It didn't take much for Trump to win optimistic pundits' seal of approval. / JBrazito

Race to the Bottom

The commentators fawning over Trump speech can’t see the racist lies in front of their stupid pundit faces

It didn't take much for Trump to win optimistic pundits' seal of approval. / JBrazito
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Donald Trump’s carefully crafted exercise in statecraft simulation played to audible sighs of relief in the American punditsphere. Here, at long last, according to a chorus of sober commentators assessing the president’s hour-plus address to both chambers of Congress, was the desperately longed-for pivot: Donald Trump, demagogic bully and serial liar, was putting on his big-boy pants and reading from a teleprompter. He celebrated the heroic sacrifice of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owen, the soldier killed in an epically botched military action that the president approved on no sounder policy calculation than the assurance that it was something that Barack Obama would never have done. (And then, for good measure, Trump blamed Obama himself for the Yemen raid’s dismal outcome. Now there’s a pivot, folks!)

But here in the overheated spectacle of bicameral presidential oratory, a multitude of executive-branch sins were airily pardoned. No less an Obama partisan than CNN’s Van Jones pronounced that this was the moment that Donald Trump truly became president of the United States, and that if he were to continue to choreograph these creepy set pieces in public mournography, he’d continue to serve magisterially in that capacity for the next eight years. (One ponders this word-picture with the distinct fear that all future Trump State of the Union addresses may be preceded by the ritual sacrifice of a Navy SEAL.)

Leaning in to the role of sage presidential paterfamilias, Trump instructed the GOP members of Congress to put the interests of the country above their grifting day-job duties; “the time for trivial fights is over,” announced our remorselessly petty commander in chief, merely one day after righteously claiming that the mangled Best Picture award presentation at the Oscars was really all about him.

And after months of passively enabling horrifying attacks and threats directed at non-white, non-Christian minority communities, Trump began his address with a belated acknowledgment that, on balance, untrammeled race hatred may not be such a great thing for the country to embrace. “While we may be a country divided on policies,” the newly serious and presidential white nationalist propagandist announced, “we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

To single immigrants out as disposed to mayhem is roughly akin to claiming that you’re more apt to kill someone if you like Coldplay, or purchase designer seltzer.

One might well ask, amid this new chorus of pundit swooning, why is it that so many of the Trump administration’s policies are explicitly designed to foment hate and evil? The painfully obvious M.O. of the Trump White House is to deny basic civil protections to the vast swathes of the population the great leader randomly deems to be a threat to real American values: immigrants, Muslims, inner-city (read: black and less privileged) residents. The evidence that Trump’s faux-presidential plea for tolerance possessed zero truth value was right there in the Capitol sanctum: Melania Trump was seated next to four family members of people killed in violent crimes perpetrated by undocumented immigrants.

Here, too, the intensely private traumas of grief and loss were obscenely exploited for base political gain. What’s more, this propaganda-of-the-Capitol-seating-chart was perpetuating the very racist fearmongering and scapegoating that Trump professed to repudiate in his opening remarks. In reality, undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the rest of the population of America, and they are in no way unduly prone to commit aggravated felonies such as homicide. To single these groups out as especially disposed to mayhem is roughly akin to claiming that you’re more apt to kill someone if you like Coldplay, or purchase designer seltzer. Those consumer demographics are in no way a more coherent social grouping than the shadowy specter of death-dealing immigrants.

However, Trump’s White House isn’t satisfied with just rhetorically tarring the immigrant population with a murder libel. No, the president has actually created a federal agency nestled in the authoritarian bosom of the Department of Homeland Security to propagandize the non-existent surge in violent crime committed by immigrants. It bears the quasi-illiterate sobriquet “Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement,” which translates into the stirringly vacuous acronym “VOICE.”

Pause here as well to behold the breathtaking Orwellianism of it all: A federally sanctioned effort to direct the worst sort of moral opprobrium to a marginalized out group is deemed a vital opportunity to amplify the voices of the overlooked victims and survivors of the rampaging immigrant hordes.

All the commentators now drawing Valentine hearts emblazoned with the words “presidential” and “optimistic” and “dreamy” on their iPads seem to have forgotten Trump’s past career.

And just what might those voices be encouraged to say, exactly? Here let it be candidly affirmed that the Trump White House has offered a rich panoply of bigoted outbursts to choose from. They could depict multiracial ethnic communities in our major cities as blighted, violence-ridden moonscapes, as Trump routinely does from his bully pulpit—including in last night’s “presidential” star turn, where he yet again bemoaned the gothic crime waves allegedly engulfing Chicago, Detroit, and other urban environs that haunt the paranoiac muse of white privilege. Or they might, following the racist logic of Trump’s travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, decide to torch a mosque, or gun down an Indian immigrant in cold blood, under the mistaken impression that he’s a Muslim, and therefore a threat to all things American and Great. Or they might, as Trump did earlier the same day,  dismiss reported threats to Jewish temples and community centers as false-flag operations mounted by his political opponents. (This particularly foul libel appears to have originated from among Trump’s vast retinue of racist White House aides.)

It’s true that it was at least a rhetorical step forward for the president to open his remarks with a denunciation of ethnic and racial hate crimes. (Though one still is dumbfounded that our national moral compass has so completely demagnetized itself under Trump’s leadership that this denunciation should be necessary at all from the summit of executive power. It’s likewise a shameful indictment of our pie-eyed civic hubris that all the commentators now drawing Valentine hearts emblazoned with the words “presidential” and “optimistic” and “dreamy” on their iPads seem to have forgotten Trump’s past career as a racist landlord, the gleeful would-be executioner of the exonerated Central Park Five, and the hustler of the birther lie.) But it’s also true that the Trump White House is administratively and ideologically committed to prop up false narratives of racialized threats to white America’s well being for the sake of weaponizing the ugly race hatreds at the base of the Trump movement. If this is what passes for “presidential” among our political commentariat these days, then fuck presidents, fuck the cable news industry, and fuck you, Van Jones.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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