Review by Brian Tanguay
When Donald J. Trump ran for president in 2016 he made many promises, from rebuilding America’s infrastructure to reducing the federal deficit to replacing the Affordable Care Act with something better. He promised jobs. He promised that he would build an impregnable wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it. He also promised to fix the system that was rigged against average citizens. Most of Trump’s promises went by the boards, abandoned or forgotten during four years of acrimonious and divisive rhetoric, scandal, unprecedented personnel turnover, a chaotic response to the Coronavirus pandemic, and two impeachment trials.
But Trump did deliver on one key promise: at every opportunity, and by every means at his command, Trump aimed the power of the state against the institutions and people that his supporters blamed for the condition of the nation and world, and their place in it. Immigrants, asylum seekers, liberal judges, transgender rights activists, pro-choice advocates, the media, and the legal and regulatory apparatus that seeks to prevent racial discrimination in voting, employment and education. This was the system Trump claimed was stacked against the people, and it was these promises that mattered most to his most enthusiastic and committed supporters; these were the promises Trump kept.
Gore Vidal famously referred to America as the United States of Amnesia, a caustic swipe at our collective ignorance of our own history, and the origin of many of the core ideas, beliefs, and assumptions which we hold dear. Contemporary life moves fast, as does the news, and with technology and social media citizens are barraged with endless streams of raw information, stories, images, much of which is factually suspect and serves, not to inform or enlighten, but to reinforce stereotypes and prejudices. Context is a casualty.
From the day Donald J. Trump announced his bid for president, I believed there was no chance that the American people would elect such a monstrous character to the highest office in the land. Like so many others, I underestimated Trump’s appeal, and failed to recognize — in fact was oblivious to — the white nationalism and nativism he espoused. Adam Serwer, a staff writer for the Atlantic, was among a minority of journalists who grasped the deeper meaning of the pitch Trump made to a swath of the electorate who felt that their hold on power and privilege was being taken from them — stolen from them by undeserving others. In a new book of essays spanning the Trump years, The Cruelty Is The Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America, Serwer connects the historical dots to show that Trump was less an anomaly and more a continuation of a deep current of white supremacy that has run through America since its founding. If racism was anathema to the electorate, Trump’s bid for the presidency wouldn’t have been viable. Trump prevailed with white voters of every class and income level, and Serwer lays out the reasons why with clarity and in historical context. For all his bombast and narcissistic bravado, Trump understood and tapped into a profound truth about the electorate after the election of Barack Obama. “Trump’s great political insight,” Serwer writes, “was that Obama’s time in office inflicted a profound psychological wound upon many white Americans.” Trump may not hold many core beliefs, but when it comes to who deserves to run the country and enjoy its bounty he has never wavered: America is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men. This belief justifies Trump’s cruelty toward everyone else.
By now it should be apparent that the roots of white supremacy and white nationalism run very deep. The extraordinary efforts by several state legislatures to disenfranchise millions of voters under the guise of “election security” are but one indication. From Reconstruction after the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, establishing a multiracial democracy and sharing of power has always been — continues to be — a monumental struggle. A recent poll conducted by Bright Line Watch revealed that sixty-six percent of Republican voters in thirteen Southern states support secession. Systemic change is difficult to achieve in part because of the structural advantages the Republican Party enjoys in the Electoral College and the Senate, and gerrymandered Congressional and state legislative districts.
One of the more insightful arguments Serwer advances concerns police unions and the role they play in sustaining inequality in law enforcement. Serwer reminds us that for much of our history there were no professional police departments. Whites organized slave patrols in the rural South, while in the North men were expected to take turns in the local watch. The idea of friendly, helpful cops on the beat is another one of our comforting myths. Police unions accomplish two things: they actively resist any kind of oversight, and they shield officers from accountability for abusive, or lethal, behavior. Serwer’s fundamental argument against police unions is that in a democracy those who wield lethal force on behalf of the state must be accountable to the people, not their own political ends.
Donald J. Trump will fade away at some point, but Trumpism is likely to linger for some time. “As much as he may have appeared to be the driver of the forces tearing the country apart,” Serwer writes, “he was more a consequence of them, of our failure as a nation to live up to our founding promises.”