In the dark days that are undoubtedly before us, many may come to look back on this election as Albert Camus did the Spanish Civil War. “Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts,” Camus wrote. “It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten.”
Make no mistake, though, there is worse to come. Consider President-elect Donald Trump’s conduct since Election Day and that, for his first round of senior appointments, he has skimmed the scum from the fetid pond of the Republican Party’s extreme right.
Over the past week, the putative leader of the free world has picked a truculent twitter quarrel with the cast of Hamilton, the most popular musical play to run on Broadway for years. He has childishly complained that Saturday Night Live is “unfair” to him. The appreciation of satire, we are reminded, is reserved for those mature enough to possess a sense of irony.
This week, Trump demonstrated once again that he remains at heart a developer and television personality who confuses publicity for news when he summoned leading broadcasters and television correspondents to his Fifth Ave. lair and dressed them down. The fact that they sat through his ill-tempered tirade is as much a reflection on them as it is on him.
“We’re in a room of liars,” the president-elect blustered, “the deceitful dishonest media who got it all wrong.” He singled out CNN CEO Jeff Zucker by name, charging that he heads a “network of liars,” Trump said, “‘I hate your network. Everyone at CNN is a liar, and you should be ashamed.’”
Then there are the appointments.
Steve Bannon, who Trump has named his chief strategist and senior counselor, is the notorious former chief of the right-wing Breitbart web site. He is a bigot and an anti-Semite and played in an instrumental role in facilitating the emergence of the white supremacist, neo-Nazi alt-right’s emergence from under the rocks where it has heretofore lurked.
He may deny the anti-Semitism allegations, but none of us lacking the gift of cardio-gnosis can know what another person feels in their heart. We only can judge by what they do, and Breitbart and Trump’s campaign commercial have been suffused by the classic tropes of modern anti-Semitism. Bannon had the ability to prevent that—and he did not.
He is as responsible as anybody for the scandal of the alt-right’s conference just blocks from the White House this past weekend. At that meeting, Jews were viciously denounced and the Nazi salute was given. Richard B. Spencer, most prominent of the alt-right’s leaders, told the crowd that America belongs to white people, the “children of the sun,” a race of “conquerors and creators,” who were “awakening to their own identity” because of Trump’s election.
Much has been made, on the other hand, of the experience and sobering influence supposedly exercised by the Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the Indiana governor. Please. If his boss wasn’t such a sinister and erratic goof ball, we’d all be talking about what a frightening whack-job Pence is. He is an extreme opponent of reproductive choice and would ban all abortions, including those to save a woman’s life. He does not believe in either global warming or evolution—or, for that matter, that tobacco use is linked to cancer. He opposes marriage equality and a woman’s right to equal pay for equal work.
By any reasonable standard, this guy is at least three bubbles off plumb.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general-designate, was rejected by the senate for a federal judgeship back in the 1980’s because of his racist views and derogatory treatment of African-American subordinates and approving comments concerning the Ku Klux Klan. He has referred to the NAACP, the ACLU and the National Council of Churches as “un-American” and “communist inspired.” Since election to the senate from Alabama, he has been an implacable opponent of voting rights. His fervid antagonism toward immigrants, both undocumented and legal has made him perhaps Washington’s leading neonativist.
Trump’s selection as his National Security Advisor—a position not subject to senate confirmation—retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn essentially was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency because of his erratic and disruptive conduct. Since then, he’s become one of the country’s most prominent Islamophobes, promoting the idea that Muslim extremism is an inherent feature of that religion.
Fear of Islam and of Muslims, he has tweeted, is a “rational” anxiety. He also has close business ties to both Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and the incipient Turkish dictator, Recep Erdogan. Flynn’s anchor to the truth is so tenuous that his one-time colleagues in the Defense Intelligence Agency coined the term “Flynn facts” to describe his frequent flights of fancy.
Given the penchant for fantasy he shares with his boss, Flynn’s meetings with his president may resemble a Hollywood story conference more than an Oval Office briefing.
The president-elect’s nominee as Director of Central Intelligence, Rep. Mike Pompeo was a leading Benghazi conspiracy theorist and is one of the House’s vocal anti-Muslim voices. He has been a speaker at notorious Islamophobe Frank Gaffney’s extremist “think tank,” the Center for Security Policy, which has alleged various Obama administration officials are “secret agents of the Muslim Brotherhood,” as is Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. During a recorded interview, Pompeo told Gaffney, that the fight against international terrorism “extends beyond those [Muslims] who are just engaged in violent extremism.” He added: “We don’t have to say that all Muslims are bad. But … we’re going to have to have a broader approach in order to keep Americans safe.”
God knows what that entails in these characters’ minds. Perhaps yellow crescents on Muslims’ outer garments?
And yet, Trump’s approval ratings in the polls—once so lackluster—continue to climb. In my mind, and I suspect in others, all this has reinforced the sense I’ve had since Election Day that I live in a country I no longer know, among a people large numbers of whom are strangers to me. In fact, this country is more deeply divided than it has been at any time since the Civil War.
Benjamin Disraeli’s description of England after the industrial revolution aptly captures the current American moment: We are “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”
Conventional wisdom holds that the fissures created by the Civil War took generations to heal. As the recent election returns show, it would closer to the mark to say that they never did. Whether or win this new divide ever will be bridged seems to me, at this moment at least, an open question.
Much that will affront, disgust and appall is about to occur in our national life. The temptation is to become an “émigré of the interior” or “inner émigré” as those Frenchmen who opposed Napoleon and could not collaborate in his tyranny but refused to leave their native land were called.
That would be the comfortable course, but resistance—intellectual, cultural and political—is the honorable one.
We might hold fast to Sir Kenneth Clark’s summation of his values: “I believe,” he said near the end of his long and eventful life, “that order is better than chaos, creation is better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.”