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We’ve have entered the time of mock outrage. The press was shocked that armed neo-Nazis were marching through the streets of Charlottesville shouting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us!” Republicans were aghast that many of these thugs were wearing Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” caps. Democrats were indignant that Republicans didn’t call for Trump’s head on a platter. Everyone felt very good about how bad they felt.
In this national psychodrama, Trump plays the role of the Great Revealer. Trump has pulled back the curtains on the cesspool of American politics for the inspection of all but the most timid. Trump speaks the forbidden words that many other Americans secretly think. Trump utters these heresies self-righteously and without shame. Therefore he must be punished for putting the system at risk. He must be lashed for his shamelessness. He must be castigated for exposing the sickness at the heart of the American project.
Trump is Melville’s Confidence Man: he offers his minions the chance to indulge in political taboos. But unlike Bill Clinton or Barack Obama he is not a trickster or a quick-change artist. All of his lies and temptations are at the service of his own vanity and most are so transparent that even his most ardent devotees don’t swallow them whole. Yet he rarely lies about how he feels. Not for long anyway. His skin is too thin. Trump can’t escape who he really is. In another politician, Jimmy Carter perhaps, this might be an endearing quality. With Trump it is deeply unnerving. Trump’s rapacity and bigotry strike too close to home. He reminds us that we haven’t buried the worst of our past.
Trump is a familiar character to most of the world. He is the unvarnished embodiment of the American bully, who has stalked the planet for the last century taking what it wants and leaving corpses and ruin in its wake. There is in Trump no pretense to the humane, no guise of benevolence or cloak of empathy. He is the threatening figure he appears to be, which is, of course, exactly how you want your adversary to appear.
The poor recognize Trump for what he is: he’s the guy who collects the rent, who turns the water and electricity off, who spits at you when you ask for money for food, who sends your kid off to war while his goes big game hunting, who snitches your mom out to the cops for her Oxycontin habit. They don’t need any false words from Trump to heal their shock about the evil rampage in Charlottesville. They aren’t shocked by Charlottesville. They’ve lived that reality most of their lives. And they aren’t startled that the perpetrators have sympathizers in the government. That’s the way it’s always been on the mean streets of America.
Now middlebrow America is getting a glimpse of itself through the mirror of its own bombastic, vindictive and racist leader. He has fractured the rituals and conventions that desensitized most Americans from what our system is really all about. The elites fear Trump because he gives the game away. He personifies the reality they’ve been working for decades to conceal. The role of most presidents has been to comfort the nation when it recoils at a sudden view of its own depravity, from the My Lai massacre to Abu Ghraib, assuring the citizenry that the system isn’t as malign as it appears. Trump pours acid on the wounds, as when he impertinently reminded the country that its two most revered founders were big time slave-owners.
Trump’s initial response to the Charlottesville Nazifest was one of the most honest statements of his presidency. No false pieties, no hollow condolences to the dead and injured, no fake denunciation of the racists whose support he craves and whose views he shares. With a wink and nod, he swiftly condemned generic hate and violence, leaving the country to wonder how these sentiments squared with his remarks earlier in the week threatening to nuke North Korea and invade Venezuela. When he returned to the cameras two days later to read the words that the political and media elites put in his mouth, Trump looked like he was making a hostage tape. He seethed as he spit out sentences against his will. You could almost see the steam rising as he stormed out of the room. You just knew he was going to blow.
It took less than 24 hours. On Monday, Trump blew up Infrastructure Day 2 with an incandescent eruption of white rage, where he impetuously advanced a moral equivalency between Nazis, some of them armed with semi-automatic rifles, and the people amassed to confront them. During his rancid rant, Trump crassly used a Tweet by Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, as a prop to boost his own self-esteem and then a few hours later Tweeted out a cartoon of a Trump train running over a CNN reporter. The man has class. People were quick to say Trump’s presidency ended at that moment, as even squeamish CEOs started jumping ship. I’d argue that it’s just begun.
We are now confronted with the most openly racist president since Woodrow Wilson and he isn’t going anywhere for the next few years. How naïve did you have to be to think it was going to work out much different? What was the AFL-CIO doing on the president’s Manufacturing Council to begin with? If you hadn’t paid attention to his racist tactics as a landlord or his call to have the railroaded and innocent young black men known as the Central Park Five executed, there were hours of Trump tape from the Howard Stern Show to document the moral character of the man. Did anyone really think Trump was capable of denouncing white racists with any kind of authenticity? For Trump to condemn Nazis is to condemn Daddy. He’s frozen in a Freudian knot. It’s instructive to realize that 3 of the last 5 US presidents had fathers or grandfathers who were Nazi sympathizers. (See Prescott Bush.) And the sixth, Ronald Reagan, laid flowers on the graves of the Waffen SS.
The GOP damage control strategy has been obvious: you must publicly denounce KKK & Nazis if you want to continue implementing racist policies and laws. And all but the most loyal Trumpites have fallen into line. The problem is that Trump’s base isn’t going with them. Indeed, there’s little indication that Republican voters are bothered much by Trump’s fulminations. Trump remains the great white hope. They want to see him fight and don’t much care if he’s throwing punches at Nancy Pelosi, Wolf Blitzer or Mitch McConnell.
Trump has tried to rally his forces by talking about the sanctity of American history and the cultural value of statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. He even suggests that the Alt-Left might soon be coming with a wrecking ball for the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Let it be so!
But even Lee would have been a dissenter to Trump’s cause. In a 1869 letter to a friend, Lee resisted movement in the Southern states after the war to erect memorials to the Rebels. “I think it wise not to keep open the sores of war,” Lee wrote, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Lee was lucky to have lived to have a say in the matter. President Andrew Johnson wanted the general tried and executed as a traitor. His neck was saved by Ulysses S. Grant. No good deed goes unpunished. Now Grant is known mostly for his Tomb, which he ended up in after drinking more than Nixon in the Final Days and Lee is mythologized as a reluctant warrior and honorable loser. (He was neither.) Grant was a helluva writer, by the way. His memoirs–written while he was broke and dying of throat cancer–are the best of any president’s (not saying all that much, admittedly.)
Lee’s request largely held sway until the turn of the century. The vast majority of Confederate memorials and statues went up after the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 and the subsequent rise of Jim Crow Laws across the South. The confederate monuments idolized by Trump and his retinue aren’t solemn idols to a lost cause, but imposing symbols of the reassertion of white power.
Trump himself has been somewhat less respectful of historical monuments when they’ve stood in his way. In 1979, Trump stunned the New York art world when he demolished two highly esteemed art deco friezes on the façade of the Bonwit Teller building to clear the way for the construction of Trump Tower. And even now he has ordered his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to develop plans to gut protections for as many as 27 national monuments, from the Siskiyous to the Bear Ears.
For their part, the Democrats, who almost universally backed the torch-bearing fascists in Ukraine, have been grousing about Trump’s use of the term Alt-Left. But the president swiped it from Democratic Party operatives such as Neera Tanden, Joan Walsh and Joy Reid, who have been using the expression to smear Bernie Sanders and his rag-tag gang of Sandernistas as left-wing zealots bent on taking over the Democratic Party.
These same liberal functionaries are now demanding that Trump fire Steve Bannon to prove he’s serious about confronting racists. By the same measure, shouldn’t the Democrats expel all of their own members who voted for the racist Clinton Crime Bill, which has arguably inflicted more damage on black America than any legislation since the Fugitive Slave Act? (This would, of course, include Bernie Sanders, who remains unrepentant about his vote.)
But if you had only one target to set your sights why waste it on Bannon? On foreign policy and economics Bannon tends to be the sanest voice in the padded cell known as the Oval Office. Check out his fascinating interview with Robert Kuttner in the crusty liberal rag American Prospect, where Bannon inveighs against the hawks in the White House, dismisses the “alt right” as losers and clowns who need to be crushed, and rules out military action against North Korea, going so far as to say that he’d support removing US troops from South Korea in exchange for a verifiable freeze in the North’s nuclear weapons program. Surely, when it comes to racist policies the greatest villain in the Trump ecosystem is the Living Confederate Monument J. Beauregard Sessions. But the Democrats have flocked to defend Sessions, first because they want him to stay on as AG to protect Mueller’s Russia probe from getting pink slipped by Trump and second because he used the magic word “terrorism” when describing the killing of Heather Heyer. That was easy. Now watch how many blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans Sessions locks up over the next 3.5 years.
With Bannon out, the efficiency experts from the Pentagon and Goldman Sachs now running the Trump White House may actually be able to put their plans into action. Duck and cover…
Predictably, in the post-Charlottesville fever there’s been a rush to find a legislative fix to curtail future noxious gatherings of American Nazis. These knee-jerk maneuvers will almost certainly pose more of a threat to the Constitution than the white power movement.
If they criminalize “hate” what will happen to those of us who hate war-makers, bankers, oil companies, home foreclosers, killer cops & white supremacists? Any laws enacted in the name of Charlottesville will restrict the political activities of the left more than the far right, for the simple reason that the government has nothing to fear from the far right. [See the aftermath of Clinton’s Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (passed after the Oklahoma City bombing) and the Patriot Act.] Already the congress is moving to outlaw boycotts of Israel. How easy will it now be to apply the same censorious template to quash protests against clearcuts on national forests, nuclear plants, animal slaughterhouses, ICE raids, drone operations or police violence?
It’s a dead certainty that the biggest beneficiary of the horrors that took place in Master Jefferson’s city will be the most lethally racist institution in the country: the police, who will see their powers and budgets increase. In Charlottesville, it was hard to tell the cops from the neo-Nazis. Swaddled in their black storm-trooper gear, the police held back, watching passively as goons with shields and clubs flailed away at protesters. It wasn’t difficult to detect where their sympathies resided.
There are probably more white supremacists in the NYPD than the neo-Nazi Vanguard America, which claims only 200 members. On one day alone this month (August 4th, 2017) 9 Americans in 7 different states were killed by police. I didn’t read anything in the New York Times about that atrocity. Perhaps this kind of state-sanctioned racist violence is now much too familiar to even warrant a headline.
What I’m listening to this week…
What I’m reading this week…
The Potlikker Papers: a Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge
Battles for Freedom: the Use and Abuse of American History by Eric Foner
Class, Race and Marxism by David Roediger
An Imaginary Life by David Malouf
The Jailing of Peaches
Joann Christian Mants: “When one person got involved, it took everybody else along. I went to jail first, but my entire family soon joined the Movement. One time, Faith & I ended up at home with all the babies from 2 households, because the mamas & the other older sisters were in jail. In the morning we had to plait everybody’s hair & feed them–it was a mess! We had all the babies except Peaches Gaines, who was in jail with her mother & my mother. Peaches was jailed because she had not obeyed an officer. She was about 2 two years old. Her bond was set at, I believe, $125.00.”