We’ve have entered the time of mock outrage. The press was shocked that armed neo-Nazis were marching through the streets of Charlottesville shouting ‘Blood and Soil’ and ‘Jews will not replace us!’ Republicans were aghast that many of these thugs were wearing Trump’s red ‘Make America Great Again’ caps. Democrats were indignant that Republicans didn’t call for Trump’s head on a platter. Everyone felt very good about how bad they felt.
In this national psychodrama, Trump plays the role of the Great Revealer. Trump has pulled back the curtains on the cesspool of American politics for the inspection of all but the most timid. Trump speaks the forbidden words that many other Americans secretly think. Trump utters these heresies self-righteously and without shame. Therefore he must be punished for putting the system at risk. He must be lashed for his shamelessness. He must be castigated for exposing the sickness at the heart of the American project.
Trump is Melville’s Confidence Man: he offers his minions the chance to indulge in political taboos. But unlike Bill Clinton or Barack Obama he is not a trickster or a quick-change artist. All of his lies and temptations are at the service of his own vanity and most are so transparent that even his most ardent devotees don’t swallow them whole. Yet he rarely lies about how he feels. Not for long anyway. His skin is too thin. Trump can’t escape who he really is. In another politician, Jimmy Carter perhaps, this might be an endearing quality. With Trump it is deeply unnerving. Trump’s rapacity and bigotry strike too close to home. He reminds us that we haven’t buried the worst of our past.
Trump is a familiar character to most of the world. He is the unvarnished embodiment of the American bully, who has stalked the planet for the last century taking what it wants and leaving corpses and ruin in its wake. There is in Trump no pretense to the humane, no guise of benevolence or cloak of empathy. He is the threatening figure he appears to be, which is, of course, exactly how you want your adversary to appear.
The poor recognize Trump for what he is: he’s the guy who collects the rent, who turns the water and electricity off, who spits at you when you ask for money for food, who sends your kid off to war while his goes big game hunting, who snitches your mom out to the cops for her Oxycontin habit. They don’t need any false words from Trump to heal their shock about the evil rampage in Charlottesville. They aren’t shocked by Charlottesville. They’ve lived that reality most of their lives. And they aren’t startled that the perpetrators have sympathizers in the government. That’s the way it’s always been on the mean streets of America.
Now middlebrow America is getting a glimpse of itself through the mirror of its own bombastic, vindictive and racist leader. He has fractured the rituals and conventions that desensitized most Americans from what our system is really all about. The elites fear Trump because he gives the game away. He personifies the reality they’ve been working for decades to conceal. The role of most presidents has been to comfort the nation when it recoils at a sudden view of its own depravity, from the My Lai massacre to Abu Ghraib, assuring the citizenry that the system isn’t as malign as it appears. Trump pours acid on the wounds, as when he impertinently reminded the country that its two most revered founders where big time slave-owners.
Trump’s initial response to the Charlottesville Nazifest was one of the most honest statements of his presidency. No false pieties, no hollow condolences to the dead and injured, no fake denunciation of the racists whose support he craves and whose views he shares.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘To See or to Nazi: Trump’s Moral Blindspot is America’s’