How I Became A Right Wing Nut Job
For much of my life, I was apolitical. Growing up, my father was a staunch Democrat. He worked in a steel mill and always told us that the Democrats were “looking out for the little guy”. This sounded good to me, as I considered myself a little guy, in the larger scheme of things. When I became old enough to vote I always voted a straight Democrat ticket because of my father. However, I only voted in presidential elections. The rest of the time I couldn’t really be bothered. I was, like I said, apolitical. But I did like to vote because you got a cool sticker, and it felt like the “right thing to do”. I didn’t read newspapers other than comics and sports, I didn’t watch the news on TV. I was out of the loop politically other than what I was exposed to through pop culture. Like punk rock songs or TV sitcoms.
This was my state of mind regarding politics until 2004. That year a lot changed for me. I was at a baseball game with my son, who must have been about 1 year old at the time. Outside the baseball stadium, there was a radio station promo crew set up, giving away prizes if you spun a wheel. I wanted to get something for my boy, so we stood in line to spin. While I was waiting to spin I picked up a few stickers from the table. As you might have surmised from my motivation for voting (see above) I love stickers! I agree 100% with the old saying that everything is cooler with stickers on it, from skateboards to guitars to cars. I got one with a W on it and a US flag. I wasn’t sure what the W stood for, but the sticker had a cool design and I certainly liked America, so I stuck it on the rear window of my car without much thought. Maybe it stood for Wonderful. Or Wisconsin.
The next day I discovered that someone had ripped the sticker off my window, crumpled it up and thrown it on the ground. When I mentioned it to my wife she became very agitated. Let me tell you a little about my wife. My wife is a lifelong liberal democrat, very progressive socially, religiously, and culturally. Unlike myself, she was very active politically and was outraged to see that sticker. She began asking me about George Bush and why would I support him, and did I plan to vote for him. I was flabbergasted. I swear I had no idea that was a political sticker. I had no idea it was a George Bush sticker, although if I had realized it, I probably wouldn’t have given a shit. As I’ve established, I was apolitical to a fault and honestly didn’t know much about the President or his policies. I was just a guy who voted Democrat every 4 years without thinking much about it. I realized that she was angry at me, and my actions were an embarrassment to her. That’s why she ripped my sticker off my car. She didn’t want anyone to see it. I was being bumper-sticker-shamed.
Looking back I completely 100% understand her concern. I’m not trying to condemn my wife or put her in a bad light. But I do need to describe the incident as it happened to illustrate my larger point. Kristina, I love you.
Now, I had no dog in this fight. I was definitely not a GW Bush supporter in any way. I just thought it was a cool sticker. But the idea that my wife was embarrassed by me hit me very hard. I was hurt, then angry. In the car on the way to work, I tuned into the radio station where I had gotten that sticker to see what all the fuss was about. As I’m sure you expected, it was a right-wing talk radio station, featuring all the big names of the day; Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck et al.
These conservative voices were happy to introduce me to their idea of fatherhood, family & America. It made sense to me on some levels…stability, tradition, and security were all part of their talking points that appealed to me. All stuff a worried new father would want for his child. I had always dreamed of having a family, being a husband and father, and that was finally all happening in my life. But being a father affected me deeply. I was very excited about it but scared too. I was afraid I was going to screw it up somehow. I didn’t have the greatest example to follow; my own parents split up when I was very young, and they both had their own demons to battle. I didn’t remember my own childhood very fondly, and I really wanted to do things differently and give my son the life I didn’t have as a boy. I was definitely looking for father role models. I longed for somewhere to discover what being a good father looked like. I was focused strongly on my son, determined to get this “dad thing” right, and seeking guidance wherever I found it. The conservative talk radio gang fed my fears and offered me their solutions.
If you do some research on what happens to push someone to become a terrorist, you’ll find there are often three main ingredients or motivating factors. Fear, anger, and a desire to get even. Fear, frequently of a foreign ideology that threatens one’s sense of self, or one’s sense of society, anger over the changes that these outside forces would bring about, and a desire to get even or thwart this change, to defeat this ideology.
Based on my own experience, I can totally see the logic behind the idea that terrorists can be “made”. These three ingredients to jumpstart radicalism are sadly ubiquitous and in ample supply. No religious or political group has a monopoly on fear, hate, and revenge. If people are accused of being terrorists enough they may eventually say, “Well to hell with you, if you want a terrorist, I’ll show you a terrorist”.
Another element frequently found as part of a radicalized mindset is a sense of righteous purpose and a desire to express frustration, especially among individuals who don’t have a nuanced understanding of the cause they are supporting. This was totally me. I was angry at the rejection and embarrassment I had received. I was afraid of the nightmarish version of a liberal world gone mad shown me by my conservative influencers on the talk radio programs. I had no deep understanding of the right-wing ideology but wanted desperately to “do the right thing” to maintain the safety and security of my family. And I wanted to hit back against that feeling of shame and rejection that went through me when I saw that crumpled up sticker on the ground behind my car. I went through a radicalization process in the same way as any terrorist. My desire to strike back never rose to the level of violence, but it was definitely there. Essentially I said, “Well to hell with you, you want a right wing nut job, I’ll show you a right wing nut job”.
I spent several years in the right wing nut job camp. Looking back it all seems so insane that one misunderstanding over a stupid bumper sticker could trigger a chain of events like that. I guess the old expression about the hurricane caused by a butterfly’s wings is true. I stubbornly forged ahead into the world of American conservatism. Once you get in there it all starts to make sense on some crazy level. You’re getting these new beliefs validated and it all seems pretty logical. You get told that if you disagree, you’re wrong, and here’s why. It can take hold, especially if you’re motivated by that sweetest of emotions, righteous indignation. That’s why today I have a really hard time flat-out condemning people with different views than mine, even if said viewpoints are totally stupid and fucked up. I know from bitter experience how easy it is to fall for a line of sweet-smelling bullshit and get sucked in with a bad crowd.
I kept most of my political and social views to myself during this time. As I’ve said, my wife was a liberal progressive and anytime our conversations (such as they were) turned to politics, sparks flew and I ended up on the defensive. I didn’t really know what the fuck I was talking about, and she did. But I knew what the guys on the radio were telling me. This naturally drove a wedge between my wife and I. Like I said before, I had little understanding of the details of the right-wing ideology I was espousing, but the broad strokes like America, security, and stability all resonated with me, especially since my only role models for what an American father is supposed to look like were the ones preaching this stuff. And being the best father I could be was of paramount importance to me. At the expense of all else I wanted to do “the right thing”.
I eventually found my way out of that jungle, but it took years and almost destroyed my marriage and the family I had tried so hard to protect. It really opened my eyes to the far-reaching effect my words and the way I treat others can have. Now I’m trying my best to keep my mind open, my mouth shut, and not create any new terrorists - of any kind.
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