“…it rises up before raining down.”
Let us consider once again the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in, not only politically but culturally. What does this say about our society, both nationally and locally? What kind of social and political order do we live in? And what kind of mindset, what kind of values does it represent? We’ll begin with the national level in how it dominates the public mind. As we move toward yet another uninspiring election, we are offered the same old lesser evilism that has ruled our society for so long. Yet one can’t doubt that there is a certain appeal to the lesser evil when faced with the possibility of President Donald Trump being reelected and so leaving the American public to deal with another four years of his mental illness, some combination of psycopathy, narcissism, and dementia. Claims of a lesser evil sounds more reasonable and persuasive than ever before.
Then again, Joe Biden is a corporate whore with his own bigoted and creepy tendencies and what appears to be a far worse case of brain deterioration (Biden’s Corruption and Dementia) — Govert Schuller stated it well: “Joe Biden is so cognitively challenged that he can’t answer a question about whether he’s cognitively challenged without sounding profoundly cognitively challenged” (comment in response to interview). Not only is it a choice between two evils but two pathetic and depressing evils (Pick Your Poison). The absurdity of it causes one to laugh and then to immediately follow that up with a long sigh. Both men are so old and senile that it’s unclear that either could maintain even modest mental balance and political competence for the next four years. This means the actual election is between the two candidates competing to be vice president. It’s the vice president who will likely become the next president, eventually.
Be it presidents or vice presidents, one does not sense much excitement in the air about this election. Both parties seem halfhearted at best in their support for their respective candidates. It’s not clear that either side really wants to win all that much because maybe even to win would be to lose, to an even worse degree than last time. Besides the inferior quality of these two senile senior citizens, consider the immense problems of a dangerously declining empire that the next president or rather next vice president will inherit. One might add that it’s SNAFU, situation normal all fucked up, that is to say we’ve been in this societal tailspin for a long time… and it doesn’t look like there is going to be a Captain Sully to land us safely.
It’s not as if President Trump can be blamed for most of it. It was a mess when he came into the office. Sure, he has made absolutely everything worse and made America the laughingstock of the world, but it was going to get worse no matter what. That is because the ruling elite won’t allow anyone into power who could and would do anything to fundamentally lessen the dysfunction, much less implement positive change. Everything is working perfectly according to design and intention of those in power. We are living in a neoliberal utopia, the supposed best of all possible worlds — to use another acronym, TINA: “There is no alternative,” as Margaret Thatcher infamously put it. The likes of Trump and Biden are products of this neoliberal dominance. They are creatures of the swamp and their brains have become rather swampy at this point.
Still, one has to admit that, of the two, Trump is a special kind of crazy stupid. His degree of cognitive functioning, social behavior, and moral development is what one would expect of a below average elementary school child. He was born into immense wealth and basically has had a personal staff of nannies and butlers, assistants and attendants to babysit him since childhood. They take care of all his needs, solve his problems, protect him, eliminate or silence those who threaten him, and probably even dress him and wipe his butt or even jerk him off. The guy is at the special needs level of incompetence. If he were poor, he most likely would be dead, homeless, imprisoned, or otherwise institutionalized. Being filthy rich is the only thing that saves him from a horrible fate. He can cheat business partners, refuse to pay workers, lose money, go bankrupt, and have endless business failures… and yet his handlers ensure he always more money to play with.
The last election, of course, was a bit different. Whatever one thinks about Hillary Clinton, at the very least it has to be admitted that she is not senile nor is she an old white man, although an old white woman of the plutocracy is not necessarily better. Besides, she is not the sharpest crayon in the box, but she is a standard professional politician who still has a functioning brain. So, you have to give her credit for that much, not that it’s exactly a great accomplishment. If elected, she would’ve been guaranteed to have gotten the job done as president in the fashion expected of any other Clinton Democrat, but on the downside the job she would have gotten done was to further corporatocratic hegemony. It’s not exactly certain that would be a net gain for the country. Trump’s incompetent failure is, in a sense, an advantage since the damage he can do is limited, particularly as he motivates his opposition to organize and protest.
Criticism of Clinton Democrats aside, one has to question the moral and intellectual quality of those who supported Trump, voted for him, helped get him into power, and then cheered him on — and probably will vote for him a second time. Such people must be almost as mentally deranged as Trump himself. Let us consider a specific example, which brings us to the local level. The nearby town of West Branch has become a bedroom community of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, but it maintains many of the original families that have lived there for generations, including the so-called ‘Old Dinosaurs’ who ruled its government until quite recently. It’s the childhood hometown of President Herbert Hoover who was a decent man, if incompetent in his own way according to some. Though long past its heyday as a bustling railroad stop, West Branch still has the feeling of a pleasant rural community surrounded by bucolic farmland.
So, how do the residents vote? “Cedar County,” in which is located West Branch, “was once Republican turf, but the county voted for President Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Countywide nowadays, there is an equal mix of Republicans and Democrats holding office” (Jeff Zeleny, Iowa County Has Unique Result: A Tie). That was from 2000, but 12 years on Republicans regained their hold to a degree, at least locally. “Voters in Cedar County tend to be moderately conservative. The county generally votes for Republicans in local elections, but statewide races, and the presidential, are tossups” (Grace Wyler, These Eight Counties Will Decide The Presidential Election). It’s not a hardcore partisan population, but it appears to be slightly more conservative than Iowa in general. Although more often going to Democratic presidential candidates in recent years, Iowa was won by Trump with a decent margin of slightly less than a 10% lead. His margin of victory, however, was much larger in Cedar County at more than 18% (Politico, 2016 Iowa Presidential Election Results).
For most Iowans, the situation was probably more about Hillary Clinton having lost the election than Donald Trump having won, but in Cedar County it was a solid victory for Trump’s vision and rhetoric, Make America Great Again. What would cause this population to be so friendly to Trump’s bloviating and bad behavior? Iowans tend to favor more moderate politics, whereas Trump is the complete opposite of the stereotype of Iowa Nice. “The obvious explanation is that relative to the country, Iowa has a higher proportion of white residents without a college degree (Trump’s base). The same factors may explain why Iowa’s best bellwether county lost that status in 2016” (Bleeding Heartland blog, Iowa’s no bellwether anymore–and neither is Cedar County). This can be seen in the demographic details, as further described in that article:
“This year, Cedar County voters backed Trump over Clinton by 55.5 percent to 37.7 percent. That’s a larger victory for Trump than one would expect based on the latest voter registration numbers for the parties. On the other hand, non-Hispanic whites make up 96.0 percent of Cedar County’s population, compared to 86.7 percent of all Iowans, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. Approximately 20.8 percent of Cedar County adults at least 25 years old have a bachelor’s degree or higher. For Iowa, the corresponding figure is 26.4 percent. Clinton’s vote share was higher among college-educated voters.Cedar County also has a slightly larger proportion of residents over age 65 than Iowa does, which probably worked in Trump’s favor.”
Mentioned above was the Old Dinosaurs, as they are known in West Branch. They are the aging white guys from the established families that have been there, in many cases, since the 1800s. They are the ruling patriarchy and for decades became a force of reactionary politics, in fighting against any and all progress, improvement, and outside influence. For example, they refused federal funding to fix sidewalks because there was a stipulation that made it impossible to direct that money to local business owners. They preferred to have decaying infrastructure than to pay a non-local company to fix it. The federal funds were lost and the broken sidewalks remained a public hazard, though some of them have been fixed since.
As an insular community, cronyism was how these guys were used to doing business and ensuring this cronyism was more important than all else. Basic public good like infrastructure maintenance didn’t inspire them. Yet they always could find money to buy expensive fire trucks and to build a new fire station (Old Forms of Power), a point of pride in having a shiny new truck for parades. This is because the volunteer fireman association is filled with members from the old families and one of the Old Dinosaurs, Dick Stoolman, held the paid position of fire chief. As an illegal demand in seeking retirement, he stated in reference to his son that, “I wouldn’t give it up unless he got it” (Gregory R. Norfleet, 40-year chief Stoolman stepping down July 1). Indeed, as goes the incestuous politics of a small town, his son did inherit the job. The new fire station has been used as a country club for this multi-generational local ruling elite, where they go to socialize and clean their personal vehicles, a situation that became a minor scandal. These aren’t people who put much stock in functioning democracy, especially as outsiders grew in their midst with liberal Iowa City a short drive away.
This xenophobia toward perceived outsiders is apparently not a new phenomenon. As I wrote elsewhere, “A longtime friend of mine grew up there for much of her early life and she recalls the racism that was common there. Loewen briefly discusses Cedar County in his discussion of presidential hometowns (as Hoover lived in West Branch as a child). West Branch did and does have a large Quaker presence and the Quakers sought to help blacks after the Civil War. According to the census data, there were 37 black residents of Cedar County in 1890, but only 2 in 1930” (Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness). That disappearance of blacks is typical of sundown towns, although in this case it is unknown what happened. For whatever reasons, most of the black population suddenly decided it was best not to remain there, likely because of some violent action or threat, such as a mob or a burning cross.
The census data certainly fits the profile of a sundown town, according to similar examples across the Midwest. At a later date, I talked to that same friend about the case of the disappearing blacks. “I told her that Loewen had no evidence of West Branch being a sundown town, even though it used to have something like 5 black families. She told me that it probably wasn’t an accident that the blacks left. She had many negative experiences in that town. People weren’t accepting of those who were different. Back then, there was two minority families with children, one black and the other Asian. She says they were treated badly and both families left. That is one way to get rid of minorities. You don’t need a sundown sign, threatening cops, mob violence, arson, or anything so crude. You just have to make people’s lives difficult and unhappy, bully their children and ostracize them” (comment at Spirit of ’76).
This friend personally experienced the bullying and abuse, as her family was relatively new to West Branch. She did grow up there as a child, but her parents had not. Although she is white, she was considered an outsider and so worthy of being targeted. The other kids in town could be cruel, of course. The thing is that the kids were often following the lead of respected authority figures, one man in particular. She was living there in the early to mid-80s. It was in 1983 that James “Butch” Pedersen — born and raised in West Branch as a son of one of the old farm families — was hired as the replacement for the position of head football coach and he quickly gained a reputation for winning games. Some of his former players have gone on to play in college and professional football or else now work as coaches themselves. There is no doubt that he is a great coach. Obviously, he has inspired and continues to inspire many people.
He has become well known and widely respected far beyond that dinky town, such as having been “recognized for his lifetime commitment to coaching when he was named 2017 National Football Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association” (A Coaching Legend: Iowa’s Butch Pedersen). At the University of Iowa in nearby Iowa City, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz offered praise: “Butch has done such a great job. Our state is, in my mind, really rich in coaches like that. They’re doing it because they really love kids and they love coaching. They’re not doing it because they’re trying to be whatever. But all those guys, in my mind, are legends, and Butch is certainly in that category. Those guys are rare people” (Dargan Southard, On cusp of 300 wins, West Branch’s ‘family atmosphere’ driving force behind Butch Pedersen’s success). Why would a Big 10 coach even know a high school coach from a small town? It turns out the influence is personal —- Ferentz explains that, “Butch was one of my grade school teachers, junior high track coach and HS football coach and one of the bigger influences on my life” (Hawkeye Nation, tweet).
For decades, he has made many residents proud of their town and so that has made him untouchable, above reproach. He began his West Branch career as a coach and teacher in 1975 when he was only 25 years old, and he was focused in this direction prior to that: “When he finished his degree, he already was a volunteer assistant coach at West Branch” (Ryan Suchomel, Butch Pedersen always wanted to be a football coach). As such, besides coaching football and along with helping coach basketball, he also worked as a teacher in the local schools and so came in contact with students who weren’t athletes. His career began in that town and has continued there ever since. That is a 45 year stretch spent entirely in his hometown. It was in this latter capacity as a teacher that my friend was exposed to what she experienced as a sadistic streak. She was in early elementary school at the time where she was placed in one of his classes.
Let’s consider some background, so as to give a sense of this individual’s character. Butch, as he is known in West Branch, is an old school manly man. “Football is a tough sport that is played by tough people,” he said in explaining his football philosophy (Bears Football, Butch Pedersen). “Not everyone is tough enough to play it.” In describing a former player of his went onto college football, he said that, even though he was forced to play in positions he didn’t prefer, “he never bawled about it” (Marc Morehouse, No crying in linebacking – Bo Bower’s return). That is because real men don’t cry. They just take it, suck it up, and do what they’re told. Being a hard-ass coach is part of his reputation and he has expected his players to meet his high standards. He does not like weakness and the other side of his reputation, according to some, is that he is known for attacking the weak — that is to say those who can’t fight back.
My friend remembers how Coach Butch would pick out the kids who had few friends, specifically those who weren’t members of one of the old families of intermarried solidarity. As a lifelong resident of West Branch, he knew who to victimize and who to leave alone. This often meant his going after poor kids or anyone else considered an outsider to the community. She was such a kid and so she often got the brunt of his abuse. He had a variety of methods, two of which stood out in her memory. One of the worst things he’d do was to mock and shame his favorite victims. He’d do so in front of the whole class and encourage the other students to join in on the bullying. For example, he would line up all the kids around the edge of the classroom and then make the victim run the gauntlet as the other kids threw stuff at them. She only experienced this on occasion, she recalled, whereas some even less fortunate classmates of hers were tormented in this manner on a weekly basis. Another aspect of this was that he’d make up cruel names for these particular kids and use the names in the classroom. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the kids would copy his behavior in using these demeaning nicknames.
In one incident, my friend had the entire lunchroom full of kids chanting the name of abuse he had given her. Coach Butch along with other adults stood by as it happened and they did nothing (although on a happy and inspiring note, as her childhood self passed by him, she sought to exact revenge by having punched him in the balls). That is the thing, his abusive behavior was known by the other school staff and people in town. Maybe it was expected. Coaches were supposed to be tough and toughening kids up was considered a good thing back then, especially in a conservative small town in farm country. His harsh ‘disciplinarian’ approach seems to have been an open secret, but I guess no one talked much about it, as it was normalized as part of the local culture. The art teacher who happened to be a lesbian tried to protect my friend, but this lady was also new to the town and may have found herself targeted as well, considering she didn’t last long before she was fired. * The school counselor also tried to offer protection and my friend had the sense that she may have tried to intervene at one point but, if she did, she was forced to back down. Coach Butch was golden and so he got a free pass. No one would be allowed to challenge his authority or smear his reputation, as he had friends in high places. He was part of the old boys network, what would later become known as the Old Dinosaurs.
This is relevant to Trump for obvious reasons, considering Trump is also a bully and an abuser. What does this say about our society? Here is another thing to consider. West Branch is a conservative town and yet there are Democrats who live there. My friends’ parents are Clinton Democrats and, in fact, her mother worked at the local school with Coach Butch. Her mother knew what was happening and she was friends with the art teacher who tried to help, but her mother never did anything to challenge the coach or stop the abuse. Her mother couldn’t find the moral courage to face the reality of her child being traumatized partly because she was married to an abusive man. She had learned to rationalize abuse by focusing on the positive, as my friend told it to me, based on a faith in humanity that placed hope in the potential for people changing for the better, apparently even when the bad actors in question showed no remorse. This is how even good liberals with good intentions can become complicit in authoritarian and patriarchal systems.
Many years later when my friend was an adult, her mother who was still working as a teacher at the time insisted that Coach Butch had changed and she’d create situations where my friend would have to interact with this guy who was her childhood tormentor. It could be interpreted as a form of gaslighting, in that my friend wanted to trust her mother and believe what she was told, that he really was a different person now. However, it seems that this was all bullshit, a rationalization her mother had invented to make herself feel better in knowing she had betrayed her daughter’s trust in allowing so much harm to have been done when she was younger. My friend still struggles with that childhood trauma. The sad part is that, going by such accounts, it sounds like she was just one among many kids who were hurt by Coach Butch and almost a half century later he is still coach in West Branch, he is still treated like a local hero.
I know another family with children presently living in West Branch. The daughter attends high school where Coach Butch is currently employed. This young girl was talking about him and I suddenly remembered my friend’s experience from the 1980s. I told this high schooler about my friend’s sad childhood in West Branch and she said nothing has changed. This guy still has a reputation as abusive and is still targeting weak loners who can’t fight back. Later on when I told my friend about this, it hit her hard because of her mother having lied to her. To think of how many generations of kids have been hurt by this one guy. She speculated that the psychiatric costs incurred from his sadism probably amounts at least to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then after some thought, she expressed surprise that none of his victims have yet committed suicide or become school shooters, although maybe some of them have had sad endings without anyone connecting it to the original cause of trauma. She made me promise to warn this other family about how dangerous is Coach Butch, in her opinion, as their youngest child fits the description of his preferred targets (she knows this family). And she said if a legal case ever comes up, she would gladly testify.
As another example of Coach Butch’s less than optimal behavior, the high schooler said that if one of his players quits the team he will emotionally cut them off and treat them like they no longer exist. A child’s value in his eyes, one might suspect, is largely about whether they can help him win another championship or otherwise boost his social identity as coach, or else maybe if that child is a member of one of the old families, part of his community as ‘us’ and so not an outsider. It is his hard-nosed approach that has won him not only so many victories but, more importantly, so much support and praise among those who share this identity of ‘us’. He apparently knows what he can get away with and so rarely steps across the line. A rare case happened last year, according to the aforementioned student, when he was kicked out of a game for shoving one of the high school players. That didn’t tarnish his reputation in the slightest and he is still beloved or so the local media reports — the question being about the news stories not published, the statements left unquoted, the allegations never allowed to be heard, the investigations that never saw the light of day.
It’s not that he has necessarily ever done anything illegal. Even his worse abusive behavior my friend describes from the 1980s may have been considered perfectly allowable by the standards of the time or even commendable by the other respected authority figures in town. The police might have known about it without any concern. That was simply the rough nature of a rural community, as many of the older generation like Butch grew up with a hard life on farms. It’s only been in recent years that most schools have concerned themselves with curtailing abuse and bullying, whether from children or adults. The kinds of behavior teachers and coaches used to get away with in many places is amazing by today’s standards (for a truly extreme example, watch the Netflix documentary The Keepers). That is to say Coach Butch wasn’t unusual, even if his ‘tough love’ was a bit more harsh than average.
It’s not to pick on this one guy as evil incarnate or even particularly horrific, in the big scheme of things. No bad intentions are required since bad actors can remain unconscious of the bad consequences of their actions. The most depressing part and the key point being made here is how normal this is in our society, specifically among the older generations — since as a typical product a post-war 1950s childhood in rural America, Butch embraced the identity of hyper-masculinity and patriarchy. The purpose of this post is not to bring him down low by shitting on the happy memories of many who have known this truly great coach, but it is to remind people that not everyone’s memories were happy. It’s not that the unhappy are more worthy of being heard than the happy, that we should only listen to the critics and naysayers. Still, maybe they should be given an opportunity to be heard, at the very least. What stands out is that the local media has completely shut out anyone who has a different opinion or else they’ve certainly not sought them out, as if they don’t exist and as if what they experienced never happened — the silence is deafening.
This exclusion is salt on the wound of trauma. According to these accounts, it has been those who are isolated who get targeted and, indeed, the feeling of being isolated is very much real. To have the other students mimic this bad behavior modeled by them, to have other authority figures condone it by default of ignoring it, and then on top of that to have the local media constantly praise this man who did so much harm to you and so much harm to others you’ve witnessed — all of that would make one feel all the more isolated. It would feel further traumatizing and, as mentioned before, it would have the effect of gaslighting in a collective denial of what you know is real in your experience. When insanity becomes the social norm that is enforced, those who fall outside the demands of conformity can come to the false belief that they are the crazy ones.
It could cause someone to doubt their own experience, their own sense of reality… and that is the most damaging result of all. Once you no longer trust yourself and the world around you, that can lead to blaming yourself for what happened and so to think you are at fault, that you are the problem, that there is something wrong with you. In a highly conformist society, this is how dysfunctional authoritarianism takes over, as everyone fears becoming one of the excluded and targeted. The targeted victims are not only scapegoats but are used to set an example. Others quickly learn to not be like those victims and so they all the more make sure to do what they are told and do what is expected. Fear is a motivating force and for good reason, but when part of a dysfunctional culture it becomes highly destructive to the human soul.
If we want to judge a society, look to the least among us. Look to the poor, the weak, the sick, the lonely. See how society treats those people and then you’ll know the moral quality of the culture, community, and leadership. Don’t attack the victims of oppression for speaking out, for protesting, and for defending themselves. In an oppressive society where the Dark Tetrad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism) holds sway, it takes amazing courage to challenge the powerful and their defenders who will close ranks. The reaction of power to the powerless can get brutal and it often doesn’t end well because few want to hear. But that is all the more reason we should also have the moral courage to listen to those voices that make us uncomfortable, that tell us things we’d rather not know. Look to the outsiders, the minorities, and the downtrodden — take seriously their suffering.
Let’s get straight to the point. What kind of values does Butch Pedersen represent? Someone doesn’t gain that much power, authority, and respect by not embodying something important within a community. In one article, he is described as “continually molding and shaping a family atmosphere full of people eager to help in any way possible” (Dargan Southard, On cusp of 300 wins, West Branch’s ‘family atmosphere’ driving force behind Butch Pedersen’s success). “No matter the role,” this journalist of a local newspaper concludes, “those who’ve been part of Pedersen’s run have a unified message: The dean of West Branch football has made their lives better.” Sounds great! Kevin Braddock, a former player now on Butch’s staff, is quoted as saying, “You’re talking hundreds of kids, thousands of kids that he’s impacted.” The question is what exactly has been the impact not only on certain individuals who found his favor as a coach but the greater impact on the atmosphere created in that community, the culture of silence and silencing as Derrick Jensen would describe it. Not everyone’s lives were made better and the consequences extend beyond a few victims as lone voices.
“Butch can be kind of scary, especially when you’re a freshman or sophomore,” adds John Hierseman, another former player and present staffer. His victims would likely agree with that assessment, if in a way not intended. The coach himself is not shy about admitting to his behavior, as he takes it as a point of pride. “Sometimes in today’s society, people are afraid of discipline and tough love. I’m not afraid to do that,” he said. “Some people think we’re too tough. I don’t think that all. I think a lot of other people are too soft. And I think that’s society in general.” Well, my friend would be among those who thinks he is “too tough” and that would be an understatement. “Football,” as Coach Butch said, “is a tough sport that is played by tough people.” But apparently this applies to life in general. Kids needed to be toughened up. If some of them can’t take it and are broken and scarred instead, he can’t be blamed for their inferiority and weakness, at least according to his own view apparently shared by others who support and defend him.
He goes on to say that, “You can’t always be the nice guy. Sometimes, you have to get a little tough with them. And in the long run, they’re going to come back and say thank you. I can’t tell you the number of kids who’ve gone on to the military and said basic training is really similar to some of our camps at the beginning of the year. You break them down mentally, but you always love them to death. Then you bring them back strong.” If a fraction of the observations and criticisms heard about him are true, one suspects that more than a few who have experienced his tough love have not always been made better by the experience. How many have been harmed? Will we ever know? Will they ever be heard?
Southard quotes the coach one last time — “It’s not me. It’s all of us together.” — and says, “That’s just how West Branch rolls.” Maybe so and that might not be such a good thing. He talks a lot about ‘we’ and ‘us’, and he obviously loves his community as his community loves him, though not all of his community. He comes across as the real deal, a true community leader as once was far more common. As he told it, “I wanted this to be a community tradition. I wanted to have as many people involved in the football program as possible. If you go to the homecoming ceremony, and they ask all the people involved in the football program to come down on the field, there’s no one left in the bleachers” (Ryan Suchomel, Butch Pedersen always wanted to be a football coach). Yet the “all of us together” might be far more exclusionary as is all too often found in small town life. The shadow side of ‘us’ is ‘them’, those who are othered.
That is how Donald Trump came to power. He has attacked the weak and targeted perceived outsiders as scapegoats, like he did in ridiculing a reporter with a disability at one of his rallies. And similar to Coach Butch, Trump has a talent for coming up with names to mock people, as he did with Biden in calling him ‘Sleepy Joe’. With all of this in mind, it is maybe expected that someone of Trump’s character would also be so popular in Cedar County (to be fair, a significant minority did not vote for him; it would be interesting and probably telling to find out if those who voted for Trump correlate to those who most strongly support Coach Butch). That patriarchal abusiveness may simply be part of the social fabric. The moral degradation of our society has been going on for a long time. Those like Coach Butch and President Trump don’t come out of nowhere. And there is a reason they are revered by many, a reason they are able to gain power and get away with behavior that one can easily argue is reprehensible and inexcusable. From small towns in the Heartland to Washington D.C., it’s part of the victimization culture that so darkens our society, that corrupts the American soul.
The deeper problem is this. Where are the numerous victims in our society going to turn to in the hope of fighting back against powerful and respected victimizers? As with the bullied and abused students in many American communities and minorities in the oppressive racial order, as with the perceived outsiders and members of the permanent underclass, those harmed rarely feel confident in turning to authority figures for help, as the system of authority defends and rationalizes away the problem. That is what has motivated recent years of moral outrage and civic unrest — from the Me Too movement to the Black Lives Matter protests. For certain, none of the ruling elite of either major political party is a friend to the oppressed and disenfranchised. Lesser evil voting ends up feeling light on the ‘lesser’ and heavy on the ‘evil’. Here is the rub. Why do so many tolerate people like Butch and Trump? What do they hope to gain?
It’s simple. These social dominators know how to play the game of success and their old white male status gives them immense privilege, albeit often oblivious and belligerent privilege. Such people grasp, consciously or not, the power of the role they inhabit and they wield that power to great effect. In return, they offer their supporters and co-conspirators the opportunity to be on the winning side, to be part of ‘us’ — and the rhetorical narrative can sometimes be quite inspiring, especially when the ‘us’ symbolizes your own community, your own people. If you are one of Coach Butch’s favorites or when President Trump directs his schmoozing toward you, I’m sure to be the recipient of such glowing paternalism can feel like being on top of the world. That is what Coach Butch gave West Branch, a town otherwise in decline from its former glory as a bustling economic center. He gave them a sense of being winners again, specifically during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. President Trump has attempted to do the same thing on a grander scale, to take a declining America and promise to make it great again, a post-Reagan revival declaring that it’s Morning in America.
On the other side, the moral cost of this deal with the Devil is immense. But once the deal has been made, it’s near impossible to renegotiate and remedy. Hidden behind the sense of shared pride is an ever looming shadow of collective shame. It takes much effort and constant vigilance to keep such dark secrets forever a secret, even when they’re open secrets, to hide what is really going on and what it means for a community and for society. Complicity in a culture of victimization creates a culture of silence. We can point out President Trump’s buffoonery, but what is much harder is to admit that his behavior has long been normalized, if often in less obvious ways. This authoritarian streak in American culture goes back centuries. And it will continue until we face this moral failure. Until then, victimizers will continue to rise into power and the rest of us will go on enabling them.
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* About ‘us’ vs ‘them’, one wonders about what happened to that lesbian art teacher who was fired. Small towns are known for being harsh, to say the least, toward those who are different, especially when it comes to sexuality and gender. To demonstrate this, the West Branch Times newspaper published an article by Gregory R. Norfleet, Soapbox Philosophy: A desire within, and a choice, to which one commenter responded: “I love how his column mixes worship of a high school football coach with a fear of homosexuals. It’s just so small-town Iowa” (from Another letter to the West Branch Times at the DailyDisgust blog).