Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sanders, Trump, and the Consequences of Scapegoating

I have criticized Bernie Sanders for conducting a "scapegoating" campaign for President.

A scapegoating campaign works as follows.

First, the candidate identifies a target group of individuals.

Second, the candidate tells his target audience that the target group is substantially responsible for their woes. If not for the evil being done by the target group, those who are in the target audience could be living the quality of life they deserve.

Third, the candidate tells the target audience that if they give him power, that he will deal with the target group the way they deserve to be dealt with, and thus give the target audience the quality of life they deserve.

Of course, the paradigm example of a scapegoat campaign was that of Adolph Hitler - blaming the Jews and the Communists for the woes of the German people.

Donald Trump is running a paradigmatic scapegoating campaign. In this case, it is the Mexicans - branded rapists and murderers - and the Muslims, who are all terrorists or should at least be assumed to be terrorists - who are being scapegoated. Vote Trump into office, and he promises to deal with these groups as they deserve to be dealt with. Then, the members of the target audience can have a safe and secure life.

An important part of scapegoating is that the candidate does not distinguish between individuals within the target group. He identifies the target group by name, and vilifies them as a group. In effect, his message to the target audience is, "Those who are members of the target group are your enemy. They are malevolent. They know that they are the causes of your suffering but they do not care - or they actively seek your suffering."

It would be different if the candidate were to choose as their target group, "rapists" or "terrorists" or "those engaged in the selfish pursuit of individual power and wealth". By definition, the members of these groups engage in some sort of malevolent activity and saying so violates no principle of reason or justice. However, the members of these groups are difficult to identify. The scapegoat prefers a group that is easier to identify - Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, or, in the case of Bernie Sanders, "Millionaires".

Both groups also scapegoat "the establishment" - a broad group of people who are apparently involved in a conspiracy to victimize the target audience.

It is important to note that the message that the scapegoating politician delivers to the target audience is that, "Those people are morally inferior. You are good, decent, people. They, on the other hand, are beneath you. You - by nature of your superior virtue - have earned a place among those who rule and who obtain the benefits of government. They - by nature of their viciousness - are to be ruled." It is a message of division, of "us" versus "them".

President Barack Obama, during his terms in office, has epitomized the denial of scapegoating. He has gone out of his way to make sure that no group is scapegoated. He draws sharp lines between the individuals who perpetrate injustice and other evils and the larger groups that those perpetrators may be assigned to. Even with regard to the Republican party, his message has been, "They are as much interested in the well-being of the United States as I am; we simply disagree over the best way to realize those ends." This is not a message that is soft on terrorists, murderers, rapists, and the politically corrupt. It is, instead, a message that targets those who are in fact terrorists, murderers, rapists, and the politically corrupt.

Scapegoating comes with an unfortunate side-effect.

Ultimately, the candidate engaged in scapegoating is telling his target audience to hate the members of the target group. He sells hate - which the target audience buys and pays for with campaign contributions and votes.

The side-effect of marketing hate is that the target audience begins to treat all members of the target group as morally inferior. As such, members of the target group are not owed the types of respect and consideration that would be owed to a regular human being.

On the Republican side, Indiana delegates have received threats from Trump supporters claiming that they are being watched - clearly implying that something ominous could happen to them if they did not support Trump at the national convention.

On the Democratic side, superdelegates who have said that they would support Hillary Clinton get similar treatment. The Chicago Tribune reports of a web site that published a "hit list" - accompanied by an image of a donkey shot with arrows - of superdelegates to "pressure" into supporting Sanders. That pressure has included threatening emails and phone calls and late-night harassment.

The question is: Why are we seeing this type of behavior from the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns?

What they have in common is that both are using the "scapegoat" campaign strategy. Both are, effectively, delivering a message of hate that claims that the target group is morally inferior. They are villains - and the members of the target audience are their victims. It is not at all surprising that the target audience will come to view members of the target group as undeserving of the kind of respect one would give to moral equals.

I have criticized the Bernie Sanders campaign (and the Trump campaign - only, in this case, I have had a lot more company) for scapegoating precisely because this is what scapegoating does. It divides the country - designating a target audience that is fit to govern and a target group fit only to be governed. By identifying the target group as villains - as "them" - as those who are morally inferior and who are victimizing the target audience - it invites disrespect.

Ultimately, it invites violence. That violence can get quite out of hand as events in Nazi Germany and "The Terror" in France - and, actually, countless events that make up the bulk of human history - abundantly illustrate.

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