Donald Trump’s end game is a new civil war. The first step in preventing that war – or, if necessary, winning it – is understanding who and what the threat is.
“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked…” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech to a joint session of Congress just before the United States formally declared itself at war with Japan
Roosevelt’s speech is one of the most famous in American history, held up as an example of an American leader rising to the challenge when the American people are attacked.
Seventy-six years later, it is the president himself who is attacking both Americans and American ideals, and doing so both for short-term political gain and in a naked attempt to remake our country in his own morally repugnant image.
Ten days ago, a day after the tragedy at Charlottesville and just after a Seattle rally organized by white nationalist Joey Gibson, I posted an essay, “Trolling the Left,” explaining the goals of such seemingly pointless rallies. They fit into a broader white nationalist strategy to normalize race-based hate groups as an accepted part of America’s mainstream political spectrum.
What We’ve Just Seen
At the time, I promised to follow up by looking at how we can resist such groups without playing into their trap of giving fodder for false equivalence between hate groups and their opponents. And I had to keep delaying that piece, first because the President of the United States – in a now-infamous tirade last Tuesday and several times since – used exactly that reasoning to defend the white supremacist protesters at Charlottesville.
Since then, it’s been an unending rush of new developments that have been chaotic even by Donald Trump’s high standards. The ten days between Charlottesville and Trump’s Nuremberg Rally-style campaign event in Phoenix last night may well go down in history as the pivotal moment in which Donald Trump, currently the most powerful man in the world, made explicit his desire for a new race war in the United States.
The last week and a half has overshadowed Charlottesville itself. What will be remembered most is not the terrorism of a white supremacist rally, but the forces that Trump’s response to it has unleashed. Here’s a quick timeline of what we’ve just witnessed:
Saturday, August 12, 2017: In the largest such rally in many decades, Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Confederates, and other hate groups gather in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly to protest that city’s removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a city park and the renaming of that park as “Emancipation Park.” A white supremacist from Ohio drives his car into a large crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 20. Two Virginia State Police charged with monitoring the chaos also die when their helicopter crashes.
Trump draws widespread condemnation when his initial response is to blame “all sides” for the violence, failing to criticize the hate groups that both organized the event and were responsible for the deaths and injuries.
Overshadowed in the news, a white supremacist rally the same day in Berkeley, organized by a movement of fascistic white thugs that calls itself “Proud Boys,” also ends in violence.
Sunday, August 13: At least a thousand vigils and protests across the US commemorate the death in Charlottesville. In Seattle, up to a thousand counter-protesters confront police and an unrelated white nationalist rally.
Monday, August 14: Trump issues a more moderate statement on Charlottesville that does, in fact, criticize such hate groups by name.
Buried in the Charlottesville news, Trump’s Department of Justice confirms it has demanded that a host company turn over extensive personal information on all 1.3 million people who visited a web site used to help coordinate Washington, DC protests of Trump’s inauguration last January – an extraordinary broad effort targeting anti-Trump protesters for doing nothing more than visiting a perfectly legal web site.
Tuesday, August 15: At a press conference at Trump Tower in New York supposedly meant to tout an infrastructure plan, Trump erupts in a long, angry tirade in response to reporters’ questions, in the process repudiating anything helpful about Monday’s statement as not representing his true feelings.
Among other things, Trump again blames both sides for Charlottesville’s violence – citing both “bad people” and “really good people” on both sides; criticizes efforts to remove Confederate statues from public spaces as “erasing history” (as though “erasing” and “not glorifying” are the same thing), and rhetorically asks whether statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, as slave owners, would be the next to go. (For all their many faults, neither ever waged war against the United States for the purpose of defending the practice of slavery, a rather crucial distinction for many people.)
Wednesday, August 16: Elected officials, including many Republicans, broadly condemn Trump’s remarks. The mother of the woman killed in Charlottesville goes on national TV to make all the points Trump should have been making.
Thursday, August 17: Trump doubles down again on his rhetoric.
Friday, August 18: Trump fires senior advisor (and the country’s second most notorious white nationalist) Steve Bannon. Bannon promptly rejoins Breitbart News, promising to pressure Trump from his media platforms to stay true to Bannon’s white supremacist priorities, especially on immigration.
Saturday, August 19: A white supremacist rally in Boston – organized by Gibson, among others – is overwhelmed with 40,000 counter-protesters.
In many ways, Boston is an ideal city for this type of rally: a booming economy (like Seattle’s) masks white working class neighborhoods with a long history of racial resentment, and poorer black neighborhoods that have often been neglected by every city department except the police. And yet, anti-racists there have modeled the most effective way yet of responding to such hate groups: with sheer, overwhelming numbers of people that reject racial hatred as a community value.
Monday, August 21: Trump “addresses the nation” with what is billed as a new approach to, and escalation of, the US war in Afghanistan. The “plan” turns out to have a lot of rhetoric about “winning” and almost no details; the only notable element is Trump’s insults aimed at Pakistan, a critical ally in that war and the territory through which most American military supply lines to Afghanistan go. (Pakistan does, in fact, have an issue with Islamists protecting the Taliban and other extremist groups – especially in the ISI, Pakistan’s notoriously thuggish intelligence agency – but the relationships between the ISI and Pakistan’s elected government and judiciary are far more complicated than Trump acknowledged.) The speech, which seemed to announce a major escalation in the longest-running war in US history, is quickly forgotten, overwhelmed in the news cycle again by race and Russia.
Tuesday, August 22: The New York Times reported that Trump and McConnell had not spoken since an angry August 9 phone call – in which Trump not only berated McConnell (again) for failing to deprive tens of millions of Americans of access to health care, but more importantly, for McConnell’s failure to “protect” Trump from Senate committees from investigating his Russia connections. That exchange that could well lead to another charge if Trump is ever impeached over obstruction of justice.
Meanwhile, CNN reported that Glenn Simpson, owner of the company for which Christopher Steele produced his now-famous (and largely vindicated) “campaign dossier” on Trump last year, testified for ten hours before one of those committees, the Senate Judiciary Committee. As part of his lengthy testimony, Simpson also gave the committee 40,000 pages of documents, including information on all of Steele’s sources.
That night, at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Trump escalated his racially charged rhetoric on several fronts. He alludes to pardoning notoriously racist Phoenix area former sheriff Joe Arpaio, now awaiting sentencing on contempt of court charges for ignoring a federal court order to stop department policies that for years have systematically profiled, abused, and violated the civil rights of non-whites, especially Latinos. (Aside from being the country’s most high-profile openly racist elected official for decades, Arpaio was also, during Obama’s presidency, the country’s second most famous Birther.)
Trump also appealed to the same local racism that fueled Arpaio’s career, vowing to shut down the federal government – which faces imminent crises in September over the need for Congress to pass both a debt ceiling increase and federal budgets – if that legislation does not include funding for his Mexican wall. In other words, Trump is willing to risk a global financial recession (at best), costing the American economy trillions, to try to force taxpayers to spend billions of dollars on a project whose only real purpose is the symbolic rejection of non-white immigrants.
Even more disturbingly, Trump again defended statues glorifying Confederate heroes, this time directly appealing to and identifying with white bigots, and ending with a rallying cry that sounds a lot like the declaration of a race war:
They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders do it overnight. These things have been here for 150 years, for 100 years…We are Americans and the future belongs to us. The future belongs to all of you. This is our moment. This is our chance. This is our opportunity to recapture our dynasty like never before.”
Of course, Trump’s “we” is not all Americans. It’s those Americans whose “dynasty” was built on white supremacism, and who want that privilege – based directly on the subjugation of non-whites – back.
What This All Means
Trump’s direct appeal to white identity is unprecedented in American presidents. The sentiments, of course, are older than our country itself, and for the last half-century one of our country’s two major political parties has used white supremacist sentiments to win elections and political power. But there’s a reason why even Republican officials who’ve used such tactics themselves are now running away from (or, in McConnell’s case, confronting) Trump. The presidency is different. A president’s job includes serving, defending, and representing all Americans – not just the ones who support you or share your skin color or gender or privilege. In his naked appeals to racial identity, Trump has crossed a critical line.
Perhaps this was inevitable; after all, as a businessman, celebrity, and politician, Trump has been a racist thug for decades. It was part of what endeared him to his followers in the first place. Why wouldn’t he appeal to such sentiments now?
Trump is in trouble politically and legally, and he knows it. The various Russia investigations have expanded to include not just collusion (and treason) in last year’s election, but various illegal business practices and associations going back decades. Family members are also implicated. Trump’s efforts to stop these investigations are not only backfiring, but building a seemingly airtight case for obstruction of justice on top of his other legal problems. He is not only making America an international pariah, but, more importantly for Trump himself, badly damaging his own brand. His public approval ratings are at historic lows, a particularly infuriating development for a guy who obsessed over his ratings, cannot tolerate criticism of any kind, and needs the oxygen of adoring rallies like Phoenix to feed his insatiable narcissism.
His political problems are equally serious. In the face of the collapse of efforts to repeal ObamaCare, Trump seems to have no significant allies in or influence with Congress, even though his own party controls both houses. That rift was fully exposed by Trump’s response to Charlottesville. There’s simply no precedent for this, either, in situations where one party controls both the White House and Congress.
The tensions between Trump and McConnell are part of a campaign of Trump criticism of Republican senators he views as insufficiently loyal to him. For his part, a former McConnell aide close to the senator published an op-ed this week wondering aloud about the prospects of impeachment – a complete reversal of what had until recently been Congressional Republican loyalty to Trump, as both party nominee and president, during even the worst of Trump’s depredations.
One of Trump’s most basic tactics for responding to self-made crises is to change the subject. The Afghanistan announcement was not only an announcement of war (usually a winner for presidents who feel they need a political boost), but a futile attempt to drive Trump’s responses to Charlottesville out of the news. It bombed.
Ever since the election, critics have worried how Trump would respond if confronted, as all presidents are, with an exterior crisis. That may still happen. But the most likely crises at this point – economic collapse, constitutional crisis, efforts to either block investigations or impeachment – are of Trump’s own making. And they’re potentially imminent.
In the face of his presidency’s collapse, Trump’s only real political option is to appeal to his still-adoring political base, the voters who supported him because he insulted politicians of both parties, because he was a racist, misogynist bully, because Trump’s wealth protected him from the consequences of behavior they wished they could emulate. That Republican voter support for Trump is his only leverage against the Senate Republican defections necessary for impeachment. Trump has begun appealing directly to those whites’ sense of grievance, especially their sense of lost entitlements – a “dynasty” built on treating other Americans like second-class citizens.
Donald Trump is playing the race card. Because he can.
How This All Games Out
As alarming as all this is, Trump’s tactics will outlive him regardless of his success or failure. In the end, it does not matter whether Trump is a grotesque racist, or whether he merely cynically plays one for political expediency. He is invoking and legitimizing old hatreds that he can no more control than he can control a wildfire. And he is setting precedents, for how presidents can use their political power, that will become even more dangerous when used by a more skilled successor.
Trump himself has got to go, and the sooner the better, whether through impeachment for high crimes and/or misdemeanors, his clear mental unfitness for the pressures of the presidency, or the dangers inherent when that unfitness is paired with the keys to the global economy and the nuclear codes. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. Every day that Donald Trump remains in office now escalates the clear and present danger not just to Americans, but potentially to all life on earth.
But while Trump is a serious menace, he’s still only a symptom of a bigger problem: those tens of millions of Americans who genuinely believe he can do no wrong. Many of them do so because his racist beliefs legitimize their own. After decades of conservative media and its “alternative facts,” many of them are immune to reason or even objective reality, rejecting it as “fake news” or as a lie perpetrated through one or another bizarre conspiracy theory. Many of these folks own weapons; some will, by sheer statistical probability, have anger, mental health, or other personal issues that Trump’s appeals play to. In particular, Trump’s legitimization of the idea that only some Americans are real Americans is virtually an invitation to violence.
At that point, there are only two possibilities. Either Trump remains in power, beseiged by criticism and likely presiding over a shaky economy (e.g., the looming debt ceiling showdown). Or he will be removed from power.
If the former, Trump is almost certain to try to implement far more repressive policies that essentially gut what’s left of the Bill of Rights. We’ve already seen some of this, with the gutting of immigrants’ legal rights of representation and appeal, and with last week’s DoJ attempt to collect personal information on anyone who viewed an anti-Trump web site. It would become far worse if a beseiged Trump remains in power; pushback is inevitable. In particular, non-whites are not about to quietly accept a return to second-class citizenship or worse.
And if Trump is removed? He won’t – literally cannot – go quietly. He will inspire violent responses from loyalists. There will be much talk of civil war and enemies (i.e., non-whites, liberals, and Republican traitors) within. Some people will act on that rhetoric. Meanwhile, federal and many local governments will still be controlled by a party built on fear, greed, lies, and white supremacy. And these reactions to a Trump removal will still demand pushback.
So How Do We Respond?
The huge crowd in Boston last weekend was a helpful, hopeful reminder of what we most immediately need: massive responses that communicate that white nationalism, white supremacism, and the politics of hatred and division have no place in our or any other community.
The project to rehabilitate racism as a mainstream political and cultural force has been triggered in the first place by the accelerating cultural and political conclusion in past decades, especially in urban centers whose cosmopolitan residents drive most of the U.S. economy, that racism is simply socially unacceptable. To the extent this has been upended in recent years, especially with Trump’s ascension, it needs to be made unacceptable again – the more unequivocally, the better, by non-whites and whites alike, by individuals, organizations, corporations (including media companies) and governments alike.
The more that white nationalism in particular is rejected as a mainstream political philosophy, the more isolated it becomes and the harder it is to write off far right violence as equivalent to the (usually far lesser) violence of people defending themselves against it. The overarching project is to finally relegate racism, and the politicians who pander to it, to the fringes of American civic and political life.
There are no neutral observers in this divide. You either oppose white supremacism, or your silence (or support) serves to legitimize it. This goes especially for institutions – companies and news outlets most crucially – that like to place themselves outside any such fray. You either actively oppose the Trumpian agenda – and support the ideals that the United States, with all its myriad flaws, still aspires to – or you must be held accountable for your choices. We who reject racism, white and non-white alike, are not only the large majority of this country, but we have disproportionate economic and cultural influence. We need to use it.
The one thing we do not have is political power to match our numbers. There are a lot of reasons for this, especially institutional. The more sclerotic parts of the Democratic Party also bear a lot of responsibility. But at the moment, that’s the vehicle available. Building electoral alternatives, inside or outside the Democrats, is an essential long-term project that won’t help us much with an immediate threat.
We cannot afford infighting or purity tests at a time when our basic freedom, and for many of us our very existence, is under attack. We will need as many allies as possible, including people who we may not agree with on anything else. That’s fine. What Trump is unleashing is a serious threat that goes to the core of who we are as a people – all of us. In the end, despite our differences, anti-racist unity is our only answer. United we stand; otherwise, you know the rest.
[Author’s note: I’m a low-income activist, disabled, and dedicated (despite financial and chronic health pressures) to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting for our rightful place in a city that has increasingly turned its back on many of us. Since 1996 I have also offered news and commentary, along with my colleague Maria Tomchick, Saturday morning at 8:30 on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle.
If you find my web and radio reporting and analysis valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for my food, rent, and medical care – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]