The United States of Schadenfreude

The greatest clue for me to understand the phenomenon of Donald Trump begins in the city of my birth, New Orleans, during the decades of the 50s and 60’s. At that time New Orleans, one of the nation’s most provincial cities, had been inhabited primarily by a comfortable white middle class. Making $10,000.00 annually put you in good stead, allowing you to have a home, car, and raise a family. The wealthy, ensconced in mansions along St. Charles Avenue and along the lake front were not regarded as elite, but simply scions of old money handed down from oil fortunes or shipping. An unspoken egality existed among the middle class and most were content. In 1956, The Supreme Court handed down Brown vs. Board of Education mandating school integration and, thus, the middle class felt the first blow to its homeostasis. White parents yanked their kids from public schools to put them in private schools that popped up throughout the city like strip clubs on Bourbon Street. As a third grader attending one of those private schools, the unspoken message among children came across clearly: whites deserved better than Negroes. In addition, resentment towards Blacks grew among whites for upending the city’s insulated public schools and, forcing families to the suburbs, where the resentment grew into “us vs. them.” Blacks became the target for blame for institutional failure as well as personal failure.

The cozy insulation of New Orleans’ culture and low cost of living provided little motivation for most high-school graduates to leave New Orleans. Many that stayed and received their college education at Loyola or University of New Orleans never escaped the barriers of New Orleans deep-seated racial attitudes. Those that left to go to other schools rarely came home, intrigued by new ways of thought, lifestyles, and cultures.

As a member of the latter, I lived in other cities, worked in foreign countries, gradually distancing myself from the parochial thinking of my New Orleans suburban neighborhoods. My education allowed me to earn a comfortable living, make culturally diverse friends and be open to alternative lifestyles.

To my many friends and relatives in New Orleans, I am a liberal elite. I eschew guns, am always on guard for the residue of racism ingrained within me at an early age, and fear for the climate and for our democracy. Most of all I represent change.

For many of my New Orleans peers, change is anathema; an encroaching threat to a way-of-life that came under siege with integration and the civil rights movement followed by laws and cultural changes that undermined the status quo in which they had a measure of control. Liberals and elites were the easiest to blame. The resentment grew along with the need to blame one’s effeteness on others. Until Trump, no one spoke up for the forgotten. Republicans and Democrats paid lip service to the dwindling middle class. And while Trump hasn’t exactly been the strategic and policy advocate they have been waiting for, he has given them permission to give the middle finger to many of the country’s liberally run institutions, media and “politically correct” establishment. And this has led to the unleashing of the “Right’s” worst impulses, leading to displays of civil disobedience by right-wing militia groups. This is different from the mostly peaceful protests against politics brutality towards black evinced by the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, this unrest is what feeds the beast. And in turn, Trump provides more red meat.

Intrusions into the parochial thinking of my conservative New Orleans peers are met with one-lined responses and labels of “socialist” or “tree hugger. When offered examples of socialism in the U.S. such as farm subsidies, social security, public beaches, Amtrak and so on, their eyes glaze over due to the cognitive dissonance.

At the root of these responses is the fear of being humiliated and a loss of dignity by someone who has felt abandoned by the American dream; some one who covertly believes this country’s best days are behind them. They see Trump as their champion. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times, “It has been obvious ever since Trump first ran for president that many of his core supporters actually hate the people who hate Trump, more than they care about Trump or any particular action he takes, no matter how awful…because many Trump supporters are not attracted to his policies. They’re attracted to his attitude — his willingness and evident delight in skewering the people they hate and who they feel look down on them.”

Trump has created a nation of schadenfreudes and the best way to eliminate that lack of empathy is for one to feel better about him or her self. But for now we have a president who’d rather model misery.

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