When the Tie That Binds Is Cruelty

Frankly, when Donald Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford at that rally in Mississippi and the crowd cheered, I was shocked. It wasn’t the kind of shock spurred by surprise. After all, this is the man who mocked a prisoner of war, a disabled man and a gold star family (just to name a few), and enough people voted for him that he now occupies the Oval Office.

My shock was part of an ongoing reaction to the debasement of so many values that I am determined to hold dear, regardless of what this president and his supporters do. That’s why this tweet captured the moment so well for me:

I responded by tweeting that “America, what have we become?” is the question I’ve been asking myself since election night in November 2016.

No one has done a better job of capturing what shocked me than Adam Serwer in an article he wrote titled, “The Cruelty is the Point.” He begins by noting the cruelty on display at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture; it is the smiles and sense of camaraderie on the faces of people in pictures of lynchings that captured the cruelty that stood out to him, much like the crowd cheering a president who mocked a woman who painfully and courageously told the story of her sexual assault. Serwer ends with this:

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. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

While Serwer has captured something incredibly important, it is shocking to me.

Perhaps the shock is more about a sense of whiplash. That’s because Barack Obama, who happened to be this country’s first African-American president, was also incredibly optimistic about the people of this country. Only days after he was elected in 2008, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “What Obama Means for… King’s Legacy,” talking about the kind of courage it takes to not just believe in yourself, but also in others.

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined — in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion’s share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King’s belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.

Take a look at Coates’ conclusion and what a shockingly different story it tells from the nightmare we are living in today.

Those of us who rolled our eyes when Obama declared his candidacy did not think him weak or cowardly. But we essentially doubted the humanity of the people Obama needed to convince in order to win. During the primary campaign, we looked at the demographics of Iowa, Idaho and Washington and saw only the ugliest chapters of American history… It is precisely because King’s belief in white humanity was rewarded with death that so many blacks either didn’t think Obama could win or just didn’t want him to run…

Those of us who overestimated racism would be smart to think about why we were so wrong. Those of us who are tempted to claim this victory solely for ourselves need to temper our enthusiasm and meditate on what we’ve learned. The lesson isn’t that racism is dead but that people are complicated…

That is precisely why, in the run-up to the 2016 election when friends would nervously ask me what I thought the outcome would be, I assured them that the country that elected Barack Obama twice would never elect a man like Donald Trump. Of course, I was 100 percent wrong (at least when it comes to the electoral college) and the dissonance that represents is what I still find shocking.

You can spare me the platitudes by way of explanation. I know that the threat to entitlement that I wrote about Wednesday burst on the scene almost as soon as Obama was inaugurated, spurred by the fear-mongering of right wing media and the Republicans who benefited from it. But I don’t think there are any simple explanations for the whiplash we’ve experienced over the last decade. Perhaps the best we can do is take what Coates said to heart: “People are complicated.”

All I know is that I want to continue to be shocked when I see cruelty towards “others” as the tie that binds a significant portion of our country together. This is a moment that truly tests my faith in humanity, which was so courageously embraced by Dr. King and Barack Obama.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.