Payback Time in America

How did the weekend go? Let’s say it started on Friday when Ben Carson endorsed Donald Trump. They pretended to bury a very big hatchet, but that event ended with Trump saying that America needed more violence at his rallies. He wasn’t backing down and we got that, that afternoon in Saint Louis – a few folks were bloodied up – and that evening he had to cancel his Chicago rally. There were riots in the streets anyway. Trump seems to be reveling in this, and he might be able to turn public opinion to his side. After all, both sides have a point. Trump should be allowed to hold rallies, but then he shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that he’s not consciously encouraging both the protests and the increasing violence. He obviously thinks it will help his cause in the end. He may be right. The 1968 riots in the streets of Chicago helped make Richard Nixon president. Here we go again, and Josh Marshall notes what happened next:

In the 36 hours since the Chicago blow-up we’ve seen the chilling incident in Dayton where an anti-Trump protester tried to rush the stage while Trump was speaking, Trump attacking “communist” Bernie Sanders, equating his protester opponents with ISIS terrorists and threatening to send his supporters to Sanders’ rallies if Sanders doesn’t stand down. (Needless to say there is no evidence whatsoever that Sanders is involved in organizing or encouraging any protests at all.) The most recent up-ratcheting is Trump telling Meet the Press this morning that he wants to pay the legal fees of the man who sucker punched the protester in Fayetteville (and later said that killing might be necessary next time.)

That was preceded by this:

After last Thursday’s Republican debate, Trump was notably more subdued and (to use that comically nonsensical adjective) presidential, particularly toward his rivals and with regard to mainstream Republican issue touch points. But he was the same Trump on two issues – protester beatings and Muslims. Last Saturday he was pressed for the first time in a high profile setting on the rally violence by CNN’s Jim Acosta. On Thursday the Fayetteville ‘sucker punch’ video emerged, capturing in an escalated and more visually arresting form what has been simmering at his rallies for weeks. This generated a more defensive and aggressive stance from Trump which emerged simultaneous to the debate and after it. It also escalated what had been smatterings of Black Lives Matter protesters at event after event to the much larger and more organized protest we saw in Chicago when Trump took the fateful step of organizing a rally in a major city in a blue state at a racial diverse urban college campus.

Follow the links for the details. They’re depressing, and Marshall notes Trump’s problem:

Donald Trump realized that he needed to tamp down the heat of his campaign going into last week, not to forestall violence or do the right thing but for a very specific tactical reason. He is on the brink of securing the Republican nomination. But to have a nomination that is worth anything he needs at least the acquiescence of GOP party stakeholders. He told us as much – thus the repeated calls to unity… but that’s not how it’s ended up. And it’s important to consider why. …

What we can see now is that Trump can try to ‘pivot to the general’. But the primaries will follow him there whether he wants them to or not. Trump saw the tactical need to shift gears, as many of his fair weather supporters and opponents expected he would. But the momentum of events proved stronger. At a deeper level still, the cycle of reaction, revanche and provocation seems to be operating within Trump himself.

Marshall had earlier explained that:

I have referred a number of times to the ‘revanchism’ of Donald Trump’s supporters. The term originated out of the French demand to reclaim the eastern territories it had lost to Prussia in the War of 1870. But the literal meaning of the word is “revenge” or “revengism”: revanchism is a politics based on one group seeking revenge on another group and reclaiming from the latter group what was wrongfully taken from it. This kind of political orientation has been clear in the Trump movement from the beginning. But under pressure it’s coming even more clearly to the fore.

So he quotes Trump reacting to all the protesters:

“And to think I’ve had such an easy life. What do I need this for? What do I need this for? I’ve done great. I love this country. We’re going to make this country great again. It’s payback time.”


One might try to interpret this as aimed at protesters. But it’s pretty clear, by the nature of the words and structure of the statement, that Trump is articulating the rationale of his whole campaign, in a perhaps more emphatic form driven by the adrenaline of the moment. “We’re going to make this country great again. It’s payback time.”

It is a politics framed around betrayal and revenge. Payback against who exactly? And for what?

That’s a bit complicated, but on Saturday, Marshall said the payback isn’t that complicated:

For all the talk about Mussolini, let alone Hitler, George Wallace is the best analog in the last century of American politics – the mix of class politics and racist incitement, the same sort of orchestrated ratcheting up of conflict between supporters and protesters. As all of this has unfolded over the course of the day there have been numerous instances of Trump supporters calling for protesters to “go back to Africa” and another on video calling on them to “go to fucking Auschwitz.”

Is the man invoking Nazi concentration camps in that video an anti-Semite or just a ramped hater in a frenzy of provocation? I’m not sure we know… in a climate of incitement and crowd action, it doesn’t necessarily matter.

It may sound like hyperbole. But this is the kind of climate of agitation and violence where someone will end up getting severely injured or killed. I do not say that lightly.

To explain that, he refers to something that happened earlier this month:

At a Trump rally in Louisville on March 1st, a number of African-American protesters were ejected from the event. As they were being led out, they were heckled, pushed and shoved. One of the men doing the shoving was 75 year old Alvin Bamberger, a veteran and member of a local Korean War veterans association. Bamberger was videoed yelling at and repeatedly shoving a female, African-American protester and the video went viral.

A few days later he sent a letter of apology to the head of his local veterans’ organization saying he was caught between the crazy white supremacists and the crazy black-lives-matter folks and he just started shoving people left and right, so to speak, but he was really sorry he ended up only shoving a helpless young black woman, which Marshall sees as the actual problem:

I’ve seen various responses to this apology, some seeing it as insufficient and insincere, others seeing it as genuine and contrite. Some say he shifts the blame. If nothing else, this is no mere ‘I’m sorry if anyone took offense’ type nonsense non-apology. It is abject and unflinching. But set all that aside. That’s not what concerns me here. Bamberger’s overarching explanation rings very true to me. Indeed, it is backed up by decades of social science: People act very differently in crowd or mob situations than they do on their own. There are various theories as to just why this is the case – again, there’s a whole social science and group psychology literature about it. But crowd/mob situations are profoundly disinhibiting events. People sometimes do things they themselves not only regret but almost literally can’t believe they did.

None of this is meant to absolve people of responsibility for their actions. Having watched the video I have little doubt Bamberger came into the event with a lot of pretty intense feelings and beliefs that set him up for this confrontation. But would he have acted this way without all the outside stimulus he describes in his letter? Probably not. We all have angers and prejudices and hostilities which our socialization keeps in check, sometimes even hidden from ourselves. Some of us, of course, have much more than others. But in crowd settings, with what can now only be called Trump’s almost nonstop incitement to eject or beat “thug” protestors, jostling and shoving, ramped up emotions, things can escalate very rapidly. And let’s be honest, it can happen on both sides. A hypothetical: a Trump supporter shoves a black protestor, the protestor punches back, others join in. We don’t need to equate the two sides, which I do not, to see that there is a lot of anger and animus on each side. This kind of atmosphere can unleash it.

And one thing leads to another:

What we have seen over the last two weeks isn’t just an escalation of chaos and low level violence but a progressive normalization of unacceptable behavior – more racist verbal attacks, more violence. This is in turn clearly attracting more people who want trouble – on both sides. If you’re an angry racist who wants to act out on his anger, can you imagine any better place to go than a Trump rally? If you hate Trump, his supporters and all he stands for and want to get physical about it, where best to go?

Again, this is not meant to equate the two sides. Trump has repeatedly claimed that instances of crowd violence at his rallies occurred when protestors – “bad dudes” – attacked his supporters and his supporters fought back. Until the events last night in Chicago, there is no evidence that anything like this ever happened. Not once. It is all lies. It’s still not clear exactly what happened in Chicago. I have seen numerous reports from the event that show that the great majority of protestors were peaceful, in many cases there as families, from various political and community organizations. But clearly there were scuffles and disorderly behavior inside that both sides participated in – who started what, I have no idea. It was a qualitative advance, or descent, from what had come before it.

And this is beyond dangerous:

The climate Trump is creating at his events is one that not only disinhibits people who normally act within acceptable societal norms. He is drawing in, like moths to a flame, those who most want to act out on their animosities, drives and beliefs. It is the kind of climate where someone will eventually get killed.

That will happen.

How did we get here? The New York Times suggests it was a night of humiliation in 2011 that helped galvanize Trump’s drive for power and respect in the political world – the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, April 30, 2011 – which Marshall puts in this context:

Trump has already begun his bid to put a footprint in the political world by trying to become the leader of the ‘birther’ movement, which is to say, the tribal leader of idiots. So he’s come as a guest to the White House Correspondents Association dinner, which makes sense since it is where celebrity and political power meet up every year. But Donald gets much more than he bargained for.

For backers of President Obama, watching him deliver a comedic routine – which every president does at this dinner – is a unique treat. Obama has impeccable comedic timing and an uncanny amount of what the French call sang froid – coolness under pressure. As comedy, it is biting.

And as the Times notes, it bit:

Donald J. Trump arrived at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in April 2011, reveling in the moment as he mingled with the political luminaries who gathered at the Washington Hilton. He made his way to his seat beside his host, Lally Weymouth, the journalist and socialite daughter of Katharine Graham, longtime publisher of The Washington Post.

A short while later, the humiliation started.

The annual dinner features a lighthearted speech from the president; that year, President Obama chose Mr. Trump, then flirting with his own presidential bid, as a punch line.

He lampooned Mr. Trump’s gaudy taste in décor. He ridiculed his fixation on false rumors that the president had been born in Kenya. He belittled his reality show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Mr. Trump at first offered a drawn smile, then a game wave of the hand. But as the president’s mocking of him continued and people at other tables craned their necks to gauge his reaction, Mr. Trump hunched forward with a frozen grimace.

After the dinner ended, Mr. Trump quickly left, appearing bruised. He was “incredibly gracious and engaged on the way in,” recalled Marcus Brauchli, then the executive editor of The Washington Post, but departed “with maximum efficiency.”

One thing leads to another:

That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world. And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.

Marshall says that pretty much matches what he remembers sitting in the room that evening when this was said:

Donald Trump is here tonight! (Laughter and applause) Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. (Laughter) … All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. (Laughter) For example – no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice – (laughter) – at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so, ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. (Laughter) You fired Gary Busey. (Laughter) And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.


I mentioned Obama’s sang froid. After watching this all transpire down in Washington, I was back in my apartment in New York the next evening when the first hints started to emerge about what President Obama would announce later that evening: the death of Osama bin Laden. Only a few hours before Obama rattled off his jokes Saturday evening, he had given the final sign off on what was probably his single most momentous decision as President: sending a special forces raid deep into Pakistan to capture or kill the man whose catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States had hung over the country for almost a decade.

So as Obama was rattling off his jokes, the die had already cast – the situation largely out of his hands. As I rummaged through my memory then and now, there are numerous parts of the evening that are fascinating to consider in retrospect, not least of which is Obama’s joking reference to decisions that would “keep me up at night.” But the main one, as numerous commentators noted at the time, is the man’s poker face, his sang froid. As the President’s critics have long rightly noted, the raid on the bin Laden compound was the product of the work of countless members of the Intelligence Community who developed the lead on his whereabouts and the Navy Seals who conducted the raid. But the final decision was Obama. And he was accountable for the result – one which might well have ended his presidency and did likely play some role in his reelection 18 months later.

Now we know that even more was afoot that night: the injuries to Trump’s pride that night apparently propelled us forward to this moment as he stands at the verge of becoming the leader of the Republican Party.

That’s one way of looking at it, but the New York Times’ Frank Bruni is more interested in Trump asking his supporters to raise their right hand and swear to vote for him in a kind of Nazi salute, which Bruni thinks shows the scope and intensity of his hunger for adulation:

He gazed upon a teeming arena of admirers and neither their presence nor their numbers was quite enough. He ached for an extra exhibition of their ardor. He had to issue a command and revel in their obeisance. I’m surprised only that he didn’t ask them to kneel or genuflect, but that could still come. The primaries slog on. The general election looms.

And Trump’s campaign events have become increasingly unsettling affairs, by turns ludicrous and scary.

One night he’s turning a supposed victory celebration into an obliquely relevant pitch for Trump wine, Trump water and Trump steaks, to a point where he almost seems poised to bark out a toll-free number and urge consumers to “order now.” Another night he’s canceling a speech in Chicago at the last minute because the gathering has devolved into violent chaos.

Bruni calls this “epic neediness”: 

What set him in motion was a compulsion to see his face flickering across TV screens, his handle popping up in retweets, his minions arrayed before him. What eggs him on is the sound of his name uttered by pundits, rivals, crowds. To his ears it’s a music sweeter than Beethoven’s, saucier than Beyoncé’s. He tangos to it, or at least his itty-bitty heart does. And he can’t quite hear or fully appreciate the ugliness of some of the noise he has whipped up.

Everything about Trump’s campaign can be explained in terms of substance abuse: He’s addicted to attention, demanding regular fixes and going to ever greater lengths – in terms of reckless statements and provocative acts – to get them.

Imagine what that would mean for a Trump presidency. His agenda wouldn’t be conservative, moderate, liberal or for that matter coherent. It would be self-affirming and self-aggrandizing: whatever it takes to remain the focus of everyone’s gaze, the syllable tumbling from everyone’s lips.

This is new, at least to Americans:

We complain incessantly about politicians who neglect us, who don’t indulge our requests readily, who skimp on news conferences. But their reasons are often sound. They understand that everything they say has weight and consequence: that at a certain altitude of leadership, words matter greatly and carry great risk. Trump’s failure to grasp this was evident in his comment in February about a protester who was being ejected from an event in Las Vegas. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” Trump fumed. A leader must speak with care – and in careful measure.

There’s only one measure for Trump: more. More products bearing his brand. More buildings blaring his name. He’s a modern-day Midas, with a vain twist. Everything he touches turns to Trump.

He insists on that. Craves it. No reassurance sustains him for too long; no validation suffices. That would be as true of Trump the president as it is of Trump the candidate, and it would dictate the terms and the tempo of a reign from which this country would not soon recover.

That’s another way of looking at it, but Slate’s Jamelle Bouie sees bigger issues:

For some on the left, Trump is the result of decades of divisive politics – the inevitable outcome of a Republican political strategy that stoked white racial resentment to win elections. “Trump’s campaign can best be understood not as an outlier but as the latest manifestation of the Southern Strategy, which the Republican Party has deployed for a half-century to shore up its support in the old Confederate states by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity,” writes Jeet Heer in the New Republic.

For some on the right, Trump is the grassroots response to Republican elites who have abandoned their working-class voters to the whims of laissez-faire capitalism. “The Republican Party, and the conservative movement, offer next to nothing to working-class Trump supporters,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty in the Week. “There are no obvious conservative policies that will generate the sort of growth needed to raise the standard of living for these working-class voters.”

Fine, but those are long-term trends. Why Trump and why now? Bouie offers this:

What caused this fire to burn out of control? The answer, I think, is Barack Obama.

There have been some conservative writers who have tried to hang Trump’s success on the current president, pointing to his putatively extreme positions. But in most respects, Obama is a conventional politician – well within the center-left of the Democratic Party. Or at least, he’s governed in that mode, with an agenda that sits safely in the mainstream. Laws like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act weren’t impositions from the far left; they were built out of proposals from the right and left, passed by a majority of Congress that was elected to pursue solutions on health care and the economy. Barack Obama is many things, but conservative rhetoric aside, he’s no radical.

We can’t say the same for Obama as a political symbol, however. In a nation shaped and defined by a rigid racial hierarchy, his election was very much a radical event, in which a man from one of the nation’s lowest castes ascended to the summit of its political landscape. And he did so with heavy support from minorities: Asian Americans and Latinos were an important part of Obama’s coalition, and black Americans turned out at their highest numbers ever in 2008.

That was the problem:

For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism, however, Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. And with talk of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he presaged a time when their votes – which had elected George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan – would no longer matter. More than simply “change,” Obama’s election felt like an inversion. When coupled with the broad decline in incomes and living standards caused by the Great Recession, it seemed to signal the end of a hierarchy that had always placed white Americans at the top, delivering status even when it couldn’t give material benefits.

In a 2011 paper, Robin DiAngelo – a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University – described a phenomenon she called “white fragility.” “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” she writes. “These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”

DiAngelo was describing private behavior in the context of workplace diversity training, but her diagnosis holds insight for politics. You can read the rise of Obama and the projected future of a majority nonwhite America as a racial stress that produced a reaction from a number of white Americans – and forced them into a defensive crouch. You can see the maneuvering DiAngelo describes in the persistent belief that Obama is a Muslim – as recently as last fall, 29 percent of Americans held this view, against all evidence. It is a way to mark Obama as “other” in a society where explicit anti-black prejudice is publicly unacceptable. Consistent with this racialized fear and anxiety is the degree to which white Americans now see “reverse discrimination” as a serious problem in national life.

Heather Parton adds this:

The one-two punch of the great recession combined with the first black president was just too much for these fragile folks. It’s the combination that knocked them for a loop. But I’m not convinced that simply “helping” them economically will ever calm them. …

We know that the hostility to Obama is visceral and somewhat overwhelming for these folks. The dystopian America these people inhabit isn’t just a place where they have lost jobs and lost their grip on the middle class. They have, but it’s been going on for a long time and they had no problem voting for orthodox conservatives who dog-whistled to their prejudices while feeding them nonsense about corporate tax rates and “tort reform” as if that had any meaning to their lives. No, the straw that broke the camel’s back was that as the shit hit the fan in 2007, this country voted in a black president as if to spite them. The signature achievement they despise is even named after him. And here comes Trump, timed perfectly, the birther in chief who speaks to their fear and loathing in vivid, primal terms.

Bouie also, however, notes “the extent to which Trump reflects specific choices by Republican and conservative elites” in all this:

From indulging anti-Obama conspiracy theories to attacking him as an enemy of the United States, conservatives chose to nurture resentment and anxiety and distill it into something potent. You can draw a direct line to the rise of Trump from the racial hysteria of talk radio – where figures like Rush Limbaugh, a Trump booster, warned that Obama would turn the world upside down. “The days of minorities not having any power are over and they are angry,” said Limbaugh to his audience. “They want to use their power as a means of retribution.”

And one thing leads to another:

Even if Obama had reached out, they would be mere partners in a larger coalition, when what they want is to be its driving force. Trump speaks to that desire, signaling – in ways subtle and otherwise – that he plans to “Make America Great Again” by making the white American worker the center of his universe.


He’s promised to deport millions of Hispanics and some number of Syrian refugees who are already here, ban Muslims from entering the country and return to some old-fashioned notion of “law and order” which is very evident in his defense of violence against Black lives Matter protesters and others.

I have said it more directly than Bouie does: He promises to make America white again.

That may be why it’s payback time in America. Trump made his personal humiliation and epic neediness general. Millions now insist that someone’s going to pay, damn it. For what? It’s complicated. But someone is going to get killed sooner or later. How did the weekend go? It didn’t go well.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Payback Time in America

  1. rogerglewis says:

    Alan I always read your blog when I have the time, it is compulsive reading. This one on Trump I feel I have to comment. From the outside ( Sweden) looking in it seems obvious to me that Trump is an East Coast , Wall Street Candidate. He is, being in the business he is in, owned by debt and so in turn controlled or beholden to financiers. Think of WIlliam Jennings Bryant’s Cross of Gold speech. Bryant delivered that speech against the East Coast Financial interests who sponsored de- monitisation of silver. Bryant championed and the West Coast and Mid Western Farmers all of who suffered with the end of Bi Metalism. In Short Trump is Wall Streets Guy. Here’s my take on why.

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