The time was just after the 2016 election. I was attending a conference where white progressives were apoplectic in their concern over what the country had just done in electing Donald Trump to the presidency. Two older African American friends, both giants in our field, had a less emotional reaction.
They were, of course, concerned about what was to come. But they were not in the least bit surprised at the white community’s feeling of doom and subsequent backlash against the election of the nation’s first African American president. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we celebrate this weekend, said that the country’s race problem “grows out of the…need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel…that their white skin ordained them to be first.”*
The families and ancestors of my two friends had always dealt with adversity in this land of opportunity. It went along with being black in America. They never gave up hope, but they also never sugar-coated the past or expressed giddy optimism about a post-racial future. If they moved forward and kept working in the midst of the sustained historical oppression they faced, then their unspoken message to the white progressives was that persevering was the least we could do from our positions of privilege.
I thought about that moment as well as Dr. King’s never-ending fight for justice as I read The Cruelty is the Point: Why Trump’s America Endures (2022) by journalist Adam Serwer. The past, present, and future of Trump’s America was the original subtitle, because this book is not just about 2016-2021. Instead, Serwer, a biracial Jewish American, takes the reader back through the unvarnished history that made Donald Trump and today’s cruelty possible while looking ahead at where we may go as a nation.
This is a hard book, almost dark at times, that highlights the challenges and failures to live up to our ideals at least as much as it celebrates the progress that has been made. And that’s probably as it should be. An 1894 quote from journalist Ida B. Wells opens the work and sets forward Serwer’s key thesis of the wide gap between our belief in the ideals of racial equality and our support for policies and actions that would put it into practice.
The negro still hopes that some day the United States will become as great intellectually and morally as she is materially, to protect and honor all her citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition,” and thus make her professions a living reality.
Many on the right push back against this perspective. While the mainstream media dismisses claims of widespread racism among Trump’s supporters, Serwer notes, “Millions of people of color in the United States live a reality that many white Americans find unfathomable; the unfathomable is not the impossible.”
Fourteen essays that were originally published in The Atlantic, each with a new introduction, make up this powerful book that calls us to remember the history that really happened in place of the one we tell ourselves happened.
Serwer repeatedly shows how white Americans have professed a belief in racial equality while pointedly declining to put the necessary laws and policies in place to see it to fruition, what the social scientists call the “principle-implementation gap.” Perhaps most disturbingly for white readers, he demonstrates time after time how cruelty and violence have been the chosen tools for maintaining our place on the top rung of society’s ladder.
The most-read piece he’s ever written gave the book its name. It was conceived in 2018 after he “saw the President of the United States use a woman who had come forward with an allegation of sexual assault as a laugh line.” Serwer writes that it took him time to wrap his head around the fact that “the president enjoyed hurting people in ways large and small, and that many of his supporters enjoyed it when he hurt people.” As Serwer says many times throughout this book, this is not simply an ethos but a policy decision.
He writes about the pictures and postcards showing grinning white men standing around the half-naked and mutilated bodies of lynching victims in the 20th century and ties that to the spectacle of cruel laughter heard throughout the Trump era. Taking joy in suffering is “more human that most would like to admit,” asserts Serwer.
And it isn’t incoherent.
It reflects a clear principle: Only the president and his allies, his supporters and their anointed are entitled to the rights and protections of the law and, if necessary, immunity from it. The rest of us are entitled only to cruelty, by their whim.
Serwer’s essays on Reconstruction’s real history, including how democratically elected multi-racial governments were violently overthrown with the acquiescence of white Northerners, set the stage for Trump and January 6th. His examinations of the relationships between blacks and Jews are educational and enlightening. He hammers home the many lies we tell ourselves as a country to continue to support a white, male hierarchy.
At the center of today’s history is the former president.
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.
This cruelty has been around long before Trump. Serwer asserts it will continue to exist in some form well into the future until that time that America comes to support the policies that would protect those Trump and his supporters hate and fear: “immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright.”
More to come…
*I recommend Heather Cox Richardson‘s letter on the heroism of Dr. King as well as Hajar Yazdiha writing about conservative revisionism of Dr. King’s words and life work.
(Image: During the Tulsa race riots in 1921, more than 1,200 black businesses and homes were destroyed at the hands of white residents. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)