The Internet is understandably indignant that Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, has been invited to appear at President Obama’s State of the Union. Insofar as they are outraged at this doffing of a symbolic hat to a walking symbol of homophobia, they are absolutely correct. At the same time, it is highly problematic that – as I write these words right now – Davis is currently trending on both Facebook and Twitter. By virtue of feting her with attention, we empower the very beliefs that we should be striving to delegitimize.
After all, there is a reason that a Christian conservative group like the Family Research Council arranged to have her invited… and it certainly wasn’t because they thought that she, as a person, had something meaningful to contribute to the night’s proceedings. It’s Davis the symbol that they know can be a potent force for them. Even as President Obama glowingly praises the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on same-sex marriage – with the plaintiff in that case, Jim Obergefell, in the audience – there will be Davis, personifying right-wing cultural sanctimony in front of the entire world.
Similarly, one could argue that the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is also due more to his potency as a symbol rather than whatever substance he may have as a possible statesman. He may not be the wealthiest man in the world, but he is one of the men most commonly associated with the abstract concept of wealth in our popular culture. He is also a heterosexual, Protestant white male who seems to embody the dreams of intolerant “bro” types everywhere – a man who can denounce racial minorities and women with impunity, who squires supermodels and emasculates his opponents, and who will fire you in a blink if you don’t bend to his will.
When Americans support Trump, they seem to do so because they find this symbol so appealing. He is like a gross caricature of the type of person who ran this country up until very recently in its history… but because we live in an era in which traditional racial, gender, and economic hierarchies are being aggressively challenged, his belligerent assertion of privilege can be seen as an act of iconoclasm or even rebelliousness. In this way, too, Davis manages to seem like a victim even though she is the one (a) who holds direct political power and (b) who uses that power to harm other people. This makes them uniquely invulnerable to being discredited. Not only do they feed off of attention and grow stronger when it is given to them, but by virtue of being proud oppressors, it’s impossible to morally invalidate them among those already inclined to be their supporters.
This brings me to the paradox that faces any writer who wants to effectively combat them. The best way to disempower them is simply to ignore them – but in order to draw attention to the importance of ignoring them, one must talk about them. What to do?
First, we need to understand when it is appropriate to discuss them at all. Whether we like it or not, Davis and Trump are capitalizing on real and widespread hatreds. When Davis becomes an icon by defying a pro-LGBT Supreme Court ruling, or when Trump takes the lead in polls by making racist statements against Mexicans and Muslims, they are speaking to deeper belief systems that are embraced by a large segment of our population. Insofar as their popularity attests to this, their words and deeds warrant attention and analysis.
At the same time, we must recognize that the spotlight makes them stronger if it shines on them for too long. As such, when we discuss them, we should make a point of placing them in the background, with the foreground being devoted to the prejudices they’re trying to exploit. For one thing, this keeps the focus where it ought to be in the first place – on the victims who suffer from discrimination. Just as important, though, it would remove a powerful incentive that helps motivate demagogues like Davis and Trump in the first place. While they play off of preexisting prejudices, they may not be as inclined to assertively spread them if the reward of fame is less likely to accompany those actions.
These are just ideas, of course, and I am more than open to suggestions. What I cannot do, though, is continue writing about how we shouldn’t be discussing David and Trump. The inherent paradox in what I’m forced to do is maddening.