The Harpy

Credulity and Barbarity in the Age of Trump

‘It is time to recognize that the right to criticize the powerful is sacrosanct’


For two days, a little whirlwind — the kind that blows through conservative and centrist media alike — has kicked up a preposterous kind of dust over the public discourse. The substance: Were the words spoken by a president who endorses and enacts explicitly racist policy an expression of explicit racism, or a more veiled form of racism? 

On Wednesday, President Trump declaimed, “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” The context was a sycophantic gathering of sheriffs from California, visiting the White House as part of National Police Week. A sheriff had complained about how state “sanctuary” laws make it difficult to share information with ICE about potentially dangerous criminals, including members of the El Salvadoran gang MS-13. In response, the president pivoted the conversation to all deported immigrants, after years of expressing racialized and overt hostility to immigration, and declared an entire class of individuals inhuman.

The “animals” comment was condemned — as Trump’s overtly racist statements are, from time to time — by a few normally timid Democrats and a broad swath of the general public. It was initially reported, correctly, as a comment directed at all immigrants and migrants crossing the border; then began a specious backlash, led by the White House and conservative media, who claimed that Trump was referring only to members of the El Salvadoran gang MS-13.

The AP later issued a correction to its initial reporting of the news, and CNN added a clarification that “Trump’s remarks late Wednesday were in response to comments about members of MS-13 and other undocumented immigrants who are deported for committing crimes.” Later, CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote an article chiding news organizations for taking the president “out of context.” The press secretary added that she didn’t believe the term animals “was strong enough.”

The conceit that the president was referring solely to MS-13 is disingenuous on its face. What’s more, MS-13 has persistently been used as a metonym to cast all Latinx immigrants as potential criminals, and to endorse brutal law enforcement tactics.

In a broadly condemned speech in July 2017, Trump endorsed police brutality — telling a gathered audience of law enforcement officials that it was “OK” to bounce a suspect’s head off the hood of a car — and decried weak immigration laws that had allowed for the growth of MS-13. “They’re animals,” he said. The crowd applauded. 

As if to prove how nebulous and blurry the designation “gang member” is, Slate reported this week on a federal judge’s ruling that ICE had systematically falsified a DACA recipient’s testimony to forge a gang affiliation that did not exist. “Gang affiliation” has been used continually by ICE to deport individuals whose only known crime is being undocumented — as an ICE agent admitted to CBS News last year. 

This, of course, is an age-old racist tactic: Designate a bogeyman to associate people of color with violence, and then conflate those who object to racism as defenders of the bogeyman, in order to discredit their dissent. It’s the Willie Horton offensive, the crack-dealer rhetoric that fueled the War on Drugs, and it works on both biased segments of the public and an overly credulous pundit class.

There has, perhaps, never been a more preposterous period to allow those who do not deserve it to claim the benefit of the doubt. It is abundantly clear, to all who are outside the teapot in which the tempest rages, that this semantic quibbling is a means to silence dissent. Meanwhile, the right consolidates power and lets it loose in salvos of both rhetorical and active barbarity against the classes they despise. It is beyond doubt that the White House is speaking in bad faith; what I contend is that what they desire — a timid, trusting, servile restraint toward those who espouse patently racist ideology — is also morally abhorrent.

The principal stance of racists and authoritarians toward the world is one of injured innocence and defensiveness. After all, the central offense of non-Aryans against the Reich was to pollute the Aryan race, thus injuring it; anti-black terrorism, in the years after Reconstruction, was driven by the conceit of defending white bodies against the specter of threat. Racism is always about reclamation — an appeal to a prelapsarian past of innocence besmirched by those who would seek equality. You can see the same mentality of hurt pride in Jeff Sessions’s recent lament against the demonization of law enforcement officers, in ICE head James Homan stating at that same sheriffs’ roundtable, on the verge of tears, that he is “sick and tired of the constant vilification” of the men and women of ICE and the Border Patrol. 

There are many reasons to be polite to a man with a gun, or an order of removal that will rip you from your home and family; few of them involve honor or decency, and most involve self-preservation.

To Homan and Sessions and Trump and the gathered sheriffs, any criticism of law enforcement is an illegitimate form of speech, a provocation, a wound. There is no indication that any of it arose from endless evidence of what are, functionally, extra-judiciary lynchings by police, or from instinctual moral outrage at the goose step of continual deportations. 

There is no point at which dissent becomes acceptable to authoritarians. They are the boot that will stamp your face to mush, all the time demanding you apologize for the unceasing offense that is your desire to be free.

There has never been an American idyll of polite discourse; our democracy has always been too fractious for that. (Ask Charles Sumner, beaten to within an inch of his life in the Senate chamber for opposing slavery. Ask the slain protesters at Kent State. Ask Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner.) In the context of our present dismal moment, a push for propriety in political disagreement is nothing more than a demand for decorum among the powerful, and a careful skirting of the barbarities regularly inflicted against the powerless.

I, for one, reject any such call for decorum: I will not be civil to those who prop up this administration, whose actions and rhetoric daily engender degradation.

Instead, I would like to posit that it is a time to draw moral lines in the sand, and direct our sharpest censure toward those who cross them.

It is entirely possible that Democrats would not have voted to anoint a torturer head of the CIA if more of us — from pundits to plebes — were willing to point out that torture is an absolute moral evil, producing nothing, and corrupting everything it touches.

It is years past time to name racism for what it is, authoritarianism for what it is, and shed the protective skin of euphemism that has shielded its perpetrators for far too long. 

It is high time to cease cringing and apologizing to those for whom our humanity — feminist, gay, queer, Latino, Black, immigrant, free — is in and of itself an offense. They will demand our deference because our demands for justice are an affront. They will seek our submission because our silence is what they crave. It is time to recognize that the right to criticize the powerful is sacrosanct.

Lately, I have been thinking often of one of my heroes, Osip Mandelstam, a Russian-Jewish poet. In the dark days of 1933, when those Stalin had declared enemies were beginning to line the graveyards and trenches and gulags, Mandelstam engaged in an act that, in retrospect, seems almost insane in its bravery. 

At a small private gathering, he read a poem, “The Stalin Epigram,” that criticized the leader in unsparing terms: “the ten thick worms his fingers”; “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip.”

No one knows who denounced him to the secret police. He was arrested shortly thereafter and tortured; he assumed he would be executed, because, as he had written, Stalin craved executions:

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home. 

It took until 1938 for Mandelstam — tortured, exiled, freed, rearrested, sent to the gulag — to die, of what was officially reported as heart failure. He was far from the only poet to die for his poems.

Authoritarians would always like to steal your voice: It is the chief vehicle of your dissent. There are many ways to instill a fear of speaking out; sometimes the fear that your words will be distorted, upheld as an example of shameful conduct, is one of them. 

I would contend that a willingness to hew to moral instinct, and to speak at its prompting, to pay attention to the cri du coeur of conscience, is indispensable in the United States of America in the year 2018.

To be in touch with your own morality — to ask yourself, routinely, whether the things you hear and encounter are moral — is a habit that can be cultivated. It is a sense, a hush in the eaves of the heart, that something isn’t right. It requires further discernment, and a measure of bravery, to speak out and act in accordance with those morals. As Mandelstam put it in an earlier poem, in 1913, “The Twilight of Freedom”:

 Courage, brothers, as the cleft sea falls back from our plow.