I want to make a case for a very simple claim: The identity markers we now hold up as the most important things about people — gender, race, income, sexual preference, religious identification — are not the basis for divided opinions on public figures. It’s a person’s beliefs that matter and make the difference between public praise or scorn. It may be beliefs about things like race, gender, etc. but it is the beliefs and not the traits themselves. Nobody ever says this and it surprises me that they don’t, since it seems so obvious with a little reflection.
Obama and Trump: A Thought Experiment
Two presidents fueled into office by enthusiastic throngs of avid supporters. Obama and Trump: both can fill an arena and work a crowd, as stylistically different as they are. It is something a man like Biden has never possessed and never could. But indulge me for a minute and imagine a swap. It may be hard but do your best. The swap is simply in terms of their views. Everything else about their personalities remains exactly the same.
Imagine Obama had come up through the Republican ranks as a staunch conservative. Same guy, but now his soaring rhetoric is about saving unborn lives, the freedoms written about by the founders to hold and speak your moral and religious opinion, the right to defend yourself by keeping and bearing arms, the need to keep government from growing into an oversized tyrannical monster, etc.
Question: would Hollywood have fawned on him the way it did? Would he have been such a messianic figure? Would the media have groveled at his feet like they did? The answer is too easy. Of course NOT. It wouldn’t have mattered that his father is Kenyan and thus he (as a candidate) had the potential to be the first non-white president. The left would have despised him and sought to destroy him utterly; while conservatives, instead of seeing him as a smug elitist with dangerous views, would have instead considered him a patriot, a great family man, and an example of how anyone can work his way to the top in the land of the free.
Now for Trump. We don’t have to use as much imagination here since the younger Trump held views and maintained a lifestyle in keeping with the progressive cultural elites. And consequently they considered him a good friend. If you’re old enough you remember Trump appearing on Oprah’s daytime show and then on Letterman at night. They loved him. Hollywood big shots came to his parties and invited him to theirs. Do a little research and you will be surprised at the younger Trump’s celebrity friendships in sports, music, television and media.
But once again to the thought experiment. If Trump’s odd but somehow humorously compelling way of speaking about political issues — his overall “Trumpiness” — had been in the service of universal healthcare, re-thinking policing, progressive tax policies, Marxist social theories, rent control, abortion on demand, etc., how would he have been perceived?
Would blue collar Midwestern crowds have packed giant stadiums to hear the ultra leftist Trump do his shtick in favor of these progressive views? Would media, entertainment and other powers of the left have been deranged with hatred of the terrifying orange devil if Trump were a big lefty? Again, it’s obvious. The left would have found him charming, funny, and highly valuable in their revolution — someone with wealth and force of personality to help the cause. Conservatives, meanwhile, would have repudiated him as a crude, worldly, arrogant big mouth.
A Tale of Two Women
Allow me another instructive comparison. Consider the case of two prominent women born in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. One wound up in the Dutch Parliament (by way of Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya), then immigrated to the U.S., where she has been an influential political voice with the American Enterprise Institute, Stanford’s Hoover Institution and her own national foundation. The other wound up in Minnesota’s state house and ultimately the U.S. House of Representatives.
Alike in so many ways, the two are loved and despised alternatively by completely opposite political sides. Both have the important identity label of “immigrant woman of color.” The difference is what each believes and advocates. Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes from a perspective most would consider right-of-center or libertarian, whereas Ilhan Omar’s politics align with progressives such that she is a member of the so-called “squad” in Congress.
And THAT is the difference between love and hate by the different political sides — not their gender, not the color of their skin, not their accents, not their Islamic backgrounds — none of that makes a lick of difference for the overwhelming majority who have such strong feelings for and against one of them. When a conservative criticizes Omar or a leftist criticizes Ali, it is false and dishonest for either side to accuse the other of racist motives unless there is clear and specific evidence. Disliking their point of view doesn’t qualify.
Beliefs Are the Difference
My argument, to reiterate, is that the beliefs (religious, moral, political) of prominent people are the chief basis for who supports and who rejects them. Our society has propagated the falsehood that the love and hatred earned from different groups must be based on identity categories of gender, race, sexuality, etc.
Along with the misfortune of being false, this is also applied unfairly. If we did a poll on which Supreme Court justice people love or hate the most, which do you think would win among right-wing and left-wing voters? There’s a pretty good chance it’s the SAME guy. Clarence Thomas is the judicial hero of conservatives and a perennial target of endless attacks by the left.
If it were the other way around, conservatives would no doubt be called “racist” for this. That’s the asymmetrical unfairness of this game. Only one side gets that treatment. But we can’t play along. I don’t think leftists hate Thomas because he was for so long (until very recently) the only black justice, any more than conservatives oppose the new justice (Jackson) for that reason. I think it’s because Thomas the most originalist — thus conservative — justice (although some lefties find it extra galling that a black man won’t fall in line like they think he’s supposed to).
We could illustrate this over and over again. We think “the libs” hate religious southerners, but they sure didn’t mind Georgia’s born again Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. They mock Cajun and hillbilly types until it’s James Carville or Bill Clinton. They’ll rail against Catholics but it’s no problem if Biden or Pelosi pin their professed Catholic faith to their chest in public speeches. They were vicious in their attacks of the Mormon Mitt Romney; they were just fine with the Mormon Harry Reid. They have no use for old, white people, unless they’re electing the oldest and whitest people to be president (Biden), senate leader (Schumer) or house leader (Pelosi) at the same time.
Same on the other side. Someone will say that conservatives criticize Buttigieg just because he’s gay. Yet I see people like Douglas Murray and Dave Rubin all over conservative circles — in video, in writing, on panels, etc. You’ll hear that conservatives are threatened by a confident, opinionated black woman, but they were pretty enthusiastic to vote for Winsome Sears in Virginia. And you might have noticed the kind of following people like Candace Owens and Rob Smith have gained, the latter being gay as well as black.
How can we make sense of all of this? The answer is only by being honest enough to put to death the lie that identity markers are what people care about, and the basis for their loyalty or opposition. Even moral character, regrettably, doesn’t matter so much to either side as much as the perceived practical outcomes based on political ideology. Those beliefs, and the preferred consequences they will have for the social/political left or right side of the spectrum, are what get you fans and enemies today. Nothing else.
Clint Roberts is an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene University.
Originally published on How to Read a News Story/Substack.com. Reprinted with permission.
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