Don’t Laugh

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February 27, 2017

Both Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Stockholm have had the experience of living through a terrifying event in the “alternative facts” universe of Donald Trump. Both were victims of attacks perpetrated by Muslim immigrants. Bowling Green’s was a “massacre,” and Stockholm’s was less specific, but happened “last night,” said Trump in a campaign-style speech on February 21st. There were no terrorist attacks.

One is tempted to deal with this sort of thing through satire, of which there is a great deal, on late night TV and twitter. The pissed-off Swedes tweeted a great flood of often very clever responses to Trump’s gaffe and his anti-immigrant policies. They can be seen at #lastnightinSweden. The mock IKEA ad below is an example.

I am uneasy about the humor. Because it is so well-aimed, I fear we might be seduced into thinking that mockery might effectively puncture Trump’s attacks. It won’t.

The unifying themes of Trump’s attacks are the threat of terrorism from Muslim Immigrants and fear of immigrants generally, the foreign “other,” a group that includes Latin Americans. The purpose of Trump’s speeches is to create fear.

“We must keep our country safe,” he says over and over. The message is aimed at those he has convinced that he, and only he, can protect them. The more afraid these people are the better for Trump.

Trump’s remarks stirred up the same dark currents in Sweden that his demagoguery stirs up in the U.S. In its first hours #lastnightinsweden had nothing but humor, but now the twitter hashtag has become infected with the same inflammatory disregard for facts that characterizes Trump. There are pictures of burning cars and policemen silhouetted against the flames, all under the rubric of “last night in Sweden.” With a little research, one discovers that the pictures come from a 2010 event. Trump had stirred up the xenophobes, the haters, in Sweden. No wonder the Swedish government was angry.

On 23 February the Times and the Post reported that there had been a disturbance in Stockholm on the previous night, a coincidence. An event, rocks thrown at police who were making a drug arrest, “not unprecedented but infrequent” said Swedish authorities. None of the major European papers—Spanish, French, British—make any mention of this incident, while both the Times and Post covered the issue carefully, no doubt to avoid being accused of suppressing the news. This seems a reasonable caution in dealing with Trump who clearly is out to crush or intimidate both papers. On this same Thursday, Fox News ran a segment with an expert whom Fox described as a “Swedish National Defense and Security Advisor” who explained that that immigrant crime in Sweden was debilitating the country. The Swedish government subsequently said they had never heard of this man.

Civil unrest in the U.S., as in Europe, it is the result of poverty, underemployment, and social isolation in a marginalized population. Police actions are often the trigger. It is not terrorism. Nevertheless, it fits into Trump’s fear-based narrative of a decaying and vulnerable America. “And the worst thing you can imagine could come to a neighborhood near you,” is the theme of his demagoguery. (That the worst is more likely to be a deranged neighbor with an assault rifle is unmentioned.) The specter of Other, whether speaking Arabic or Spanish, is what unifies the terrorist threat with the immigrant threat. Fear keeps his constituency in a constant state of apprehension, an emotion that converts, in the weird chemistry of mass psychology, into adoration of the strong leader who will protect them. A cult of personality around Trump has formed in the United States. This, Trump wants.

To consolidate power Trump needs, and indeed, might even wish for, a terrorist attack or major incident of civil unrest. If such a crisis were to happen he would, with the enthusiastic support of his constituency, be able to sweep away any opposition to dictatorial power. He would, as Hitler did after the Reichstag Fire, be able to rule by decree. He would muzzle the Media that he calls “the enemy of the people,” and discredit the courts, the one institution that still stands between him and the shredding of the Constitution’s limits on executive power. He has already said that responsibility for a terrorist attack would be laid to the court that blocked his first immigration order.

We must inoculate ourselves, protect our capacity for critical thought, so that when the inevitable crisis occurs, we do not allow ourselves to be swept away by the collective panic. The history and contents of the USA Patriot Act are instructive. I think it important to remember these things.

It is important also to remember that race and religion, combined in a perverted ideology into a single group, the Jew, were the way the Nazi movement branded their “other,” the enemy they needed. Trump’s immigration “policies” are both racial and anti-Muslim; these attitudes form the core of his message and of his appeal to a white and Christian America that feels under threat. It is in this nexus of race and religion, the foreign “other,” that one finds the clearest parallels between Donald Trump and the darkest period of modern history. We should not misread Trump’s content, underestimate his capacity for destruction, nor dismiss his method as buffoonery. Satire won’t kill this thing.

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