It’s an age-old, chicken-and-egg discussion: Is it extant societal forces of exclusion, hatred and reaction that give rise to authoritarian politicians who in turn foment division, prejudice, and violence? Or does it work the other way around?
A global survey reveals compelling examples of both scenarios in action.
It’s hard to imagine the repressive religious fundamentalism and secular authoritarianism we see enforced today in many modern nations if there weren’t already some preexisting levels of support for it in pockets of the general public. A plebiscite in Moscow or Tehran would likely result in a rejection of the repressive dictatorships under which residents of those capitals are forced to live, but outside of the big Western-oriented cities, support for Putin and the Iranian mullahs remains strong in many places.
That said, the power of charismatic demagogues to manipulate and drive public opinion and behavior in destructive directions is also undeniable. The fascist dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini are the classic case studies, but similar examples abound throughout history.
Suffice it to say that whichever might be the original cause in each individual instance, there is almost always a very strong symbiotic relationship between political leaders and destructive, anti-social behavior in society at-large. See, for example, the virulent white supremacy and resistance to racial integration promoted by racist Americans and the elected leaders – George Wallace, Lester Maddox, North Carolina’s I. Beverly Lake, Sr. – who both surfed a wave and fanned the flames.
And, of course, the horror of America’s first attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021 serves as a lasting monument to the way Donald “very fine people on both sides” Trump perfected the practice of professing colorblind innocence while sending subtle but unmistakable signals to delusional extremist groups and individuals already predisposed to wreak havoc.
For another tragic present-day example of this phenomenon at work in the current news cycle, consider the violence that continues to be visited upon the American LGBTQ+ community.
The seemingly endless string of horrific mass shootings that continues to plague our nation is driven by a number of destructive forces.
Between widespread easy access to military-grade killing machines, the stresses and strains of an increasingly crowded and complex world, and the general lack of access to mental health services, it’s sometimes a wonder that the carnage isn’t even worse.
But there can be no doubt that there is another driving force behind the violence that deserves much more attention: political homophobia.
As the recent murders at the Club Q in Colorado Springs remind us, much of our nation’s worst violence continues to be spurred by ignorant and irrational homophobic hatred – hatred that’s often fed and encouraged by cynical politicians and their allies.
The good people at the Human Rights Campaign recently noted in a statement issued in response to the Colorado murders that the death toll from the nation’s epidemic of anti-LGBTQ+ violence continues to mount in tandem with the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation – including 344 anti-LGBTQ+ bills (25 of them that became law) that state-level lawmakers sponsored in 2022.
Meanwhile, on the ground, anti-equality politicians and allies like the “Proud Boys” continue to go so far as to target transgender schoolchildren and their families and even to harass and invade private events like drag queen shows.
And to think that this kind of lawmaking and activism doesn’t inspire and help give rise to violent acts by like-minded individuals is as preposterous as thinking that the murders of Emmett Till, or of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, or the fire bombings of countless Black churches during the Civil Rights era and in the decades since weren’t driven by the viruses of racism and white supremacy.
Simply put, there can be no doubt that these bills, laws, and statements (and the people who sponsor and vote for them) continue to lend aid, comfort, and inspiration to scores of disturbed would-be murderers across the country.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.
While no single act (or handful of acts) will force the evil genie of violent homophobia back under the rock from which it emerged, there are important steps that political leaders – particularly leaders of the political right – can take to save lives.
North Carolina’s U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis took an encouraging step in this direction recently by lending their support to federal marriage equality legislation and let’s hope it’s just the first of many such acts.
Who knows? With a little effort, courage, and collaboration with other caring and thinking people, perhaps they and other conservative leaders might even help spur a counter movement or, at the very least, shame dangerous blowhards like Robinson and his ilk into putting a sock in it.
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