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Trump’s Siren Song of Hate

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I have been trying to make sense of the hate emanating from the Trump administration, particularly as it has related to human difference, immigrants and refugees. For example, Ken Cuccinelli, the ideological activist and Acting Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, has recently recast the 1883 Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus,” affixed to the Statue of Liberty, to accord with his and the administration’s desire to encourage loathing of immigrants and refugees, and prevent their entry into this country.  In lieu of the ringing phrase known and lionized around the world as a central aspiration of a democratic and free people:

‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’[1]

Cuccinelli offered:

Give me your tired and your poor
Who can stand on their own two feet
And who will not
Become a public charge.[2]

The acting Director adopted this stance as he was advocating for the administration’s new means test for those applying for permanent residency (a green card) in the United States. He argued that government officials would soon seek to judge which immigrants might require public support and deny residency to those deemed likely to do so. As an article in The New York Times described the policy change:

The new regulation is aimed at hundreds of thousands of immigrants who enter the country legally every year and then apply to become permanent residents. Starting in October, the government’s decision will be based on an aggressive wealth test to determine whether those immigrants have the means to support themselves.[3]

In a similar vein, President Donald Trump recently pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deny two United States Congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both Muslims, entry to Israel on no grounds other than their frequent public policy disagreements with him. The Prime Minister, reversing his country’s previous stance and citing the Congresswomen’s criticisms of Israeli policies, in a move counter to any reasoned understanding of free speech in a democratic nation, complied. Did Netanyahu really fear the potential spoken alternative perspective and criticisms of these two freshman Congresswomen on a brief visit to his nation? While he later reversed himself and formally permitted Tlaib to visit to see her aged grandmother on humanitarian grounds, Tlaib announced she would not travel to Israel in any case, as a matter of principle.[4]

Both of these incidents illustrate how quickly the characteristics and possibilities one imagines freedom and democratic governance should include can degenerate instead into an absolutist and empty hatred of a maligned other. More, in each of these examples, the supposed objections to the targeted “concerns” or individuals bore no relationship to reality. Neither Trump, nor Cucinelli nor the Israeli Prime Minister, can provide any empirical justification for their choices. There is none. Indeed, ironically, Cuccinelli’s grandparents would likely not be accorded permanent residence in this country on the standard their grandson is now supporting. In lieu of any real arguments to support their position, all three leaders apparently believed that their embrace of hate, predicated ultimately on othering the two lawmakers on the basis of their religious affiliation and immigrants on an a priori means test, would mobilize a share of their two nations’ populations to support their partisan posturing and continuation in power.

And, in the United States at least, the ongoing backing from a large share of Trump’s so-called base, although a decided minority of the general citizenry, irrespective of how cruel, ignorant or racist his public comments and actions have become, seems to suggest that that group will rationalize or countenance whatever he may say, despite its consequences for human and civil rights and freedom. The same has held true, increasingly, for the bulk of his party’s congressional and other leaders. That Trump has pursued a course of constant lies in an endeavor to label anything which he might not wish to countenance, for whatever reason, as illegitimate is not new behavior for him, or more generally for demagogues in historical terms. Nor is the fact that would-be protégés seeking power or influence would imitate and even seek to outdo the cruelty of their perceived leaders’ false posturing—as Cuccinelli has done—surprising in the light of history.

Indeed, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt warned of just this sort of possibility in human, let alone, free, societies, in an essay, “Reflections: Truth in Politics,” in 1967. There, in a carefully wrought argument characterized by a distinction between political and factual truth, Arendt observed:

Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize. And it enjoys a rather precarious status in the eyes of governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion. … Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.[5]

A bit later in the same article Arendt contended:

That all men are created equal, is not self-evident nor can it be proved. We hold this opinion because freedom is possible only among equals and we believe that the joys and gratifications of free company are to be preferred to the doubtful pleasures of holding dominion. Such pleasures are politically of the greatest importance, and there are few things by which men are so profoundly distinguished as by these. Their human quality, one is tempted to say, and certainly the quality of every kind of intercourse with them, depends upon such choices.[6]

This is to argue that leaders desirous of employing hate and lies as a key mobilizing device, such as Trump and those following his lead, will always have fertile ground to plow. The issue is not whether such may obtain; the capacity to hate and other is endemic to the human condition. The question is, rather, whether a people can rise above such potentials and prevent their realization in the name of their personal and shared freedom. Attaining that possibility requires both an awareness of what is at stake and a willingness to acknowledge that it may require disciplining one’s raw emotions in its name. Neither is easy or straightforward to inculcate as a learned proclivity or to realize as an action. On the other side of this challenge is the always present siren call of holding dominion over others, in Arendt’s felicitous phrase, however brutish, short and paradoxical the time one may do so may turn out to be.[7]

Elsewhere in her essay Arendt noted,

The hallmark of factual truth is that its opposite is neither error nor illusion nor opinion, no one of which reflects upon personal truthfulness, but the deliberate falsehood or lie. … That we can change the circumstance under which we live at all is because we are relatively free from them, and it is this freedom that is abused and perverted through mendacity.[8]

Arendt had matters exactly right. The central trouble with Trump and those imitating and

supporting his blatant lies, including Netanyahu, is that they represent a direct attack on the very fundaments of the free society in which those selfsame individuals reside. Their manipulative machinations in the name of vote getting, power, personal advancement or popular approbation now run the risk of subverting the social sinews and compact on which their posts and governments ultimately depend. This circumstance contains at least two ironies. First, that by a small number, Americans saw fit to elect such a leader in the first instance suggests the innate fragility of the foundation of comity and shared commitment to freedom in this nation. And second, that many continue to support Trump’s manifest lies now runs the risk of wholly subverting the polity’s capacities to make policy choices in a reasoned way in the future.

 As Arendt contended, “all these lies, whether their authors know it or not, harbor an element of violence; organized lying always tends to destroy whatever it has decided to negate, although only totalitarian governments have consciously adopted lying as the first step to murder.”[9] These are more than sad turns. They bespeak, as Lyndsey Stonebridge, a professor of modern literature and history at East Anglia University, has argued, the singular clarity of Arendt’s insight that “The world [has] found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”[10] They similarly suggest, as Stonebridge has also observed, “When you have a refugee crisis, what you also have is a political, existential, and moral crisis about what a country is and who its citizens are.”[11] That Trump has lied about human difference, lied about asylees, lied about refugees and persistently appealed to hate and fear of difference as well as unease with change and has garnered a following in so doing all suggest the aptness of Stonebridge’s characterization.

            Notably, Arendt pointed to the essential ongoing political significance of those storytellers, humanists, novelists and historians, among others, as possible antidote to this corrosive reality, because willing to pursue truth outside of the potentially enervating perversions of political life. This was not to contend that politics could not generate greatness, but to argue instead that human capacity to hold the possible contraries of the species’ inclination in check to allow for freedom ultimately had to come from outside that realm. For me, following Arendt, this suggests a role for the academy as a key, though not the only, repository of individuals willing and well positioned to “speak truth to power” in efforts to protect the most vital possibilities of democratic self-governance. Those are now daily assaulted and placed in peril by individuals who have calculated that mendacity and hate will allow their pursuit and retention of power and who are willing to sacrifice the unifying norms and character of their nation in their efforts to secure that possibility.  

Notes

[1] Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus,” Academy of American Poets,   https://poets.org/poem/new-colossus Accessed August 16, 2019.      

[2] Fortin, Jacey. “‘Huddled Masses’ in Statue of Liberty Poem are European, Trump Official Says,” The New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/us/cuccinelli-statue-liberty-poem.html  Accessed August 16, 2019.

[3] Shear, Michael and Eileen Sullivan. “Trump Policy Favors Wealthier Immigrants for Green Cards,” The New York Times, August 12, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/12/us/politics/trump-immigration-policy.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article Accessed August 12, 2019.

[4] Kershner, Isabel, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Peter Baker. “Israeli Decision on Omar and Tlaib Inflames Politics in Two Countries,” The New York Times, August 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/15/world/middleeast/trump-israel-omar-tlaib.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_190816?campaign_id=2&instance_id=11589&segment_id=16211&user_id=0100ea161cc78533fc4fac5d8cf3a77c&regi_id=400875340816 Accessed August 15, 2019.

[5] Arendt, Hannah. “Reflections: Truth and Politics,” The New Yorker,  February 25, 1967, http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1967-02-25#folio=048, p. 54.

[6] Arendt, “Reflections: Truth and Politics,” p. 62.

[7] Arendt, “Reflections: Truth and Politics,” p. 62.

[8] Arendt, “Reflections: Truth and Politics,” p. 68.

[9] Arendt, “Reflections: Truth and Politics,” p. 73.

[10] Tippett, Krista. “Interview with Lyndsey Stonebridge — The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now,” On Being, June 21, 2018, https://onbeing.org/programs/lyndsey-stonebridge-the-moral-world-in-dark-times-hannah-arendt-for-now-jun2018/ Accessed August 16, 2019.

[11] Tippett, Krista. “Interview with Lyndsey Stonebridge.” 

Publication Date

August 26, 2019

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