One week after 9/11, Martin Amis minted the phrase “species shame” to express the totality of his revulsion.
Sixteen years on, that phrase echoes with the ugly brutality of the neo-Nazis in Virginia who, in league with their presidential demigod, bring it storming back to mind.
You cannot divide them, those neo-Nazis and Trump, and not only because those with Hitler quotes on the back of T-shirts were chanting “Hail Trump” (as if using the English rather than German pronunciation would cunningly disguise their intent). You cannot divide them from Trump because Trump is their enabler, just as they are his.
Creatures like these existed long before Trump launched his political career by questioning the birthplace of the African-American who preceded him. He didn’t make them. He brought them back out of the shadows, and into the light of the flaming cross.
Whether his hiring of Steve Bannon means he shares the Breitbart ghoul’s white supremacist world view isn’t clear, though I slightly doubt it. Evidently, he is at the very least a casual racist. No one who wasn’t would dream of making Jeff Sessions the US Attorney-General. But Trump has no belief in anything other than the glorification of Trump, and white supremacy qualifies as a belief.
Being elected President is the high point of that glorification, of course, and to achieve that he needed the unreconstructed racists. No one knows how large a bloc that is. But at 9am today, beneath Breitbart’s report on the terrorist atrocity in Charlottesville were more than 52,000 messages – the massive majority joining Trump in declining directly to criticise those neo-Nazis in general, or specifically the man suspected of driving into anti-fascist protesters.
You can’t glibly extrapolate that into anything like a precise number of American white supremacists, but you may assume from it that there are many, many millions, perhaps tens of millions, without whose support Trump would have no hope whatsoever of extending the glorification with re-election in 2020.
Which is the more repulsive – someone who genuinely admires Hitler, or someone who cynically courts that person for electoral advantage – is impossible to say when the choice is too bleak to contemplate. Enveloping revulsion isn’t an intellectual judgement. It’s an indivisible moral instinct.
To carve the disgust up into slices would be both to dissipate and to create a false distinction between Trump and his millions who yearn to scream the “n” word with the freedom of their grandparents, regard Atticus Finch as the most hateful traitor in American literature, and encrust their pyjamas when they dream of a hands-on role in a lynching. In this dark fairytale of the indescribable led by the unspeakable, they are all in it together.
Time and again over the last two years, pundits have gazed in awe at a Trump outrage and declared the beginning of his end. Each time we have forgotten or wilfully ignored something far more chilling than the present nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea.
This is exactly what many millions of Americans want. They hunger and thirst for it. Some waited decades for the tangerine deus ex machina to descend on the Trump Tower escalator to make them feel better about hating brown- and black-skinned people, Jews and gays. Some are too young to feel the phantom limb pain from losing Jim Crow, like the 20-year-old suspected of driving into those peaceably protesting the statue of the confederate general Robert E Lee.
In January, days before taking his oath of office, Trump spoke with his trademark bombastic insincerity about the document he was about to swear to protect. “I feel very strongly about our Constitution,” he told Fox News. “I’m proud of it, I love it.”
It hardly needs stating that the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech exercised in Charlotteville by a young woman at the time of her death. The time for painfully obvious observations about Trump has long since passed.
But one part of the Constitution for which he has discernible affection, in so far as it motivates the base, is the part known as America’s Original Sin: that line about calculating an enslaved black person as having three fifths the value of a white.
By using his silence to enable, encourage and collude with those to whom that valuation is too generous, Trump’s calculation is that it is to his electoral advantage to rally his troops behind General Lee’s standard, and fight a modern version of the Civil War.
The result will surely be the same. The neo-Confederates will lose. What Martin Luther King said about the arc of history bending towards justice is right. He also said it bends slowly, and he was right there too. He could have added that it zig-zags alarmingly. This is one hell of a zag in the wrong direction.
But while this may be no more the beginning of Trump’s end than his pernicious raving about Mexicans, or any of his toxic imbecilities, the lividly visceral reaction to his calculatedly unvisceral reaction (the weasel reference to “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides”; the cretinous insouciance of a tweeted “how sad!”) feels like the start of a zig.
This was clarified beyond the slightest confusion yesterday. If you aren’t now nauseated by this president, if the idea of him does not yet cause you a jag of species shame, you are allying yourself with those with who marched in Virginia with Hitler quotes on their backs chanting Hail Trump.
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