Politics is not a Game, Trump is not the Host: Dismissing Radical Politics is as Dangerous as Endorsing Them

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Lack of empathy is endemic in the modern Republican party; some might argue that it’s, in fact, a completely foundational aspect of their politics. Immigrants, foreigners, gays and lesbians, blacks, women, atheists, Muslims, liberals—the GOP doesn’t have ideas, they have scapegoats. And the profound inability—or refusal—to identify with the struggles of those scapegoats is trumpeted as political virtue.

But there’s another group of people in American political life that suffers from the same affliction. These are the “detached observers”—people who (think they) have removed themselves from the political process, who think politics is a spectator sport, or entertainment, the ones who make witty remarks about the craziness of it all, but are not invested much beyond that. “It’s all bullshit,” the detached observer might say. “But that Trump is something, isn’t he?”

The demographic from which comes most (not all) detached observers is very specific: 18-65 years of age, straight, white, mid-to-upper-class, Christian, male. This group is especially dismissive of politics because they—in a fundamental sense—can afford to be. Because the things that marginalized groups are fighting for are things that our detached observers already have and have always had. Lack of empathy is the problem—the inability to imagine, even for a moment, what it might be like to be someone other than yourself.

This lack of empathy isn’t malicious—like most matters of privilege, it’s a creation of circumstance. Why should they have any profound investment in politics? Outside of taxes or health insurance they remain largely unaffected by political ideology or rhetoric. They vote with their wallets alone because their wallets are the only thing affected; the threat of political change to them is inconvenient but not existential. They’ve only ever had to engage in the politics of money and never in the politics of rights, because the rights of white heteronormative Christian men have always been, and continue to be, assumed. The ability to dismiss the significance of politics is a privilege granted to the few.

In other words, it doesn’t matter to them what Donald Trump says about immigrants because they’re not immigrants—they do not suffer the consequences of racially motivated hate. It doesn’t matter that the GOP wants to defund Planned Parenthood because our detached observers are not themselves women in need of reproductive healthcare. “What crazy thing will a Republican say next?” is a game to them—and they get to watch with varying levels of disinterest from the sidelines, because they know with certainty that their names will never be called.

Political rhetoric, of course, is not innocuous—politics is not a game. For the less fortunate among us, or the oppressed, or the marginalized, politics is a radical tool; it’s either a liberating force or an utterly destructive one. Every flippant, ignorant, or idiotic statement from a politician has real-life, tangible ramifications for those whose humanity has not yet been fully acknowledged. Every time you, our detached observer, say with a smirk and a shoulder shrug that Trump “is fun to watch,” or that “at least he’s honest,” you’re empowering the monster. You’re not commentating on a sporting event. This is not a television show.

Political comparisons to Hitler are often hyperbolic and unnecessary; in this case, however, it might be appropriate—if not outright obligatory. Hitler’s constant promise to make Germany “great” and “proud” again is echoed by Trump’s every campaign slogan—stolen, it seems, almost verbatim from Hitler save for the country at stake. We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Donald Trump kept a book of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside; it’s a discovery that should only serve to hammer home the excruciatingly apparent similarities between the two.

And what’s a fascistic regime without scapegoats? The GOP has a litany of them, yes, but Trump has his own special ones; the Mexicans and the Chinese are to Trump what the Jews were to Hitler—the be-all, end-all, root-of-all-evil. And it must be said that the majority of Germans were not fanatical Nazis—they were frustrated, misinformed, and tired of the status quo—but they did not actively hate. Hitler fed off that disillusionment. This is America now; this is Donald Trump. Most Germans were unaware of the Holocaust even as it was happening.

But if you, detached observer, can’t be moved to empathy for its own sake, can’t be moved to political engagement for its own sake—then maybe some self-interest can do the trick. I call to mind Holocaust survivor Martin Niemöller’s famous sentiment: “First they came for…” The poem has been altered across time and space to relay the struggles of all persecuted peoples, but the ending is always the same: there’s no one left to save the person who so casually dismissed those who first needed saving. So politics now, in your eyes, might be a game; it might be a game when they come for the Mexicans; it might be a game when they come for the gays; it might be a game when they come for the Muslims; but what if they eventually come for you?