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‘The Enemy Within’

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Soundings

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I have been struck in recent days by the conspiracy mongering and stories that President Donald Trump has been offering the nation during our ongoing economic and pandemic related crises. It is important to seek to understand why a share of Americans persistently believe or purport to believe the nonsense he offers them. I have wrestled with this concern since Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency in 2015, slandering President Barack Obama, refugees and immigrants as he did so.

During this past week, I was much moved by a series of Tweets by writer and former U.S. Army soldier, Charlotte Clymer, who had the honorable and painful duty of serving on the detail—the casket team—that transfers fallen soldiers’ remains from arriving military aircraft at Dover Air Force Base to their families for interment. Her original thread of posts was more than 1,000 words long and heartrending. I here excerpt a share of it to provide a sense of her experience and concerns about President Trump.

I was more nervous than I've ever been in my life about what was to come next. … I could only think: ‘What if I mess this up? What if I fail? How will I live with myself?’ That's how it should be in a moment like this. You should be nervous. You should let that sharpen your focus. Because there is no room for error when handling the remains of a service member returning to the U.S. after being killed in combat. You should strive for perfection. … We’re a casket team, but these are not caskets. They're transfer cases: rectangular aluminum boxes that bear a resemblance to a crate for production equipment. Yet, the dimensions are obvious. Any given civilian would take only a few moments to realize that's for carrying bodies. It's called a ‘dignified transfer,’ not a ‘ceremony,’ because officials don't want loved ones to feel obligated to be there while in mourning, but it is as highly choreographed as any ceremony, probably more so. It is done as close to perfection as anything the military does. … The fallen service members I helped receive and carry during this part of the journey to their final resting place were not ‘losers’ or ‘suckers.’ They were selfless and heroic, and I had the honor of being among the first to hold them when they returned home. … I suppose the one thing we all took for granted is that dignity would always be affirmed by all our civilian leaders to those service members who gave everything. I never would have predicted any official, let alone a sitting president, would insult fallen service members. I cannot adequately describe my anger at Donald Trump for being so willing to send service members halfway around the world to die on his own behalf and then call them ‘losers’ for doing so.[1]

Clymer’s memory and outrage were prompted by a story published in The Atlantic Monthly and written by Jeffrey Goldberg, its Editor-in-Chief, that reported Trump’s contempt for those who serve in our country’s armed forces, and especially those who die, during such service. As Clymer noted, Trump was quoted as calling individuals who serve “suckers” and those who sacrifice their lives for their country, “losers.”[2] The original account was confirmed and further developed by The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Fox News channel, among other media organizations. Trump, in typical form, called for the firing of the Fox News reporter who confirmed the story. He also saw fit to demean his former Chief of Staff, John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, saying he was too weak to play a role in the White House.[3] That absurd claim arose because Goldberg wrote that Trump uttered some of his most outrageous comments regarding America’s fallen while visiting Arlington National Cemetery with Kelly and at Kelly’s son’s grave. Robert Kelly lost his life in service to the nation in Afghanistan in 2010.  Trump reportedly turned to John Kelly while standing at Robert Kelly’s grave, and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” [4] According to Goldberg’s account, too, Trump also refused to honor the 1,800 Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood, France, during World War I, an important battle in that conflict in which American forces turned back the German advance. Trump called those who died in that bloody clash “suckers.”[5] He simply appears incapable of fathoming sacrifice or undertaking any action that does not make money for him personally or advance him in some way. 

This all now appears incontrovertible, but that is true of countless other Trump outrages during his term and yet his supporters continue to back his claims that all of these accounts are Fake News or hoaxes undertaken by political factions out to undermine him and the American way of life. Trump recently offered a particularly outlandish version of this sort of contention by embracing a baseless conspiracy theory that ongoing protests against racial injustice across the country are being controlled by unnamed others in “dark shadows” bent on undermining his reelection. Here is how an Associated Press account reported this incident:

The claims first took root on Facebook and Twitter earlier this year after racial justice protests swelled across the country following the deaths of Black Americans in police custody. Thousands of social media users shared posts suggesting a covert network was coordinating the protests and rioters were descending on communities across the country. Trump appeared to amplify those unfounded conspiracy theories in an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham that aired Monday night, suggesting that protests in Washington during the Republican National Convention were orchestrated by unspecified forces. ‘We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend. And in the plane, it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that,’ said Trump, adding that the matter is under investigation.[6]

Trump’s completely uncorroborated and wild claims appear to have the purpose of creating fear among his supporters and increasing their likelihood of going to the polls in November. But what, exactly, would they be voting to support? A President who calls America’s military personnel losers and suckers? A chief executive who has lied publicly about virtually any topic imaginable and has embraced preposterous, and often dangerous, conspiracy theories on a range of topics, including our present pandemic? A President who has moved from demonizing individuals with origins outside our country’s borders to mocking American citizens who dare to disagree with his every whim, including deploying a uniformed militia to two American cities where they were neither necessary nor desired by local officials?

Notably, Clymer’s touching account was met quickly by Trump supporters asserting via Twitter that the latest reporting on the president’s all-encompassing narcissism was simply not true because he had said it was not, and that it had been concocted, an argument for which there is no evidence. So, I am left once more pondering the fact that the central issue confronting our polity today is why roughly 40 percent of Americans and a clear majority of White Americans are willing to believe or disregard these obviously false assertions and to support an individual who not only plainly holds them in contempt, but has also repeatedly demonstrated he regards the nation, which he nominally serves, and its founding principles, with scorn as well.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the general population in Germany had come to accept and rationalize any statement by those propagating Nazi propaganda, no matter how untethered those contentions were to reality:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. ... Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.[7]

I am not sure that this is occurring for Trump’s supporters, but the President and officials and  representatives of his party are surely engaged in ever more outlandish allegations and have shown themselves willing to lie and to offer distortions of reality to accord with their lies so as to motivate their adherents. However explained, these are deeply ugly anti-democratic currents.

Meanwhile Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns, has recently argued in a new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, that the largest share of those supporting Trump and the GOP are fundamentally doing so to preserve what they see as their rightful place in the social hierarchy amidst fears that standing will evanesce and disappear when, if demographic trends persist as predicted, whites no longer constitute a majority of the nation’s population in 2042.[8] Amidst rapid social and economic change, Wilkerson contends, many whites are supporting Trump to preserve what they take to be their legitimate social status and they are willing to bear many costs to do so:

When you are caught in a caste system, you will likely do whatever it takes to survive in it. If you are insecurely situated somewhere in the middle—below the very top but above the very bottom—you may distance yourself from the bottom and hold up barriers against those you see as below you to protect your own position. You will emphasize the inherited characteristics that rank higher on the caste scale.[9]

According to Wilkerson, in supporting the corrupt politics of Trump and the Republican Party, what many analysts have failed to comprehend is that

… people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.[10]

I shared the above examples of Trump’s hypocrisy, callousness and incompetence to highlight how singularly significant it is for Americans collectively to understand what is motivating a minority among them to support his attack on their regime and way of life. Likewise, it is important to try to grasp how those individuals are rationalizing those often-horrific choices—as in supporting a leader who holds the nation’s fallen in contempt, and whose response to cries for the redress of racial injustice has been to embrace and propagate fiction and conspiracy stories about non-existent uniformed  “thugs” flying from city to city through the night to orchestrate such public protests.

Whether one is persuaded by Arendt’s contention that a share of this nation’s citizens are now so cynical and ignorantly credulous that they daily embrace Trump’s lies and wanton hypocrisy because they are so cocksure of their own and his cleverness, or instead adopts Wilkerson’s view that those supporting the current national nightmare are doing so to maintain what they perceive to be their rightful place in a social caste or believes that each of these arguments is true, several points deserve consideration.

First, both explanations emphasize that Trump’s supporters have adopted a single story. For the president’s devotees, disproportionately white, he is a salvific figure who is expected, against any and all evidence of his corruption and incompetence and of events, to hold off demographic change and preserve them from the vagaries of that unacceptable social reality.

Second, it is clear that for individuals in this group, the abatement of fear of loss of social place is so significant that they are willing to risk their freedom and their nation in its name. In this, this social group is more than reminiscent of those who both fought a civil war to preserve slavery and then worked doggedly to reinstate the social caste that system represented post-Reconstruction.

Third, these citizens have persistently accepted a false construction of American society as a binary. The group first accepted Trump’s claims that they should fear and hate “outsiders” (refugees and immigrants) and blame them for their concerns, real and imagined, and now, increasingly, he has contended they should ostracize and blame U.S. minority group members for their perceived woes and fear of social diminution. In effect, Trump is asking his supporters to disdain and disparage an alleged “enemy within” comprised of their fellow Americans on no evidence other than his rhetorical ridicule. Indeed, he is doing so on the basis of a “Big Lie.” In that, he is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler who mobilized a share of the German population on the basis of their fears and animosities to support the Big Lie that Jews were their enemy. Trump has singled out any who look different, including those with disabilities and those of any color except white, as “losers,” “suckers” and dangerous leeches.  

Fourth, in all of this, Trump and the GOP are doing little to address the very real issues otherwise confronting the nation, including the scheming of its totalitarian rivals, the deaths each day of approximately 1,000 Americans to the COVID-19 virus whose total will shortly rise beyond 200,000 (the equivalent of losing all of the residents of Huntsville, Alabama or Salt Lake City, Utah and leaving those thriving cities empty of people), the climate change now more obvious daily and deepening social and economic inequality. On this last point I learned recently that when Hitler was informed that the Russian invasion had stalled and Stalingrad was fast becoming a bloodbath for the Wehrmacht, his advisors expected that he would order a retreat, but he did not. Instead, he remarked that such was what they were sent to do. Trump has reacted similarly to those dying daily of a pandemic that he has steadfastly refused to address in any meaningful way, suggesting instead “it is what it is,” and that many must die.[11] The president’s contempt for individuals dying from COVID-19 is rivaled only by his disdain for those serving any cause beyond themselves, for the nation’s fallen and wounded soldiers and for American democratic principles.

It is vital to highlight once more that our nation is in a governance crisis occasioned by the conscious choices of a minority of its citizens. It is equally vital that we understand their motivations and find ways to address them, and that the majority of the nation’s citizens make it clear at the ballot box in November that that group’s choices are morally unacceptable, unjust and untenable for a Republic that seeks first and foremost to ensure its diverse population freedom and equal rights. In short, Trump and the GOP’s recipe for a nation predicated on full rights for a few, a poisoning of the commons and deprivation and deep injustice for a targeted minority persistently singled out as “the enemy within,” cannot be permitted to stand.

Notes 

[1] Clymer, Charlotte, “I Cannot Adequately Describe My Anger at Donald Trump,” https://twitter.com/cmclymer/status/1302220401385373697, September 5, 2020, Accessed September 5, 2020.

[2] Goldberg, Jeffrey, “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers,’” The Atlantic Monthly, September 3, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/trump-americans-who-died-at-war-are-losers-and-suckers/615997/, Accessed September 3, 2020.

[3] Schwartz, Ian, Trump: John Kelly was “‘Unable to Function’ as Chief of Staff, ‘Got Eaten Alive’ and ‘Petered Out,’” Real Clear Politics, September 4, 2020, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/09/04/trump_john_kelly_was_unable_to_function_as_chief_of_staff_got_eaten_alive_and_petered_out.html, Accessed September 4, 2020; Barr, Jeremy, “Jennifer Griffin defended by Fox News colleagues after Trump Twitter attack over confirmation of Atlantic reporting,” The Washington Post, September 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/media/2020/09/05/jennifer-griffin-defended-by-fox-news-colleagues-after-trump-twitter-attack-over-her-confirmation-atlantic-reporting/, Accessed September 5, 2020.    

[4] Goldberg, “Trump: Americans Who Died Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’”

[5] Goldberg, “Trump: Americans Who Died Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’”

[6] Associated Press, “Trump Spins Baseless Tale of ‘Thugs’ Flying to Protests,” The New York Times, September 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/09/01/us/politics/ap-us-trump-protests-conspiracy-theory.html, Accessed September 4, 2020. 

[7] Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1951, p. 382, https://cheirif.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/hannah-arendt-the-origins-of-totalitarianism-meridian-1962.pdf, Accessed September 6, 2020.

[8] Wilkerson, Isabel, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, New York, Random House, 2020, p.323.

[9] Wilkerson, Isabel, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, p. 327.

[10] Wilkerson, Isabel, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, p.327.

[11] Cole, Devan and Tara Subramaniam, “Trump on COVID death toll: ‘It is what it is,’” CNN News, September 3, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/04/politics/trump-covid-death-toll-is-what-it-is/index.html, Accessed September 5, 2020. 

Publication Date

September 14, 2020

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