Sadism: Tapping the Great Untapped Reservoir of American Politics

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A few days ago I posted the following poll question on Facebook: What percentage of Trump voters would support decapitation of undocumented immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border? I explained that this was not my idea—or hopefully anyone’s idea—of a joke. Rather, it was an important and entirely overlooked question, critical to understanding the current political dynamic yet crossing the line of taboo in an age when few know the meaning of the word.

I also explained that the truth would rarely be revealed to a pollster but would flow freely in settings where one is completely comfortable speaking from the heart or the spleen, like over a beer with buddies in the back of a pool hall after a long hard week. That’s the truth we’re after.

Given that 55 percent of Republicans in some polls openly admit to supporting separation of parents and children, my estimate was five to ten percent depending on several variables, including whether the decapitations were posted to social media, how long they took on average, and whether they included entire families or adults only. A cousin of mine, aghast at the question itself, nonetheless weighed in at the low end with one percent. With the exception of a couple of outliers, the remainder of the responses were scattered between these narrow extremes like points on a bell curve.

An Exception or the Rule?

My own estimate, perhaps on the high side perhaps not, was based in part upon thousands of social media posts I’ve read over the last two years or so. Typically these are vile spews in posts dealing with race, crime, police brutality, Muslims, and of course immigration. The authors often express a wish to see people who are in some way unlike themselves subjected to humiliation, severe cruelty, or even death. Some of these comments suggest an enraged state of mind, though the vast majority—at least judging by their syntax—appear to emanate rather from a state of relative calm and sobriety.

To pretend these countless menacing post, always on tap like Coors, are all coming from a few Neanderthals momentarily off their Xanax, or from the tiny friend group of Trump’s apocryphal 400-pound bedridden hacker, is to entirely delude oneself regarding the mathematical and practical difficulties of faking these plentiful posts and the epidemic of extreme hatred itself. These demonic, draconian posts are coming from run-of-the-mill real people, not from associates of Vladimir Putin.

So let’s say I was a little on the high side and the percentage of Trump supporters who would back decapitation tops out around five percent. Does this have any significance in our national conversation? Yes—all the significance in the world. Until now, the sadist vote has been ignored and marginalized. But Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and their bastard child Stephen Miller have finally given these people a voice. The administration speaks for the psychopath next door. They are the champion of underrepresented torturers of small animals everywhere. These savvy men have gotten what probably amounts to several million voters off the bench and injected them into electoral colleges, town halls, and electronic polls nation wide.

Would Trump Supporters Care?

Certainly the vast majority of Trump supporters would not endorse immigrant decapitation in any form. But the question is, how strongly would they object? It’s all a sliding scale now, with knowledgeable policy wonks on one end and the bitter enthusiasts of vicarious pain on the other. In between is a large mass of people who envision themselves as victimized and dispossessed and who secretly or not-so-secretly relish the raw suffering of Homo sapiens not currently in their bowling league. Even a small slice of this group is enough to swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Broaden the parameters a bit—by, let’s say, wresting screaming Salvadoran babies from their powerless transient parents but skipping the beheading—and you have a political revolution.

I am a disaffected individual, but the above assessment is submitted without a trace of cynicism. The soft-hearted reluctance of media, pollsters, and even social scientists to identify properly a sizeable portion of Trump’s base—the sadists—has led to a largely disingenuous discussion of the social phenomena we witness every day without fail in some measure. In a purely academic sense, this does a disservice to public awareness. In a far more pragmatic sense it castrates the center and center-left and enables a repeat of the 2016 election cycle.

If you don’t understand your opponent in the truest sense, you have a severely diminished capacity to defeat him. In the absence of that understanding we will likely have more interminable discussions regarding what a bad man Donald J. Trump is. But Trump is no more and no less than the devastatingly savvy conductor of a large unwieldy orchestra. A formidable part of that orchestra—let’s call it the percussion section—is motivated by some of the worst impulses seen in the history of humankind. If we refuse to listen closely and comprehend the most cacophonous among this symphony, we will be drowned out yet again.