We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.
- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1. The Obvious
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. Did he endorse me? Or what’s going on? Because, you know, I know nothing.”
- President Donald J. Trump, August 14, 2017, two days after
the August 11-12 Charlottesville white supremacist/KKK rally
The New York Times, May 31, 1927: “KLANSMEN RIOT IN QUEENS – Police Battle Hooded Klansmen When They Refuse To Leave Pageant.” There were about 1,000 Klansmen and about 100 of the NYPD’s Irish-American cops. It apparently was quite a melee.
The next day’s Times reported that “handbills, apparently giving the Klan’s side of the matter … were stuck to walls or fences or thrust in letter boxes or under doors.” The handbills were headlined: “Americans Assaulted by Roman Catholic Police of New York City.” The headline implies that Catholics are not true Americans, for Ku Klux Klansmen despise Catholics almost as viciously as they despise Jews and African-Americans. The handbill goes on: “Native-born Protestant Americans clubbed and beaten in the country of their birth.” Given that most Irish immigration occurred in the 19th century, it’s fairly certain those Catholic cops were mostly native-born, but facts have never derailed a racist rant.
Despite the violence that night in Queens, only seven Klansmen aggravated the police sufficiently to get themselves arrested. One of the seven was Fred Trump -- the late father of our sitting President.
To be fair, Fred Trump was but 21 at the time. Still, given that his real estate enterprise was sued for discrimination by the federal government more than once, and as late as the 1970s, we’re justified in concluding that Donald J. Trump did not grow up in a tolerant atmosphere.
Like most sons and daughters, and certainly myself, Donald Trump wants to believe that his father is a very fine person. Not surprising that it goes against the president’s grain to condemn Charlottesville’s Klansmen or any Klansmen. He had to insist that “very fine people” marched that night with the Nazis, perhaps because, if Daddy had been alive, Daddy might have marched with them. Am I visiting the sins of the father upon the son? I don’t think so. Simply recognizing the nature of the strongest influence of Trump’s young life.
Donald Trump was born under the sign of Gemini in the year 1946, ten months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the finale of the most destructive war in history. He and I are of the same epoch (I’m eight months older); in a general sense, we’ve experienced the same world. But where does it show on Trump?
There’s some Elvis in the hair, but how else can we tell that he is a child of his time? He stands unmarked in any way by the prevailing zeitgeist he and I have lived through.
Is that even possible? And yet it seems so.
One could imagine Trump as the only American of 1963 who can’t remember where he was on November 22. Vietnam? Like many conservatives in government -- George W. Bush and Dick Cheney -- rich kids like Donald were in no danger of going to war. The Civil Rights movement? Nowhere evident in his administration. Womens’ Lib (as we used to call it)? Invisible in Trumpland. Gay lib? Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice President, has the most anti-gay record of any state governor. Ecology? Trump denies climate change. Space exploration? Trump shows no interest. Economic inequality? Trump seems to enjoy nothing more. The United Nations -- Trump’s speech to the UN seethed with contempt. NATO and the stratagems of the Cold War -- Trump digs Putin, insults NATO.
The Voting Rights Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare -- Trump and his hires are doing their fanatical best to undermine, subvert, abolish, and corrupt everything they touch, even the State Department, and all else born of the zeitgeists of the last half century. The onslaught is total and goes on every day, headlines or no headlines. It is foolish to claim Trump has been ineffectual. It could take a decade or two to restore what he’s already wrecked.
Back to his biography: After his father, the most intense influence on young Trump was Roy Cohn (1927-1986).
If you’re sketchy about who Roy Cohn was, then you’re sketchy about American political history circa 1945-1986, when Roy Cohn was menace personified. Conscienceless, greedy, vengeful, the very face of corruption (view photos of his face as he aged), basically against everything that was not himself. But brilliant. From the mid-1940s until his death, there was no more sinister presence on the dark side of American politics than Roy Cohn. So it is fascinating, and more than a little frightening, to learn that for the last 13 years of Cohn’s life, according to The New Yorker (June 20, 2016), Donald Trump was Roy Cohn’s “apprentice,” the upstart whom Cohn “trained and mentored.” They spoke on the phone “as many as five times a day.”
Feeling more than usually cornered the other day, Trump reportedly stomped around the West Wing shouting, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?!” An unabashed admission of his contempt for morality.
It would be utterly out of character for Roy Cohn to devote his energies to mentoring a dullard. He must have seen in young Trump a fitting receptacle for Cohnian wiles. It matters very little how shallow or unbalanced Trump may be, because Trump knows how to be Trump, and that’s all the intellect he’s needed to run circles around intellectuals of the left, right, and center.
So! Trump was paying attention to the zeitgeist after all, these last 70-plus years -- and he hates all of it: feminism, ecology, even science, and equal (but really equal) rights for women, people of color, immigrants, gays, transgenders, all of it, as Fred Trump and Roy Cohn hated all of it. Hates freedom of speech and calls out our free press as “fake” and his “enemy.” Hates any color but white. Hates anything vulnerable enough to be made to suffer by his hate.
Trump publicly claims to be a genius. I agree, with no reservation or sarcasm. Disorganization is not negative in Trump’s case. It’s camouflage. Trump is marvelously resourceful when it comes to creating commotions of his own or exploiting commotions others spring on him. He’s also very good at appearing aimless when he’s anything but. Chaotic he is, but not aimless -- and Trump plays chaos like a piano. Does it matter that he’s not very intelligent? He doesn’t have to be, because he is purely intuitive; there is not a single filter between what he intuits and what he does. Agreement and disagreement are equally inconsequential. What counts is his ability to rattle. He hides in plain sight within cacophony and confusion, under cover of which Trump does what he intends, which is to obstruct and if possible immolate anything feminist, anything colored, anything foreign, anything reeking of equal rights, and anything kind.
2. The Evil
What a filthy Presidentiad! …
Are those really Congressmen? are those the great Judges? is this the President?
- Walt Whitman
There’s a sense in which turning on the TV is never actually innocent, but it seemed innocent enough-- hot coffee with something chocolate about it, Half’n’Half, bathrobe, sofa, the morning as yet unreal, and, at my age, nothing about the day demands that I do any particular thing, so: the TV, just to accompany the coffee, MSNBC, and it happens I’m at the very beginning of the live broadcast of Trump’s DACA/immigration meeting with highly billed Congressional leaders, et cetera. Hot mics.
About twenty minutes in, it occurred to me that if I hit MUTE this meeting would look like a more or less normal function of governance, at least in Washington, DC, if “normal” means overwhelmingly white and mostly men, but, aside from that, things on-screen would seem civil, even courtly. Well, one oddity would stand out all the more in silence: the President’s posture, or whatever you want to call it. He’s mostly hulked in his chair with arms folded heavily across his chest, swiveling this way and that with his whole torso to face whomever he’s in exchange with; sometimes he gestures, but arms folded over his chest is his Reset posture. As though his face is animate while his body sulks in a stubborn, defensive, and obviously not self-aware stance. I’m not taking cheap shots, I’m describing his posture as accurately as I can. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grown man sit like that.
I say “if I hit MUTE,” because I could not hit mute, because I could not believe my ears. I don’t mean the stuff everyone wrote and talked about that day, like, for instance: how Trump seemed unaware that he agreed with every person he spoke to-- but maybe not unaware, since it’s a perfect way to drive the room crazy, since he knows everybody at the table is too well-mannered to call the President on blabbing contradictions that would embarrass a serious normal person. The visual is all, and visually there’s nothing unpresidential going on, given that his posture doesn’t creep you out.
No, I keep listening, because, as I say, I can’t believe it. Everybody in that room, and almost all the commentators I heard and read that day, discussed the content of that meeting rationally, as though it was about matters of policy, and what should Democrats do and what should Republicans do and isn’t it just like Trump to tweet differently by 6PM Eastern and…
… and we are all out of our minds. Because this is the substance and subtext, this is what I heard from Trump and his vocal backers, this is what he’s saying to undocumented Hispanic parents:
“We’re going to steal your children! We’re going to steal your brown-skinned Hispanic children -- 800,000 of them! We’ve counted them, and now we’re going to steal them. We know 97% of these are in school, we know 100% have been vetted and found law-abiding, and we’re going to steal them anyway. We’re going to steal them because they are the cream of the crop, THEY ARE THE REASON YOU CAME HERE, they are why you risked so much, they are THE HOPE OF YOUR PEOPLE, so we’re going to steal them and send them far away and you are so very fucked and we love it.”
I don’t care how politely you frame it, that is what’s being said; that is what evil looks like, under the mask.
And when they finish saying that, they say this:
“First, we say we will. Then, we say we won’t -- then we say we will. Then we say, well, maybe, probably they’ll go but maybe they’ll stay if we get our way about X, Y, Z, and The Wall. We so despise your very being that your children, to us, are nothing but a means to express our vileness, which is in turn the way we get what we want: most of you can’t get yourselves to believe that we are what we really are. Evil. Brown-skinned sons and brown-skinned daughters, are you afraid every night and day? Good. Is your very soul torn by our scorn? Good. That is exactly how we like it.”
This is not my hyperbole, this is what is communicated. We feel it between the layers of our skin. The whole country does. Enormous power has been bestowed upon a few white men who want to crush people of color, stymie anyone with a pussy, banish anything un-straight and un-WASP, dominate for the sake of dominance, with no concrete purpose, domination being for them a meaningless end in itself -- and the biological ground zero of this political scream of rage into the night, he sits in the Oval Office throbbing like a bad tooth. His behavior speaks for itself and over and over and over what it says is the same: Hatred, hatred, hatred -- “the intolerable excess of terror called hatred” (James Baldwin). What else could motivate the threat to steal 800,000 children?
What else could motivate a cruelty that serves no practical purpose?
A medical program, health care for 9 million children of poverty -- the GOP uses it as a bargaining chip. Are we to discuss this as some fucking policy? This has nothing to do with policy. This is flat-out, unreasoning cruelty, and GOP congressional people are doing it because they can. Because they like it.
Or: 200,000 Salvadoran-Americans, who have 192,000 children who are U.S. citizens -- 80% of these Salvadorans have jobs, nearly 25% own their own homes, but suddenly: Trump and his Department of Homeland Security say they must leave the U.S., go back to El Salvador. Senseless racist cruelty. Behind the formality, behind the almost satiric pretensions of legality, is the leer of hatred satisfying its need to do harm.
This is what hatred can look like: A government study learned that during this past decade refugees “brought in more than $65 billion more in state and local taxes than they cost in public benefits” (The Week, September 29, 2017, p.6). But Trump’s “chief policy adviser,” Stephen Miller, deleted those facts from the report, and inserted instead that “refugees consume more in benefits per capita than the average American.” He deleted “any mention of their economic contribution.” He did this politely, wearing a jacket and tie, in an educated tone, but it is flat-out hatred, accomplishing evil, and exposing it does no good -- because the people doing it know exactly what they’re doing, and they relish doing it, and most who voted for them want them to do it.
And this is what hatred looks like:
2016 House Summer Interns, Democrat (top) and Republican (bottom)
Study the photos. Give it some time. Those Republican interns are what hatred looks like after it’s been filtered, sanitized, homogenized and numbed into feeling not like hate but like common assumptions about “my world” and “my safety” and “that’s just the way it is.” Those young people – not themselves evil, but held in evil’s hand, lit by evil’s light, and all the while unaware and smiling.
Yes ... yes, but ... we must never forget that none of this is new. Country after country, culture after culture, time after time, this is something human beings do: regress en masse ... some segment of a society will regress en masse, blame the blameless, harm the harmless ... wracked by fantasies of danger, they will become the danger they fantasize ... if you believe in prayer and believe in souls, pray for theirs ....
... and a weary voice from somewhere whispers, without satisfaction: this America, child of genocide and slavery ... this America that, unlike post-Nazi Germany, hasn’t courage enough to face its sins and atone ... this America, unable to admit that renewal cannot happen in denial ... what makes you think such a nation could end well?
3. The E-Street Shuffle
But the struggle must continue,
And we must open new fronts even in our dreams.
- Mbella Sonne Dipoko
When we read reports that more than 80% of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, we know these are white evangelicals – because racism is so embedded in journalism’s protocol that white persons are identified as persons, plain and simple. African American persons, Asian American persons, Native American persons, Hispanic American persons, are identified by race and/or ethnicity – their state of not-white demands clear notification. This is why we know that cowardly Antifa attacks on peaceful demonstrators were committed by white males, because if they’d been anything but white the reports would have said.
In American reportage of an African American, racial-ethnic identity will always be prominent. Reportage about a white person of parallel class and status will give the name and perhaps the age, but skin color will be taken as a given. If color is not mentioned, the person is white.
Let’s say that one more time: If color is not mentioned, the person is white – although white, too, is a color.
We know those 80+% of evangelicals who voted for Trump are white because nobody said so.
Which also explains the most shocking stat of the 2016 election: 53% of college-educated women voted for Trump.
Some of us were alarmed at that, which frankly proves our shallowness in some departments. Those women voted for Trump because race trumped gender. Why would college-educated women vote for a self-confessed sexual predator? Because, while he’s not on the side of womanness, he is very much on the side of whiteness. To those voters, being white mattered more than being women.
A small but perhaps amusing digression:
Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, German- and Russian- and Croatian- and Greek- and Jewish-Americans – they’re hyphenated whites. Whatever their political stance, be they really bigoted or only a little bigoted, they own an ethnicity and tend to be proud of it in some fashion or other. But there is a whole other class of white, a top tier of American whiteness: the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or, as we say here in a descriptive but non-derogatory manner, the WASP.
In the WASP consciousness a glimmer is beginning to shine, a concept is in the process of being born. It will mean serious culture shock for some. It is this:
The dominant ethnic trait of WASPs is that they do not know they are an ethnicity.
Now don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are WASPs.
God help me, some of my best friends are male!
I myself am male and white; those are the boxes I fill in on the forms. Although when the gender column has a box for “Other,” I prefer that. But here I drift from my point.
In the spring of 2001, I taught Dramatic Literature to an 11th grade Waldorf school class. Can’t remember what was said to elicit this comment from Sophia in the front row, but I remember what she said: “The human being has no opposite.”
Chew on that a bit. I have, ever since. A facile response might be to point at a rock and say, “There’s my opposite!” Wrong. We’re talking about sentience here. So, on our planet maybe whales are our opposite? Maybe, but there’s not enough data to say so. No, at the present state of knowledge, Sophia nailed it. And at the kernel of her insight I find this:
There is nothing to define us; we define ourselves as we go along; we call that definition’s consensus “civilization.”
I go now to another idea from someone else, namely my mother, who said: “Hitler attacked what it means to be a human being. Hitler attempted to change our basic definition of ourselves.”
That is the core of white racism: defining “human” as “white,” and defining color as something else, something alien and less.
The core of misogyny is to definite “human” as male. The core of homophobia is to define “human” as “heterosexual.” If you define “human” as “Christian” (or Moslem or Jew or whatever), then whoever is not Christian (or whatever) is less than human. And we don’t have a word for a person who defines “human” as “moneyed” – but we really should have a word for that, since at the moment that belief is running our government.
Once people are not fully human in your eyes you can deny them medical care, let them rot in shantytowns, lynch them, rape them, pay them less than you’d pay a human, put them in concentration camps – whatever. You’re covered. You’re fully human, they are somehow less so, case closed.
For nearly two millennia a male cadre of clergy, philosophers, royalty and conquerors enforced the definition that a fully human being is white, male, Christian, and royal. That constituted Western history until, on this continent, in 1776, a gathering of white Christian males, most of them wealthy and some of them slave-holders, pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor that this definition of humanity might become the governing principle of a new nation: “all men are created equal.”
No political act has ever been more daring, but, I’m sorry to say, those founding fellows didn’t half understand what they had done. Talk about getting carried away! I’m not kidding. They got all excited about good prose flung in the face of a king. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
Their point was, as we’d say, awesome in their time. They declared themselves the equals of royalty, created by the same god and goddamn equal. They understood very well that their document excluded slaves and most of them, including the slave-holders, believed slavery was an evil. Abigail Adams reminded husband John that he’d excluded females. By his old age John had more than an inkling of what they’d really done, writing to Thomas Jefferson: “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war. That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People.”
The American Revolution was nothing less than a conceptual rout of planet-wide assumptions and presumptions: “all men are created equal” defied, and would eventually sweep aside and replace, the Western world’s definition of what a human being is and therefore the West’s definition of what civilization is or may be. Which is why the American revolution never stops revolving. “All men are created equal” escaped the cages of the Founders’ intentions, just as the concept transcended their personal limitations. Torrents of consciousness have cascaded from that sentence. It is as Harvey Milk said: “All men are created equal. No matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words.”
Attempts to erase those words have been many and violent: 20th century fascism, Soviet communism, Maoism, the nativism on the march now in Europe, and Trumpism here. But that all “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” has lit bright lights all over the world since the day Jefferson’s ink dried. For instance: Saudi women are driving their own cars and they can even attend soccer games; as I write, Pakistani women, facing hellish opposition, demonstrate in the streets for their rights; and a few weeks ago Australia became the 29th nation to legalize gay marriage.
Ideas are forms of life that science has yet to quantify. Those five words: “all men are created equal” – and all the ideas that live in those five words – are evolving to the point at which “all men are created equal” also means “no one is excluded,” as in this startling revision of Christian theology by Pope Francis: “No one is excluded from the mercy of God.”
No one is excluded defines the ultimate American political outcome of “all are created equal,” words that have expanded to include every color, every persuasion, and every variation of gender on every level of society, first by action and now by law. When white male Christian terrorists try to flatten those words, what is their actual target? For those words have become deeds, and those deeds have become ways of life, and those ways of life have become embedded in this society from top to bottom. An attack upon those ways of life means nothing less than an attack on American society as a whole. One wonders when or if well-meaning good-hearted white Republicans and Christians will understand that.
An attack on American society as a whole, the society in which “all are created equal,” is in the process of intersecting with “no one is excluded.” This attack explains virtually all Donald Trump’s statements, proposals, and actions as candidate and president. That is why he insists that Nazis are behaving like “good people,” why he pardons a serial violator of the Bill of Rights, why he arbitrarily tries to ban the transgendered from the military, why his minions terrorize the undocumented and why he personally terrorizes DACA kids and stands by while medical programs for poor kids run out of money. His was a fundamental promise to exclude, and to stymie the forces of inclusion, by any means he can get away with. Trumpists knew he meant every word. He told white people that whiteness gave them their primary importance, so let’s build a wall.
Donald Trump is The Wall. He is its incarnation. He stands for the whiteness that fears everything not itself. While his antics distract, and his impossible physical border wall is treated as a legit issue instead of a symptom of white panic, Donald Trump transmits to his followers, in his person, what he most wants them to believe: “I am your Wall.”
Michael Ventura © 2018. All rights reserved.
Michael Ventura is a writer who lives in the mountains of Northern California.
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