The other night, my husband Bryan Hubbard and I were watching Donald Trump’s first rally in Orlando, Florida, attended by some 20,000 people. But what was most interesting was not what was going on inside, but what was going on outside.
In order to gain entry to this coveted event, thousands of his supporters lined up for hours outside the Amway Center. Many, equipped with tents, folding lawn chairs, food and umbrellas, camped out for 24 hours, even braving a thunderstorm.
But they weren’t the only ones waiting. Members of the Miami Chapter of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida and the Puerto Rican Democratic Club of Miami Dade set off from Miami in a bus and caravan, stopping off in Palm Beach and Boca Raton before gathering and meeting up with activists from other groups for an alternative rally in Orlando.
The purpose? Specifically to send a message to the President that he’s not welcome in Florida and to demand that he stop his “attacks on the Hispanic communities.”
“He’s trying to say that he cares about communities when we know that’s not true,” said Luisana Perez, the Hispanic spokesperson for the Democratic party.
But all that wasn’t worrying. What was worrying was the menacing look on the faces of both sides and the deliberate attempts at provocation.
As they waited outside, the anti-Trump protesters sent aloft a 20-foot (6-meter) blimp of an angry Trump baby in a diaper, squaring off with beefy members of the far-right Proud Boys.
This is not politics as usual. This is, as Atlantic magazine labeled it a year ago, ‘the politics of rage.’
Angry all the time
How angry are we about the current political landscape? Just check out a few statistics. An Elle magazine poll of women readers found that more than three-quarters of women who identify themselves as Democrats or who just lean to the Democratic Party claim to be angrier about current events and news more often than they used to be.
In fact, 74 percent of them said that something on the news makes them angry every single day.
Then there are the actual political polls. CNN polls have now discovered that 31 per cent of people described themselves as ‘very angry’ and another 37 per cent as ‘somewhat angry.’ That’s nearly two-thirds of a random sample of people who are ‘angry about the way things are going in the country today.’
Not disapproving or even sad, but angry.
Over here in Britain, things are even worse. Brexit has divided the country like never before, with both those who voted to Leave the European Union completely frustrated by UK government’s failure to do so, and those who voted to Remain in the EU furious by the result and the unwillingness of Parliament or the main parties to back the possibility of a second Referendum.
A recent BritainThinks poll found that 69 percent of adults feel ‘pessimistic about national unity’ and some 72 percent believe Britain will become ‘more divided than it already is’ within a year.
Even in this temperate country, amid organized protests and protest votes (where voters essentially abandoned the main parties for the elections of European MPs) MPs routinely receive daily death threats from voters.
During the Brexit campaign in 2016 Remain-favoring Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by someone of the opposite side.
And that’s before we even voted to Leave.
The politics of polarization
Here’s what worries me:
The look on the faces of both sides at the Trump debate when confronting the hated ‘other.’
The fact that the media, now blatantly polarized to one camp or another, is stoking this anger.
The way that people conduct themselves during rallies and meetings.
The fact that people feel justified to throw eggs or milkshakes at people they don’t agree with.
I see this on debates held on the BBC, the nation’s supposedly neutral news station, where the moderators shout down members of one side while flagrantly giving free rein to the other side. Or stacking the deck so that the audience is filled with people of the opposite view to attack the politician in question.
Of course, that kind of gladiator-against-the-lion tactic is supposed to raise the stakes of TV viewing to entertainment. But that’s not all it’s doing.
What worries me is what either of those losing sides will do, in their pent-up anger and frustration, after the American election or after the UK leaves the EU.
What worries me, most of all, is what this says about fragmentation in communities and countries—the fact that we’ve forgotten how to have civil discourse with each other.
Probably the most important outcome of any of these elections would not be whether we have a Republican or a Democratic president, or whether we finally leave or remain in the EU.
It would be an agreement, among members of both sides, to start coming together at town hall meetings and large rallies to re-learn essentially, how to disagree with each other.
There are effective ways to do this other than with utter contempt or even worse: our fists.
I will be holding a free teleseminar on this in the autumn, so please stay tuned.