The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Craig Benjamin.
While national politics are rife with displays of hate, Jackson Hole has an opportunity to be different.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last week I did something profoundly disturbing. Something that bothered me to the depths of my soul.
I thought it would be fun to write a piece showing what Donald Trump would say if he ran for Mayor of Jackson. I spent a few hours breaking down his narrative structure and reading through his stump speeches. Then I put together a draft that mashed up Jackson issues into Trump-speak. I replaced President Obama with Mayor Flitner, Obamacare with the Budge Drive landslide, Benghazi with the Grove, illegal immigrants with people who can’t afford to live here, China with Teton Village, and Islamic terrorists with eco-terrorists.
It wasn’t funny. It was horrifying. Trump’s story structure is frighteningly well crafted. It appeals to our most primal instincts; it’s almost reptilian. It’s hate speech. I couldn’t stop thinking, is a demagogue really about to become the Presidential nominee from a major political party? Isn’t America better than this? And how on earth did we get to this point?
I realized that while people have sowed seeds of discord for decades, it’s arguable the tipping point occurred in 2008 when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate and she unleashed an explosion of hate-filled animosity. Palin accused then-candidate for President Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists” and called him a socialist. She said that only certain parts of our country are “pro-America.” At her rallies she stoked the hate. Supporters wore T-shirts and carried signs calling Obama a communist and shouted things like “kill him” or “off with his head.” No one discouraged this disgraceful behavior.
To McCain’s credit, when a woman at a Town Hall meeting in Minnesota called Obama an Arab (implying it as an insult), McCain said that wasn’t so, noting that he respected Obama and his accomplishments. The crowd booed, shouting “terrorist” and “liar.” The hate Palin had unleashed couldn’t be put back into its box.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” President Obama momentarily forgot this sage wisdom when speaking about the plight of folks in small-town Pennsylvania while campaigning. Playing right into the boiling identity war, he said “…it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them…” This only fueled the hate fire.
Things got worse when Obama took office. While delivering a speech to a joint-session of Congress in 2009, President Obama was heckled by Congressman Joe Wilson, who shouted, “You lie!” While Wilson apologized for this outburst, he received a surge in campaign contributions and went on to handily win his next election. At a 2009 rally protesting Obamacare at the Capitol called by Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, protesters called President Obama a traitor and shouted, “Nazis! Nazis!” Instead of discouraging this deplorable behavior, Speaker of the House John Boehner joined in, calling President Obama the “greatest threat to freedom I have seen.”
Imagine a member of the Jackson Town Council yelling, “You lie!” while Mayor Flitner gave a speech. Consider if another councilor called her the “greatest threat to freedom I have seen.” Think about how we would stand up and discourage that type of divisive rhetoric. Wouldn’t we?
I could go on for pages with examples from people across the political spectrum, but once you unleash the hate monster, it’s nearly impossible to get it back in its cage.
All of this has led to this moment, where instead of this presidential election serving as an opportunity for a national conversation about how we can come together to address the big challenges we face, we have a xenophobic, misogynistic, bigoted demagogue poised to become the nominee from a major political party based on a campaign of bully tactics and name-calling. All of this should serve as a warning to us here in Jackson Hole.
Recently, a number of people in our community have been planting seeds of hate that could grow into something awful. A local resident called a government agency “a giant bag of shit” and called for the removal of the “two biggest blockheads” volunteering their time on the board of this agency. At a meeting about downtown zoning, a former elected representative claimed the decision of the Town Council and Board of County Commissioners would “kill” and “strangle” town. Some people tried to discourage citizens from respectfully participating in our democracy by disparaging them with derogatory labels like “protesters” or calling their active participation a “boycott” (the opposite of participation). A local conservationist claimed proponents of legislation he opposes “seem to want to conquer everything like dogs running feral across the landscape.”
Let’s be clear—these examples are relatively tame compared to what’s happening in the national sphere, but they are the first steps on a slippery slope toward unleashing the hate monster. Where are the calls for civility? Why aren’t we standing up to these people and calling out their behavior? Aren’t we better than this?
Look, we’re going to have passionate disagreements about local issues because they matter greatly in shaping the future of our community. Here’s the thing: Wouldn’t it be better if instead of spending our time slicing up our community into different identity categories, we focused on bringing people together in support of a shared vision of a better future? Yes, we’re going to have disagreements about both our vision of a better future and the best way to achieve our desired vision, but we can agree to disagree in a civil manner and treat each other with respect. The challenges we face are too big to waste time playing the politics of polarization.
Unlike snow and adolescence, this problem won’t go away if we ignore it. It’s time to take control of our civic discourse and uproot the seeds of hate. The next time you hear someone disparage your friend and neighbor, make inflammatory personal attacks, or discourage people from exercising their duty as an American to participate in our democracy—rise up and tell them you won’t stand for it. We are better than this, Jackson Hole. Let’s start acting like it. PJH
Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.