Welcome to the sixth edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, I examine the extent to which foreign parallels for Trump are merited, the potential consequences of Trump’s immigration plan, and the resistance’s posture with respect to bigots like Milo Yiannopoulos.
Is Trump a Uniquely American Phenomenon?
There have been any number of comparisons between Trump and various authoritarian figures from around the world. The Los Angeles Review of Books had a lengthy article comparing Trump to Hitler. So did Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Washington Post, New York Times, Politico, and Slate (and I’m sure others as well) have all run articles considering the parallels between Trump and Latin American populism. There have also been comparisons to Turkey, a variety of African dictators, contemporary Russia, and even North Korea.
In contrast, there have been a smaller handful of essays articulating a perspective on Trump as uniquely American. This Los Angeles Times piece, for example, points out that, in strictly policy terms, Trump is far closer to western conservatives, including mainstream Republicans like John McCain and Marco Rubio, than he is to other authoritarian leaders.
Whether you view Trump more as an authoritarian-leaning populist or a more traditional western conservative is predominantly a matter of whether you place primacy on Trump’s style or substance. In style, of course, he is wildly divergent from the rest of American politics, but in substance, his policies largely resemble those of the rest of the Republican Party. The substantive differences with the rest of the Republican Party are largely matters of degrees rather than kind.
Furthermore, it’s not as if Trump’s policies and style are entirely out of character with the history of American political thought. The Tea Party was a broadly populist movement that laid much of the groundwork for Trump’s ascent. Before the Tea Party, there was Pat Buchanan and Joseph McCarthy and William Jennings Bryan and the Know-Nothing Party. All of these movements, in one way or another, sought to sow a fear of the foreign, an antagonism towards racial minorities, and a suspicion of expertise.
All of them took as their exemplar, to some degree or another, Andrew Jackson. At Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead has taken a deep dive into the intellectual linkage from Jackson to Trump.
“The most powerful driver of Jacksonian political engagement in domestic politics… is the perception that Jacksonians are being attacked by internal enemies, such as an elite cabal or immigrants from different backgrounds. Jacksonians worry about the U.S. government being taken over by malevolent forces bent on transforming the United States’ essential character. They are not obsessed with corruption, seeing it as an ineradicable part of politics. But they care deeply about what they see as perversion—when politicians try to use the government to oppress the people rather than protect them. And that is what many Jacksonians came to feel was happening in recent years, with powerful forces in the American elite, including the political establishments of both major parties, in cahoots against them.”
This is really just a fancy way of saying that Jacksonianism is a politics of white grievance (something Jamelle Bouie has written about repeatedly: here, here, and here). An aversion to “transforming the United States’ essential character” might as well mean an aversion to the left’s insistence upon pluralism and multiculturalism. In their eyes, America is historically a nation of European immigrants, but Jacksonian descendants of these immigrants see themselves as being left out of contemporary descriptions of American society, which welcome specific representation for all sorts of marginalized groups but not for them.
“Hopeful talk among Democrats about an “emerging Democratic majority” based on a secular decline in the percentage of the voting population that is white was heard in Jacksonian America as support for a deliberate transformation of American demographics… [Jacksonians] see [this as] an elite out to banish them from power—politically, culturally, demographically.”
In light of the way Jacksonian sentiment helped propel Trump to power, perhaps we ought to spend more time investigating the distinctively American nature of Trumpism rather than making necessarily contrived comparisons with world leaders. On the other hand, in this light, the ethno-nationalism of white grievance politics rather closely resembles the protection of Frenchness articulated by Marine Le Pen or Dutchness articulated by Gert Wilders. Jacksonians are Americans who believe that the country only belongs to them and people like them, that newer immigrants are a cultural perversion of what is truly American.
While Jacksonianism may well be our principal theoretical guide, the histories of other countries provide clear warning signs for what may happen (see below) in the event that the Jacksonian impulse, however uniquely American, is left unchecked.
Deportation Force in Earnest
A draft memo of a plan to nationalize up to 100,000 National Guard troops across 11 states in the southwest to round up undocumented immigrants for deportation was leaked to the AP this week and published online by Vox.
Leaving aside the potential obstacles to realizing such a proposal (like the fact that the decision to call up National Guard troops would have to be made by governors not the federal government), this plan clearly indicates that that the government is thinking seriously about trying to deliver on Trump’s promise to deport the 11 million undocumented workers he referenced repeatedly on the campaign trail.
I wrote last week about what this might entail, quoting an extensive chunk of small-government conservative Conor Friedersdorf’s arguments against any such attempt to deport any number of people approximating the 11 million Trump described. It is truly terrifying. But even Friedersdorf doesn’t take the argument to its inevitable dark conclusion.
The New York Times offered a thoughtful consideration of the various elements of the campaign proposal back in May. But given everything we know about how Trump has proceeded so far, there seems to be little reason to assume that the carrying out of this proposal would resemble anything other than a worst-case-scenario. For that worst-case-scenario, have a quick view (it’s only six minutes) of Keith Olbermann’s monologue on the subject.
The key thing is the following, a point which I have been worried about since Trump began talking about deporting 11 million people while on the campaign trail over a year ago. One of two things will have to be true. Either people will be deported without due process, without ample attention being paid to whether or not they actually may be entitled to be here legally or the government will need a place to house people they round up while they process their papers. The first of these would be a disaster; the second is the potential beginning of a holocaust.
To avoid engaging in hyperbole, I should make it resoundingly clear that we don’t know if any of this will come to pass. The early deportations, which A) included people who are here legally, B) included non-criminals with American children, and C) were done haphazardly with ethnicity as a clear factor and D) therefore clearly constituted illegal searches in violation of the fourth amendment are… a bad sign.
We honestly don’t know how the administration will decide to proceed, but we need to have the worst-case-scenario in mind. A common feature of the rise of totalitarian regimes is a belief among the citizenry that such extreme actions could never happen here. We need to be prepared for the possibility that this could very well happen here. Get yourself to a mental place now where the United States has massive concentration camps to facilitate the deportation of 11 million people. Work to make sure it doesn’t happen, but recognize that this is a very real possibility.
On Free Speech and Bigots
A few weeks ago, Milo Yiannopoulos, senior editor for Breitbart news, had a speech at UC-Berkeley canceled for safety reasons after a group of anarchists infiltrated an otherwise peaceful protest and tore down barricades, smashed things, and set things on fire. For those unfamiliar with Yiannopoulos, he’s a gay provocateur who has made a name for himself needling the left with outrageous statements (almost all of them entirely false) about pretty much every marginalized group of society. He's an offensive bigot, hence the protests.
This week, Yiannopoulos accepted an invitation from Bill Maher, a fellow provocateur with a decidedly different point of view, to appear on his HBO talk show. Maher often has controversial guests, so Yiannopoulos may not have engendered that much attention, but one of the already-scheduled panelists, journalist Jeremy Scahill, refused to participate on the show (which he had done many times previously) over Yiannopoulos’s presence.
Scahill’s thoughtful explanation for his decision to bow out is worth the read. The best argument is the following: “he has ample venues to spew his hateful diatribes.” This is true. Yiannopoulos is senior editor of a major web-publishing platform (to call Breitbart journalism or news would be a blatant mischaracterization), and he is invited to speak to conservative audiences regularly.
But Scahill also said, “There is no value in ‘debating’ him.” On this front, I would disagree. The solution to racism and xenophobia and transphobia (the last of which is particularly central to Yiannopoulos’s popularity) is not to silence them, but to show why they are wrong. Maher himself (who I promise not to quote favorably with any frequency) noted that “If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims — and he might be — nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed.”
When confronted with a bigot who speaks falsehoods with the intent to foster ill-will toward, hatred of, and fear of particular groups of people, the way out of the scenario is with facts and counterarguments. Scahill is right that we need not proactively seek out confrontation with such people. Maher was probably wrong to invite him in the first place. But given that Maher did extend the invitation, the best course of action would have been for Scahill to go on the show and muster the best counterarguments available.
As it turns out, there were other panelists and media outlets who did just that. Larry Wilmore and Malcolm Nance succinctly dismantled some of Yiannopoulos’s unfounded arguments against trans-folk on the show, and Vox’s write-up of the show by German Lopez linked to the source material one would need to show Yiannopoulos’s points to be totally without merit.
The media should probably stop giving Yiannopoulos extra platforms to spew his hateful falsehoods, just like it should stop hosting Trump surrogates who do so. Yiannopoulos revealed his true character near the end of the segment: “I’ve got two out of three ‘go fuck yourself’s. I’ve got one more [to get]. Come on. What do we disagree on?” He’s nothing more than a wind-up artist. He just wants to rile up the left so it twists itself into inconsistent positions on free speech. The easier and more expedient option is just to debate him whenever we have to and win.
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