The cruelty was never the point
The cruelty is the point: the past, present, and future of Trump’s America by Adam Serwer (One World: 2021), 384.
Adam Serwer’s “The Cruelty Is the Point” is the most poisonous journalism of the Trump era. After the shocking election of 2016, the liberal establishment showed a certain willingness to ask tough questions about how it happened. If millions of Obama voters now switched their loyalty to a reality show billionaire, perhaps had the Democratic Party done something to serve these people poorly? Then Serwer came to the Atlantic to tell them that Trump voters did not have legitimate complaints. They were just bad racists.
The sentence has developed a life of its own. Politicians from presidential candidate Julian Castro to “Squad” member Rep. Ayanna Pressley began to use it. “Do these five words define the Trump years?” Asked Brian Stelter on CNN. It became ubiquitous on cable news and Twitter.
Serwer has now published a book with the same title. You’d think the 2020 elections, in which Trump won among black and Hispanic voters, would have led him to reconsider his thesis that the source of Trump’s appeal is racial hatred. Not a bit. Each essay in this collection includes a brief introductory essay that describes how Serwer came to write the piece and how he believed it endured. He makes it very clear that in retrospect he has no regrets.
If you take a fresh look at the title article, two and a half years after its first publication, you will notice how offensive it is and how unjustified it is. It starts with a lynch mob. “Grinning white men stand next to the mutilated, half-naked corpses of two men who are lashed to a post in the street,” says Serwer, describing an old photo. He jumps from that haunting image to a Trump rally where he discovers the same “joy at the fear of those who see them as dissimilar”.
His evidence of this inflammatory claim is a fairly hasty list of topics of conversation, few of which do justice to his tendentious reckoning. He accuses Trump of “ethnic cleansing of 193,000 American children,” referring to his temporary protection status for certain Salvadoran refugees. “Mocking Puerto Rican Accents Shortly After Thousands were Killed and tens of thousands were displaced by Hurricane Maria” refers to this clip, which you can watch for yourself to see how harmless it is.
Serwer tells us that he first invented his signature phrase after seeing Trump mock Christine Blasey Ford, “a woman whose only crime was telling her own abuse story, at a rally during the Kavanaugh Confirmation “. Oddly enough, he never quotes this ridicule directly. If you look at the hyperlink from the original article, the riff in question was this one from a rally in Mississippi in October 2018:
How did you get home? “I do not remember.” How did you get there? “I do not remember.” Where is the place “I do not remember.” How many years has it been? “I dont know.” What neighborhood was it in? “I dont know.” Where is the house? “I dont know.” Up, down, where was it? “I don’t know. But I had a beer, that’s the only thing I remember.” And a man’s life is in ruins.
It is obvious why Serwer never cites his original inspiration. It would have made it clear that it wasn’t about cruelty from the start.
Serwer praises his courage for daring to write mean things about Trump voters. “Opinion journalists like me have been encouraged to accept benevolent explanations for Trump’s victory,” he said. “I refused. My reporting told me what happened and why. “
“Reporting” is a strange word in this context because it suggests that Serwer’s case is based on things he has seen and heard. In fact, his interviews with Trump supporters only manage to find quotes that say racism has nothing to do with it. “I don’t have the feeling that he’s racist,” says one. “I think the other party likes to blow it disproportionately and twist its words,” says another. Making America great again is about “people being able to get jobs, people being able to get food stamps, welfare and the like,” says a third.
Denying their racism only proves how racist these people are, according to Serwer. Only a racist would “worry far more than being seen as racist than about the consequences of racism for his fellow citizens”. It’s an unbeatable Catch-22.
When he reads his essays one after the other, it becomes clear that Serwer uses the same trick over and over again. The coronavirus epidemic was also an opportunity for him to accuse Republicans of racist malice. In “The coronavirus was an emergency until Trump found out who was dying,” he argues that Trump no longer cared about the pandemic after learning that minorities were dying more often. His proof is Trump’s statement in September 2020: “If you turn off the blue states, we will be at a level that, in my opinion, no one in the world would achieve. We’re really at a very low level, but some of the states – they were blue states and they were run by blue states. ”Obviously, the target of that comment was Andrew Cuomo, not New Yorkers of all stripes, who killed Cuomo’s incompetence.
Serwer started with the Atlantic as guest blogger for Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the two have a lot in common. Both claim that racism is the number one issue in America, the driving force behind all opposition to the progressive agenda, and both hide their lack of evidence for this thesis behind grand speeches and historical allusions.
Despite their similarities as a writer, Serwer’s personal backgrounds are very diverse. Coates grew up poor in Baltimore, the son of a single mother and a former Black Panther. Serwer is a graduate of the Vassar and Columbia Journalism School, whose parents are Daniel Serwer, longtime Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace, and Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Not only do both institutions have buildings on the National Mall, they both have buildings on the National Mall that were built in the past decade. In the liberal order of soft power and social justice of the 21st century, Serwer is an aristocrat.
Serwer’s personal background and horrific book wouldn’t be worth investigating in so much detail if he were your ordinary hacker. The country is full of journalists twisting facts in the service of their side, left and right. Serwer is something worse. He doesn’t produce journalism. It produces poison.
Here are some examples of the things he wrote about his fellow citizens, extensively quoted to show that I am not misrepresenting him:
I think the reason is [“The Cruelty Is the Point”] It resonated with the fact that it articulated something that many of us implicitly felt but could not put into words: that the president enjoyed hurting people, big and small, and that many of his supporters enjoyed hurting people. The more scared you were, the more fun they were. This is not just an ethos, but a political approach …
Trump’s only real ability is cheating; His only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of heterosexual white Christian men, and his only true, authentic joy lies in cruelty. It is this cruelty and joy it gives them that binds its ardent supporters to it, in shared contempt for those who hate and fear them: immigrants, black voters, feminists and traitorous white men who are with each of them sympathize for those who want to steal their birthright. The president’s ability to carry out these atrocities through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, they feel proud, they feel happy, they feel united …
Donald Trump has taken on a number of things that he has benefited from but not created, and the ruling Republican Party’s ideology is one of them: a policy of cruelty and exclusion that strategically exploits vulnerable Americans by using them poses as an existential threat, against the acts of barbarism and disenfranchisement are not only justified, but also solemn.
At some point I wanted to ask Serwer: Do you realize what you are accusing us of? If anyone really believed all of this, they wouldn’t want to defeat the Republicans in the next election. They would ban their institutions and want to put their leaders in jail. Democracy cannot survive if one side thinks the other is too evil to deserve a voice in it. I am not smooth when I say that this type of talk poses a threat to the Republic.
Every magazine I’ve ever worked for has published pieces that I thought were bad. Often these were excessive outbursts that their authors later regretted. Serwer has had almost three years to ponder whether he really wants to argue that his political opponents are not just misguided or stupid or selfish or cowardly, but sadistic. He stands by it. It is immoral for him to repeat this accusation, immoral for his editors Jeffrey Goldberg and Yoni Appelbaum to publish them, immoral for Laurene Powell Jobs to fund them, immoral for the publishing company One World to be stuck between two front pages and closed try to sell it. I don’t think cruelty motivates them. I think they are unconcernedly indifferent to the damage they do. But in this case it’s not about cruelty or its absence.