The Long History of American Cruelty

The Long History of American Cruelty

A conversation with Adam Serwer about the ideological roots of Trumpism, the failures of the Reconstruction era, and his new book, The Cruelty Is the Point.


At the heart of Adam Serwer’s The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present and Future of Trump’s America is a sustained attempt to pinpoint the ideological and social currents that brought Trump to the White House. There are, of course, conflicting interpretations of what constitutes the essential appeal of Trumpism. Some prioritize economic factors, like white working-class reactions to expanding income inequality. Others look to geopolitics and see a decade-long global disillusionment with democracy that has given rise to the election of right-wing nationalist leaders around the world. Still others point to philosophical explanations, such as the rise of the “post-truth society,” in which propaganda, social media, and rampant conspiracy have replaced research, expertise, and objective truth when it comes to explaining the election of Trump in 2016. Although Serwer is mindful of some of the explanations, his book—which is primarily composed of essays he wrote covering the Trump presidency as a staff writer at The Atlantic—offers a historical and cultural explanation for Trumpism. In particular, he defends a “backlash thesis” in which Trumpism must be seen as the white supremacist reaction to a segment of society’s cultural and political decline.

Serwer therefore sees Trumpism as a cruel backlash to the the election of Barack Obama, the possibility that Hillary Clinton might be his successor, the swift acceptance of gay marriage, the growing diversity of cities, and the threat of immigration increase. Faced with these existential threats, Trump’s supporters look to him to “use the power of the state to wage war” against the people who threaten their white supremacist vision of America. The adage “The Cruelty is the Point,” then, indicates the resentful delight that Trump and his supporters exude in their attempt to crush their opponents in the hope of “re-establishing” their version of the real America. As such, the forces that led to Trump’s election, argues Serwer, are anything but some kind of aberration brought on by economic inequality. Instead, Serwer sees such forces as an essential element in long-term political conflicts, which he traces back to the failures of the Reconstruction Era.

How, though, did a nation that has such a long history of being “cruel” elect Barack Obama twice? Moreover, what makes Trumpism unique, given the recent electoral successes of right-wing nationalist governments around the world? Might this reality not indicate the failures of a global liberal economic system? And, more generally, how can cruelty be overcome? I spoke with Serwer about his thinking on Trumpism, including its historical origins, and the cruelty he believes is intrinsic to it.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Why do you think the essence of Trumpism is cruelty?

Adam Serwer: I describe it that way, but Donald Trump also thinks the essence of Trumpism is cruelty. Whether it’s encouraging police to brutalize suspects, pardoning war crimes against Muslims, or carrying out a policy of child separation, Trump’s answer to any dilemma is the ruthless application of state force and the humiliation of its targets. We just disagree over whether the things he’s doing are good.

DSJ: Why was Obama so easily able to beat two white Republican presidential opponents in 2008 and 2012? Were Americans less cruel during this time?

AS: Part of what I try to do in this book is draw a line tracing the long history of cruelty in American politics to the present, so that the Trump era is more understandable and less mystifying. America exists because of the displacement and slaughter of the continent’s original inhabitants, and was built in large part on forced labor. That is going to pose some clear contradictions for a country that aspires to the notion that all men are created equal, and necessitate justifications for why that idea does not apply to vast categories of human beings.

That said, you can see the evolution of the Republican Party over the political races of those years. In 2008, John McCain tried to tamp down the slander of birtherism when confronted with it. By 2012, Mitt Romney was apologizing for his moderate record in Massachusetts, declaring himself “severely conservative,” and indulging birtherism while campaigning in Michigan, joking about how no one has any questions about where he was born, and seeking Trump’s endorsement. After Romney lost, the Republican Party briefly considered moderating before going all in on white identity politics, in part inspired by Steve Bannon’s interpretation of an essay arguing that many white voters stayed home in 2012.

By 2016, the party had selected the nation’s most prominent birther as their standard-bearer, precisely because the hard lines he drew around American citizenship attacked the legitimacy of the first Black president. Trump won the Republican nomination not only because he was cruel, but because he was the most sincere in his expression of that cruelty.

Obama was an exceptional politician, and the politics of cruelty are not invincible—but they can be very effective.

DSJ: You state in the book’s introduction that American journalism is “afflicted by a presentism, a kind of goldfish memory that struggles to think outside the present or recent past.” Part of this most certainly has to do with the Obama presidency. To overcome such presentism, your book makes frequent reference to the Reconstruction era (1865–77) and its failed promises to secure racial equality after the Civil War. Where do you see continuity, and discontinuity, between those years and more recent times?

AS: Reconstruction is the first time Americans genuinely try to build a multiracial democracy, an effort that is ultimately nullified by a huge backlash that embraces the politics of white identity. The idea of Black equality is radicalizing for much of the white South, and they use white supremacy as a way to rally whites across class lines against the possibility. Southern Democrats are often explicit about this, but they also borrow language from white Republicans in the North, in presenting their attempt to entrench racial hierarchy as a good government crusade against corruption and a way to interpret Black efforts as the desire to use government to obtain spoils they are unwilling to work for.

More explicitly, something similar happened after the election of Barack Obama. And while there are many other factors—the panic of 1873 seriously weakened the Reconstruction project, much as the slow recovery from the Great Recession buoyed Trump—the ideological narrative that swept Trump into office was that the multiracial coalition that elected Obama had stolen what rightfully belonged to the Republican base, and Trump would restore the proper order of things.

DSJ: Many professional historians are very reluctant to use history in this manner out of fear that they would be projecting present-day concerns and values onto the past, and thus misinterpreting historical facts. Of course, the latest aggravation of these anxieties is on display in the ongoing controversy over the 1619 Project. Where do you stand on this controversy, and how do you see it connecting to your own attempt to use history to understand the present?

AS: I think that Americans are constantly arguing about the past to make sense of the present, especially professional historians. The Dunning School’s negative portrayal of Reconstruction was a crucial part of the intellectual support for Jim Crow; W.E.B. Du Bois called it propaganda and offered a Marxist counter-interpretation that turned out to be far more accurate. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. embraced C. Vann Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow. Woodward himself commented to a friend in 1966, as the backlash to the civil rights movement was beginning, that “all the classic ’77 signals are up.” John Hope Franklin wrote a history textbook that caused a massive controversy because conservatives felt its frank portrayal of Black and Native American history was too negative and insufficiently patriotic. Today, you can find David Waldstreicher in The Atlantic arguing with Sean Wilentz over the role of slavery in the Constitution, after Wilentz scolded Bernie Sanders in the New York Times.

There are some arguments in the 1619 Project I agree with, and some I don’t. But to the extent that it was arguing that events like slavery and segregation continue to shape racial disparities in the present, that’s not seriously contestable, which is why the arguments have moved on to things like whether it proclaimed the United States “irredeemably racist.”

It’s important to draw relevant distinctions between past and present, and to hew to historical fact. Like anyone else who writes about my history, I try my best to do both. But history is how we make sense of the present, and people who, say, defend Robert E. Lee by insisting that many white people thought slavery was not wrong in 1861 are also projecting present-day concerns and values onto the past. They are trying to preserve an interpretation of the past that is precious to them.

DSJ: The historian Eric Foner, whose work on Reconstruction you regularly cite, observed in 2010, in the pages of The Nation, that the financial bailouts of 2008 had aroused resentments that should not be ignored, “even if they [were] often couched in extreme and racist language” once the Obama administration took office. He went on to say that the economic policies of the Obama administration were fixed to the advantage of the wealthy and that “the government was indifferent to the plight of ordinary Americans.” Critics on the left, and even some on the right, would regularly use economic explanations of this nature to explain why Trump won the presidency in 2016. Why do you prove so critical of such economic explanations? 

AS: First off, Foner is a giant. Second, I find many of the left critiques of the Obama administration’s response to the Great Recession compelling and persuasive, particularly when it comes to the size of the stimulus and the administration’s weak effort to stem the fallout from the housing crisis.

The problem is that they are not, by themselves, a sufficient explanation for how Trump got elected. For example, Black and Latino voters, who suffered greater losses in wealth and experienced a far slower recovery, were among the most resistant to his appeals in 2016. Economic crises can provide an opening for a demagogue like Trump, but they’re insufficient as a blanket explanation absent a willingness to believe, say, that more racial discrimination in lending would have prevented the housing crisis. The ideological lens that makes Trumpism compelling as an explanation for your struggles has to be there.

DSJ: Does the backlash thesis you argue for work at the global level? The recent political successes of nationalist movements are a global phenomenon, as demonstrated by India, Turkey, Brazil, and across Europe. Given these global circumstances, is there a reason that you do not place the American experience of racial inequality in an international context? For instance, you say that you are inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s critical work on Reconstruction, and Du Bois connected racism to economic imperialism. Is there a reason why your book doesn’t make such international connections, especially given the contemporary reality of global nationalist movements?

AS: Du Bois was much smarter than me and had a greater body of knowledge to draw from as a result. I’m not going to feign expertise in the politics of nations I haven’t studied. There are obviously certain trends that seem to be happening in many places, from the rise of right-wing nationalism to educational polarization. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that much as in the United States, these battles are frequently about the nature of citizenship and who truly belongs in a given country. America has always been a multiracial nation, even when it was not a multiracial democracy, and not every country dealing with this phenomenon has that history, which is one I am familiar with.

I speak fluent Italian, and I would still feel uncomfortable about writing an essay about the strangeness of support for La Lega in southern Italy. Who am I, a person who has never set foot in India, to write a book pontificating on the origins of Hindu nationalism?

That said, the book does argue that American imperialism abroad erodes democracy at home. I note in one chapter that Republican support for imperialism helped cement the post-Reconstruction bipartisan consensus in favor of white supremacy and develop new subclasses of citizenship. And in another chapter, I contend that the War on Terror, as well as the absence of both temporal and geographic limits on that project, had a corrosive effect on democracy that helped elect Trump.

DSJ: Let’s turn to the present and specifically immigration. You provide an excellent analysis of the egregious cruelty of Trump’s family separation policy. You also, however, mention that deportations were lower under the Trump administration than the Obama administration. Recently Vice President Harris said that Guatemalans should not try to come to the United States. Democrats, too, seem to be cruel when it comes to immigration. Is this what you mean when stating: “politicians wearing the smiling face of liberalism can provide a more effective façade for cruelty than those who make cruelty public purpose”?

AS: Yes. But, also, our immigration system was designed to be cruel, and the difference with Trump is that he ramped up the cruelty while also attempting to scuttle the redeeming factors of the system, such as asylum and refugee admissions. But you can’t prevent a system designed to be cruel from performing its function simply by putting someone else in charge of it. And we can already see how the continuities between Biden and Trump on immigration are rendered invisible by right-wing hysteria about the border, and demands that migrants be dealt with as inhumanely as possible.

We have this strange feedback loop on immigration, where people demand migration at the border be stopped with harsher and harsher measures. But because migration cannot be stopped through mere brute force, it just creates more demand for more brute force, and less support for policy measures that might actually help manage migration flows. This is very good for the immigrant detention-industrial complex, but it doesn’t solve the problem nativists say they want to solve, because making the system less cruel would defeat the purpose for them.

DSJ: You state that Trump was elected to destroy Obama’s legacy. Obama has recently stated that Biden is “finishing the job” his administration started. Do you agree with Obama’s assessment?

AS: One of the more promising signs about the Biden administration is that they seem to have internalized many of the left-wing economic critiques of the Obama administration, something we saw with the speed and ambition of the coronavirus relief bill. But there’s also been a great deal of hype about a supposedly FDR-sized presidency, even though Biden has yet to pass a permanent expansion of the welfare state on the order of the Affordable Care Act.

You now have tens of millions more people who have been able to access government health care, thanks to the Medicaid expansion, and it would be even more if not for the Roberts Court and the leadership of Republican-controlled states in the South being content to deprive their own residents of the support they deserve. I would be happy if the Biden administration’s record on progressive legislation eclipsed Obama’s record. But that hasn’t happened yet.

DSJ: Many liberals are predicting a doomsday scenario in which Republicans win the House and the Senate in next year’s midterm elections, allowing them to rewrite the rules to win future elections that will pave the way for an authoritarian state. The conclusion of your book seems to share something like this anxiety. Can you elaborate?

AS: I think it’s very clear that Republicans want to insulate their hold on power from the electorate. In states like Wisconsin, because of gerrymandering and geographic concentration of Democratic constituencies, it’s basically impossible for Democrats to gain a majority in the legislature. And what that means is that the party that controls the legislature is not beholden to any civic obligations toward parts of the public that are powerless to remove them. It severs the link of accountability that is necessary for democracy. In extreme cases like the Jim Crow South, it leaves the nonvoting population subject to exploitation and brutality. In the case of Trump, it meant that during the pandemic he was willing to let Americans in “blue states” die because he did not consider them “his people” and so their deaths should not be considered part of his record.

That doesn’t mean the methods Republicans are employing will necessarily work, although that’s no reason to simply allow them to do it. People want to be free, and mechanisms that rely on the permanence of a given coalition will eventually fail, because coalitions change and people change. But you can do tremendous damage in the meantime. Less likely than a full- blown authoritarian state is a whiter, more conservative, and more unrepresentative electorate in which the majority of Americans have little say in how they are governed. And unfortunately, we have a Supreme Court that, much like the post-Reconstruction court, views attempts to shield Black suffrage from disenfranchisement as illegitimate federal government interference in state matters, and is slowly writing the 15th Amendment out of the Constitution.

DSJ: Can cruelty be overcome? Some might think of cruelty, for instance, as a permanent character flaw. Isn’t the overcoming of cruelty necessary for what you describe as “the New Reconstruction?” How can it come about?

AS: Cruelty is part of human nature; it’s not inherently a right-wing or left-wing thing. Individually we can resist it, but it’s always going to be a part of us. What is not inevitable is a system that incentivizes the politics of cruelty, in which a party of white identity is constantly trying to disenfranchise, marginalize, and destroy the constituencies of the more multiracial party in order to maintain its hold on power, and in which cruel deeds become heroic acts of resistance against an imagined apocalypse.

The Republican Party has chosen Trumpism because of the way the American system is structured; they can hold on to power with a minoritarian base that is ideally geographically distributed to win the Senate and the electoral college, and to win the House through favorably drawn districts. It is logical, if immoral, under this system, for the Republican Party to continue to try to win elections by persuading their voters that trans children, or Taliban-style Islamic law, or migrant invasions, are on the verge of destroying their way of life and all they hold dear.

The New Deal coalition altered the Democratic Party from an institution devoted to white supremacy to the party of civil rights—that was not because their leaders suddenly experienced personal growth. It was because they became beholden to constituencies that forced them to change. Similarly, the only thing that can change the present dynamic is a system in which the Republican Party is forced to reach outside its hard-core base in order to hold power.

Editor’s Note: A question regarding the 2008 financial crisis has been changed in order to reflect the Obama administration’s involvement in the passage of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. The Act was passed under the Bush administration and a Democratic majority Congress, and key components were implemented by the incoming Obama administration. The question originally stated that the Act had passed during Obama’s term.

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