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Analysis: Cruelty has long been a central part of US politics and who's defined as American and who isn't

“They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”
That was one of the Trump-supporting insurrectionists who laid siege to the US Capitol on January 6 in a deadly attempt to overturn the election that secured the White House for Joe Biden.
She was expressing a sentiment that many Trumpists share: that the US belongs to Donald Trump (who at the time of the Capitol riot was still in the White House) and his overwhelmingly White disciples.
The dangerous messaging here is that they’re the real Americans, not the people who reject Trumpists’ beliefs, who want to improve the country and love it — even though that devotion is rarely reciprocated.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the above quote recently. And, ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, I’ve also been wondering about the political machinations that have long been used to define who’s a real American — worthy of political participation — and who isn’t.
A simple logic governs this politics of exclusion: cruelty.
“Most people think of cruelty as an individual problem. And that’s true because all human beings are capable of cruelty,” explained the journalist Adam Serwer, who’s the author of the essential new book, “The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present and Future of Trump’s America.” “But cruelty is also a part of politics, demonizing particular groups so that you can justify denying them their basic rights and excluding them from the political process.”
Cruelty has been a central component of US politics for centuries — from slavery to the Redeemers’ violent opposition to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the aftermath of the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.
I recently spoke with Serwer about his book and its exploration of some of the most important issues of our time. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Donald Trump campaigning at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Florida, on October 12, 2020Donald Trump campaigning at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Florida, on October 12, 2020
You’ve popularized the defining slogan of an age. Why do you think that “the cruelty is the point” has resonated so deeply with so many people?
I think that the column I wrote popularized the phrase because it articulated in a concise way something that we were all feeling when we watched Trump rallies — including the people who enjoyed the rallies — which is that the people at these rallies really have a lot of fun when Trump is attacking the people they don’t like.
That ritual of public humiliation didn’t merely diminish Trump’s enemies — it also forged a kind of community, a bond, between Trump and his audience. As I write in the column, this is a part of human nature. When we’re children, the cool kids tease the nerds, and that’s what makes the cool kids cool and the nerdy kids nerdy. It reminds everybody of their place and draws boundaries. It also forges a strange kind of intimacy, separating the people who are acting in a cruel fashion from the people who are being acted upon.
I think that what was distinct about the Trump era — though not unique in American politics by any means — was that Trump did all that in an unabashed and unrestrained way, where previous more mainstream Republican politicians weren’t willing to do it until he showed them that it wouldn’t cost them with their own voters.
Ahead of the Fourth of July, some Republican politicians are railing against the newly nationally recognized Juneteenth National Independence Day. They make the stunning claim that recognizing or interrogating the dark currents of US history is unpatriotic and even dangerous. Where does this apocalyptic thinking come from?
I think that the nature of Republican Party politics in the Trump era is incentivized by the structure of our political system, which substantially increases the influence of the most conservative elements of the polity. And those elements tend to be White.
In 2016 and 2015, Trump is essentially repeating back to conservative audiences what he’s consuming on Fox News. And what he’s consuming on Fox News is sort of 24 hours of trying to convince conservative White people that their way of life is in danger, that their entire existence is at risk of imminent destruction because of what liberals or Democrats or people of color are doing.
Our political system incentivizes this because the structure of our system allows one party to hold power without winning a majority of the votes. So, it becomes more urgent to persuade that group that they’re on the verge of destruction and anything they do to prevent that destruction is justified. That’s how you end up with attempts to disenfranchise rival constituencies, Muslim bans and laws attacking trans children or justifying vehicular homicide against protesters.
The only way to alter this, really, is to alter the system so that the Republican Party has to reach out beyond its traditional base. Republican leaders are pursuing a logical but amoral strategy of scaring their base to death with things that don’t exist.
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
In one of your essays from 2016, you use Redemption — the racist backlash to Reconstruction — as an analytical frame to explore Trump’s election to the White House in 2016. Are we seeing similar backlash dynamics in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, with the violent January 6 insurrection and GOP-led voter suppression efforts that disproportionately disadvantage voters of color?
I think when you look at Trump’s election in 2016, it’s clear that his rise was a response to the election of Barack Obama.
In 2020, what you saw was more of a backlash to a racial reckoning that began prior to Trump but was accelerated because of his presence. The protests in Ferguson drew attention to the way that American public policy continues to create racial disparities and discriminate against Black Americans. That awakening happened when we had a Black president. I think that a number of Americans wanted to reexamine: How could this be? It seemed like an archaic kind of unfreedom that didn’t really belong in the Obama era.
And then Trump came along and radicalized a number of people because he was such a manifestation of these political, historical and structural trends that had led to this glaring racial inequality despite the presence of a Black president.
I think that the restrictions on voting rights are part of a general trend in the Republican Party toward attempting to curtail the influence of Democratic-leaning constituencies. What’s really scary about this is that it’s essentially an attempt to insulate Republican Party power from the electorate. Public feedback is necessary for democracy to function. If politicians can get elected without regard for what the public thinks of them, then they have no reason to hew to the public’s preferences or respect their rights.
Obviously, part of the point of representative democracy is that your representatives don’t always do exactly what’s popular. They do what’s right. But what’s distinct here is that Republicans are attempting to prevent American citizens from selecting their own leadership because of who they are.
Most people think of cruelty as an individual problem. And that’s true because all human beings are capable of cruelty. But cruelty is also a part of politics, demonizing particular groups so that you can justify denying them their basic rights and excluding them from the political process.
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