The Thug Parade Marches On D.C.
Night driving along California state route 152 from the 101 to the Grapevine always takes longer than I expect. There are no lights for much of it, and many turns along the way. It is a good reminder that on the road as in life, it’s best to know where you’re going, for progress is never guaranteed.
As I made the drive to L.A. where I hoped to distract myself from the reality of a Trump White House with the company of good friends and a city that, despite its well-known flaws, seems to lean into a progressive future almost effortlessly, because of the communities that make their homes there.
I scanned the airwaves for music, finding mostly rancherías, old ballads like “Sabor A Mí” and the occasional corrido. In between the accordion and tuba refrains, Mexican D.J.s came on to name the songs or mention upcoming events. That is their job, after all, to say and do those things in rapid-fire slang with an ebullient attitude, and yet for once, the mood of Mexican radio was dampened. One host let incredulity creep into her voice, reporting in stunned amazement that Trump’s books were selling “como panes calientes.”
So then, where were we? Ah yes, it was nearly Thanksgiving, 2016. The Great Barrier Reef was still dead, and scientists were reporting a 25 kilometer swath of kelp forests off Australia’s North Coast had been wiped out between 2002 and 2011. Dead as a doornail after a rise in sea temperatures that allowed herbivorous fish to increase their ranks and eat themselves out of a habitat. Meanwhile, the United States’ incoming presidential administration was recommending Myron Ebell, a climate change denier, to run the Environmental Protection Agency. President Obama was away on what was likely the last international trip of his presidency, giving vague warnings in Greece and elsewhere about the new leadership about to succeed him. Who knows what he was saying in private to Angela Merkel. Perhaps they simply sat in silence drinking Asbach Manhattans and smoking endless piles of cigarettes. Sometimes, that is all you can do.
We were drinking Camparis, my friends and I, sitting in their backyard which overlooks the San Gabriel mountains the day after my midnight drive to the southland. The view and the company were doing the trick, the distraction was nearly total, but in the back of my brain I couldn’t escape the thought that thousands of miles away, on another coast, an ugly brute squad was taking shape; readying the war drums for a march on the nation’s capital.
It didn’t feel like it then, what with the drinks and the view and the good, clean laughs we shared, but we were less free than we had been only a few days before, and things would only get worse in January. We knew others were suffering, and would suffer much more than us in the days, months and years to come. An injury to one is an injury to all, and we have, all of us, suffered a concussive blow that hasn’t begun to show the extent of its injury upon us.
The scum have risen and are following a beacon from a tower in Manhattan. The first to emerge were GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, who Trump has named his Chief of Staff, and Breitbart News executive, Stephen Bannon, whom Trump named a “top aide” and “strategist.”
Priebus is a clear nod to the Republican establishment, albeit, a keen Trump supporter and evidently, instrumental in creating technology that helped with the election win. He led the 2012 election post mortem that recommended reaching out to Latinos and using tech to win in the future — advice that was only partially adhered to this year. Bannon is a champion of the racist right, who has expressed contempt for the Republican Party. They’ve been described as “co-equals” within the new administration, who will help conduct day-to-day business in the White House. Some analysts are calling this arrangement unprecedented, and worry it could get messy.
From where I sit, this is a non-concern. Inevitably, a clear direction forward will come from Trump, who, I suspect, feels competition between Bannon and Priebus will spur better, more innovative policy ideas; perhaps similar to how the C.E.O. of Omni Consumer Products ran his boardroom in RoboCop…our new president is a businessman, after all.
Conspiratorially, I wonder if the insistence on the “co-equals” branding is a screen to pacify the G.O.P. into thinking they’ve been given a seat at the table while in fact, the Priebus appointment is no more than lip service to the establishment, something to keep them quiet, temporarily at least, while Trump continues listening to Bannon first and foremost. This is the man whom Kellyanne Conway described as “the general” in Trump’s campaign, and is someone who’s said to know how to flatter the billionaire in a way to curry his favor.
For now, perhaps it’s more useful to focus on what we know for certain, which is that Bannon is on record expressing disdain for Jews and has suggested Silicon Valley has too many Asian executives. He thinks women who’re trolled online should leave the Internet, and that sexism isn’t to blame for women being passed up for jobs, but rather, it’s because “they suck at interviews.” A graduate from the Harvard School of Business, Bannon was recently denounced by several hundred fellow female alum, who reject his appointment. He has called his news organization a platform for the alt-right, a white supremacist movement. Bannon self describes as a nationalist, though others have called him a white nationalist, a label he rejects.
Covert racism is a major component of modern American politics, but to fill the White House with overt racists, well, that’s something we haven’t seen since the 1960s. I don’t mean to downplay the racist attitudes and policies of presidents and their administrations in more recent decades, but rather call attention to the fact that, after a brief break from the action, outright racists are back in power.
Bannon is supported by the likes of Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who coined the term “Alt-right.” In a recent interview with N.P.R.’s Kelly McEvers, Spencer argued that “European Americans” were the defining culture of America, and laid out his vision for the creation of a “white ethno state,” which he defines as “a big empire…a safe space for Europeans.”
Spencer is quick to call graffiti a crime, but to him, invoking the swastika — which he describes as an ancient symbol — or the wearing of klan robes are just ways for people to express their opinions. He claims that world history proves races don’t get along with one another. He sees legal immigration as a greater danger to the United States than the illegal variety, and proposes “taking a break from mass immigration to help shape or reshape our identity.” Perhaps most chilling of all Spencer’s remarks in his N.P.R. interview is his comment concerning U.S. citizenship, which, when asked if it should be a privilege extended only to whites, he deflected by saying “[citizenship] isn’t something that can be changed…right away.”
We can’t let hate-filled punks like Spencer to make such claims without immediately destroying their arguments. What’s more, we can’t let them dictate the terms by which they are defined. The label “alt-right,” while still unpalatable to many, is more palatable than labels like “racist,” “Nazi” or “supremacist,” but these are the labels we must use, for this is who these people are. To accept their self-appointed labels is to normalize their words, personas and beliefs, thus allowing them to occupy more space in mainstream thought. Over time, this has a pacifying effect which affords greater leverage towards the spread of their ideology.
The U.S. government and the governed typically think of themselves as living in a representative democracy, with an emphasis on the principles of freedom and individuality codified by the Constitution and upheld by a system of checks and balances. This is taught in schools and echoed in rhetoric by politicians. While there is a certain truth to these claims, by themselves, they omit a great deal of historical fact that stands in contradiction to this narrative of a land of freedom and equality. This is much better articulated in numerous other sources, but what isn’t as predominantly documented, is the presence of fascist thinking and institutions in American society throughout its history beginning with the genocide of Native Americans which formalized itself under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, to say nothing of course, with regard to the institution of slavery. Fascism is nothing new to the U.S. Few historians, however, and certainly very few high school teachers or even college professors, seem willing to discuss the similarities between the white, landed gentry of the Confederacy and say, Nazi Germany.
Despite its virtual absence from popular historical thought, the reality of American fascism is quite easy for many Americans to grasp, especially for Americans who have lived through or have a family history of, surviving racial prejudice. Knowing that your great grandmother was enslaved on a Mississippi plantation where she was subject to being whipped, beaten, raped and even murdered if the master so desired, has a way of crystallizing certain truths. Having a grandmother who could relate the story of their mother who survived (or didn’t) slavery goes further to underline the reality of the past, and of course, personally experiencing racial prejudice, intimidation and violence are the ultimate forms of understanding that this kind of fascist thinking and behavior, sadly, is as American as the notion of liberty and justice for all.
It is easier to exotify and denounce the racism of other nations than it is to face the racism of one’s own country. The state, too, has a stake in perpetuating such views on racism, as it functions quite well as a way to distract from its own culpability in manufacturing these kinds of environments. We see this distinction of racism, ours and theirs, reflected in the language we use to discuss history. The Black Codes and Jim Crow aren’t always talked about as legislated apartheid — the term ‘apartheid’ is rarely used to describe the period of history from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Act, even if we understand it to be accurate. Apartheid is reserved for South Africa. Similarly, we are more willing to discuss how the Nazis forced Jews, Roma and gays into ovens and cyanide showers, but not how Confederate slave society deemed black Americans and Africans chattel, and therefore subject to any whim of the master. Which is to say, if they wanted to put them in an oven or poison them somehow, they could have, and it would have been perfectly legal to do so.
Now, we’ve come a long way from all of that — some of us — at least, but we’re far from overcoming the ugly realities of the past or even acknowledging how they inform our present. For many, it is hard to see how a white man having the legal precedent to whip a black man, woman or child in 1815 indirectly facilitates a murder without consequence of a black person today, either by a citizen or authority figure. Say, George Zimmerman, or a police officer.
This history makes possible organizations like the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. This history, in part at least, informs the thinking of people like Bannon and Spencer. Openly prejudiced men are once again entering the upper echelons of federal power structures, thereby lending legitimacy to hate mongers throughout the country. So far, this has been limited to cowardly outbursts of graffiti’d swastikas and anti-immigrant slogans, and in more extreme cases, violent attacks. The concern of course, is that such behavior will become more widespread and severe if Trump and his band of racist thugs find ways to go through with regressive actions like mass deportations, shutting the door to legal immigrants and placing Muslims under surveillance. Taken at their word, there is every indication that they will try to do these things. Trump’s failure to legitimately disavow the rash of hate crimes committed in his name goes further to suggest he sees no real problem. Trump’s “stop it” comment on 60 Minutes is a sad, sorry excuse for a response to the call to denounce such behavior. His appointment of Bannon says much more.
Certainly, there are all kinds of covert surveillance operations going on within the U.S. that we are all subject to. This is nothing new. We take it for granted that activists are kept on lists, to say nothing of the routine domestic spying on the citizenry as a whole. But what will these operations look like and how will they be conducted when white supremacists are once again walking the wings of the White House?
Trump called for unity after his election win, claiming also that he would be a president “for all Americans.” What no one is saying is that, being president inherently means being a leader for all Americans. That is in fact, what the office is; but of course, this is a man who didn’t realize he was going to have to replace some 4,400 White House staff when he takes office, or evidently, hadn’t familiarized himself with much of the daily operations of what the presidency entails. What good is preparation anyways, you learn the most when you’re on the job, right?
You don’t get to run a campaign on anger and divisiveness then turn around and appeal for unity. Well, you can, and he has, but that’s not what he deserves nor is it what he’ll get. Instead, Trump is being met with a popular bloc unified against him and his goons. What remains to be seen is whether the system has been eroded enough already as to render popular dissent ineffectual. Someone is going to have to explain to Donald that climate change is real and that the Great Barrier Reef is dead because of it. Perhaps we need to come up with a business incentive that would encourage such a belief. Then, we might gain some traction.
Sadly, I don’t think even a sweetheart deal from China would change that particular line of thinking. Nor do I think Mike Pence will be convinced that gay conversion therapy is the stuff of sadistic fiction…
Rudy Giuliani’s shiny pate glistens in the shadows, waiting for confirmation that its owner is the new Secretary of State, ready to join the ranks of our new C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (ret.) now of the N.S.A. and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions…soon to be Attorney General.
The mood of at least half the nation is one of fear and sadness. Though I must say, since driving back to the bay, I haven’t noticed a dramatic change in the community vibe. Sure, there’s a Truck Frump sign on the tip jar in Arbor Cafe, and a lot of activists mobilizing for the days ahead, but thankfully in this corner of the country, the people are largely on the same page. My worry is for other communities, where people are less protected from the effects of this new political regime.
A few days ago, I reached out to a friend who lives in New York, asking him to gauge the social temperature as he sees it from his neighborhood in Brooklyn. After all, he lives in the city where Eric Trump had to scuttle off after being heckled by kids on the street, and Mike Pence was briefly booed at a performance of Hamilton. Perhaps the rabble are gearing up for a confrontation…
“I’ve heard of a few Trump supporters getting beat up, but I’ve heard about way more hate speech going the other way. No one I know directly, but friends of friends as reported by Facebook — a group of Latinos having slurs yelled at them on a fairly posh block in the Upper West Side, and some gross anti-Semitism on the subway. That’s just from my personal network so I’m sure there’s thousands or tens of thousands more.”
This friend happens to be a brown skinned man with a beard, and I was curious how he felt walking around the city in light of the recent uptick of racist graffiti and attacks.
“I don’t feel particularly nervous being out in the city, though I’m sure my anxiety will rise once Obama is out of office…I’m more worried about police/surveillance apparatuses than hate crimes. NYPD has been relatively lax about drugs and general fuckery post-Bloomberg, but I could see them getting into full pig mode with Trump in charge.
“Some specific fears I have are being flagged for participating in leftist reading groups online, which has never been a concern before, or that someone I’ve copped from will get picked up under this immigration thing and I’ll be implicated through a call log.
“Normally I wouldn’t worry about the cops busting me for buying a couple of bags, as it’s a huge waste of time and money to even investigate. But if Trump shovels resources to them through national anti-terror, anti-drug, anti-immigrant bullshit, which I’m sure he will, all sorts of formerly acceptable risks become more serious.”
Serious, indeed. We’ll just have to wait for our next president to descend from his tower and take his seat at the head of his newly appointed kakistocracy. Will he even live in the White House, or just use it as a vacation cottage? Perhaps he can rent it out to visiting dignitaries if it’s decided having them stay in his newly constructed hotel in D.C. is a conflict of interest…which remains to be seen. We probably won’t hear much from him until January, at least in person. For now he seems content taking potshots from his Twitter in between meetings with the likes of Mitt Romney and others…perhaps Pam Bondi will drop by with a recommendation or two about new drapes for the Oval Office, or maybe just ask for another $25,000 “gift” for recommending a particularly good hot dog stand on C Street. And why not? It worked the first time. Even after putting up the 25 million to quash the fraud charges against him, the president-elect can easily afford it.