The Problem with Viewing Trump Like “the Drunk Uncle” in Need of a Family Intervention
When Tribalism Creates Default Denial, Defensiveness and Blind Spots
There is much outright denial (with no openness among many conservatives to even consider there may be some truth involved) about how Russian influence helped Trump rise to the presidency through manipulating media messages. Related to this is an emerging tendency among many white “liberals” to regard Trump like the “drunk uncle” in the family who’s merely an annoyance or embarrassment. Many feel more comfortable blaming Democrats for issues that tainted the recent presidential election than they do with considering that domestic threats created by white men (like Trump and white nationalists who are compromising national security and stability, in different ways) are real culprits in dismantling aspects of American Democracy. It’s similar to how they refuse to view the alcoholic uncle as a predator of adults or potential molester (psychologically and materially) of children, despite warning signs. When Nancy Pelosi recently suggested that Trump should be subjected to an “intervention by his staff and family,” it occurred to me how readily whiteness leads to seeking plausible, alternative or innocent explanations for the severely harmful actions of people who look like them. It shows how easily tribalism and the ideology supporting white supremacy, creates denial, defensiveness and major blind spots. Blame it, in part, on white fragility.
In her book White Fragility, sociologist Robin DiAngelo, PhD, argues that “most white people consider a challenge to our racial world views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people.” In her article, Why are White People So Bad at Talking about Race?, Courtney Martin verifies this is applicable to herself and most white people she knows. Yet, black and brown people often witness how fragility often results in white people not facing harsh realities about their own tribe. Even though many are quick to believe and repeat the worst stereotypes about people of color. Even when observers point out the wrongdoing by white people that is clearly in plain sight. Perhaps denial is a way many handle that which they don’t fully comprehend, or it offers a protective mechanism. As Isaac Newton said: “A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true, for if the things be false, the apprehension of them is not understanding.”
Yet, if we want to understand white supremacy’s role in maintaining a stagnant nation on the brink of collapse due to the impact of race in America, we need to acknowledge our past — particularly the painful parts like those described in Five Truths About Black History, an article by Jeffery Robinson, ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality. The whitewashing of history despite evidence-based facts, is a major reason so many whites seem unable to come to terms with the reality that they are not inherently superior due to skin color. Their white privilege is unearned and a result of white domination through violence rather than being somehow “better than” — more special, intelligent, ethical or moral — everyone else. Demonstrating fragility in an attempt to imply reinforce a notion of his tribe’s superiority, this white male college student berates a group of mostly black peers by yelling things like ‘white people are the best thing that ever happened to the world.’
Both white fragility and privilege are enforced by whites not holding themselves and each other accountable in many areas. The denial of their own racial wrongdoing — individually and collectively — helps white people detach from the reality that extremely narcissistic people exist within their own tribe and need to be held responsible for their actions rather than always excused. The fact that some will victimize them in efforts to preserve their own image and self-serving agendas is made clear in many ways. The fact that Trump recently tweeted a doctored video to suggest that Nancy Pelosi was drunk or mentally unhinged, was treated by many as a joke. In an attempt to take focus off of his own unstable responses, he had a follow-up press conference where staff informed the media that Trump is reasonable, sane and calm, despite ongoing evidence to the contrary. Two recent disturbing headlines reveal much: The one from MSN.com, “Trump Sparks Outrage By Posting Edited Video of Stammering Pelosi: ‘Shocking’,” in which he was condemned on Twitter, yet kept the tweet pinned to the top of his profile, and one from the Washington Post: “Trump, not understanding treason, names people he thinks committed the capital crime.”
It becomes clear Trump will violate the boundaries of anyone, even putting some people at risk for harm without reflection. These go beyond “drunk uncle intervention” territory, as Trump reveals a vicious attempt to discredit Pelosi. Call lying on someone and slandering them without good cause, what it is. He showed willingness to make up stuff by implying Pelosi is mentally unfit. White people who think they are immune to Trump’s interpersonal terrorism by “playing nice,” refuse to name the malevolence (malice, spitefulness, hatred, hostility, ill will) when they treat Trump as problematic but otherwise harmless and well-intentioned. Trump is not comparable to the uncle who drinks a lot, then falls asleep. He spends much time exploring options to exact revenge on a range of people, even when they are simply doing their job. He takes everything personally and justifies vile and often unwarranted responses. The negative influence of systemic, patriarchal white supremacy is on full display from a man who feels untouchable. This gets reinforced by those attempting to find humor in these actions, akin to the uneasiness and unwillingness of families to confront the wayward uncle.
I daresay that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is complicit in reinforcing this status quo. Similar to how white women who keep voting against their best interests, in refusing to clearly address the dysfunction and confront major wrongs of white men in authority, whether in political roles or within many families. Even if the drunk uncle attacks them or might end up burning the entire house down with them in it, a failure to see how they support patriarchal white supremacy results in lack of accountability due to enabling behaviors. While she was quick to condemn comments from a few Democratic women of color elected to Congress, Pelosi has been slow to decisively move toward reining Trump in as an elected official. Speaking hours after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s statement today on the Trump-Russia investigation, Pelosi still showed resistance about the House beginning impeachment proceedings against Trump although she did say in an earlier statement that: ‘Special Counsel Mueller made clear that he did not exonerate the President.’
That Trump’s staff and family are mostly enablers who will not regularly challenge Trump makes clear they benefit (financially and otherwise) from association with the “alcoholic uncle.” It’s highly unlikely they will confront his inappropriate and unethical behaviors. They realize they cannot change Trump’s default patterns of habitual lying, creating chaos and disparaging others to distract and misplace blame so he can look good despite being a con, and obviously incompetent in a major leadership position. I agree with what Carolyn Clock Allen (an anti-racism activist and white woman) said: “Trump’s ENTIRE reason to be President was to increase his own, and his friend’s, wealth.”
We already know that many incompetent, rich and white people are more likely to get ahead than smart people of color and women with far less money or access to positions of major influence. Studies show that overconfident people from upper-class backgrounds often succeed even if they’re not particularly that clever, a dynamic that Quentin Fottrell writes about in his May 29, 2019 article. It serves as a crucial reminder that systemic change will remain difficult if we continue judging a book by its cover, by assuming we can know someone’s real intelligence and content of character based on shallow and surface factors alone. Although we all are affected by tribalism and programmed early by media to come to false conclusions about diverse people based on surface factors, life experiences and observing things more closely should lead to questioning our assumptions. We need to keep challenging so many things taken for granted, since by default the existing status quo gets reinforced based on race and gender allowing white men to be presumed capable of leadership more than other demographic groups.
Distorted views about racism were captured well by Scott Wood, who wrote: “The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another, and so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
Tribalism becomes a distorted frame of reference when people refuse to consider that someone who looks like them can be a danger to them too, and not just “those other people.” Yet, Trump’s Republican cult supporting him no matter the bad things he does (and the “extended white family” that laughs off and otherwise seeks to minimize his extensively dysfunctional impact) continually believes they will be spared from injury if the car crashes with drunk uncle driving. They refuse to believe they can become targets of wrath (despite Trump’s real and ongoing attacks on mainstream media) or face other negative outcomes. His manipulative words and extreme actions on the public stage show a willingness to encourage violence against those who disagree with him, and the possibility of sacrificing anyone for his own benefit. That includes other white people. Despite expressing concern for people of color feelings, not allowing the sense of mounting trepidation to fully register is a way for white people to prevent facing their own, very real fears. Yet, we are here and face choices whether to repeat history or seek a new path.