At several events at this year’s New Yorker Festival, a sense of wooziness predominated among audience members, who appeared to be grasping for a wisp of hope that the nightmare known as President Trump would soon be over. Alas, experts who graced the stages at three separate events had a common message: Expect Trump to serve out his first term, and perhaps even his second.
The liberals of New York City struggled to comprehend how this could be possible. These are the same people who were certain that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential race. These are people who knew Donald Trump as the tabloid clown who had plagued them for decades, his smug mug sneering from the newsstand. They never dreamed that America would go for putting the clown prince from Queens in the White House. Having failed to consider the lessons of Reconstruction, they couldn’t believe that America would follow the presidency of Barack Obama with that of a white supremacist, a rank misogynist, a hater. They couldn’t believe that such a thing, with its threatening overtones and echoes of the fascist movements that rose in 1930s Europe, could happen here.
At the Directors Guild Theater near Carnegie Hall, in an October 8 panel discussion event titled “It Happened Here,” Republican strategist Mindy Finn stated baldly: “The Republican party is becoming the white nationalist party.” Finn led the digital strategy team for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. In 2016, she served as running-mate to third-party protest candidate Evan McMullin, a conservative who opposed Trump.
One needn’t look far for the evidence. Just take a peek at what Steve Bannon is up to. Even as he explained his ideology to my boss and colleague, Robert Kuttner, as “economic nationalism,” what Bannon is really doing, Kuttner observes, is combining economic nationalism with white nationalism. And he plans to do much of that by funding and advancing primary challenges to more than a dozen Republican senatorial candidates, a trick that will likely further mutate the DNA of the GOP. In a binary system such as ours, this is a particularly effective tactic, since once the general election comes around, most voters will select their favored candidate from one of the two major parties, often without much more knowledge than the candidate’s party affiliation. These days, most people who consider themselves Republican would recoil at the thought of checking the box next to a Democrat’s name.
“Republican primaries have become very dangerous for incumbents,” observed Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist who took part in the Sunday morning panel discussion in New York. Speaking of the motivated electorate in primary races, Wilson said, “That 30 percent of the Republican Party hates their incumbent candidate more than they hate Democrats.”
And Trump has been served notice by Bannon that he dare not stray too far from the white nationalists whom Bannon has courted in his once and present guise of chief executive of the Breitbart.com hate site. In Alabama’s special Senate election, Trump endorsed the incumbent Luther Strange in the GOP primary, only to have Bannon back a primary challenge to Strange from Roy Moore, the theocratic, Constitution-flouting former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Moore stomped Trump’s candidate to bits. Trump promptly deleted all of his tweets endorsing Strange. Trump hates to lose. He won’t make that mistake again.
“We are a divided country,” said Carl Bernstein to an audience gathered on October 6 at a theater in Chelsea for a panel titled “All the President’s Reporters.”
“We are in the state of a cold civil war in this country,” Bernstein explained. “It is absolutely unprecedented to have a president of the United States who lies about damn near everything as this president does. And, yet, that does not disturb a big part of the citizenry.”
During the Watergate scandal, which Bernstein, with Bob Woodward, exposed in the pages of The Washington Post, people on both sides of the aisle were interested in learning the truth, Bernstein, now an analyst for CNN, explained. That’s not the case today.
“During this last campaign you could tell there was a difference,” said Jane Mayer, the New Yorker reporter who did a deep dive into the Koch brothers’ network in her book Dark Money. “There was a lot of good reporting about Trump, and it wouldn’t break through. … The country is divided because of where it’s getting information.”
On the right, one of the most-trafficked websites is Breitbart.com, which acted as an arm of the Trump campaign during the presidential contest, and continues to advance Trumpian ideals, including the notion that stories about the administration generated by mainstream media outlets are “fake news.” Republicans also get their news from the toxic airwaves of right-wing radio and Fox News Channel.
Among the fantasies peddled by such outlets is that of the unworthy black or immigrant or Muslim or woman of any color advancing at the expense of “hardworking” white men. Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land, calls this the myth of the “line-cutters.”
“There’s been this displacement of blame,” Hochschild said. “That’s what we need to counter.”
Hochschild, the eminent sociologist who spoke on the “It Happened Here” panel, spent years among the white working-class voters whose economic difficulties have drawn a lot of ink since the election. But she seemed to miss a crucial point when she claimed that many of these were good people, not racists. To vote for a candidate who boasts of his racist views and not be deemed a racist seems a neat trick to me. It’s a form of denial and projection that allows America as a whole off the hook for the election of Trump. To say that Trump is racist but his voters are not is the moral equivalent of saying, “The devil made me do it.” Satan was never more than a device for the externalization of evil that lives in the human heart.
The truth is that the United States is a deeply racist country, and that racism lives among liberals, where it takes more genteel forms, as it does in more naked forms among those who call themselves conservatives. Liberal astonishment at the ascendance of Trump speaks to this. Collective denial over the depth of America’s racism amounts to a passive form of racism in and of itself. Because if the white majority in the liberal establishment listened to what black people tell us of their lives and experience, we wouldn’t be in denial.
“It’s not surprising that this is happening,” said New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb to moderator Dorothy Wickenden, the magazine’s executive editor. “It’s unsettling, but it’s not surprising. On June 16 of 2015, Dylann Roof … shot nine people, and one person who had shot who had not yet died asked him why he was doing this, and he said, ‘Your people are raping our women.’ On June 17, 2015, Donald Trump declared his candidacy, saying in part, the country was besieged by Mexican rapists. I don’t think there’s a causal relationship between those two things, but I think they are both responding to a similar zeitgeist … the idea of the frenzy you can drive people to with the idea of white women being imperiled particularly by men of color.”
It is natural, when staving off despair, to look for a quick and easy end to peril. At the panel about reporting on the president, an audience member asked about the likelihood that Trump would be pushed from office via the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal a president deemed unfit for duty by a majority of the cabinet. Bernstein said he didn’t see it happening.
Neither did Jeffrey Toobin, the CNN legal analyst and New Yorker writer who interviewed former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara on the stage of the New York Society for Ethical Culture on October 7. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Toobin said in answer to a question from his audience. Bharara was no more soothing.
“People should get used to the idea that Donald Trump is going to be president of the United States through his first term most likely,” said Bharara, who was fired by Trump after refusing to return the president’s phone call because he saw such interaction as an ethical problem.
“I think it would be more useful for people to focus … on ways to counteract the policies they disagree with, assuming he's going to be in office,” Bharara added, “rather than this wishful thinking that something's going to drop from the heavens to remove him.”
In meantime, though, there’s no doubt that white supremacists have been emboldened by the Trump presidency, and the president’s rhetoric—such as his contention that some “very fine people” took part in the August 11 torch-lit “white nationalist” march to the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The next day, violence exploded in that town when those who carried the torches were joined by neo-Confederate and neo-Nazi forces to engage in acts of collective and individual thuggery.
On Tuesday, an arrest warrant was issued for a black man who was brutally beaten by white supremacists on that day, in apparent retaliation for the fact that charges have been pressed against some of his attackers, thanks to internet sleuthing led by activist Shaun King.
One of those alleged attackers, caught on video assaulting DeAndre Harris, is now blaming Harris for injuries he appears to have sustained in skirmish with another white supremacist, according to Harris’s attorney, S. Lee Merritt, who has been tweeting out video that appears to back up his claim. Harris was attacked in front of the Charlottesville Police headquarters, and that attack was caught on video, as well. Merritt told The Washington Post that the arrest warrant for Harris resulted from charges pressed by the white supremacist Harold Ray Crews, whose case, Merritt added, is being driven by the neo-Confederate group, League of the South.
At the panel on reporting, Jane Mayer offered a glimmer of hope for the nation’s future, saying that ultimately Trump will be seen for what he is, for all that he is.
“I feel the truth will win,” she said. “I have enough faith in the American public that they will see who’s really telling the truth.”
But until that happens, the question remains of how many lives will be harmed or destroyed in the interim. What’s to be done? Resist with all of our might.