The Violence and Where it Comes From

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October 15, 2017

I’ve been trying understand the emotions that have been stimulated by the Trump presidency. My own emotions concern me; they are like the canary in the mine shaft, a sort of neuro-spiritual warning system.

The furious chanting at Trump pre-election rallies alarmed me: “Lock her up,” over and over as if Hillary’s guilt for an unindicted crime was beyond question, as if the rule of law was no longer operational and all that was needed was the order from the president, “Lock her up.” How could such viciousness be part of American politics? Equally frightening was the demonizing of Latinos. Had brown-skinned people become the new Jews? “Build the wall” the crowds shouted. The expressions of adoration for Trump are reminiscent of the Hitler personality cult. These passionate gatherings were not expressions of democracy in action; these were mobs whose anger has been awakened by Trump, then harnessed by him, not to benefit them, but himself. All that was missing is the upraised arms, the “Sieg Heil” salute.

I’ve been reluctant to use these comparisons because this part of historical knowledge has been debased by overuse by Americans on the extreme right who have no real understanding of 1930-1945. These are ignorant and/or fanatical people for whom the mirror of history is not something in which they could admit to see themselves. To protect their self-image, they project their darkness onto others. An example of this distortion is to call Democrats the “real fascists” because they, Democrats, see a beneficial and necessary role for a strong national government.

Alarmed hardly expresses what I feel. The impossible is happening. Almost everything that has come out of the Trump White house has been “impossible.” Not just beyond normal: appalling, repugnant, shocking. Not just embarrassing: despicable, ignorant, and incompetent. Lately, I’ve felt that I could not find the word for the moment; and no sooner had I thought that I was getting my mind around what was happening, something new would happen and I’d have to start over. Which demonstration of financial corruption, moral bankruptcy, cruelty, or stupidity to focus on? Things keep coming. He tosses rolls of paper towels to hurricane-devastated Puerto Ricans and threatens to destroy all life on the Korean Peninsula. From the ludicrous to the unthinkable. “Incredibly soft paper towels,” and the crowds loved me, he said on a friendly TV talk show October 8th. Not a word about the massacre in Las Vegas.

I’ve been silent now for over a month, literally speechless; but out of that state, a sort of intellectual depression, an idea has emerged, a way of thinking about Trump that does not involve adjectives: an understanding, a unifying thread. That thread is violence.

Violence was a dominant feature in National Socialism’s rise to power in the 1920s and 30s. It was political violence on the street made to look like expressions of popular anger. Later it was organized and its perpetrators wore uniforms and belonged to named groups. The purpose of the violence was to unsettle the civic life of ordinary Germans and to sow division, to separate the broad middle from the politics, the ideas, and the people who were on the margins of society, those that the Nazis identified as “enemies,” Jews and Communists, whose presence in their midst was said to justify the violence. The violence was necessary to purge the aliens.

The second purpose of the violence was to create fear. Speak out, disagree, and the violence will fall on you. Violence is a powerful instrument of oppression. One of the prime functions of a healthy and functioning democracy is that violence is kept from the political arena. Trump has turned that rule on its head.

At a rally in Las Vegas, on 23 Feb, the candidate for president of the United States says, about a protester, that he would “like to smash him in the face.” To his raging supporters on August 9, he said that Hillary Clinton would take away their guns, and then he makes, with a wink and a nod, a thinly veiled suggestion that someone might consider shooting her. “… nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.” He later ducks away from this remark by saying it was joke; if he hadn’t, the Secret Service would have been required to take it seriously. What was the Secret Service to do, investigate the Republican candidate for the presidency under the laws that outlaw threats of violence to political candidates? To do so would have meant acknowledging that something quite impossible was happening in the United States.

In July, Trump, now the president, tweeted a short YouTube video of himself physically “taking down” and beating a man whose head has been digitally replaced by the logo of the cable news channel CNN.

This appalling “joke,” so clearly aimed at intimidating the news media, was followed by an equally appalling string of comments by Americans who are attracted to his approval of violence. One should read these threads to truly understand what is happening in America, to take the intellectual and emotional pulse of a significant part of Americans.

By suggestion, Trump pushes his supporters toward violence, and by his silence, he condones the violence that he approves. On May 27, three men in Portland, Oregon attempted to protect two teenage Muslim girls who were being verbally abused by a white male on a public conveyance. The man turned on the three men with a knife, killing two instantly, and seriously injuring the third.

It took three days before Trump, yielding to pressure, could be bothered to even tweet a comment. He used his official @POTUS twitter account, 18 million followers, not the @realdonaldtrump account he uses to reach his base of 35 million followers. No condemnation of the killer, no praise for the civic courage and simple decency of the men who were murdered. Trump could only say that the act was “unacceptable.” Unacceptable! A different president might have brought the families of the martyred men to Washington, citing them as examples of the best of American values, expressing the nation’s gratitude that there are among us those who will stand up against thuggery and race hatred.

In August, the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota (no injuries) got no comment at all from Trump. A member of Trump’s inner circle, however, opined that it was a false flag operation designed to inflame people against the right. In February, Trump removed all white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations from a Department of Homeland Security program called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE.) The program was designed to fight and discredit the ideologies that promote violence. Only Muslim organizations remained on the list.

No longer on the proscribed list, an emboldened extreme right showed up in Charlottesville. They came, carrying shields, bats, and spray, intending violence, with Trump’s silent blessing. And with them also came militias, a show of force and threat of lethal violence that effectively neutralized law enforcement. Although there is no evidence that the militias participated in the subsequent brawling by the Neo-Nazis, their presence was intimidating. If free speech was the stated purpose of the alt-right demonstrations, the wordless “speech” of the militias, an unofficial army of white citizens armed with long guns and dressed in camouflage, was effectively louder than the messages of peace and tolerance that came from the counter-demonstrators.

During the day of the confrontations in Charlottesville, one of their number, a member of a new-Nazi group called Vanguard America, plowed a pickup truck into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Later that very day Trump retweeted an image of his “express,” his movement, plowing a train into a figure representing the news media, again CNN. (Someone in his staff removed it, but not before it went out to the 35 million followers of @realdonaldtrump.) There was no suggestion that this expression of violence by the president was “unacceptable.”

On August 25, Roger Stone, formerly a Nixon advisor and now a Trump intimate, said that any politician who votes to impeach Trump would be “endangering their own lives.” Again, the wink. “Not threatening,” said Stone, “Just predicting.” On this same day, Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man whose tactics brought police-state terror to the Hispanic community of southern Arizona and who defied a federal court order to cease the violence and unconstitutional detentions that were his signature. Arpaio was a thug. Hitler had similar thugs. Trump called Arpaio an American patriot. The pardon showed his utter contempt for the rule of law: he overturned a court order.

And then, on September 17, he retweets a doctored video of him, with his “mighty” golf swing, hitting Hillary Clinton in the back with a golf ball and she falls. The visual message is clear. He shot her. His followers, his base, understood. “Served her right. Should have been a bullet.”

Through all this, there is the steady drumbeat of Trump’s attacks on the media, “fake news” and the accusations of a lying press. When the Republican candidate for the House seat in Montana assaulted a journalist who had asked a question that he did not like, Trump said nothing, implying that this route to Washington was acceptable to him. The man was elected. In the first week of October, he threatened to revoke NBC’s broadcast license because of a story he didn’t like. Trump’s violence, thus, is not limited to the physical. It is also directed against the core institution of democracy, a free press, and thus against the Constitution itself, the guarantee in the First Amendment. This, without doubt, is the greatest threat that Trump presents.

This appalling man is of great concern since he has the power, virtually unchecked, to commit the country to a global war. That said, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should pay as much, if not more, attention to the Republican Party that supports and condones him, and, above all to the segment of the population that elected him, that he plays to, that his every action, every tweet, every insult, every outrage, is designed to excite and inflame. Trump’s base: that is the pressing issue. Trump identified those voters and has learned to exploit them, but he didn’t create them. He is as much a symptom as an actor.

The root cause is almost certainly the economic stagnation of certain areas of the country and segments of the economy, people feeling left behind and ignored. Capitalism’s often praised “winds of creative destruction” have actually devastated parts of the American middle. These issues need to be addressed at the roots of capitalism itself, but that, if even possible, will be a slow and politically arduous process. The emotions that have been stirred up by these violent societal changes are a more immediate concern. It is here that I find a link to the Las Vegas shooting.

The FBI has repeatedly said that they can find no motive for Stephen Paddock’s massacre. The desire to find a reason, the motive, is conditioned on laudable past habits, the desire to categorize and explain. In this case, there was no motive. No motive, no ideology, no doctrine; just emotion that Paddock expressed through a means that the Republican Party has provided, access to unlimited firepower, and in a way that Trump has encouraged and tacitly approved. The emotion was neither political nor ideological. It was simple hate. Free-floating hate, without apparent cause. He hated those concertgoers, young mostly, probably because they were happy. But at four-hundred yards, they were just specks, moving targets. He certainly didn’t see them as people.

Neither Trump or the Republican party sees the Americans that they would deprive of health care as people. Nor do they see the families that they break up, by deporting one or another of the parents, as people. They are far away, specks on the ground, data points in a cynical political calculation.

The intellectual vandalism; the impulses that Trump would pass off as understanding or as policy; the narcissism, envy, and insecurity that drive him, the hate that he encourages, has indeed divided America: region against region, white against the others, hatred of the elites, and, epitomized by Las Vegas, American against American. My own emotions are mostly of a political nature, alarm, grief for what has happened to America, profound dismay, utter contempt for the cowardice of Republicans. I have a long list of carefully considered grievances. The canary gasps, struggles for air.

Trump has let loose the mob. They gather in the lawless commons of the internet and feed each other’s hate and anger. When they went to the polls in 2016  it was in the spirit of a lynch mob. Lynch Hillary, burn the Capital, shred the Constitution. So far, the courts and custom are providing a brake on their passions, but we should make no mistake: the men with pitchforks, and now with military-style weapons, are at the gates.

America has seen this before. In his Lyceum Address of 1868, Abraham Lincoln had a warning. It may have turned out to be a description of where are today, of what has already happened to us. A virtuous and compassionate government, the sort that Lincoln envisioned, a government for all the people, has already fallen. Perhaps I am too pessimistic. But we should heed Lincoln’s words.

whenever the vicious portion of [our] population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, …throw printing-presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure and with impunity, depend upon it, this government cannot last. By such things the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it, and thus it (the government) will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak to make their friendship effectual.

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