By now it is clear. Whenever Donald Trump feels threatened, he lashes out. It doesn’t matter whether it is a strategy or simply the response of his narcissistic ego, Tony Schwartz—ghost-writer of The Art of the Deal—says that he’s been doing it all of this life.
To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it…Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration.
For Trump, there are always two sides to the battle he envisions. Right now, one of those sides is inhabited by his enablers and supporters. The other side is the enemy—even though it is populated by the rest of America. That is why he only cites poll numbers for his approval rating among Republicans. The battle this president has engaged is one where the remainder of the country must be brought to submission.
As we’ve also seen, Trump is more inclined to attack people of color who represent the other side. As Jonathan Chait noted after watching the film Twelve Years a Slave, that is how racism has typically been triggered for white people.
Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.
That is why Trump’s most recent attacks were launched against Representative Elijah Cummings. As chair of the House Oversight Committee, Cummings had recently criticized the president’s inhumane border policy and condemned Trump’s racism aimed at four congresswomen of color. So, as an African American, he became a target.
In the mind of Donald Trump, that is how you win: by attacking the person who threatens you under the assumption that they will submit if you are brutal enough. It is a ploy that tended to work against African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow because all of the power resided in the hands of white people. The power they wielded was the ability to make black people afraid. As Hamden Rice once documented, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders who summoned the courage and hope that broke the chains of terror for African Americans.
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.
Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.
If we do it all together, we’ll be okay…
That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another…
Once the beating was over, we were free.
While people of color in this country still have reason to be afraid, Trump’s attacks aren’t having the impact he is looking for. Does CNN’s Victor Blackwell sound like someone who is prepared to submit?
President Trump tweeted that Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district is a “rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
It’s @VictorBlackwell’s home district.
“When he tweets about infestation, it's about black and brown people,” Blackwell says. pic.twitter.com/YFCvPCFhFk
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) July 27, 2019
At one point, Blackwell choked up. It is true that, as president, Trump has the power to cause pain with both his words and deeds. But never mistake those kind of tears for capitulation. Blackwell is fighting back on a powerful platform. His words were heartfelt and reached millions of people.
African Americans also have white allies who are willing to fight back, as we saw with the editorial in the Baltimore Sun, written by Peter Jensen. If you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to do so. Here is the conclusion.
Finally, while we would not sink to name-calling in the Trumpian manner — or ruefully point out that he failed to spell the congressman’s name correctly (it’s Cummings, not Cumming) — we would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are “good people” among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post. Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity. Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.
Those are two of the most powerful responses to Trump’s attacks. But it is also nice to know that things like this are happening.
On a flight back to Baltimore.
Flight attendant welcomes passengers flying to the “spectacular, beautiful, amazing city.”
— Annie Karni (@anniekarni) July 29, 2019
Donald Trump doesn’t realize that he isn’t living in the Jim Crow south. People of color are not going to submit to his attacks. Instead, they’re going to speak up and fight back. He is also unable to grasp that, while making a large swath of the American public the enemy riles up his base of support, it also creates a backlash of citizens who are more determined than ever to see him exit the White House.
Trump’s compulsion to go to war with the world is what made him such a colossal failure as a business man. He is now employing the same tactics as president. They are the tools of a loser.