Modern American history, which for purposes of this blog post begins with the 1950s, has been one of constant real or imagined enemies in the United States.
Not a decade has gone by since the end of World War II in which an “enemy” of white, middle-class, married, heterosexual, majority America hasn’t existed. That “enemy” has always been vile and evil, and always has sought nothing more than to destroy the country.
Remarkably, that enemy never has been the menace the people believed it to be. However, middle class America now accepts vicious people are always at the ready to attack. These Americans must arm themselves with guns and celebrate the massive amount of nuclear weapons and other hardware the military has. All in the name of protection from an enemy that almost always lacks bark and bite.
Hunkered down America with its massive, phallic-looking weapons is a proud, strong America. Of course it is. The narrative of the past seven decades is clear: arming while establishing consistent, though changing, enemies has hurt the U.S. more than its helped it. (The military-industrial complex is quite happy, mind you.)
The 1950s saw the unleashing of those big, bad Commies who were determined to ruin “our” way of life. Dr. Elaine Tyler May’s book Fortress America begins with a discussion of how the United States commenced the militarization of the homeland because of the ridiculous belief that the Soviet Union had spies lurking everywhere, and those spies were eager to chip away at the foundation of the U.S. May reminds her readers multiple times that the manic pursuit of safety throughout the 1950s (and beyond) has offered no evidence Americans were, in fact, safer. What were they? Isolated in quiet suburbia, which provided an image of hard-working men, stay-at-home women and the affirmation that the nuclear family was the only “right” family.
No people of color and most definitely no gay people were welcomed in this utopia.
The 1960s brought a new villain: those pesky Blacks who wouldn’t stop talking about civil rights as they stormed through American cities committing crimes everywhere they went! Of course, Blacks were not committing crimes everywhere they went, but image overruled reality: White Americans began to fear Blacks, especially Black men, leaving the inner cities and bringing their mayhem to the quiet, pristine and safe suburbs. Women learned the “necessity” of clutching their purses a bit more tightly whenever they spotted a Black man walking toward them. Men and women casually crossed the street for no apparent reason whenever a Black person was coming their way. What no one wanted to hear was that Americans were twice as likely to die in car crashes as they were to be victims of crime.
Turns out the Blacks weren’t pesky, but the facts about crime were.
The 1970s were undermined at the beginning of the decade by the non-stop bleating of liberals, pacifists and others about the Vietnam War. If only they’d have done the manly, American thing and fought for their country! Sherry Gottlieb’s book Hell No, We Won’t Go!, an oral history of the men who refused to join U.S. forces fighting that war, provides a reminder that too many Americans held a visceral hatred of the men who believed the war in Vietnam was immoral and who therefore couldn’t bring themselves to join the military.
No doubt, these wimpy, probably Commie, Americans set the table for gays, Hispanics and all sorts of special-interest groups to take their groveling and whining to the media, which lapped up these stories with intensity by the end of the decade!
The 1980s brought the Japanese menace, an enemy not even Ronald Reagan could rein in. The Japanese — flush with money — were everywhere, either on vacation (taking all those pictures with their Japanese-made cameras) or buying signature American properties for much less than they were worth. Dr. Kristin Vekasi spoke to NPR about the trade war and hostile feelings that developed between the U.S. and Japan during this decade, noting
We were buying so much stuff from Japan, and our manufacturing sector was getting hollowed out. We were losing American jobs; we losing American products. As a response to that, a lot of Americans started to have “Buy American” campaigns. There was something called Japan-bashing, which was rhetorical but was also literal when, particularly in auto manufacturing centers, people were taking baseball bats and smashing Japanese vehicles in the streets to show their dissatisfaction and anger.
The real enemy of the 1980s (which carried over into subsequent decades) is told very well in George Packer’s book The Unwinding. It details how the hollowing out of many U.S. economic centers ended the unwritten contract between citizen and government that there would always be a steady, reliable income from a job that would always be there.
The 1990s again meant war! Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait…because of oil. Oh, hell no, no country but ours marches into another land for oil (under the guise of vital national security interests, of course). America again proved it wasn’t to be messed with on the battle field (unless that battle field was located in Southeast Asia). Knocking out Saddam and his paper-thin army brought temporary relief that was quickly ruined by terror at home. When one of those terrorists turned out to be a scrawny young man from middle America, the storyline was destroyed: Why would Timothy McVeigh blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City? He wasn’t Communist, or black, or Muslim. Heck, he’d been in the military.
Little did we know what was to come.
The 2000s were all about those scary, disgusting, evil and awful Muslims. They were the new Reds: Everywhere. Forgotten in this Islamophobia is a frightening fact: Domestic terrorists brandishing those long, hard guns have killed more Americans than Muslims have over the past two decades. Slate reminds us of one important reason why white men shooting people of all ages aren’t assigned the label they deserve: domestic terrorists.
The FBI devotes far fewer resources to right-wing terrorism than it does jihadi terrorism, and programs for countering violence extremism also focus largely on jihadis. Most social media companies are aggressive in trying to get jihadis off their platforms. They are far more cautious, however, when it comes to white supremacists, fearing political backlash. Legally, federal counterterrorism officials have far more power to go after those associated with international terrorist groups than they do for domestic terrorist groups, no matter how lethal.
The 2010s brought those Blacks back. Yup, they simply refuse to accept “we” have done all we can for them. More importantly, if they’d just do what the cops told them to do, well, none of them would be shot. While Blacks shout “Black Lives Matter,” the hunkered down crowd has to scream “All Lives Matter.”
Gun sales also soared in this decade, even though — and this will sound familiar — crime statistics were on the decline. Dr. May reflected on a study by a sociologist who concluded, in May’s words, “gun ownership reflected a desire to reclaim a sense of dignity and security at a time of economic uncertainty.” Many of these gun owners opted for concealed carry; May also notes there is no evidence to link the concealed carrying of a gun to increased public safety.
When does this create-an-enemy game stop?
We know that answer: It won’t stop. There always has to be an international enemy so that the incessant building up of military might can continue. (China. Russia. Iran. North Korea. Syria.) And the MAGA crowd needs a domestic foe to remind them that America is heading right off the cliff if “those people” are in charge.
Dr. Timothy Snyder writes in his book The Road to Unfreedom that peoples must accept either the politics of inevitability or the politics of eternity. The former acknowledges that the present built on the past and the future will do the same. The future, unsettled as it is, should be viewed with optimism and hope.
The latter looks backward. In looking backward, the politics of eternity places a nation in a non-stop loop of victim hood: There always is an enemy at the gates, and government leaders can’t bring about progress because they’re trying to save the homeland.
Too many Americans are looking backward. Whether it’s minorities at home or enemies abroad, there are bad people out to get “us.” Snyder argues that Russia will never surrender its victim status while Vladimir Putin is in charge. Nations that want to be great again act that way, too.