Worse and worse

Jul 19 2019

Remind me to never again ask this question: “How could things possibly get any worse?” This week showed us that things can always get worse. You can have a president who has played on bigotry and xenophobia in various disgusting ways but at least has never told four non-white congresswomen to go back to where they came from. You can have a president who has inspired supporters to do deeply unsettling things but at least has never stood in front of a crowd, basking in its malevolence, as it chanted—about a Somali woman who came to America as a child refugee, gained US citizenship, and then got elected to Congress—“Send her back.”

Regular readers of this newsletter are familiar with my sermons about the importance of responding to Trump’s provocations with discernment—which can mean not responding at all, since sometimes Trump’s goal is to elicit a reaction that will fortify his base. Well, for the record: This is not an occasion when tactical silence is in order. When Trump adds a whole new dimension to his incitement of hatred and bigotry, when he stands in front of a crowd and evokes with new power memories of history’s most dangerous authoritarians, there has to be pushback.

Still, this being the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, I’m duty bound to ask what form the pushback should take—and, in the course of answering that question, to assess this episode as dispassionately as possible, under the circumstances.

Let’s start with an unfortunately recurring question: Why doesn’t behavior by Trump that strikes us as beyond the pale erode support for him? Indeed, why did this particular burst of toxic Trump tweets—assuming the early polls are accurate—slightly increase Trump’s approval rating among Republicans (while slightly decreasing it among Democrats and independents)? How could a rant so widely condemned as racist be accepted, even embraced, by Trump supporters?

The answer that springs most viscerally to mind—“Because Trump supporters are racist!”—should be resisted, I think. One reason is that it short-circuits analysis; it keeps us from understanding how artfully Trump is destroying the fabric of America. And understanding that might help us figure out how to thwart him.

Trump supporters who defend these tweets tend not to do it by defending racism. Indeed, what they do—if this focus group of Trump defenders is any indication—is interpret them as not being racist. And if you look closely at the tweets, you start to wonder if they weren’t precision-engineered to make such interpretations possible.

Here is the combined text of the now-infamous three consecutive Trump tweets:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

Note that, though this utterance was guaranteed to draw charges of racism (since, for one thing, its unnamed targets are all women of color), it also gives Trump supporters grounds for denying the charges. After all, Trump didn’t mention anyone’s race. And the reason he gave for inviting the four women to leave the country has no ostensible connection to skin color. Rather, it’s all about their attitude toward America.

What’s more, the stated reason for them to leave America isn’t so we’ll be rid of them but so they can go do some good in the lands they came from! (Or the lands their ancestors came from; three of the four women were born in America.) And Trump, generous man that he is, even invites them to return to America after they’ve done their good deeds abroad!

You may have trouble believing that anyone could read Trump this benignly, failing to see the cruelty in his remarks, failing to pick up on the xenophobic and racist roots of the “Go back to where you came from” trope.

But you have to remember that we all go through the world with blinders on. When someone we fiercely support has been attacked, we don’t embark on an objective appraisal of the evidence. We ask what the allegations against them are and then look, laserlike, for exonerating evidence. And Trump’s tweets seem built to make that job doable, even if the job takes some work.

Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science and African-American studies at the University of Michigan, commented that, as Republicans see it, “Trump is simply saying: ‘Hey, if you don’t like America, you can leave.” He added, “That is not at all controversial. If you already support Trump, then it’s very easy to interpret his comments that way.”

Which leads to one thing that helped Trump supporters read his tweets as exculpatory: Many of these supporters had become convinced of the truth of Trump’s premise—that some or all of his four targets are people who don’t like America.

That’s partly because some of the congresswomen had used intense language that Trump managed to turn against them. He reminded people that Rashida Tlaib rather indecorously referred to the president of the United States as a “mother***er.” And Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s characterization of immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps,” with its evocation of Nazi Germany, has been cited repeatedly by people who, in defending Trump’s tweets, insist that she hates America. And of course, Trump loves nothing more than to seize on Ilhan Omar’s critical comments about Israel and AIPAC as evidence of anti-Semitism. (I arguedin a past issue of MRN that they don’t constitute such evidence, and I complained this week on Twitter about a prominent journalist who uncritically spread new claims that they do.)

And then there’s the stuff—lots of it—that Trump just flat-out fabricates. He says that Omar has praised al Qaeda (wrong), that Ocasio-Cortez called Americans garbage (wrong), and that the four congresswomen have referred to “evil Jews” (none of them has). And this week we heard this classically Trumpian non-allegation allegation about Omar: “Well, there is a lot of talk about the fact that she was married to her brother. I know nothing about it.”

OK, enough analysis. Now it’s time for the Monday-morning quarterbacking—which, however obnoxious some people will find it, is worthwhile, I think. This won’t be the last time Trump says or does something horrible and incendiary. If our reaction this time around could have been more effective, knowing that could come in handy next time.

Besides, “this time” isn’t over. Trump is still stirring the pot, managing to simultaneously claim he disapproved of the “Send her back” chant and signal that he approved of it. So there’s still time to recalibrate the pushback.

My main suggestion: I think more energy should have gone into—and can still go into—rebutting the premise that these women hate America. That would include not only refuting specific false claims made by Trump but also reminding people that true patriots criticize things they think are wrong with their country, much as parents may reprimand their children not because they hate them but because they love them and want to make them better. It might also include quoting a few things candidate Trump said in 2016 about what a terrible place America had become and how terrible its president was, and then asking his supporters if those things mean he hates America.

Of course, if more time went into rebutting the claim that these women hate America, that would leave less time for other things, such as asserting that Trump’s tweets were racist.

Which might be just as well. It was certainly important to spend time on that assertion—to highlight the bigotry that is built into “Go back to where you came from.” My view is that whenever Trump breaks new ground in norm violation we have to call attention to it, and this was a particularly pernicious violation. Trump not only raised the chances that these women (especially Omar) would be violently attacked, but in some measure nourished hostility toward the ethnic groups they belong to.

Still, making racism the overwhelmingly dominant thrust of the counteroffensive may have helped make Trump’s tweets the Rorschach test he wanted them to be: Even as the tweets enraged his critics they convinced his supporters that the rage was unwarranted, and that the critics are therefore mindlessly hostile toward Trump’s tribe.

In any event, there are several advantages to now amping up scrutiny of Trump’s claim that these four women hate America:

1) No sentient person can deny that he has made this claim.

2) In backing up the claim he has said a number of demonstrably untrue things—and I think there’s always value in calling out his consequential untruths, hard though it may be to inject these refutations into the conservative media ecosystem.3) In rebutting the claim, the four congresswomen Trump attacked can get rhapsodic about how much they love this country. Of course, they’ve always been able to do that—and in fact have done it—but they’ve never before done it under as big a spotlight as is on them now. Center stage is theirs, and this is an opportunity to confound Trump’s caricature of them. Some of them have already started to take advantage of this opportunity, and I say keep it up.

Trump’s basic political strategy is to look at people and say, “You’re not one of us.” Sometimes—often, in fact—he directs this charge at an ethnic group. But, while encompassing racism, the strategy goes beyond it; whatever the group (mainstream journalists, say), he takes the same basic approach, painting it as in some sense hostile, threatening, worthy of ostracism. He is the heir not just of George Wallace but of Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin.

Combatting this will be a challenge, to say the least. And I know that many people in the Resistance dismiss the kind of calm, deliberative approach I advocate—with its close attention to the psychological dynamics within the opposing tribe—as pointlessly passive. They listen to Trump’s supporters defend his outrages and conclude that trying to pry a few away from him is a lost cause.

But the Trump supporters you hear from aren’t necessarily typical Trump supporters, and they’re certainly not typical of the uncommitted voters who might vote for Trump as a last resort but would just as soon not. My view—of life, really, not just politics—is that however stark and binary things may seem, however deeply drawn the boundaries, there are always places where incremental gains can be made with sufficient effort.

Granted, attitudes on both sides of America’s tribal divide are much less fluid than two years ago, and gaining ground is harder than ever. But in war you fight, as adroitly as possible, for every square inch of turf until you’ve either won the whole thing or lost the whole thing. And this is war.

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