Credit Victor Kerlow
Credit Victor Kerlow
After the Trump-induced massacre in El Paso, all of us Latinos feel like we have a big brown target on our backs
Reporters were not allowed to accompany the president to a hospital in El Paso, but the White House released a slick produced video about the visit.
EL PASO — If consoling the nation in a time of desperate need is a vital and yet simple task of the American presidency, Donald J. Trump failed miserably this week.
From his flight on Wednesday to Dayton, Ohio, to this sprawling high-desert city on the Mexican border, the 45th occupant of the White House not only littered his consolation tour with petty insults — but just to rub salt in the wound, doses of renewed racism. Yet most striking was how alone and outnumbered the president was: rejected, ostracized and told to go home.
The people who streamed the scene of the terrorist attack here — brown, black, white and every hue in between — defiantly defended the nation’s diversity. With no public appearances, the president seemed to shrink, ever more alone as he clung to his white nationalist politics and governance. But he and his supporters were grossly outnumbered. For perhaps the first time in his angry, racist and cruel presidency, the tables were turned in smoldering, righteous popular anger — and he was on the receiving end.
You have to give this to Mr. Trump: He never backs off. He doubles down like a wild gambler in a casino, raising the stakes one more time demanding just a few more chips from the house. Leaving the White House on Wednesday morning, he said, “I think my rhetoric brings people together,” adding he was “concerned about the rise of any group of hate. I don’t like it, whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy.”
America has long had a radioactive racist soup in the center of our national life. Donald Trump thinks he is stirring it for political benefit. He’s actually doing something more dangerous.
For much of our history, the soup was deadly and uncontained, spewing radiation that led to the enslavement, terrorization, murder and oppression of African-Americans. One hundred years ago this summer, it erupted on the streets of Washington, leaving dozens dead. The president of Howard University narrowly escaped being lynched. The murders, beatings and threats erupted in countless places during the first 200 years of American life. To visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture is to discover that the violence and mistreatment is beyond count, but not beyond imagination.
Yet something good happened over the last 50 years. America started to get control over the dangerous radiation. We erected a containment building made up of laws; we passed statutes making the abuse and mistreatment of people by virtue of their race a crime. More important, we began enforcing the laws we already had. It was long a statutory crime to kill another human being; it just wasn’t against the law in practice to kill a black person in many places. The rights to vote and to equal treatment sounded muscular on paper, but they were weaklings in much of America. Slowly, slowly that began to change, through progress at ballot boxes and jury boxes, in police squad rooms and classrooms.
But the containment building of law was only part of the solution. Radioactivity lasts for centuries and it can still blow the lid off the building; true safety lies in control rods, pushed down into the soup to calm it, to cool it. Those control rods in America were cultural.
If only …
If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal. If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s. If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.
But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.
Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.
He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.
In 2016, it was common for everyone watching the presidential campaign — operatives, pundits, journalists, voters — to remark that the whole thing was just crazy. Donald Trump had smashed all the spoken and unspoken rules about how a mature democracy was supposed to conduct an election, leaving much of the country shaking their heads in wonder, alternately amused and bemused, when perhaps more of us should have reacted with horror and panic.
But that was nothing. For his 2020 reelection campaign, Trump is building an engine of chaos. That engine has the president at its head but will also rely on the efforts of his allies, the media outlets that have devoted themselves to his cause, and in all likelihood more help from abroad, especially the Russian government.
All these participants will try to convince voters that Trump has been an excellent president who deserves reelection, but alongside that straightforward attempt at persuasion will be a comprehensive and far-reaching effort to sow mayhem and madness across the entire political landscape so that lies swallow truth and nobody has any idea what to think.
That effort is just beginning to roll, but we can already see it at work in the political story of the moment.
Right now Trump is whipping up racist animosity against four Democratic congresswomen while simultaneously arguing that his attacks have nothing to do with race. When, for instance, he argues that he never spoke about them with the aid of talking points, though there are photographs of him holding the talking points, it’s hard not to think he’s trying to send the media chasing one bizarre lie after another, to drive us all mad.
He’s also fabricating and distorting quotes the congresswomen allegedly said, and those are being repeated and magnified on the news outlets that have devoted themselves to Trump’s service.
You know about Fox News, and you may know about the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative company that requires many of its stations to air pro-Trump commentary. But there’s also the One America News Network, a more recent addition to the cable dial that is almost comically pro-Trump, which he has repeatedly promoted on Twitter.
Kevin Poulsen of the Daily Beast reports on this colorful aspect of OANN’s coverage:
If the stories broadcast by the Trump-endorsed One America News Network sometimes look like outtakes from a Kremlin trolling operation, there may be a reason. One of the on-air reporters at the 24-hour network is a Russian national on the payroll of the Kremlin’s official propaganda outlet, Sputnik.
That’s right, a “reporter” who is literally on the Kremlin payroll works at a news network endorsed by Trump, where he airs stories alleging bizarre conspiracy theories, including one claiming that “Hillary Clinton is secretly bankrolling antifa through her political action committee.”
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed reports that major Republican donors with ties to Ukraine are still working with Rudolph W. Giuliani in an effort to convince that country to help dig up dirt on Joe Biden.
Now let’s step back for a moment. One of the things that emerged from the Mueller investigation was that the joint effort by the Russian government and the Trump campaign was not a “conspiracy” in the way the movies have taught us to think about it, a tightly choreographed and highly efficient operation. They both pursued the same goal, but in many ways it was haphazard and ad hoc, involving a lot of people of varying levels of knowledge and competence.
If anything, the 2020 Trump reelection effort will likely be even more randomly organized, a seething carbuncle of misinformation oozing out in all directions. Some of it will come directly from Trump himself, some will come from his campaign, some will come from the army of trolls and bots that Russia will likely employ on his behalf once again. At times it will seem formless and random, with no clear intent other than the creation of mass confusion and uncertainty.
Much of it will be directed at the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, a cloud of conspiracy theories and ludicrous allegations intended to follow them wherever they go. And while I’m sure the Trump campaign will be happy if it can create a new version of But Her Emails, a single unifying attack that the mainstream media enthusiastically amplify, the Trump campaign may be almost as happy just to create that cloud.
As of yet we’ve seen no evidence that either the Democratic Party or the media themselves have any idea how to to deal with that kind of campaign. They’re both still built for a more “normal” affair, in which the two sides offer biographical stories and policy arguments, and yes, there is deception and demagoguery from time to time, but it’s kept within reasonable limits and we’re able to maintain something resembling an agreement on what’s true and what isn’t.
Now imagine it’s October of 2020. Every day, Trump comes out with some preposterous new lie about the Democratic nominee, making up things they supposedly said and did. As soon as he does so, the lies are pushed through every arm of the conservative media and repeated by Republican politicians. And while news organizations are dutifully writing their factual rebuttals, Trump debuts another, even more preposterous lie a day later.
Meanwhile, voters’ social media feeds are inundated with fake organizations and fake people offering a dizzying array of misinformation, leaving them stumbling from one supposed blockbuster revelation to the next and utterly unable to figure out what is real. The whole thing begins to take on a feeling of madness, where the only safe harbor lies is in the tribe that offers you belonging and the conviction that the people you hate are even worse than you thought.
That’s what’s coming. And it hasn’t even begun.
I’m struck at how many people have come up to me recently and said, “Trump’s going to get re-elected, isn’t he?” And in each case, when I drilled down to ask why, I bumped into the Democratic presidential debates in June. I think a lot of Americans were shocked by some of the things they heard there. I was.
I was shocked that so many candidates in the party whose nominee I was planning to support want to get rid of the private health insurance covering some 250 million Americans and have “Medicare for all” instead. I think we should strengthen Obamacare and eventually add a public option.
I was shocked that so many were ready to decriminalize illegal entry into our country. I think people should have to ring the doorbell before they enter my house or my country.
I was shocked at all those hands raised in support of providing comprehensive health coverage to undocumented immigrants. I think promises we’ve made to our fellow Americans should take priority, like to veterans in need of better health care.
Have Democrats reached the point where they would rather beat each other’s heads in than defeat President Trump? Have they forgotten that the opposition’s first task is to build a broad coalition for change?
Yes, the media loves conflict, and the current fights among Democrats — in the House of Representatives and on the presidential campaign trail — are irresistible for us journalists. And so many of Trump’s outrages are treated not as the moral disgraces they are but as campaign strategy. As in: Boy, all that cruelty at the border and his threat to ignore the law and add that citizenship-status question to the census play great with his base, and isn’t he a genius? Trump has so debased the standards of our politics that we stop noticing how low we have sunk.
But the Democrats’ primary mission right now is precisely to force attention to what those wielding authority — meaning especially Trump but also his enablers in the Republican-led Senate — are doing to our country. They can’t just blame the media for seeing that there is a lot of, well, tension in the House Democratic caucus. Reporters aren’t making up the fact that progressives and moderates often dump on each other. Progressives say moderates aren’t being militant enough against Trump. Moderates say progressives are not attentive enough to the middle-of-the-road voters and districts that gave them their House majority in the first place.
Whatever their disagreements, Democrats are united on many things, starting with seeing the shameful treatment of children in detention facilities as a violation of all that our country says it believes in, and how Trump’s environmental policies are a daily scandal, given the mounting evidence for the damage climate change is doing. I could offer a much longer list, but you get the point.
Perhaps a vile Trump tweet on Sunday will remind Democrats why they should be battling him, not each other. Without naming them, he attackedfour first-term Democratic congresswomen — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — for standing up against his cruel border policies. Trump told the four progressives they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” It was despicable thing to say, not to mention typically ill-informed, since all but Omar were born in the United States.
The four have been quarreling with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but she quickly rose to their defense, assailing Trump’s “xenophobic comments” and declaring that his signature slogan about American greatness “has always been about making America white again.”
But here are two modest proposals. First, Democratic presidential candidates should join in an informal union (they are pro-union, aren’t they?) and agree to stop answering “raise your hands” questions in debates. Inevitably, they are forced later to say that this or that issue is complicated, that the question they were asked was not exactly the right question — and the more they explain themselves, the more slippery they look.
Second, Democratic primary voters should add a new criterion to their list of must-haves: Who among these candidates is best suited to create the diverse alliance that must come together to beat Trump? This is not an argument for automatically picking the most “moderate” candidate. The nominee will certainly need middle-of-the-roaders who recognize what a disaster Trump’s presidency is. But she or he must also mobilize younger progressives into the electorate. Rarely has a party been more in need of raw political talent.
As for the House, I do not envy Pelosi her job of keeping together a caucus that runs from, say, Reps. Chrissy Houlahan to Ocasio-Cortez. There’s a lot of space there.
And let’s face it: House Democrats have sufficient power to get a few things done, but not enough to enact their core agenda, because of the Senate and White House blockades. (This also vexes the impeachment debate.) It’s a recipe for frustration, which breeds the kind of public bloodletting we’ve been witnessing.
House Democrats need to get their act together. They could take heart from seeing that Trump’s administration is vulnerable. It was a grim triumph, but it’s good that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta had to resign because of his inexcusable prosecutorial handling of the Jeffrey Epstein case. And Trump did have to retreat on his politically motivated census question.
Pelosi’s colleagues should then ponder a variation on a query from baseball lore: Can anyone here play a long game? This requires assessing how much clout you have now (it’s limited) and what your job is (improving the chances of defeating Trump and thereby earning the ability to get much more done after 2020).
It will be unforgivable if the opponents of a genuinely dangerous and immoral regime indulge themselves with inward-looking feuds when history’s demands upon them could not be clearer.