The Cruelty Was the Point. Is It Still?

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. For years, Donald Trump’s political success stumped observers who believed his vicious rhetoric and behavior would turn off voters. But Atlantic writer Adam Serwer explained Trump’s appeal in one simple sentence. The cruelty is the point.

S2: He highlighted this politics of cruelty. But it’s a false sense of comfort to believe that it’s all behind us. And it’s a misinterpretation to think that it started with him and neither started nor ended with him.

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S1: Adam Serwer on the rise of Trump’s America. And if we can ever get past it. Coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. This is a word, a podcast from Slate, I’m your host, Jason Johnson 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 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 were a writer for The Atlantic captured that understanding and 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. And Adam Serwer joins us now. Welcome to a word.

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S2: Hey, thank you for having me.

S1: What inspired your original essay in Twenty Eighteen? The cruelty is the point, and if you can like, can you sum up that idea that cruelty wasn’t just like a byproduct of Trump ism, but it was actually like the whole point,

S2: the sort of proximate immediate cause was when I was watching this was during the cabinet hearings, Christine, blowsy Ford, who testified that she’d been sexually assaulted by a Cavnar when she was a teenager, and the or at least one of the things that was very vivid to her was to laughter from Cabinet and his childhood friend as this was happening. And what struck me was that the president, even if you thought that if you are a conservative and you support cabinet 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 incentivizes this kind of behavior, which is why it’s not going to end with with him simply being gone.

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S1: I want to talk about that particular moment. Could you talk about him mocking blowsy Ford? And and this is key. I want the audience to understand how vile and how disturbing that moment was. So we’re actually going to play the clip of President Trump mocking Christine blowsy for his allegation that Cavnar sexually assaulted her. And then I want this to sort of talk through it and sort of like how that hits the human ear and how that rallies in a sick sort of way, a certain audience.

S3: Thirty six years ago this happened. I had one beer. Right? I had one beer. Well, do you think it was you know, it was one beer. Oh, good. How did you get home? I don’t remember. How did you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what neighborhood was it and I don’t know, where’s the house? Upstairs. Downstairs. Where was I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember. And a man’s life is in tatters, a man’s life is shattered, his wife has shattered his daughters who have beautiful, incredible young kids. They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.

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S1: 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?

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S2: 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 Lasee Ford is all the things that Trump said she was, that 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, is himself been accused of sexual assault. He has not admitted to sexual assault on audio, which was dismissed as, quote, 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 or 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 glazy forward. I mean, he did it with the squad. He did it with and 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 like enjoy it. And even when he was like in terms of like when you look at the way he talked about the squad, when he says we need to send them back, I mean, he is attacking the foundations of non-racial American citizenship and the crowd is cheering for.

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S1: 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?

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S2: 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 like foundational elements of multiracial democracy, like the fact that if you are if you are 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.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, the Atlantic writer Adam Serwer on his book, The Cruelty is the Point. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Did you know you could be listening to this show, ad free, all it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month and it helps support our show. Plus, it lets you hear all Slate podcast without ads and read unlimited articles on the Slate site without ever hitting a paywall. So sign up now for Slate plus at Slate Dotcom, a word plus that slate. Dotcom, a word plus. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking with writer Adam Serwer about his new book, The Cruelty is the Point. 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 sort of attacking people and cruelty being community making, I mean, I think of public lynchings. I think of old photos from from the 20s and 30s of white families forcing their three, four, five, six year old sons and daughters to watch black men and women get burned because this sort of collective abuse of the other is how they trauma bond themselves to their parents, how community is formed. I’m curious if you can think of any examples or sort of in your research writing it all this time, you know, who were some champions of sort of Trumpy in 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.

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S2: I mean, I think George Wallace is really the important precursor to Trump, George Wallace, and he runs as a sort of non racist populist. And he loses and he says, I’m never going to get out and word it again. And he never was. He realized that this was part of his appeal. I mean, you look at the nineteen sixties, Barry Goldwater goes out and he gets shellacked by Lyndon Johnson. He loses every state outside the solid south. But Wallace takes the sort of you know, and there’s a great book about this called From the New Deal to the New Right, which talks about this sort of identity, conservative identity formation. So Goldwater is getting letters from angry people in the south where like, how could you talk about closing the Tennessee Valley Authority? That’s outrageous. I, 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 the sort of economic populism to where he. And a lot of this has to do with the way he talks about the police. I mean, he he’s he’s early on. He’s saying he’s he’s praising the police for what they did to beating protesters at Selma is talking about the police is a beleaguer 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 Proteau Trump in terms of marrying a white identity politics that denies that that’s what it is.

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S1: What’s the difference between cruelty that is explicitly targeting minority groups, you know, 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 sort of understand about the sort of cruelty and appointed Trump ism is, it’s all about the other. But his covid response killed lots of white people and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. So, you know, how does that still work for him or was it just something people were overlooking because their attitude was, well, all right, as long as the minorities are still dying more, we’re go with it.

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S2: No, I think that this is this goes to an issue that is similar to that you have with police brutality, right. Which is that an issue when an issue becomes a race, it becomes associated with people of color. White people sort of are not all white people, obviously, but a lot of white people sort of think it’s no longer their problem. And something happened with covid. And I talk about this in the book where immediately after the statistics on racial disparities began emerging there, 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’s not it doesn’t just affect black people and they disproportionately affect black people, but it is certainly not just a black issue. And the same thing was covered where it sort of became race. Where it became seen is like 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?

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S1: You know, Trump 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 you didn’t necessarily see this with the Jewish community. You didn’t necessarily see this with women, but black and brown people, not by a huge amount, but voted for him more in twenty twenty than in twenty sixteen after he had spent four years demonizing them.

S2: 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 nineteen thirty two, 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 toward 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, we might have a chance at a more state, more economic prosperity. It didn’t change with the Democratic Party stands for and Donald Trump’s improvements with some voters of color in 20 doesn’t alter what he stood for, what he believes or what he did.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more about the book, The Cruelty is the Point with Adam Serwer. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking with writer Adam Serwer about his new book, The Cruelty is the Point. What I have seen, and I don’t know if it’s changing, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, is that tropism specifically? I don’t know that I think it works outside of Trump. Eric Greitens, you know, Brian Kemp. I don’t see anybody else who’s been Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton. I don’t see anybody else who’s been able to they can match the rhetoric. They can match the cruelty, but they can’t get the populism right. And I wonder if you think that’s going to also have an impact on on some of these other policies. Can you keep selling Trump ism three years down the road with no Trump?

S2: Yeah, I mean, I think Usted earned it actually said this from The New York Times. He said, you can’t teach sauce. And I think that that’s to a certain extent, it’s true. There isn’t another Donald Trump who can sort of capture the imagination in the same way. I mean, you look at how far down the ratings are for cable news now that Trump is gone, there are no figures who sort of capture the imagination on right and left the way that Trump did. But I think that the sort of nature of Trump politics continues as a result of the structural factors that have described that make it so that continuing through on the path of white identity politics is the most viable path forward for the Republican Party unless Democrats make the necessary changes to the system by passing laws that will protect voting rights that will admit new states, and that will generally force the Republican Party to reach outside of its base, which is the only way that it will actually moderate on issues of democracy is if I’ll give an example, there are no Democratic states where Democrats are trying to disenfranchise noncollege white men. That’s not because Democrats are just wonderful people. It’s because despite the fact that noncollege white men tend to vote Republican, there are still millions and millions of noncollege white men who are Democratic voters. So if you disenfranchise those people, you hurt the Democratic Party. And that’s sort of that that’s really the only thing that makes multiracial democracy possible is when the parties are not engaged in the attempt to exercise another party’s constituency from the polity as a result of who they are.

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S1: Something you’ve talked about a lot. And I I saw your tweets about this and read about it is, you know, sometimes the mistakes that some members of the left take on in their public discourse. I actually found a lot of the rhetoric from certain supporters of Bernie Sanders to be very Trumpy in the same sort of hostility, the same sort of cruelty towards their political opponents, the same diminishment of political opponents. And you especially talked about that in regards to how people talked about taxes and blaming Texas residents know, well, these are the politicians that you’re voting for and this is what you get for picking Ted Cruz. You know, how do you confront that within certain elements of the left? How do you tell people that? Look, I understand the anger about what Trump did to you for the last five years, but the hatred taught hate. This is not necessarily the best way to go.

S2: Yeah, I mean, look at that stuff is really annoying, I mean, to sit and I’m sitting in my kitchen and it’s like forty five degrees in my house and my my daughter is bundled up in her bubble coat and she’s less than two years old. It’s really frustrating to look up and be like, what should I have voted for Greg Abbott? And I didn’t vote for Greg Abbott. And it’s sort of like red state, blue, blue state thing has really sort of blinded people to the diversity within states. There are millions of Trump voters in California. So the idea that when Trump said it doesn’t win, Trump’s talking about how well those deaths turn. Blue states feel like some of those people voted for you. And I think it’s a really harmful to think of Americans as like belonging to parts of an electoral map in that way. What I will say is I think it’s I think what’s significant, though, is that when you when you have a diverse constituency, again, the governor of California, when California was dealing with rolling blackouts, Ted Cruz is jumping on Twitter, talking about California, a failed state. And and just like gloating and having a good time, California sucks, blah, blah, blah, because that is part of the political identity of his own constituency. But when Texas is dealing with a phrase, the governor of California is not like, ha ha, well, you had this shit coming. And I think that’s important because it prevents that kind of diversity of your coalition, prevents you from engaging in these acts of cruelty against rival constituencies, not because you are this wonderful person, but because you are reliant on a diverse set of voters whom you cannot simply dismiss or smear or trash in that way. But in terms of like having that quality at the level of politics, the only thing that prevents that is when the parties have to win votes instead of disenfranchising them.

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S1: What do you see as our best path going forward against this kind of cruelty? Because at this point it is baked in to roughly forty two percent of the electorate that identifies herself as either the Republican Party or Republican leaning voters.

S2: I mean, again, there is no means for someone like you and me to convince these people to let that kind of thing go. The only thing that that can diminish that kind of politics is if the Democrats are willing to end the filibuster and make the necessary structural changes to force the Republican Party to reach outside their base, because at that point, it stops being profitable for Republican elites who are the ones who are driving this, telling their audience that Donald Trump really won the election. The votes are fake. The other party’s constituencies are not legitimate, and therefore they have no legitimate right to govern. People like you and me cannot stop that because they don’t care what we think, because we are parts we are members of those communities that are fundamentally illegitimate. As Donald Trump said, you can’t let Detroit and Philadelphia decide an election. They all know what that means. And so until until that is no longer a viable path to power. And again, we know this because we look you can look at the history of the Democratic Party and you can see it for yourself. The only way this changes is if politician’s path to power changes. That’s the only thing that really forces them to alter their approach. You can’t rely on the consequences of politicians in order to do the right thing. It’s just not a viable strategy.

S1: Adam Serwer writes for The Atlantic and his new book is The Cruelty is the Point Adam Serwer. Thank you so much for joining me on the word podcast today.

S2: Thanks so much for having me.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Asha Solutia is the managing producer of podcasts Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.