“Pro-life” Trump is engineering an American Kristallnacht

Here’s a ridiculous scenario: Imagine you drive a red car. One day, the mayor of your town says that, every week, he’s going to head over to the post office and pin up a list of people who have done bad things with red cars.

The list includes people who have bought red cars, people who have borrowed them, and people who have stolen red cars; and it includes everything from driving with a broken tail light to deliberately plowing through line of kindergarteners. The list doesn’t specify: It just has names of people driving red cars, and it says they’ve all done something bad.

This goes on week after week, and even though you’ve never so much as failed to use a turn signal, you start to notice that you’re getting dirty looks when you step out of your red car. You find yourself parking around the corner, just so no one realizes that you’re one of those “red car people.” Your neighbor sees you washing your car in the driveway and she makes a disgusted sound and loudly tells her kids, “Let’s go find some other friends to play with.” One morning, you wake up and discover that someone has slashed your tires and beat in your windshield, and “NO RED CARS HERE” is spray painted on your driveway.

You haven’t done anything. But you do drive a red car.

Stupid, right? That is a silly story. Let’s talk about something that hits a little closer to home with some of my readers:

At the peak of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, a priest friend — a holy, kind, exemplary man — told me that when he passed a woman and child on the sidewalk, the woman instinctively shoved herself between her child and him. She made a physical barrier to protect her kid, as if, just because he had a Roman collar on, he was going to lunge over and start groping her child.

How unfair! How grievously unfair, to behave as if every priest is probably a sexual predator, when in fact priests are no more likely than any other man to abuse children.

But at the same time, my priest friend couldn’t blame the woman. When it does happen, molestation of children is an unspeakable crime. And every day, week after week after week, the papers and the TV news carried stories of priests who did abuse children, or who were accused of abusing children, or who didn’t do enough to stop the abuse of children.

Or, maybe they actually did everything they possibly could to stop the abuse of the children, but still, ugh, they’re one of those priests . . . 

We all know what priests are like. We know, because we read it in the news.

Imagine being a priest in this climate. I heard priests debating with each other whether it was safe to go out wearing clerical garb. Why put a target on your back? Everyone you meet has been trained to look at you and think, “Sex crime! Sex crime!”

This is the power of the selectively chosen printed word. This is what can be achieved when you take a story that is true (some people in red cars do commit crimes; some priests do molest children) and play it over and over and over and over again, chanting in the ear of the reader: DANGER. DANGER. WARNING. WARNING. NO TIME TO THINK. ALERT. ALERT. PROTECT YOURSELF.

Protect yourself against what? Why, against people like that: people who commit crimes, people you can easily pick out on the street, because they’re illegal immigrant criminals. Well, they’re illegal immigrants. Well, they’re immigrants. Well, they have brown skin and an accent, and you know what people like that do.

We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).  The important thing is, we have to have constant reminders that there are people coming into our country and doing bad things! Never forget!  Immigrant and crime! They go together.

Never mind that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the constant reminder of facts without context to create an emotional response. It’s not rational. It doesn’t have to be. In fact it works better when it’s not rational (especially when you’ve been training the populace to believe that there is no such thing as objective truth, just facts and alternative facts).

There are already laws on the books about deporting illegal immigrants. There are already laws on the books about arresting and prosecuting criminals. There are already numerous public records of crimes committed in this country. We don’t have a secret court system. Just about every arrest is public record. There are already numerous aggregators of statistics to tell us who commits what kind of crime. Most Americans already agree that crime is bad, illegal activity is wrong, and criminals should be punished by the law.

These lists do not give us more information. They do not “better inform the public,” despite what Trump’s statement claims. All of the information in them is already public information.

There is only one reason to publish a list like this, and that is to whip up fear, suspicion, and outrage. To make people feel unsafe and angry. To constantly remind them (as Trump did in his inauguration speech) that we are drowning in crime, awash in violence, crumbling into ruin, teetering on the brink, losing ourselves in the darkness.

Things are terrible, terrible, terrible. And whose fault is it? Well, I happen to have a list. And I’ll be updating it every week, so you’ll know who to blame.

Now imagine that you are the one with dark skin and an accent. Imagine your kids have dark skin and accents. Maybe you’re legally here and maybe you’re not, but it’s very clear that you’re some kind of immigrant.

Remember: immigrant crime immigrant crime immigrant crime. That’s the important thing to remember. Your neighbors have been hearing it for months.

Imagine that you live in a country where, every single week, your president has been telling everyone that people with dark skins and accents are criminals. Imagine getting your kids ready to walk to school, and knowing that half their classmates have been reading these lists every week. Imagine leaving work at night and finding that a couple of guys have had a couple of beers and they’ve decided they’ve had enough of these fucking immigrants fucking up their country, and if the police won’t do anything about it, then they will.

Think it won’t happen? Why? Because fearful, angry people never lash out at the innocent?

bundesarchiv_bild_146-1970-083-42_magdeburg_zersto%cc%88rtes_ju%cc%88disches_gescha%cc%88ft

Because we’d never let things go that far?

Why not? If we’re not going to say “halt” now, then when?

This is classic scapegoating. It’s what fascists do to gain control. They tell the people, over and over and over again, “You’re not safe. You’re not safe. It’s the fault of THESE PEOPLE. I will protect you from THESE PEOPLE, and then you can be safe.” And then, while you’re thrilled to get his help and protection, you barely notice the other stuff he’s doing, stuff that directly contradicts the things you said you cared about ten minutes ago. Stuff like small government, religious freedom, freedom of the press, respect for the disabled, protection for the innocent and vulnerable.

My friends, I have always thought that Trump would be a bad and dangerous president, a vulgar and ridiculous man, but I thought the accusations of fascism were overblown. I thought it was hyperbole.

I don’t think so anymore. This is textbook behavior. This is how it always starts. This is how totalitarians persuade the population to give him everything he wants: By whipping up fear and anger, by pointing to a scapegoat, and then by offering to take care of that scapegoat for you.

Up until now, I’ve been angry at Trump. Last night, he broke my heart. I wept when I heard of his plans, and I wept harder when I saw some of my friends defending them. Not because I want to protect criminals, but because I want to protect my country. I love my country. This is not what I want for my country.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A good day to remember that everything Hitler did was with the consent of the people, whom he had primed to fear and hate certain groups of people. He started by posting lists of Jews who were accused of committing crimes. He started by reminding Germans of what a shambles their country was in, and then he told them, over and over and over again, whose fault it was.

And then they let him do whatever he wanted.

We have seen this before. We have seen this before. There is no Mexico City Policy, no phone call to the March for Life, no promise of new jobs that can justify the American Kristallnacht that our president is openly trying to engineer.

Resist. Even if you need a job. Even if you are pro-life. Even if your city is full of people who don’t speak English. Even if you think Hillary belongs in jail. Even if you voted for Trump. Resist this path we are on. Remember who you are, and resist.

***
EDIT Friday around 5:00 eastern: Thanks to a reader, I realized that I misread and mischaracterized Trump’s statement. It was an honest error, not a malicious one, but that’s no excuse. I have edited the post to make it more accurate.

The original passage, as far as I can reconstruct it, read:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish –‘lists of “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal) who have committed “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license).

The corrected passage now reads:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).

I apologize for the error. It does not change my argument in the slightest.
Kristallnacht image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-083-42 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s resist kneejerkifying history

Every few weeks, a group of enlightened teenagers, who have been raised since birth to believe such-and-such is wrong, will get together and demand that a long-dead man should be punished for not having been raised since his birth two hundred years ago to believe that such-and-such is wrong.

Sometimes, they’re onto something. I wouldn’t want to spend my afternoons bathed in the hues of a stained glass black man kneeling before John Calhoun. (I wouldn’t smash a window depicting slavery, but I would put up a fuss.) There’s a fine line between acknowledging the past and condoning its errors.

But it sure does get old to hear that Abraham Lincoln was “not the great emancipator” because his stated main goal was to preserve the union, and because he was against interracial marriage. No: Lincoln was a white man was born in 1809, and he thought like a white man born in 1809; and he was a great and good man.

Same thing for great thinkers of the Catholic Church. You refuse to employ your super-fine mind in the same room as Thomas Aquinas just because he had some dumb or hinky ideas about the ladies? Your loss. The rest of us don’t have much time to be offended; we’re too busy trying to keep up.

Just as irritating as the knee-jerk judgment of the past? The wholly unearned smugness that often goes along with that judgment. Let’s be fair: If I can’t blame Lincoln for thinking like everyone thought when he was alive, then why should I laud you for thinking like everyone thinks now? You’re not a courageous free-thinker for wearing an anti-racist T-shirt in 2016. You’re just someone who noticed that “NOH8” or “BLM” or whatever is trending right now.

Even worse than wagging our fingers at history is when we try to protect our paper-thin skins by blotting out the past altogether. What a horrible, self-defeating error. If our country is guilty of crimes, then there is one foolproof way to ensure that we repeat them, and that is to erase all evidence of them, to cleanse our living space of any exposure to them. Your body won’t fight back against a disease if you spend each day bathing in Purell, and the same is true for our collective soul as a country. You must endure some exposure.

Well, here’s an encouraging spot of sanity: Yale announces new procedure for renaming of university buildings. They’re not going to refuse to hear any argument against honoring a historical figure who held troubling views; but neither are they going to knuckle under to the mob and despise greatness when it comes dressed in historical clothing that clashes with current political fashion.

In an interview with NPR yesterday, Yale dean Jonathan Holloway said:

The fact is as human actors we’re all flawed. So I really wonder if you are going to be using the Oregon test [which applies strict, inflexible criteria] against historic figures who are operating in a world in which you – people did not even know or worry about the experiences or views of women or immigrants or minorities, you’re going to fail the test pretty quickly. And so I think any renaming test has to be mindful of the present and the past and also the future in trying to sort out what its litmus tests are going to be.

To my mind, when we wonder if we should honor someone who held views that most people now despise, there are four issues to be considered:

  1. Were these views widespread and unchallenged at the time? Would the person in question have to be an outrageously original and insightful thinker to even consider holding a different point of view?
  2. Are the unpleasant views he held even relevant to why he is being honored today? Are we honoring him for all aspects of his entire life, or can we say, “Even though he was terribly wrong about this issue, his achievements in that other field are immense and indisputable”?
  3. If he did do great things, were the bad things he did so bad (even if they were in an entirely different field from the great things) that they overshadow what was great?
  4. Have we done our research, really? Or have we just read a line or two off some Buzzfeed compilation of the Daily Snit?

Yale is apparently taking a measured approach to challenges from people laboring under what Halloway calls the “arrogance of your contemporary moment,”and is trying to slow down that locomotive of self-congratulatory outrage. He wants, if you can imagine such a thing in an institute of higher learning, for complainants to thoughtfully and dispassionately contextualize history, rather than just reflexively scratching whatever the current mob considers itchiest.

It’s especially admirable that Yale is choosing to do this now, in post election 2016. With Trump as president, and the alt right ascending, we’re likely to see more and more re-legitimization of historical figures who truly ought to be intolerable to everyone today — not because of current, changeable sensibilities, but because their views were intolerable to decent people even while they were alive.

I expect that a president who reportedly kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside (just for the articles, you understand. He doesn’t even notice the pictures) will breathe new life and vigor into old, deservedly condemned causes. We’ve already seen some efforts, from a population indispensable to Trump’s victory, to reanimate fetid corpses of egregious racism, anti-semitism, denial of Bosnian genocide, and more. Confederate flag sales skyrocketed in 2015Trump himself praised the “strength” of China’s response to Tianamen Square; and Trump openly admired Saddam Hussein’s efficiency in dealing with his enemies.

This man is now our president, our representative to the rest of the world.

Anticipating the battles to come, we might be tempted to suit up with an extra, protective layer of righteous indignation. If we’re going to be led by a man who dabbles in horrors, we might decide ahead of time that we’ll have a prophylactic zero tolerance policy against anything and anyone that smacks of his ugly ideals.

But let’s not. Let’s not respond to kneejerk politics by jerking the knee in the other direction. This country isn’t over yet. We’re still writing our history, still making adjustments, still figuring out who we are. Let’s take a clue from Yale, and slow down, do our research, think things through — and above all, not respond to unthinking rhetoric with more unthinking rhetoric.

In an absurdly awful election, where there could be no winning for the American people, we lost. Yes, we did. But that doesn’t mean we need to surrender. We still have time.