The Empty Gaze of Mike Pence

When people are not seen as human beings, but as a “storage” problem, the final solution becomes the “logical” solution. Are we going to let that happen?

In the 2001 movie, The Conspiracy, Nazi officials gather at a stately home to discuss what to do about the Jewish population, which for the most part has been removed from German society and are filling up concentration camps, work camps, and ghettos. They are becoming, as one of the characters terrifyingly puts it, a “storage” problem. The movie is based on the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where the “final solution” of mass genocide was discussed and decided upon.

Building the Wall, a play by Robert Schenkkan written around the 2016 election, takes place in the near future after Donald Trump is fictionally ousted from the presidency and imprisoned. It explores the intellectual and moral acrobatics of a private prison guard, himself narrating from the point of his own imprisonment, who found himself in charge of a large sports complex where thousands of immigrants were being held. There was an outbreak of cholera, which became a catalyst for his version of a “final solution.”

In both of these scripts, the logic of fascism takes over. The viewer is both sickened and seduced. At the end of two hours spent inside the heads of people who see whole groups of human beings as vermin, criminals, invaders, enemies, and mere bodies taking up space, you see that for them, there is no solution but genocide.

Which brings us to July 12th, 2019, when Mike Pence visited one of the regime’s concentration camps at the border. So much has happened since then that you might not remember what you saw. It’s become old news, quickly disappearing under the layers of ongoing atrocities in year three of the Trump era.

But it should persist in your memory because it’s so singularly telling and chilling. We see an enormous crowd of men crammed behind chain-link fencing, begging for help. They’re telling us that they’re not even being allowed to clean themselves, but we don’t actually need them saying it — the masks the camp guards are wearing for the stench are right there for us to see, and the reporters on scene are experiencing it firsthand.

The Vice President stands with arms crossed, flanked by silent GOP luminaries all dressed in navy blazers and khakis to match his own. A uniformed man gestures around with a tour guide’s nonchalant air, explaining about the placement of different watchtowers monitoring for anyone “who gets rowdy.” But the most memorable thing in the video is what’s in Mike Pence’s eyes, or rather what’s not in them. His blank gaze travels over this mass of suffering men pleading to him without registering the faintest response. They might as well be livestock, or even empty air. There’s no sign that he even perceives human beings to be there. Because to him, they aren’t.

Upon coming out, he declares that the conditions in the camps are “providing care every American would be proud of.” Which clinches it: he didn’t see what we just saw. He didn’t see anything at all.

Afterward, amid deafening silence from conservatives, we hear a lot of mealy-mouthed pieties from well-meaning commentators on the left about how Trump has committed a strategic mistake letting Pence visit these camps. These videos are such a bad look. History won’t be kind. Goodness, his administration is so dumb they don’t even realize this — otherwise, why would they ever officially release the video?

They have it exactly backwards. The Trump/Pence regime definitely wants everyone to see this video. Because for their purposes, it’s excellent publicity. It causes terror in the regime’s targets. It induces a sense of despair in the opposition that they have reason to hope will make us numb and inert. For their base, it’s gratifying cruelty porn, exactly what they voted Trump in for.

And no matter what the viewer’s attitude, it indelibly creates a certain image of Central American people (and more broadly, all brown and black people): this is their proper habitat, literally penned up as a single mass, a herd of animals, filthy, untouchable. Things no respectable person will want to be near. Things that must be kept away from the uncontaminated.

They know that image has power in the subconscious, even when it’s rejected by the conscious mind. Don’t think it can’t affect your own thinking — regardless of your color or your politics — especially as such propaganda increases in volume and intensity. These are known techniques for getting a population to accept unconscionable depravities. Tested and time-honored. They are used because they work.

This is not a movie, or a play. We can’t get up at the end and know that either all of that is history or some hypothetical warning. Right now, a fascist regime is creating what they see as a “storage” problem, for which there will only be one solution if we don’t stop them. Don’t say that can’t happen here. Why did the Nazis study Jim Crow laws?

And don’t say that there’s no way to stop it but to wait until 2020, or that it’s too late to stop it now. Neither of those statements is true. Just since 2016, in many parts of the world, we’ve seen how to remove tyrannical regimes. It’s been done in South Korea, Armenia, Algeria, Sudan, and as we speak in Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and Honduras. This is the plan and strategy of Refuse Fascism – sustained, unrelenting, non-violent mass protest by millions of people that does not quit until hated regime is gone.

The longer we wait to stand for our values and use our power, the more, as a society, we allow the logic of genocide to take hold. We must not go down that road. Very soon, the moment to launch the kind of sustained protests that can actually knock a fascist regime off the tracks has to be seized. Refuse Fascism is preparing for that moment. Join us. The future is calling.

Coco Das and Sarah Roark are members of the editorial collective of Follow them on Twitter. @coco_das @afterdaylight