Now is the Time of Monsters
Earlier this week, reports surfaced that at the start of the year Trump’s inner circle pushed for the mass, and rapid, deportations of families.
The more the details emerge, the more hair-raising the scenario. Trump, and his Darth Vader-esque henchman Stephen Miller, apparently wanted to blitz immigrant neighborhoods, especially in large sanctuary cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They wanted to bring down their iron fists and their steel boot tips onto families, with the explicit intent of deporting tens of thousands of people in a matter of weeks. It was, quite clearly, intended to represent exemplary punishment; as with the caging of children in 2018, this was designed to showcase the state’s ability to go after families where it hurts most – to target their children and put their well-being on the line.
No matter that the deported kids would be at particular risk of disease, of extreme-poverty, and, according to data gathered by UNICEF, of being targeted by gangs and human traffickers back in their “home” countries. No matter that deporting vast numbers of people at speed would throw local economies utterly out of whack. No matter that immigrant families tend to stabilize impoverished neighborhoods, oftentimes bringing both economic development and lower crime rates in their wake.
The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, in his 1941 memoirs The World of Yesterday, wrote of Hitler having turned “anti-humanitarianism to law,” of a concerted use of the courts combined with the Fascist propaganda machine to criminalize impulses of kindness and of decency. In reading about Trump’s obsessive efforts to hurt immigrant children, Zweig’s words hover in the background.
In the event, then-DHS Secretary Nielsen, as well as top officials at Customs and Border Protection, apparently managed to stonewall, convinced that the policy would be a public relations disaster. Given Nielsen’s previous role in the caging of separated children, this hardly makes her a hero; but it does show the depth of the administration’s depredation that even such a consummate enabler as Nielsen balked at this particular policy.
The stonewalling did, however, come at a cost. It was, apparently, at least partly in response to this that Trump axed Nielsen and, at Miller’s urging, launched a wholesale purge of his top immigration and border security personnel, saying that he wanted to go in a “tougher” direction than were his existing officials.
Trump’s policies on immigration have gone from awful to diabolical in recent months as his administration has shed the few remaining “adults in the room.” Around immigration and nationalism, seemingly on a daily basis the embittered old man is veering ever-further rightward, embracing kooky online conspiracy theories about Islam, and welcoming to the White House far-right pariah leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
I guess that oughtn’t to be a surprise. Orban is a man after Trump’s own withered heart: contemptuous of constitutional limits, and convinced that his political well-being lies in his ability to whip up fear of the stranger, the outsider. He has clamped down on the free press, on the independent judiciary, on the LGBTQ community, on academics and think tanks. In short, he does, on a daily basis, what Trump wants to do but sometimes can’t.
“The old world is dying; and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters,” the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci famously noted.
I feel the pain embedded in Gramsci’s phrase every day. I feel the humiliation of being at the mercy of such monsters, of knowing that those who merit it the least have the most power. And I feel, from the bottom of my heart, the vast peril that accrues when those lacking the most basic of empathic responses control the destinies of billions.
The braking mechanisms on Trump’s madness and his cruelty are largely ceasing to function. Anyone with even the smidgen of a conscience has long gone, leaving Trump surrounded by a who’s who of sycophants and opportunists, grifters and sadists.
The effects are cascading down upon us. We live in the era of the attentat. Except this time around it is not powerless bomb-throwing anarchists aiming to shock and destabilize through spectacle; instead, it is those at the pinnacle of power who have realized the potency of such actions.
In the realm of healthcare, the Administration is now urging the courts to declare the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, thus putting at risk the health coverage of tens of millions of people – and the kicker is, they’ve got absolutely no replacement strategy if in fact the courts do so rule.
In the realm of trade, after months of phony war, suddenly the United States is in a very real, and potentially extremely painful, trade war with China. The US is barricading itself behind some of the highest tariffs in the developed world, with no exit strategy and precious little beyond bluster to explain the hurt that is being caused.
On environmental issues, Trump’s politics have gone from the lunacy of “America First” to the orneriness of simply standing in the way of any progressive environmental measure just to spite the rest of the world. Witness the insanity of America opposing the efforts of more than 180 other countries last week during negotiations in Switzerland aimed at curbing plastics’ pollution.
As for matters of war and peace: America now stands on the cusp of open conflict with Iran. Not because Iran has suddenly become an uncontainable threat. The mullahs may be brutal, but they aren’t suicidal. They want a war about as much as did Czechoslovakia or Poland in the late 1930s. But, like Czechoslovakia and Poland, they may get a series of shattering ultimatums followed by occupation anyway. They may be squeezed and bullied, presented by a far larger, stronger Great Power as a deadly threat, and then, when they retreat, baited and insulted until one or other leader, or one or other military grouping, makes the mistake of snarling back. And, when they do, the Trump regime will stand ready to pounce.
That huge numbers will die in such a conflict matters not a whit to John Bolton and the other strategists of this upcoming fight. What matters to the Boltons of the world is raw power, the ability to intimidate all and sundry, and to bend the arc of history to one’s command. And, I suspect, what matters to Trump is less the geo-political ramifications of conflict and more the ability to distract; narcissist that he is, he wants to wrap himself in the Stars and Stripes and portray anyone who opposes him as somehow treasonous.
Trump is a faux-emperor, a Louis Napoleon-lite. Like that ill-fated leader, who shredded mid-19th century France’s constitution and styled himself an autocrat, he is also a man of spectacular ill-judgment. America’s forty-fifth president is a cruel, vain, stupid little figure. Like all bullies, he feels secure only in his ability to inflict pain on others. Except, unlike most other bullies, Trump has access to a nuclear arsenal as well as the world’s most powerful conventional armed forces.
Gramsci’s monsters are up and active. The ogres are truly strutting their stuff.