“Those are devil worshippers out there,” a boy at church told us one night as we watched the fires in the rice fields near the old Bono Church of Christ. The windows of the church were gold stained glass and provided an especially menacing view of the flames.
Because I often rode with my dad as he lit the rice straw to clear off the fields post-harvest, I knew the truth, but, after that, I’d sometimes imagine devil worshippers all circled up and chanting and get scared the way kids like to do. In high school, if we were up to no good, my friends and I would go out to the gravel pits or to old barns where crudely spray-painted pentagrams often covered the rocks and walls. Inevitably, someone would blame the graffiti on devil worshippers, but we all knew it was a joke because “Metallica” or “Mötley Crüe” or maybe a marijuana leaf or various anatomical parts were often painted alongside the pentagrams.
But it was not a joke to some. If you believed the hype in the late 1980s and early ’90s, not only were men dressing as clowns to peddle drugs on elementary school playgrounds and gang members were shooting at the first person to flash their lights, there were those who lived among us who made sacrifices to Satan and boldly started ceremonial fires down in the rice fields. This “Satanic Panic” was a fearful line of thinking that caused real harm across the country, with prosecutors going after satanic cults in daycares and, here in Arkansas, it was instrumental in sending three teenagers — Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — to prison for a triple murder in West Memphis. At that time, goth culture had yet to come to rural Northeast Arkansas. Echols wore all black. He was different, therefore he was scary. He was something “other.”
This idea of people who are different from us being scary or “other” is one thing wrong with politics today. No group is better at employing it as a tool than the GOP. It has created among voters the past few years a kind of “panic” that relies on fear. President Trump claims that the Democrats in Congress who, like many Republicans during President Obama’s terms, refused to support him by standing and clapping may be committing treason. Trump, with his lackey Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton backing him all the way, ignores the facts and portrays immigrants as criminals and gangsters. When black football players take a knee to protest police brutality, Trump, nursing old wounds from a beef with the NFL, claims the players are unpatriotic. When Democrats speak up and point out that what Trump and the GOP are saying is either unfair or flat-out unconstitutional, the GOP accuses the left of not caring about veterans and trots out the dreaded phrase “identity politics.” Like the term “politically correct,” this is an effort by the GOP to portray good old-fashioned decency as something wrong. As something “other.”
As I write this, I think of the men and women I know who face deportation. Every week there is a new heart-wrenching tale in the news of a father separated from his family or a young adult being sent to a country he or she does not know. Last Sunday, members of my church wept and prayed for one of our own who is detained in Louisiana facing deportation proceedings. A man who calls Northwest Arkansas home. A man who the GOP and Trump would have you to believe is different. Other. Scary. We are being told that someone who worships a different god or speaks a different language or didn’t come here on a boat through New York Harbor is someone we should fear.
This is a new version of the Southern Strategy and is designed to distract from the fact that the GOP is the party of big business, big lobbyists and big money. It is working. Democrats are in a battle for their party. Those who want to hang around in the center — hoping that prioritizing talk of the economy and health care over talk of civil rights and immigration can win over independents — are being challenged by an increasingly progressive movement that seems destined to get out the votes of younger folks and people of color by putting human rights first. The former may prevail in the short term, but in the long term the Democratic candidates will have to move out of the safety of the center or risk the loss of support from an increasingly younger and diverse base. The effort by Trump and the GOP to keep the electorate in a state of fear and suspicion will eventually backfire. The question is how many will be harmed by this GOP-fueled “panic.”