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American Carnage

Tuesday 3 July 2018, by Adam Shatz

I’m in Europe this summer, though not in exile. I have not been driven to find sanctuary, much less thrown into a cage awaiting deportation, or forcibly separated from my child. When I fly home to New York, I will not be told that my name has ‘randomly’ appeared on a list, and taken aside to answer questions about the country of my ancestors, or my religious and political convictions. But for the first time in my life I’m not certain that this privilege, which ought to be simply a right, will last.

By a strange twist of historical fate, people like me, Jews whose families fled to the US from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became insiders, ‘white ethnics’, but the racism, intolerance and sheer vindictiveness that Donald Trump has helped bring into the mainstream are volatile forces, in constant search of new targets. For Muslims, Latinos, immigrants and black people, this has been the Summer of Hatred. Now we can add journalists to the list. Trump, the inciter-in-chief, called them ‘enemies of the American people’. Five were killed in Maryland last week; they are unlikely to be the last.

Any American abroad has had the experience of reading the news from home and experiencing the peculiar shock that others must feel when they learn of another school shooting, another police killing of a young black person. Is it possible, you wonder, that such atrocities fail to provoke a national emergency? But it is, and they do not. Instead, they are followed by similar atrocities, which occur with such numbing regularity that they begin to blur in your mind. This is the real ‘American carnage’, and it is permeating the country’s most powerful institutions, from the presidency to the Supreme Court.

The brutalisation of American life is nowhere more apparent than at the border with Mexico, where children were wrenched from their mothers’ arms by immigration officials and moved to detention centres in 17 states. (The Trump administration asked the Pentagon to prepare 20,000 beds for undocumented immigrants in military bases.) And though Trump rescinded the order, more than 2000 children – some as young as a few months old – have yet to be reunited with their families. Obama sang the praises of American multiculturalism but deported more undocumented immigrants than any previous president. Now Trump has stripped Obama’s policy of its already threadbare human face.

Whether American institutions would be resilient enough to resist Trump was one of the questions raised by his victory. We received a bleak answer last week from the Supreme Court, which voted by 5-4 both to weaken the collective bargaining power of public unions and to uphold the Muslim travel ban. Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was a striking example of the topsy-turvy logic of Trump world, invoking the First Amendment right to free speech against the right of public unions to collect dues from non-members.

Some commentators argued that the Muslim ban, an obvious case of animus against members of a religious minority, contradicted the Court’s recent decision in support of an Evangelical baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. But the upholding of the ban was consistent in spirit, if not in logic, with the Court’s decisions in favour of the strong against the weak. In its judgment, the court took the opportunity to overturn the 1944 decision that authorised the Japanese-American internment camps. Like Trump’s pardon of the black boxer Jack Johnson, the decision used the victims of an earlier injustice as cover for new injustices.

Noam Chomsky used to surprise interviewers by saying that he continued to live in America, in spite of his opposition to its foreign policy, because it was the ‘greatest country on earth’. An exaggeration, to be sure, but for many years a case could be made that the United States remained a comparatively free and open society, welcoming of immigrants, more accepting of hyphenated identities and cultural difference than most Western European societies. Even black Americans, who had the least reason to have hope in America (and nowhere else to go), could draw inspiration from its promise. As Langston Hughes put it, ‘America never was America to me,/and yet I swear this oath!/America will be!’

Hughes’s certainty that ‘America will be’ – a faith that sustained not only the civil rights movement but feminism, gay liberation and other movements for equality – is hard to share today. Trump remains popular with about 40 per cent of the electorate, and among Republicans – 27 per cent of the electorate – his approval ratings are at 90 per cent. He does not command the support of most Americans, but he isn’t weak, either, because he has a fanatical cult behind him. Anthony Kennedy, who has announced his resignation from the Supreme Court, has handed Trump another opportunity to cement his judicial legacy. The Court will soon be reconsidering such matters as reproductive freedom, gay marriage and voting rights: right-wing groups are especially keen to limit black turnout in the 2020 presidential election. There’s no reason to believe the Muslim ban might not be extended with the Court’s approval, or other restrictive measures introduced.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the ban is already affecting those who do not fall under its strictures. A French friend of mine, whose parents are Iranian, was recently stopped at JFK and interrogated for three hours, her bag searched for ‘agricultural’ items. For people of Muslim origin visiting the States, JFK has increasingly come to resemble Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, where marathon searches, based on unconcealed ethno-religious profiling, are carried out on ‘national security’ grounds, but are also intended to assert ownership of the ‘homeland’.

One effect of this policy – also not unintended – will be to discourage repeat visits. A friend of mine in London, a British novelist with Somali parents, told me that she has decided not to apply for a fellowship in New York because she’s afraid of being denied entry, or subjected to a humiliating search at JFK. Even if she were to come, she would face what Rafia Zakaria has called ‘brown existence anxiety’, caused by the ‘scowls and the sneers, all the ordinary inflictions of distress that remain un-tabulated and uncounted’.

As Zakaria points out, ‘brown existence anxiety’ is the penalty that Muslims and immigrants are forced to pay for the ‘white extinction anxiety’ that has spread among white Republican voters, now that there are more deaths than births among whites in a majority of states. Trump’s base isn’t that different from Nixon’s ‘silent majority’, whites outside metropolitan centres who believe in ‘law and order’ – i.e. keeping immigrants and people of colour in their place. But over the last half century, people of colour transformed America into a more tolerant, inclusive society, made inroads into the establishment, and helped impose a new set of norms about what could and could not be said about them. Under Trump, these norms – the fragile gains achieved by social movements – are being shattered. For whites who imagine themselves to have been persecuted or silenced, this is experienced as a great moment of liberation. That’s why Trump’s rallies – like the lynchings they resemble, though the murder is only rhetorical – are such joyous affairs, as full of laughter as they are of fury.

Hillary Clinton was attacked for referring to ‘half’ of Trump’s supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’, and there’s no denying the smug disdain, or the unmerited confidence she expressed in dismissing them. But was she wrong? The great question the Democrats now face is whether Trump’s supporters are redeemable, and if so, how many and at what cost. I recently listened to a well-known liberal critic of identity politics pontificate on the sorrows of white Evangelicals who, he said, feel entirely ignored by Hollywood. They had gone over to Trump, he claimed, because for once a politician had recognised them, validated their ‘culture’.

But the Evangelicals have an immense cultural infrastructure of their own, and Trump does not appear to have a comparable following among Black Evangelicals who are no less ignored by Hollywood. Chasing after Evangelicals – or the fabled ‘white working-class’ – sounds a lot like compromise with the forces of social conservatism, if not a resurgent white nationalism. In any case, the ‘white working-class’ is largely a figure of nostalgia. The actually existing American working-class is increasingly comprised of blacks and immigrants, the people who voted for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old socialist from the Bronx who won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district, defeating the white incumbent, Joseph Crowley, in the biggest upset so far of the 2018 midterms.

I never thought I’d experience such joy at a congressional primary, but beggars can’t be choosers. When, the day after Trump’s victory, I wrote a piece for this blog entitled ‘The Nightmare Begins’, a radical friend accused me of exaggeration. Trump, he said, had remembered the working-class voters abandoned by neoliberal Democrats, and criticised liberal hawk visions of imposing democracy by force. Sure, he had pandered to racists, but he ought to be given a chance and, besides, Clinton was an establishment candidate and the system needed shaking up.

As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev argue in a forthcoming book, The Light That Failed, the hard left had trouble reckoning with the danger posed by Trump because he ‘trashed all the essential postulates of the American creed, the set of beliefs underlying the country’s missionary zeal to spread its influence abroad’. As it turns out, his foreign policy is more militarist than Obama’s. He has deployed drones with abandon, ingratiated himself with dictators, and, by withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, made war in the Middle East much more likely. His foreign policy philosophy was helpfully summarised by one of his advisers as ‘We’re America, bitch.’

‘We’re America, bitch’ is also Trump’s message to Muslims denied entry to the US and undocumented immigrants sitting in cages. The reality of America under Trump is much worse than the nightmare I envisaged, because the movement that he leads is more potent than the Republican Party, and much larger than Trump himself, even if he has provided both with a charismatic figurehead. Voting him out may turn out to be the easy part. Repairing the damage he has caused, and containing the domestic forces he has unleashed, will be far more difficult.

2 July 2018