We were headed to catch a movie. It was a Friday night, date night. And date night was going perfectly. A great dinner, and off to the Galleria to see a show. One of those few nights where everything, everything was clicking. Every story, almost every sentence between us elicited laughter from the other. What a great night, what a great lead-in to the weekend. It was long ago, and movie theaters and popcorn stands rarely accepted credit or ATM cards. (It was practically medieval, I know!) I approached an ATM in the middle of the mall, just a quick stop to grab some cash for the night. I quickly put my card in the machine as we continued to tease and chatter and laugh with each other. I punched in the code and the amount and the machine instantly spit out my money and a receipt. As I pocketed my wallet and we turned to go, we noticed an older man who had come up behind us, waiting to use the machine. Suddenly, he started barking at us. "You two just gonna be here all night? Just wasting time and goofing off while others are waiting? What do you think this is!!"
His face was pinched, his fists were balled, his voice and body were shaking. You know that ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham that has the old codger dummy? Yeah, that was him.
We were too stunned to speak. The ATM transaction could not have possibly happened more quickly. We hadn't blocked the machine. We weren't being rude or loud or obnoxious.
It was too bizarre to be confrontational, I told the guy to go ahead - we were leaving. Steam was still coming out of his ears as we walked away.
I don't remember if we even went to the movie. The shock was all-consuming. Within a minute or two, my gf burst into tears. What on earth would trigger someone's fury over seeing a happy young couple enjoying themselves, enjoying each other, and enjoying life?
This was decades ago. That same fury is everywhere now. Back then, there wasn't the divisive political tribalistic insanity that there is today. But whatever reaction that old cuss had in him all those years ago is a contagion now.
By the federal law governing newsletter writing, blogging, and social media posts, I must bring Taylor "Tay-Tay" Swift into this conversation. In order to avoid prosecution, it is also a good idea if I mention her current beau, Travis "Big Yeti" Kelce. Is it a good thing that I'm talking about them when so many others are pontificating about this young couple? I dunno, but it's the law.
Tay-Tay and Big Yeti are currently in the right's crosshairs. Ms. Swift is a superstar celebrity billionaire who has endorsed Democratic candidates in the past. She has disparaged Trump. She supports anti-gun groups. She has called for her army of "Swifties," (her fans,) to register to vote. She started dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, not all that long ago. Their very public romance has sent Republicans over the edge, and the Swifties over the moon.
Kelce is a mere millionaire, so who knows who picks up the check when they share a couple of chili dogs and a malt at the Sonic. Beyond his affection for his Tay-Tay, he riles up MAGAts because he did an ad for and endorsed Bud Lite*. He also appeared in a Pfizer Covid vaccine advertisement. Did I mention that he knelt during the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who famously accused the NFL of colluding to blacklist him for protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem in 2016?
And now Kelce invites THAT WOMAN to his football games, where the TeeVee people show her cheering him on during the game, and then give us video and photos of them laughing and holding hands and you know, enjoying life and each other. The football player and his wildly successful celebrity cheerleader girlfriend - the quintessential American love story!
And right-wingers have lost their collective poo. Even though the adorable couple has driven NFL ratings through the roof, increased merch sales, and introduced football to a new audience, the haters and trolls can't take it. At first, I thought it was just another stupid overreaction by the fringe Trumpverse (it is,) but it continues to grow as all of the right-wing media has some kind of derogatory take on their politics, their personal lives, and their relationship. And naturally, it's beyond just social media trolling, the conspiracy theorists are out in full force.
Jesse Watters, a host on Fox News, suggested that Swift may be combating online disinformation - working as a Pentagon asset! She's anti-racist, "There’s literally nothing worse than white supremacy,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. “It’s repulsive." After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, she went all BLM on the country. She donated to the NAACP and called for the removal of Confederate statues. Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro was angry about her "abrupt and obviously pandering shift into a political wokescold.” Former GOP presidential candidate and current Trump suckup Vivek Ramaswamy tweeted that he thinks that America's couple are prepping for an upcoming Swift endorsement of Joe Biden. And "a Massive Super Bowl Psy-op” - a complex brainwashing campaign used to indoctrinate Americans to an elite agenda and away from religion - that's how OAN referred to the couple's alleged plan.
Let's not dwell too long on the vitriol being unleashed at a lovely young lady every time she waves at her cute boyfriend. There's plenty of meanness in your own neighborhood.
Been to a Little League game lately? How about almost any school athletic event where parents show up "to support their kids"? Coaches, administrators, and referees are abused non-stop, and in almost every kind of setting. Games are stopped. Cursing and belligerent parents are thrown out. It's not uncommon for threats to be made or even physical fights to break out.
I was at my grandaughter's middle school basketball game last week. The ref was a skinny, wiry, older gentleman. He was slight and looked exhausted. I saw a belt pack on his waist, and at first, thought it was a mic of some kind. Upon closer look when he was on the sideline, I saw that it was an insulin pump. He had earlier commented to someone nearby that he'd already refereed two previous games. If you think middle school girls' basketball would be a low-key affair, you'd be very much mistaken. The kids are intense, and a few of the parents are quite invested in the game, so to speak. The small crowds I've been around this year are not afraid to "correct" the ref, though I've not heard any swearing or threats. Still, it gets tiresome and is certainly stupid and rude. 'What kinda call is that, ref? Get it right! Open. Your. Eyes!" Finally, after one more call had been loudly "questioned" by an expert in the bleachers, the ref held the ball, turned and faced the offending dad.
"You wanna come ref this game? Be fine with me. I'm tired. You want the whistle? I'll go home. C'mon if you can do a better job."
Shut that dad up, quick. Pretty mild these days, no one got hurt.
Been on a freeway lately? Sort of a cross between an F1 track race and a destruction derby. Insanely aggressive drivers running up your backside, cutting you off, swerving into your lane... Trucks the size of army tanks whiz by, their metal truck-nutz swinging from the trailer hitch. In cities the size of Dallas and Houston, hardly a day goes by without a TV report of a road-rage shooting on the freeway. Newsreaders warn viewers not to respond in any way if they're cut off or see another driver challenging you - no honking, no racing, and especially no middle finger. It's a pretty good bet that a challenge would be answered with gunfire.
How about a school board meeting? A PTO meeting? Been on an airplane that has an angry or drunk passenger on board? Eaten at a restaurant where someone gets the wrong food order? Or a hospital where a patient is angry that s/he doesn't feel that they're getting enough attention?
In all of these situations, angry/furious/drunken voters/customers have become more and more abusive to workers trying to serve them. Conversely, owners/managers/supervisors are often unconstrained in how they treat those same employees... demanding that workers work for less pay, work for longer hours, take fewer benefits, and do it all with a better attitude. In the fields of teaching, nursing, hospitality...heck, you name it... employees are walking off in droves. They're tired of the abuse, the threats, the exhaustion, and the crappy pay.
And in Texas, the ultimate cruelty is instituted by our governor and his henchmen. In an alleged effort to slow down illegal border crossings by migrants at the Rio Grande, Abbott has installed floating red barriers, ostensibly to warn migrants away. Abbott's big red balls are supplemented with razor wire on the sandy bank and a border wall that runs through Eagle Pass. The immigrants that are not stopped by Abbott's big red balls and are caught anywhere along Texas' 1200+ miles of border, risk being bussed to northern cities. "Liberal" urban cities like New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Denver have all received thousands of migrants over the last year - recently they have been dropped off unprepared, underdressed, hungry and cold. It's this kind of cruelty that wins elections.
The current wisdom is that this road away from civility and decency and toward heartlessness and brutality originated at Trump Tower. This is certainly true to a point. We like to say that his malice ripped the filters off of racists, sexists, misogynists, and all the other 'ists. That the Big Orange Goon gave "permission" for people to act out, and violently so.
In a discussion on PBS News Hour, New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, outlines some of the authoritarian playbook:
"So, since the fascists, authoritarians always want to do two things — they want to change the way that people see violence, making it into something necessary and patriotic and even morally righteous, and they want to change the way people see their targets.
And so they use dehumanizing language. And former President Trump is doing both. He's been using his rallies since 2015 to shift the idea of violence into something positive. And now he's starting to use dehumanizing rhetoric, all these groups who live like vermin. And this is what the original fascists did. Hitler started talking about Jews as parasites in 1920.
So by the time he got in 1933, Germans had been exposed to this dehumanizing rhetoric for 13 years. And Mussolini literally talked about rats. After he had become dictator in 1927, he said, we need to kill rats who are bringing infectious diseases and Bolshevism from the east."
First, they change the view of violence. And Mr. Trump, since 2015, he started saying at his rallies, using his rallies and campaign events for radicalizing people. And he started saying, oh, in the old days, you used to hurt people. The problem is, Americans don't hurt each other anymore.
Propaganda always works. Always has, always will. We're not immune.
So now he's going into a new phase of openly dehumanizing his targets so that will lessen the taboos in the future. And we see that, in 2025, he's got plans for mass deportations, mass imprisonments and giant camps. So you need people to be less sensitive about violence, either committing it themselves or tolerating it.
This is part of being much more overt about becoming an authoritarian and transforming America into some version of autocracy, because the endgame of election denial is actually to convince Americans that elections shouldn't be the way they choose their leaders, they're too unreliable.
And we're beginning to see this with his allies. Michael Flynn said we shouldn't — elections, we might not even have one. Tommy Tuberville, the senator, said let's not even have elections, or the talk about America is never — pure democracy doesn't work. All of this is part of a campaign of, you could call it mass reeducation of Americans to want forms of authoritarian rule that Trump will give.
So what got us to this place? What has brought us back to Middle School, where tribalism rules, where violence or the threat of violence is around every corner, and where everyone relies on some clownish vice principal to keep order? Where even the adorable example of the cute cheerleader and the football team captain smooching in the hallway isn't enough inspiration to keep us from the fear of brutality?
Beyond the school-as-metaphor, the lethal danger from outside forces in actual schools is real and terrifying. This week, the mother of a mass-shooting-kid was found guilty of manslaughter after her son killed four students at a Michigan high school in 2021. Mom and Dad Crumbley bought their mentally unstable son a semi-automatic pistol that he used to slay 4 kids and injure 7 more. In the trial, it was revealed that the son had asked his mom for help with his mental health, and she laughed it off. She took the stand and proclaimed that she would not have done anything differently. Because... guns. During the trial, a mental health expert detailed the "litany of horrible abuse" suffered by the boy at the hands of his parents.
WTF has happened in this country, where parents nonchalantly give their mentally unbalanced children weapons and those children excitedly show up at school to massacre their classmates? When did violence become a stated political tool, here? How did we lose our way so completely?
We certainly don't trust our government to help us out. This has been evolving for years. Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, the offshoring of jobs, dismantling of unions, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan... the way we treat our vets. The erosion of affordable health care and the unavailability of decent insurance. The tearing down of public education. Wealth zooming to the top 1% and remaining stagnant (or worse) for the rest of us. Cell phone cameras and body-worn cameras have shown the general public what minority groups have said about police for decades... they can't be believed. There is a constant threat that earned social benefits could be reduced or taken away.
Our social institutions have broken down as well. Churches have split up or faded away - fighting over cultural issues like LGBT rights, abortion, and the place of women in society. Worse still, thousands of church clergy members and officials have been found guilty of child abuse and/or sexual assault. Many churches and the various denominations involved in these abuses covered up those crimes for years. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts share a similar story of decline. Other community organizations have just disappeared. How many people that you know are devoted Rotarians? Members of a Shriners group or a Lions Club? Remember when the Masonic Lodge was the most mysterious and seemingly conspiratorial group around? Do they even exist anymore? Many folks still try to volunteer or find a way to express charity, but these days, a lot of families are too burdened by the demands of their job, or multiple jobs. That's one of the last supplements to family - a group of fellow employees. But the modern corporate mindset is one of "maximizing shareholder value." Not working together in a familial setting with employees, vendors, the community and management to build a better product or service and make a solid profit for owners. Just... maximize value for those owners.
The Times had a story about a young, apolitical man who was opening a restaurant when the pandemic hit, shutting down businesses all over New York. Determined to keep his dream alive, he complied with the myriad of changing rules, closure orders, allowances for limited hours, and regulations about how many customers could be served. He searched in vain for assistance to keep the rent paid, workers hired, and his business open. As he felt more and more abandoned, he publicly griped on local media about "little guys getting clobbered by big government, being forced to sacrifice their livelihood...At some point, he started calling himself a 'freedom fighter'... He would later write, "...our very way of life is under attack. Don’t expect anyone to come save you. We are the front lines. We are the defenders of liberty.” Guess who he'll be voting for next fall? In the meantime, don't cross him.
If we feel there is no trusted community to get us through desperate times, then we see ourselves as alone. That isolation only feeds despair and anger. Or we find unhealthy groups to find affirmation and social support, you know, like gangs or political parties. "We are caught in a cycle, ill treatment leading to humiliation and humiliation leading to more meanness. Social life becomes more barbaric, online and off." So writes David Brooks in a wonderful piece that he wrote for The Atlantic, "How America Got Mean,"
He suggests that it's because we've lost all sense of moral formation. "We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein." Brooks reminds us that without some structure and practice to constrain our selfish natures, we are doomed to act on our narcissistic tendencies. Even our founding fathers recognized this.
“Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more dispos’d to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, and much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d.”
All those churches, scout troops, rotary clubs, and charitable social organizations at least gave us a framework for decent behavior. Sure, many were flawed, and as mentioned, some were downright corrupt. As they dissolved away, we poured our groupish tendencies into our new religion - politics. Again, from Brooks:
According to research by Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lonely young people are seven times more likely to say they are active in politics than young people who aren’t lonely. For people who feel disrespected, unseen, and alone, politics is a seductive form of social therapy. It offers them a comprehensible moral landscape: The line between good and evil runs not down the middle of every human heart, but between groups. Life is a struggle between us, the forces of good, and them, the forces of evil.
The Manichaean tribalism of politics appears to give people a sense of belonging. For many years, America seemed to be awash in a culture of hyper-individualism. But these days, people are quick to identify themselves by their group: Republican, Democrat, evangelical, person of color, LGBTQ, southerner, patriot, progressive, conservative. People who feel isolated and under threat flee to totalizing identities.
Politics appears to give people a sense of righteousness: A person’s moral stature is based not on their conduct, but on their location on the political spectrum. You don’t have to be good; you just have to be liberal—or you just have to be conservative. The stronger a group’s claim to victim status, the more virtuous it is assumed to be, and the more secure its members can feel about their own innocence.
Politics, obviously are not centered on goodness, decency, fair play and certainly not moral formation. They're a blood sport. And until recently, that was not meant literally. Just this week, Nikki Haley had to request Secret Service protection due to all of the death threats and SWATting incidents directed at her. After an absurd "no" Senate vote over the immigration bill, Senator Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said that an unnamed but “popular” right-wing media figure threatened him for working on the bill. He said that the pundit said they’d “destroy” him if he tried to pass the bill before this year’s election. Trump moves in mysterious ways. Lankford will probably be needing protection pretty quickly, too, as the ragers take stock of what happened, and who needs to be "destroyed."
But hey, there's a Super Bowl game this weekend! Tay-Tay and Big Yeti will be there! No doubt the activists and haters and trolls will taunt and flame and maybe threaten them both. As the outspoken Democratic strategist James Carville observed about the trolls, “I think most of these people are sexually inadequate and they go for all this crazy stuff. And I don’t think — and there’s nothing strategic about something that stupid. It’s just real stupidity to believe something like that.”
Ms. Swift, (who is worth more than the Very Stable Genius himself,) and her main squeeze Mr. Kelce are thick-skinned and used to suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous (ly good) fortune. They'll be fine. They've made conscious choices to put themselves further out there than standard celebrity requires.
But it would be nice if the rest of us could feel carefree enough to walk with our friends, maybe hold hands or share a laugh or a beer, without being screamed at by some old codger dummy or a Karen.
*Please note: All humorous references to the controversy surrounding Bud Light are passe, now. The former president has issued a statement suggesting that Anheuser Busch is OK, and should no longer be on any conservative's shit list. Please go about your football game, fishing trip, or weekend get-together and enjoy Bud Lite (Light?) or any Busch product. “The Bud Light ad was a mistake of epic proportions, and for that a very big price was paid, but Anheuser-Busch is not a Woke company,” Trump wrote. “Anheuser-Busch is a Great American Brand that perhaps deserves a Second Chance? What do you think? Perhaps, instead, we should be going after those companies that are looking to DESTROY AMERICA!” Forgiveness is called for, so sayeth Lord Trump. This has nothing to do with the fact that there will be a $10,000 a ticket fundraiser thrown by a top Republican lobbyist for the company who is set to host a fundraiser for the former president. Carry on. Cheers.