Donald Trump’s path to the White House bewildered much of the political establishment. He was unqualified, dishonest, and nasty, running to lead a party that had prided itself on so-called traditional family values. Through the lens of the pre-Trump era, the venom he spewed about immigrants, Black folks, and women should have sunk his candidacy dozens of times. But it never did. And slowly it dawned on many observers that Trump didn’t succeed in spite of his viciousness, but because of it.
Adam Serwer, a writer for the Atlantic, captured that understanding in one phrase: The cruelty is the point. It was the title of one of his essays. And his work on the Trump presidency has been collected in a new book, The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America. I spoke with Serwer on Friday’s episode of A Word. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: What inspired your original essay in 2018, “The Cruelty Is the Point”? And if you can, can you sum up that idea? The cruelty wasn’t just like a byproduct of Trumpism, but it was actually like the whole point.
Adam Serwer: The sort of proximate, immediate cause was when I was watching … the Kavanaugh hearings, Christine Blasey Ford, who testified that she had been sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh when she was a teenager. At least one of the things that was very vivid to her was the laughter from Kavanaugh and his childhood friend as this was happening. And what struck me was that the president … If you’re a conservative and you supported Kavanaugh and you thought she was telling the truth, he went out and he made her an object of ridicule. He deliberately made people laugh at her. And it struck me that he had zeroed in on a vulnerability that she had expressed publicly, and was using it to cause her as much pain as possible. And the audience that he was doing this in front of was enjoying it.
And that to me seemed to be a crucial element of Trump’s community building—that is, he was using cruelty to create a sense of intimacy between him and his supporters. What I’m focused on in the book is cruelty as a part of politics, specifically the way it’s used to demonize certain groups. So you can justify denying people their basic rights under the Constitution, or exclude them from the political process. There’s two things I was trying to do: one, say that Donald Trump is part of a long legacy in American history; and also, he is a product of the structural inequities of our political system, which incentivize this kind of behavior, which is why it’s not going to end with him simply being gone.
I want to talk about that particular moment. Because you talk about him mocking Blasey Ford—the ability for Trump, being the president of the United States, sitting on a stage to get an audience full of white people of all classes and levels to see themselves as victims. How did Trump do that so well? How did he convince people that their cruelty was so essential to preventing them from being victims when most of them have never experienced victimhood in their lives?
Well, so I want to push back on that a little bit. I think what bothers me about that whole thing is that even if you think Blasey Ford is all the things that Trump said—she was lying, she was trying to destroy Brett Kavanaugh—his approach to this issue was not simply an attack on her. It was an attempt to intimidate any victim from ever coming forward. And you understand why someone like Donald Trump would want to do that, because he after all has himself been accused of sexual assault, he has admitted to sexual assault on audio, which was dismissed as locker room talk. And so, even if you think Brett Kavanaugh is the victim of a smear campaign, the women in general—regardless of political persuasion—who have been assaulted are collateral damage, with that kind of rhetoric.
And that’s what really struck me. Trump did this all the time. It wasn’t that he just did it with Blasey Ford. I mean, he did it with “the Squad.” He did it with basically anybody who made him mad. He would make fun of them in front of an audience. And the audience would just enjoy it. And even when you look at the way he talks about “the Squad,” when he says, “We need to send them back,” I mean, he is attacking the foundations of nonracial American citizenship and the crowd is cheering for it.
Whenever he went extra far with his racism, with his sexism, with his misogyny, with his xenophobia, it was somehow always framed—certainly by conservatives—as humor. Do you think that Donald Trump was actually a funny guy, or do you think that retroactively people would frame these attacks, these call and responses, as humor in order to make it easier to swallow what was basically just naked misogyny?
No. I mean, Trump obviously meant these things, and people like that he meant them. And the fact that he’s trying to be humorous doesn’t mean that he’s not also saying what he thinks. But the fact that they’re enjoying themselves and having a good time does not eliminate the seriousness of it. I mean, in fact, that’s part of the seriousness. And their ability to laugh is linked to the fact that they do not consider these people—in particular these jokes that attack foundational elements of multiracial democracy, like the fact that if you were an immigrant, you are no less American than everybody else—the fact that they’re laughing at things like that, these are statements of values. Even though people are laughing at them as jokes, they are expressions of what people believe ideologically.
There’s an argument that the racism and cruelty to characterize the Trump administration has always been a part of American politics, and both major parties have tapped into that energy in the past. I think when you talk about attacking people and cruelty being community-making, I mean, I think of public lynchings. I think of old photos from the ’20s and ’30s of white families forcing their 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-year-old sons and daughters to watch Black men and women get burned. I’m curious if you can think of any examples, in your research and writing in all this time, who were some champions of sort of Trumpian politics before Trump. Because everybody tries to pretend that he’s new, but as you pointed out, this ain’t new. We just may have not seen somebody put it together this well.
I think George Wallace is really the important precursor to Trump. George Wallace initially runs as a sort of nonracist populist, and he loses. And he says, “I’m never gonna get out-N-worded again.” And he never was. He realized that this was part of his appeal. And when you look at the 1960s, Barry Goldwater goes out and he gets shellacked by Lyndon Johnson. He loses every state outside the solid South. And there’s a great book about this called From the New Deal to the New Right, which talks about this sort of conservative identity formation. So Goldwater is getting letters from angry people in the South, like, “How could you talk about closing the Tennessee Valley Authority? That’s outrageous. I wanted to vote for you. I thought you were on my side.”
And Wallace marries this sort of small government, but only in the service of denying racial equality, with this sort of economic populism. And a lot of this has to do with the way he talks about the police. I mean, early on he’s praising the police for what they did, beating protesters. He’s talking about the police as a beleaguered group. He’s saying things like, if we let the police run the country, we wouldn’t have any problems anymore. And he’s really sort of the proto-Trump in terms of marrying a white identity politics that denies that that’s what it is.
What’s the difference between cruelty that is explicitly targeting minority groups—praising cops for beating people, splitting up families, calling it the Muslim ban—versus cruelty that doesn’t explicitly hurt minorities, but still ends up killing hundreds of thousands of people? Because a lot of what we understand about “the cruelty is the point” in Trumpism is it’s all about the other. But his COVID response killed lots of white people and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. So how does that still work for him? Or was it just something people were overlooking because their attitude was “Well, as long as the minority is just still dying more, we’re good with it”?
No, I think that this goes to a similar issue that you had with police brutality, which is that when an issue becomes raced, it becomes associated with people of color, a lot of white people sort of think it’s no longer their problem. And something happened with COVID. I talk about this in the book where immediately after the statistics on racial disparities began emerging, that was when the backlash to all the restrictions started. And I think, just as police brutality is an issue that affects white people, it doesn’t just affect Black people. It may disproportionately affect Black people, but it is certainly not just a Black issue. And the same thing was true of COVID, where it sort of became raced, where it became seen as something that was more a problem for workers of color and less a problem for white people. And so the restrictions were not justified because why should my freedom be curtailed for these people who I don’t really consider as important as me?
Trump’s support actually rose amongst some groups of Black and Latino voters. What do you think is at play, that this guy can be explicitly cruel to groups of people who then turn around and support him? Because Black and brown people, not by a huge amount, but they voted for him more in 2020 than in 2016, after he spent four years demonizing them.
Yeah. I mean, look, I can’t say for sure, but it would certainly not be the first time that voters of color cast ballots for a candidate that they thought was racist because they felt like their economic interests were served by having him in office. In 1932, the Democratic Party was the party of Jim Crow and Roosevelt—nevertheless, won the Black vote in the North. That didn’t suddenly mean that the Democratic Party ceased being a white supremacist organization, although the integration of Black voters into the Democratic Party ultimately set it on the course of moving away from white supremacy and towards civil rights. But certainly at that moment, the fact that Black voters said, well, neither party is really looking out for my interests, but with Roosevelt’s economic agenda, I might have a chance at more economic prosperity. It didn’t change what the Democratic Party stands for. And Donald Trump’s improvements with some voters of color in 2020—it doesn’t alter what he stood for, or what he believes, or what he did.