What “Things Going Wrong” Can Look Like
On a recent post I made about how President Trump marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, one of my readers asked a good, but hard, question: Why did this regime single out some particular groups (e.g., Muslims, Latinos, Black, and Trans people) as their main targets, and not others?
I tried to answer his question, and while what I wrote is necessarily incomplete, I think it at least gives some directions. That led to adding some notes about how things are likely to develop over the next few years for each of the respective groups.
I decided to repost this here, but I want to give you fair warning right now: This is not going to be a pretty thing to read. It will not have any reassurances in it. If you’re looking for an argument that we’ve been exaggerating the threat and everything is going to be alright, or that Trumpism is really great after all, stop reading now: you are in the wrong place. Go look at some cute animals instead.
Let’s begin by looking at the four groups called out in the comment, and ask why they’re particular targets right now.
Ever since 9/11, the US has been simmering in a stew of “Muslims are evil, they want to destroy America.” This was made easier by the fact that many Americans had never met a Muslim before; it was also very politically expedient for many people to encourage. The net result is that anti-Muslim sentiment has become profoundly vitriolic, and often violent, across the country, only becoming more so over time. Trump has been an active supporter of this from the beginning, so it’s not surprising that they’re among his first targets.
Latinos come from a different angle, one more tied to nativism: they’re the current version of those “damned immigrants” that Americans have a history of blaming for things. (As were the Italians, the Irish, the Germans, etc., in the past) In particular, Trump’s campaign was based on exacerbating this: going to areas where there was a steady collapse of the long-term economic outlook, and telling people that it was because of deals with China and Mexicans coming in and stealing people’s jobs. The rhetoric was never very consistent; immigrants are simultaneously lazy and stealing all the jobs. (cf also Exodus 1:9–10, 5:6–9, 5:17; some rhetoric never changes) But it’s extremely politically expedient to encourage as well: people who are blaming immigrants for their economic problem can vent their anger against them, and will not be asking too many questions about (e.g.) why the factory is now fully automated, or full-time employees with benefits were replaced with part-timers, or things like that.
(cf also European policies about Jews from the Middle Ages through the Early Modern period. There is nothing new under the Sun.)
Black people are a third angle still. The history of racial hatred there is, of course, the history of America as a whole; there’s no brief summary. But the reason that it’s flaring up right now is, I think, tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. In particular, whenever black people show up asking for something — or worse yet, demanding something — there’s a very strong backlash of the form “Everything was fine before you started stirring up racial tensions!” Reading American newspapers (not just Southern ones!) from the 1960’s is sickeningly familiar; the articles could have been lifted word-for-word.
The conflict with police is particularly significant, because police in much of the country have historically had their primary role being to keep the races “in their place.” The primary reason that people see America as not considering black lives to matter is, after all, that when a black person is shot, people look for justifications as to why it was justified, while when a white person is arrested (to say nothing of shot!), people look for the similarities between themselves. A good example pairing is Brock Turner and Trayvon Martin. Turner was arrested after being caught in the act of raping a woman behind a dumpster; two people saw him, chased him, and held him down until the police arrived. Convicted, he was sentenced to six months, with the judge not wanting to harm this young man’s future; news stories about him invariably described him in their headlines as a “Stanford swimmer.” Martin, on the other hand, was a high school kid coming home from buying some candy when he was shot to death by a man who was “patrolling his neighborhood.” His news coverage focused a great deal on how his sweater made him look threatening.
All of which is to say, the things this movement are questioning are extremely tied with people’s perception of danger and the social order: they’re saying, in essence, that the protection of white society from black threats, real and imagined, which has been such an implicit part of the role of police for so long, is instead something the police — and by implication, white society — should be censured for. Which makes the emotional stakes very high, and is why we get strange responses like “Blue Lives Matter.” (Were people ever saying that they didn’t?)
The black and trans communities are actually similar in this respect, I think. The origins of violence against trans communities are another giant subject that would take a whole book to address properly; it would talk about things like “social role essentialism” and “purity taboos” and “masculine homosexuality taboos.” But we can summarize that as saying that the rates of murder and sexual assault of, and suicide by, trans communities are through the roof, and have been for a long time.
But the reason that trans issues are suddenly more salient is, I believe, that they’ve been getting more attention. The increased visibility of trans folk in the media, for example, and the fact that more people are simply likely to know someone who is trans, puts them in roughly the same position that LGB people were in in the mid-90’s. And like with the BLM movement, there’s a certain response of “why are these people asking for something from me?”
Ultimately, that’s part of a broader pattern: when people are already stretched to their absolute limit emotionally, with financial stresses, family stresses, medical stresses, lack of a clear future stresses, then hearing anyone else ask for something — even if that something is as simple as “the right to walk down the street without being murdered” — feels like an added imposition. And that can lead to a backlash, not just from people who are inherently racist or the like, but also from people who aren’t and just don’t want yet another thing dropped on their plate. But when that’s a backlash against a basic request to be allowed to live (or go to the bathroom, or any other basic aspect of human life), that takes on a much nastier property.
(See this previous article for more on the theme of emotional exhaustion)
So that’s my top-level perspective on why these particular groups are at the top of the list right now. There are other groups which are perpetually in waiting: I suspect that we’ll see Jews, Native Americans, and academics rising up the list over the next few years as well. (Jews, because a fairly old-school anti-Semitism maintains its currency in a lot of far-right circles, especially ones which are currently in the White House; watch for talk of “global special interests,” which is a favorite euphemism in those circles. Native Americans, for the same reasons as black and trans folk, if anything happens to raise their profile. And academics, because they’re part of those “elites” which are a convenient target for blame, and are also likely to be vocal opponents of the regime.)
Warning: The next part of this is likely to be particularly unpleasant to read, especially if you’re a member of one of the above-mentioned groups. Look, more cute animals.
Now for the less pleasant part of this: What is the likely next step, in each of these cases?
While I hope that most people are beyond the stage of saying “oh, this is all just campaign rhetoric,” I know that many people will still say that, and will probably keep saying that until the day something happens to them directly. But given that in his first eight days in office, Trump has proven himself quite honest on the campaign trail — going out and doing exactly the things he said he would, from ordering walls and detention camps built at the Mexican border to banning even legal permanent residents who are citizens of various Muslim countries (but only the Muslim ones) from entering the country — I’m hoping people are starting to realize that no, it wasn’t just a joke.
So I expect to see certain next steps relating to each of these groups. I don’t expect to see them happen in rapid succession; each of these is a major move, which can have significant political value if spread out over time. This is roughly a roadmap for the next 2–3 years.
- For Latinos, increased laws and orders exerting pressures on employers, landlords, etc., to get rid of anyone who even might be undocumented. (So long as they’re Latino; a good 25% of Americans can’t easily produce proof of citizenship, but they won’t be hassled) The goal here is to create what Trump calls “self-deportation:” i.e., making the situation bad enough to cause people to flee the country.
This has the side benefit of opening up jobs for the people who remain, which was an important political benefit when Hitler enacted his “Civil Service Law” in 1933: when the Jews were forced out of all sorts of jobs, people said “That’s terrible! But oh, Heinrich, maybe you can finally ask for that promotion now?” Unlike in that case, however, most of the jobs which this would open up are very low-wage, so this may not have the same effect.
- For Muslims, increased surveillance of (leading up to registration of) groups. The next big step would be bulk revocation of visas from people from various countries, at which point they fall under the same “illegals” program as is set up for Latinos. This also gives political cover for mass deportation — which, as an operational footnote, also requires mass internment for logistical reasons. (For more on that, see my earlier piece on just what mass deportation means)
- For black people, an increased crackdown on protests, if that’s actually possible. (Given that police turnout in Ferguson already looked like they were ready to retake Fallujah, escalation isn’t trivial — but they can find a way) Any protest, no matter how peaceful, will be declared a “riot” and a reason for sharply increased police presence, not just then, but going forward; we should expect to see a lot of very visible marching of cops through the streets, arrests of anyone for insubservience, and so on.
(Yes, this is already happening; I simply expect the knob to be turned higher, much as it was in the 1960's)
- For trans people, a systematic passage of laws somewhere between legalizing and mandating discrimination in all things. This is already legal in much of the country, but again, it’s possible to turn up the knob: to basically ensure that being trans causes you to lose your job, your home, and have your children taken away from you.
I would expect that this is the first place where we’ll see a resurgence of “purity” laws. We used to have a lot of these, e.g. “gay people are a danger to our children and cannot be allowed to work in schools.” Here, you could not only have that, but you could have restrictions on where people are allowed to live. Consider that sex offender registries — already deemed constitutional — and their associated requirement that you not live within a certain radius of a school essentially ban people on those registries from living in most towns and cities altogether, and force people into trailer parks and the like on the periphery of town; also consider that you can get on those registries for public urination. (Which is, per the law, “indecent exposure” and thus a sex crime) To say that it wouldn’t be hard to make “walking around while trans” a crime of similar order is an understatement.
- For the press, I expect to see real attempts to silence it — but we’ll see how the power balance plays out. This is not going to be a simple fight.
- For academia, I expect to see tremendous pressure brought to bear immediately: all research funds for research which either goes against some policy objective of the administration (e.g., climate research), or which sounds too aligned with “liberal elites” (e.g., anything involving gender and sexuality), will be targeted first. (And in fact, already have been; the first major orders cutting research funds were issued last Tuesday)
Beyond that, I would expect that universities will face extreme pressure to eliminate academics or administrators who speak out or otherwise upset the regime. Milo Yiannoupoulos is scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley on Monday, for example; it will be interesting to watch how the administration responds to any opposition to his presence. (NB that at his last speech, at UW last week, a medic was shot by a neo-Nazi. Past speeches he’s given at universities have included doxxing and calling for attacks against individual students. Sending him to talk at universities is a deliberate provocation.)
I expect to see a lot of people described as “un-American” and this to be used as an excuse to do various things to universities — which are not just schools, but also where people meet, discuss, and organize, things which the regime has a lot of reason to oppose.
From a timing perspective, I expect to see the laws against Latinos to be the next major move: anti-immigrant nativism was such a core thrust of Trump’s campaign, and his promise to “create jobs” (even from the beginning, with a threat of force) so clear, that the incentive to force “outsiders” out of jobs and replace them with jobs for “real Americans” is going to be huge. These are things we can expect to roll out over the next several months. The timing of anti-Muslim and anti-Black laws will be more closely tied to external events: any major protest or international incident will provide excellent casus belli for such things, and so escalations will mostly time to that.
But that’s not an argument against protest. For Muslims, I expect to see the ratchet steadily turn over the next 2–3 years no matter what happens; any piece of news from anywhere in the world might trigger it. And for the black and trans communities alike, the only thing that would minimize acts of force would be unreserved subservience to said force, basically playing Stepin Fetchit. And as we all know, that doesn’t actually protect you from anything; it just turns sudden shows of force into routine, daily ones.
Direct pressure against the trans community is also likely to follow a schedule of political expediency; since, unlike Latinos or Muslims, trans folk aren’t a particular target of the campaign, they’ll instead be targeted whenever it’s useful, e.g. to rouse up support from the sort of nasty evangelicals who do see them as particular targets when they’re needed for either a political campaign or to back some other thing.
And pressure against the media and academia will continuously ramp. Bannon is clearly going to be the main operator of that; if strict censorship rules ever were imposed, he would be the man in charge of them. But here, the fight is going to be far more complex, because the press is where some of Trump’s best-resourced enemies are making a stand as well. We’ll see how that goes. Academia, on the other hand, will be more vulnerable, and that should start pretty much immediately.
Now the grimmest part of all: Working through timelines. I’m going to be extremely blunt about this, because measuring these timelines accurately and knowing when to jump is the most basic survival skill I was taught from childhood. While most people who know this skill have the conversation very quietly, late at night, when nobody is around to hear, I also know that this time people are affected who don’t have twenty generations of practicing this behind them, so we need to speak out loud sometimes.
I’m reading this as “1933 playbook continues on schedule, pace slightly higher than last time: something between maybe 1.2x and 2x, but without the possibility of a major land war to show up on the horizon.” For foreign-born Muslims and Latinos who are undocumented, related to someone undocumented, or who might be confused for undocumented, I’d say that the red flag is up, and it’s time to consider exit strategies with a 6-month window. US-born Muslims, Latinos who have more stability inside the country, and Jews have a somewhat longer time horizon available, but I’d start quietly thinking about options for when things change. Advice for the black and trans communities is simpler, because everyone already knows it: Organize! The advantage there is in numbers and shared strength, and in community. That’s also good advice for all of the other groups: even if you’re thinking about your exit strategy, you have very good reason to make common cause, and for everyone to work and pull together. That’s the thing that has a chance of preventing all of this, and of saving the most lives when that fails.
Whew! You made it to the end. Have even more cute animals as a reward.