The Universal Notebook: Cruelty is the point

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There are no longer any principles underlying the Republican Party. What unites Trump Republicans is sheer meanness.

I have been reading Adam Serwer’s new book, “The Cruelty Is the Point,” based on his landmark 2018 essay in The Atlantic. It is the clearest explanation I have found of the appeal that Donald Trump holds for a quarter of American voters.

“Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty,” Serwer writes. “It is that cruelty, the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear.”

Serwer is a liberal journalist and a member of two minorities. His father is Jewish and his mother is African American. He is everything Trumpers hate and fear. Of course, the main thing Republicans hate and fear is the truth. Adam Serwer speaks it.

“The Cruelty Is the Point” is a lesson in America’s racist history that ultimately connects the grinning rednecks in photographs of lynchings to the mob laughing at Trump’s insults of abused women, Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, the handicapped and African-Americans, and approving his exhortations for the police to brutalize the oppressed, border guards to destroy families seeking asylum, and urging his supporters to attack the Capitol in an attempt to overturn a free and fair election.

Serwer expands that simple, central truth – that cruelty is what unites Trump and his supporters – to explore the roots of racism, nationalism, nativism, and mob violence in this country as well as why Americans embrace conspiracy fictions and why Trump failed to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. (Hint: In the beginning, COVID-19 hit blue states and people of color hardest.)

He argues that just as Southern Redemption – the return of white supremacy and the end of rights for Black people – wiped out the gains of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Trump and his white nationalist followers have tried to wipe out the gains made by a Black president. And they darn sure weren’t going to have a woman in the White House. 

“Lock her up!”

To have voted for Donald Trump in 2016 can be forgiven as a misguided mistake. He was not the man he said he was. But to have voted for him in 2020 after four years of overt corruption and incompetence is simply unforgivable. And to continue to support him even after his acts of sedition on Jan. 6 is tantamount to criminal.

“Like much of the Trump era,” Serwer concludes, “the Capitol riot was a lethal farce, spun out of the darkest forces in American history, by a man entirely indifferent to the consequences for anyone but himself.”

“The Cruelty Is the Point” affirms my own conclusion that ignorance and prejudice are at the dark heart of Trumpism. And I see proof of Serwer’s cruelty conceit in the persons of people like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, Gen. Michael Flynn, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rep. Jim Jordan, Sen. Josh Hawley, and Sen. Ted Cruz.

Here in Maine, the apotheosis of this cult of cruelty is former Gov. Paul LePage, the bully in the Blaine House who, having failed to find work with the feds or Florida, now wants to rule Maine again. Should either Donald Trump or Paul LePage be elected this country and this state will be way beyond redemption.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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