it, they know that they are being mocked as Southerners. There is not a single person who voted for Trump, or who is considering voting for him in 2020, who will watch Rick Wilson, Don Lemon, and Wajahat Ali making fun of them like that, and think, “Well, I guess I better vote for the Democrat so these CNN people won’t poke fun at me.”

But there are a lot of them who will crawl over glass to hit that trio of turdulent smirkers where it hurts the most: in the Oval Office.

Seriously, I get the temptation to make fun of people you hate — we all do it — but on national TV? When you devoutly believe that the populist president is ruining the country, you make fun not of their vices, but their ignorance and lack of education? The thing is, had Rick Wilson or the others put on a black or Hispanic dialect, and uttered some lines in the voice of a stupid black or Hispanic guy, they’d all be jobless today. We know that. But it’s okay to punch down to poor white Southern people.

Guess what: poor white Southern people, and their “allies,” to use the woke concept, understand this quite well. Here’s Christopher Caldwell in his new book The Age of Entitlement:

There are, however, great problems with shame as a means of governing. For one thing, opposition does not disappear but only becomes unspeakable, making the public even less knowable to its rulers. For another, shame as a government weapon works only on people capable of feeling shame. It thus purges high-minded people from the opposition and ensures that, when the now-mysterious public does throw up an opposition, it will be led by shameless people and take a shameless form.

What Wilson et alia were trying to do is to denigrate the kind of people who believe that ignorance of the world is a virtue. I get that. Ignorance is not a virtue, and certainly not in our leaders. What Secretary Pompeo did with the NPR journalist was truly embarrassing. But the worst way to emphasize that is to point at people and say, “Get a load of this snaggletoothed pack of idiot crackers!”

I can’t remember who said this, but I seem to recall that it was in the context of Christian evangelism, but the phrase comes to mind, “You can’t convert people unless you love them first.” That’s true for evangelism, but politics is a bit different. You don’t have to convert people into believing you’re good; you only have to convince them that your opponent is worse. You do that by creating and stoking hatred. This is why, whether liberal or conservative, negative ads work better than positive ones, no matter what people say. This is Trump’s secret. He understands that people like Wilson, Lemon, and Ali hate him and look down on him. A lot of people who vote for Trump may not love, or even like, the man, but they suspect that the people who hate him also hate them, at least behind closed doors. But sometimes, as on CNN, it comes out in the open, confirming all their suspicions.

Like I said, it seems to me to be a really stupid way to win an election against a populist. But what do I know, I’m not a professional Republican political consultant.

UPDATE: Or, to put it as succinctly as possible:

UPDATE.2: Aaaaaand … there it is, on the GOP’s YouTube channel. That did not take long:

UPDATE.3: Reader Jonah R.:

Until my late 20s, I sounded just like those guys in that clip, making fun of stereotypical Southerners from a place of Mid-Atlantic ignorance.

Then a funny thing happened: I really got to know my extended family and their neighbors in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia. I found that the middle-aged white guy who wears a long-sleeve shirt and Dollar Store jeans in the middle of the summer, the guy who cranks the good-old-boy routine up to 11, could very well hold a PhD in geology and million-dollar patents from his time as an engineer with a mining company. Or he’s retired after cashing out of his role as co-founder as a nationwide fast-food chain. Or he spent 25 years managing the public works at a medium-sized city. Or he doesn’t have to work anymore because he bought a ton of cheap land and then skillfully leased the forestry and mineral rights. He has almost always acquired expertise and success in something.

And even if he is just a guy with a high-school education who likes to hunt and fish, there’s a very good chance people underestimate him—and there’s a very good chance he knows it, and uses it to his advantage. And there’s a 75% chance that he has more firsthand experience with the culture of the Northeast and Midatlantic than he can expect the visiting Yankee to have of the South.

To be honest, these were hard lessons for me to learn, but once I learned them, I felt like America opened up to me. More of my country felt comprehensible, sympathetic, and important. I’ll never be a Southerner, but holy crap, it was liberating to be out of that bubble.

The question remains, though, of who’s more numerous: People who are motivated to vote for Trump because of video clips like this one, or people who are motivated to vote against Trump because he is, well, Trump? I don’t know. Only the election will tell us for sure.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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