American Carnage: The Cruelty That Won't End with Donald Trump

Last week, Propublica published a disturbing video of a 16-year-old boy dying from the common flu in the custody of the Customs and Border Protection. The Guatemalan boy, Carlos Vasquez, was legally seeking asylum in the United States. 24 people, including 7 children, have died in immigration custody under Trump.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration finalized a rule that would take food assistance away from 700,000 people. Two other pending rules changes are expected to take that number to 3.7 million, including almost a million children who will lose access to free or reduced-price school lunches.

Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services has already cut the open enrollment period in half for the Affordable Care Act, nearly zeroed out funding for outreach for health care, supported right-wing state efforts to kick people off of Medicaid, and fueled a rise of deceptive, junk insurance plans. Right now, the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Trump’s handpicked Secretary Ben Carson is withholding $18 billion in critically needed disaster aid to Puerto Rico.

Donald Trump made a deliberate decision to allow Turkey to conduct an ethnic cleansing operation against American Turkish allies, and he almost got away with extorting Ukraine with Congressionally approved taxpayer money while the country is in the middle of a hot war with Russia that has killed 13,000 Ukrainians.

Looked at separately, these incidences may appear to be disparate instances of unfortunate decisions at different levels of government that lead to inhuman outcomes. But together, these human tragedies tell one, singular, undeniable truth: to the Trump regime, the cruel inhumanity is not a bug, it’s the core feature.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched the political rise of Trump with rational horror: from the moment of his announcement in 2015 by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, through a dark campaign that included mocking a reporter’s disability, to the ascend to power with a dystopian ‘American carnage’ inaugural address, being a cruel, inhuman monster is on-brand for Trump.

But Trump was not elected with one vote. Although Hillary Clinton earned the votes of 3 million more Americans than Trump did, 63 million of our fellow Americans and 30 states voted for Trump. A conflagration of factors, including decades-long demonization one of the most honest and effective public servants in American history, Hillary Clinton, Russian election interference, and an antiquated, anti-democratic, slave-era political institution, the electoral college, contributed to the perfect storm that powered the rise of Trump.

None of it would have sufficed, however, without the fertile breeding ground for hatred and cruelty that the Republican party - and its core white voters - had already become well in advance of the arrival of Donald Trump as a politician. The cruelty of these Americans began to surface as a platform with the spread of the birther conspiracy theory against first candidate and then President Obama. The racist challenge against President Obama’s legitimacy was a current Donald Trump fueled and rode all the way to the House, but did not originate. The fear of a less white (and more to the point, a less white-privileged) America, the prospect of being governed by a black president, and the realization of that fear brought to surface bubbling hate, and as an inevitable result of that hate rose the love for cruelty.

Hatred’s primary feature is dehumanization. Hatred dehumanizes the object of the hate, but only in the eyes of the hater. But in truth, hatred devours the humanity of the hater. And when one loses the ability to empathize based on common humanity, radicalization is the natural and inevitable next step. Once our basic ability to connect with others based on our common humanity is stripped away, we see those who don’t look, act, love, and pray like us not simply as a threat to our way of life, but as sub-human scum whose way of life we must obliterate.

It is no coincidence that Donald Trump brands anyone and everyone who stands up to him as bad people, even as “human scum.” This is a deliberate cultification of his base of supporters, and an intentional crucification of those who dare to speak ill of Dear Leader.

The racism and white supremacy at odds with American values but at the core of American life has pervaded American politics as long as there has been a United States, and it has manifested in the ugliest forms at the most critical points in American history. Slavery was quite literally written into the founding Constitution of this country. States in the South committed literal treason against the United States for the sole purpose of preserving slavery. In the century between the Civil War and Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow laws flourished, segregation reigned, and lynching of black Americans became accepted practice for whites.

When President Johnson did sign the Civil Rights Act, he famously remarked that his party, the Democrats, had lost the South for a generation. He turned out to have vastly underestimated the power of white supremacy to cultivate fear, loathing, and hatred. 

From the Civil Rights Act to the two terms of the first black president, America went through a transformation, but white resentment and hate have manifested both directly and indirectly, both in law and in civic life, both among right-wing conservatives and so-called liberals. From Nixonian racism to Reagan’s war on drugs and his refusal to acknowledge the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, America witnessed, and sadly in many instances celebrated public policies arising out of hate and fear of people of color and other marginalized people.

The current of racism-infused hate is so pervasive that when today’s liberals and Leftists celebrate the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt - including boasting that they want the Democratic party to harken back to its “FDR roots” - there is not even a pause to acknowledge the horrific crime of internment against American citizens of Japanese ancestry under FDR. It matters not whether such elimination is conscious, because erasure of a cruel past is, in and of itself, cruel.

So yes, as Adam Serwer pointed out in The Atlantic a year ago, open cruelty is the point for Donald Trump’s administration. But cruelty did not begin nor will end with the Trump presidency. The cruelty and hate that made a Trump presidency possible has existed in this country for centuries - because we, as a society, have never had the courage to address its roots: white privilege and white supremacy.

When will we do that?