Historian Heather Cox Richardson on Trump’s Muslim Ban: “It’s a Shock Event”

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Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College is one of my favorite historians.  I highly recommend her most recent book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party

Today Richardson gave me permission to publish a piece she recently posted to her Facebook page.

Richardson is probably right in assuming that Steve Bannon is behind Trump’s recent Executive Order on Muslim refugees.  She describes what Bannon is doing as a “shock event.” This is an attempt to throw the country into confusion and chaos so that the administration can present itself as the only entity capable of restoring order.

Richardson explains:

What Bannon is doing, most dramatically with last night’s ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries– is creating what is known as a “shock event.” Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order. When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

Last night’s Executive Order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.

Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.

My point today is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one’s interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won’t like. I don’t know what Bannon is up to– although I have some guesses– but because I know Bannon’s ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle– and my friends range pretty widely– who will benefit from whatever it is. If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal.richardson

But because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event. A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines. This, for example, is how Confederate leaders railroaded the initial southern states out of the Union. If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings. This was Lincoln’s strategy when he joined together Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska voters, and nativists into the new Republican Party to stand against the Slave Power. Five years before, such a coalition would have been unimaginable. Members of those groups agreed on very little other than that they wanted all Americans to have equal economic opportunity. Once they began to work together to promote a fair economic system, though, they found much common ground. They ended up rededicating the nation to a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Confederate leaders and Lincoln both knew about the political potential of a shock event. As we are in the midst of one, it seems worth noting that Lincoln seemed to have the better idea about how to use it.

23 thoughts on “Historian Heather Cox Richardson on Trump’s Muslim Ban: “It’s a Shock Event”

  1. First of all, the harassment of Moslems (“the Moslem ban”) by our government is real–it’s not for shock. It really is having real effects on real people. However, it’s not the kind of cataclysmic event that characterizes a “false flag” or “shock event” for which only the government can restore order. That means, though, one is probably coming.

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  2. Reblogged this on http://www.Sozialgeschnatter.de and commented:
    Heather Cox Richardson: If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings. This was Lincoln’s strategy when he joined together Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska voters, and nativists into the new Republican Party to stand against the Slave Power. Five years before, such a coalition would have been unimaginable. Members of those groups agreed on very little other than that they wanted all Americans to have equal economic opportunity. Once they began to work together to promote a fair economic system, though, they found much common ground. They ended up rededicating the nation to a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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  3. Reblogged this on Perspectives and commented:
    Add Shock Event Strategy to your political glossary. Boston University History professor Heather Cox Richardson explains how politicians use this theory to divide the population along known fault lines to purposely create chaos then be credited for restoring order.

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  4. it is my understanding that this is not a ban on Muslims but on refugees although admittedly targeting countries with predominantly Muslim populations. The Obama administration obviously had some concern as well regarding receiving citizens who might not have the world’s, not just American’s, best interests at heart. There is a very real threat and these folks who commit terrorist attacks are those who dress in sheep’s clothing and will do anything to attack those who are not as radical as they are – even their own people, even family members and loved ones. At the same time, our vetting process seems to have been working quite well, families have been helped, and we are all seeing the horror of men, women and children who are victims of Islamic extremism who have no place to go. I understand Trump and Obama’s concern, but we do well to do all we can to remain sensitive to innocent people who will be slaughtered if we do nothing, if we close our doors (we haven’t), but we are not being expedient in number or timing. Evil flourishes when either a) good people do nothing or b) good people do the wrong thing. We must do all we can at this very critical moment to prevent the slaughter of innocent people and do the right and good thing as expediently as possible while protecting all citizens of this planet. This is about all of us together. We succeed together or we fail together. It really is up to us … those who believe that we are all brothers and sisters, those who desire to serve each other and the common good, and who believe that we are here to love and serve each other for the betterment and well being of all. Hatred, violence and killing is contrary to stability, growth, well being and the world order. Throughout history we have stood against these forces and they have fallen. Most Christians, Muslims, Budhists, Hindus seek this path. May we all pray and hold to treating each other well, treating each other with respect, dignity and common courtesy and united against all those who proliferated hatred, divisioin and strife who are evil of heart and intent who dress in sheep’s clothing!

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  5. Agree, Bannon has stated he wants to break down the establishment so they can rebuild it the way they want.
    A lot of Dems are aware of this, however. President Bannon was trending on twitter. Hopefully, vigilance and resistance will curtail his power grab.

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  6. There is a famous Herman Goering quote that sits well with this:

    “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

    As a European I feel that the United States has ignored all the warning signs that were there. History lessons have been forgotten and the rise of Trump and the Alt-right does not bode well for the world. Whatever about the direct implications, the far right in Europe now sees an opportunity and inspiration from Trumps presidency. The left isn’t strong and as such more countries could fall into this trap. The right ruined the world less than 100 years ago. The legacy is still glaringly obvious in Israel, Palestine, Russia, Europe, GB and the USA. How can we all work together to prevent these kind of things is beyond me but I would like to try

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a European raised under communism and on the wounds of Nazism, currently living in the US, I agree with you, Brian.

      Americans have shown a peculiar lack of understanding what’s being done to them by Trump/ism. It is hard to comprehend how even now, when there should be no doubt left as to what we are dealing with, there are people — among Trump’s opponents — who are still not grasping the gravity of the situation.

      It is somewhat shocking, but not entirely so. Denial is human.

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  7. Reblogged this on Susanthur Political Observer and commented:
    Article:What Bannon is doing, most dramatically with last night’s ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries– is creating what is known as a “shock event.” Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order. When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. John, does the history of the Obama administration factor into your assessment?
    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2017/01/trumps-immigration-order-myths-and-realities.php

    For all the Democrats’ wailing and gnashing of teeth, until 2016 the Obama administration had already largely slammed the door on Syrian-refugee admissions. The Syrian Civil War touched off in 2011. Here are the Syrian-refugee admissions to the U.S. until Obama decided to admit more than 13,000 in 2016:Fiscal Year 2011: 29Fiscal Year 2012: 31Fiscal Year 2013: 36Fiscal Year 2014: 105Fiscal Year 2015: 1,682.

    To recap: While the Syrian Civil War was raging, ISIS was rising, and refugees were swamping Syria’s neighbors and surging into Europe, the Obama administration let in less than a trickle of refugees. Only in the closing days of his administration did President Obama reverse course — in numbers insufficient to make a dent in the overall crisis, by the way — and now the Democrats have the audacity to tweet out pictures of bleeding Syrian children?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. So people hardly notice that Bannon is appointed to the principals’ committee of the National Security Council while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence are demoted.

    Liked by 2 people

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