Aberration and Culmination

Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept in January did something liberals aghast at the action of Donald Trump have been loathe to do: He connected the president’s so-called Muslim ban to recent American policy.

Trump’s executive order, which applies extreme vetting to travelers from seven majority Muslim nations and essentially shuts the US border to Syrian refugees, is not a complete outlier, Greenwald says. The order “has roots in political and cultural developments that long precede him,” in the aggressive deportation strategies employed by President Barack Obama, and the existing “groundswell of anti-Muslim fears and bigotry” that “have been cultivated for 16 years as the central fuel driving the war on terror.”

“There are factions on both the center-left and right that are primarily devoted to demonizing Muslims and Islam,” he writes. “A government can get away with bombing, invading, and droning the same group of people for more than 15 years only by constantly demonizing and dehumanizing that group and maintaining high fear levels, which is exactly what the US has done under two successive administrations.”

Trump, in reality, is not an aberration — or not entirely. Rather, he is the culmination of decades of trends in American politics and life. His election may represent a form of backlash by a group that feels forgotten in a changing America, but it did not occur within a vacuum. Scapegoating — of Muslims, Latinos and African Americans — has been a hallmark of every presidential administration going back to Nixon. Reagan’s race-baiting included campaigning on states’ rights in Philadelphia, Miss., site of one of the most famous civil rights murders of the 1960s, and a racially charged attack on “welfare queens.” Bush had Willie Horton, Clinton had Ricky Ray Rector, super-predators, Sister Soulja, and the “end of welfare as we know it.”

Trump and Trumpism, as Greenwald points out, “did not appear out of nowhere.”

“He is the logical and most grotesque expression of a variety of trends we have allowed to fester: endless war, a virtually omnipotent presidency, unlimited war powers from spying to due process-free imprisonment to torture to assassinations, repeated civil liberties erosions in the name of illusory guarantees of security, and the sustained demonization of Muslims as scary, primitive, uniquely violent Others,” he writes.

Greenwald keeps his focus on immigration and security, but Trump’s policy list — not just on immigration, but environmental protection, regulations, the military — is in most ways a rehashing of the goals his party has set for years, though any honest assessment would acknowledge the bipartisan nature of our decades-long dismantling.

Jimmy Carter, for instance, deregulated the trucking industry — and weakened unions in the process. Reagan doubled down and every president since, save possibly Barack Obama, worked to dismantle federal oversight of the private sector. So when Trump declares that two regulations must be eliminated for each new one, he is just following in the footsteps of his forebears of both parties — and borrowing an idea proposed by Rand Paul in 2015.

While this part of the Trump agenda is just a culmination of years of failed consensus and crackpot conservatism, Trump also represents a much greater and graver danger. Trumpism is not about policy; it is about Trump, and it thrives on a cult of personality, scapegoating, false nostalgia, and the specter of violence to generate support.

There are two strains of potential violence in play. There is the implied threat of attack from the other — the same threat undergirded the Bush administration and allowed it to run roughshod over our civil liberties.

The greater threat, however, may be the threat from Trump and his supporters, as the new president takes us closer and closer to fascism. Let’s be clear: Trump is not a fascist in the classical sense, but his nationalism, obsession with crime, punishment, and the other, his attacks on the media and need for absolute control of the narrative all fall on what I’ll call the “fascism spectrum.” This places us at a precipice that requires continued vigilant defense of our democratic governance — in the streets, over the web and airwaves, on social media, at the ballot box, and in local committee rooms.

Trump and Trumpism must be stopped. But it won’t be enough if we don’t change the underlying conservatism of our political culture.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. His book, As an Alien in a Land of Promise, was published in September 2016. Email,; blog,; Twitter @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Instagram @kaletwrites;

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2017

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