Fear And Loathing In Cape May County

Fear And Loathing In Cape May County

Trumpism has affected all areas of public life in America but nowhere has it felt more significant than right here in our remote seaside community at New Jersey’s Southern end.

By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, July 23, 2020

The rise of Donald J. Trump, and his subsequent takeover of the Republican Party, has had an indelible impact—some might call catastrophic—on many aspects of public life in America. In ways that are as alarming as they are surprising, virtually no segment of society has been untouched by Trump’s blind hatred for his predecessor, from healthcare and education, to the environment and criminal justice. His unprecedented willingness to use the office of the Presidency to settle personal scores and attack his critics, is matched only by his zeal for dismantling democracy by deregulating corporate greed and unleashing the forces of unbridled capitalism. 

Donald Trump is entirely consumed by jealously, rage, insecurity and his own naked avarice, but his insidious infection of America began long before he was even a serious contender for public office. It began with the arrival of the Tea Party movement, a direct response to the election of Barack Obama and a public demonstration of sheer rage against the Democratic Party for having had the audacity to elect a Black man to lead America.

The Republican Party did not invent Donald Trump but they actively aided and abetted the racism, long hiding just below the surface of America’s white power structure, in order to consolidate power and energize an apathetic electorate. The result was the unfortunate and unexpected election of a snake-oil huckster not even the Party was prepared for.

Wreck It Ralph entered the White House and began to remake in his own image, not only the office of the President, but the very party that had underestimated and ignored him until it was too late. 

Three and a half years later and Trump has dispatched the naysayers and never-Trumpers, removing anyone who attempts to control him, and putting into positions of power those willing to pledge their undying loyalty to him. In the meantime, he has cozied up to despots and authoritarians, crackpots and bigots. He has welcomed conspiracy theorists and white nationalists into the fold and told them with a wink and a nod, that he’s their boy.

But it wasn’t just Republicans that cashed in their principles in order to fully enable the rise of this buffoonish clown, the Conservative media complex fully embraced his insanity and gave them the cover needed to remake reality to fit their own fantastical delusions. They rarely balk at his inconsistencies, ignorance and outright lies, instead choosing to double down and support every crackpot theory and suggestion. 

They have created a cast of villains worthy of distain and fear, with which to distract from the train wreck of everything Trump touches, from the complete failure of his response to the pandemic and the resulting economic collapse, to his indisputable record of failed foreign policy objectives and trade wars. Nancy Pelosi. Chuck Schumer. Barack Obama. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Squad. China. Immigrants. Caravans. Mexicans. Antifa. Black Lives Matter. 

Each one is more dangerous, more fear-inducing, more anti-American, more threatening of your way of life, than the next. They are coming for you. What they’re going to do is not as clear, but you better be prepared and you’d better be armed. And like all other authoritarians before him, Trump claims that he is the only one who can stop them. He is the wall. If you lose him, you will be overrun. Forget policy discussions, or ideological differences, this is a war and it’s a matter of life and death. The Democrats are not mere political opponents, but mortal enemies. This is the framework of every authoritarian takeover in history. It’s what encouraged the Hutus to slaughter the Tutsis in Rwanda’s genocide. It’s entirely tribal in nature.

So we come to Cape May County (CMC), a quiet, rural pocket of South Jersey that is more country than metropolitan. Far enough away from any urban centers to not be considered cosmopolitan, yet largely influenced by seasonal residents that treat this seaside community as their summer home. Cape May County leans heavily Republican, voting for Donald Trump by 20 points, despite the state overall voting for Clinton by 14.

As goes the country, eventually so goes our own small community. As Trump has emboldened white nationalists, encouraged tribalism, fanned the flames of racism, and wrapped it all in the flag of patriotism, he has urged his followers to attack anyone that doesn’t agree with them.

This is how we end up with public officials in positions of power that regularly post highly partisan views on social media. We have seen public servants throughout Cape May County, people such as mayors, commissioners, chiefs of police, officers, health inspectors, clerks, administrators, educators, and other leaders in positions of authority, expressing politically charged and often discriminatory views towards those who have the temerity to hold a differing opinion. 

It’s true that everyone has a fundamental right to their opinion, and a Constitutional right to share that opinion without threat of retribution from the government, but what happens when the threat of retribution is coming from the government? What happens when the very people in power, those with the power to use state-sanctioned deadly force, control your economic opportunities, your access to education, or your ability to bring grievances against the state—what happens when they decide that you are, the enemy? How can they be expected to render a fair verdict in your case when you are no longer a citizen or a constituent, but one of them?

When public discourse and the role of government in society devolves into tribal warfare, it is no longer an argument of public policy, political ideology or philosophical differences. It becomes an issue of the tribe in power, disenfranchising, demeaning, and discrediting the opposition, in order to maintain power and control.

When the President of the United States says that those protesting police violence are criminals and terrorists, he gives power to the idea that dissension should not be tolerated. When Republican leaders defend the police at all cost, despite the extrajudicial killings of unarmed black civilians, they signal that Black lives are not as valuable as White ones. When Fox News tells its viewers that Black Lives Matter is an organization of hate, of anti-white and anti-police sentiment, they feed into the narrative that White America is somehow under attack and in need of protection. It is not too great a leap therefore, to see how this could lead to an escalation, from rhetoric to oppression, from ideology to violence. 

If your leaders are telling you that you are being attacked by an enemy that they can identify, that you must arm and defend yourselves before it’s too late, that it is your patriotic duty to defend the very values that define who you are, and do so from a boogeyman coming to get you, eventually you will believe that the threat is real, imminent and mortal, and you will act to defend yourself.

That is not an environment that is conducive to nurturing democracy, that allows for the free exchange of ideas, or ensures life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. That is a recipe for authoritarianism, vigilantism, violence and bigotry. It is a blueprint for fomenting hate.

Democrats and those who endorse liberal policies are in the minority in Cape May County. As a political faction, they hold very little real power in local government and are relegated to being in opposition to majority rule. But America was founded on the principle that the majority should never be allowed to place an undue burden on the minority; that a minority opinion might in fact hold real value and should be heard.

Donald Trump is now sending armed Federal troops into the city of Portland, and threatening to invade other Democratically-controlled cities as well. This is against the wishes of Governors and mayors, a concept that would have once been unthinkable by anyone who supported conservative theology and the fundamental belief that State’s rights should always preempt Federal overreach. 

But now conservative media voices such as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh are praising his willingness to quell the protests with force. With no basis in reality from reports on the ground, the voices of right-wing media are reporting that the entire city is under siege and that local authorities are incapable and/or unwilling to diffuse the situation. They are promoting the conflict as if it’s already a civil war; one being fought between the conservative establishment extolling the rule of law, and that of lawless anarchy. No one thinks lawless anarchy is a good idea, so any thinking person would have to be on the side of the rule of law, or so the argument goes. It’s just another false narrative that twists facts and presents a convenient storyline that fits with their world-view of quashing any and all dissension. The end always justifies the means. 

Photo: David Todd McCarty

Last weekend, leaders of Cape May County Indivisible, along with other progressive groups in the county, joined forces with independent activists from throughout Cape May County to protest the status quo and demand changes related to inequality, policing, use of force, criminal justice reform, voting rights and civilian review boards. They were not calling for the abolition of the police. They were not calling for violence or the destruction of property. They were not asking for anything other than the right to be treated fairly and equitably under the law, and to be afforded the same rights as other citizens, guaranteed by the Constitution.

They were not only met with resistance from members of the community, many of whom were not even permanent residents, but with something much more nefarious. The group that marched down the boardwalk and held a rally at the Wildwood sign, were subjected to taunts and jeers from hecklers and instigators. They expected that. But they have also begun to see evidence that they are now being targeted by those in positions of authority such as the police, mayors, health inspectors and school administrators, for having either marched, posted their support for the march, or defended the right to question how we fund law enforcement and whether or not you need to be armed and trained in military tactics in order to investigate a car accident or answer a medical call. 

If authorities are going to use their positions of power to retaliate against those whose opinions they disagree with, we are not longer living in a society ruled by laws, but by an authoritarian police state that will use power arbitrarily to stymie dissent.

Conservative Republicans love to use nationalism in order to virtue signal what they believe are their patriotic bonafides. They pledge allegiance to the flag, the national anthem and the Armed Forces. They believe that if you kneel during the national anthem, or disrespect the flag you have somehow committed blasphemy against God and country. They mistake Christianity and White ethnicity as virtues in and of themselves, and they act like anyone in uniform walks on water and is somehow more patriotic, and more deserving of our respect, than other citizens.

Respecting sacrifice can be a noble act in and of itself, but garbagemen and social workers deserve every bit of the respect that we may afford to soldiers or firemen. There is no hierarchy of Americanism written into our Constitution, that provides for classes of citizenship. We are Americans, whether naturally born or not. With the single exception of being eligible to be President or Vice President, there is no difference between a naturalized citizen and a naturally-born citizen in this country. We are all afforded the same rights under the law. 

The Fourteenth Amendment reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Equal protection under the law. That’s what people are marching about. That’s why half of America believes that we need serious reform within our criminal justice system, our police departments and our education systems. The reason Americans chant “Black Lives Matter” is not because Black lives matter more than others. It’s because all lives should matter, but they don’t. If they did, we would have equity in wages, rates of imprisonment, police shootings, drug arrests, graduation rates, housing and employment opportunities.

Some Republicans are offended by the Black Lives Matter movement, somehow believing that to acknowledge this simple idea, is to lose something themselves. They believe equality to be a zero sum affair, whereby if one group gets something, someone else has to suffer. But liberty is not a zero sum game. One party does not need to lose in order for another to win. In America, we are all born free, endowed “by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

That is the purpose of our government, according to the founding fathers. To secure our unalienable rights as citizens of this great country. Not to gain the upper hand or to enrich oneself, not to be used to settle private vendettas or political victories, but to offer all citizens the right to purse life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

How then, can you defy those who would cry out, demanding nothing more than their rightful inheritance? What sort of government uses its power to deny its citizens those rights, and what sort of people allow it to happen? That is not patriotism. It is not democratic. It’s barely human.

Do not therefore, feign to wrap yourselves in the flag of this country, while simultaneously disregarding the very ideals that the flag represents. To do so disrespects the flag, and everyone who ever died defending it. For if the flag ceases to represent the ideals of democracy, the rule of law, equality and opportunity, then it ceases to be worthy of respect.

The citizens of this country are not your sworn enemy and to assume so is to disregard the foundation of liberty and democracy itself. Don’t let yourselves be corrupted by charlatans and hucksters, who want nothing more than to turn brother and against brother so that no one notices they are robbing the coffers.

It has often been said that America is a great experiment. An experiment to see if men and women can live together in harmony, under the rule of law, holding personal liberty and social justice in equal reverence, while accepting the premise that multiculturalism and a plurality of ideas can be the basis for a great nation.

We are in the midst of a great battle to see if that ideal will hold, or if we will be swept away by anger and fear and intolerance for each other. It is our duty as Americans to hold this country together and hold it to its promise to each of us.

That is patriotism and love of country.

Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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