He was an older gentleman with wavy grey hair—and we spoke in a café, on a small Greek island, about living under Isis rule. His city had just been besieged by the Assad regime, who were starving the population to get at the Free Syrian Army, and people were killing each other for bread. So when Isis arrived and they were “nice at first,” people accepted them in the hope things would change. But then they began killing people en-masse for petty religious offenses and leaving their bodies to rot in the streets.
There is a moment of calm that can come before a horrific crisis. We cannot believe what is happening and tell ourselves it is not as bad as we think. We try to normalize the things we are about to confront or find the humanity in violent perpetrators. But often it is worse than we could ever imagine, and the disproportionality of our responses only highlight the danger.
All of this was chillingly portrayed in The Killing Fields, a classic film on the genocide of Pol Pot in Cambodia. As the communist army enters the capital, they are waving flags in a celebratory parade of tanks. There is an almost surreal sense of fear breaking into relief among the crowds. But as the calm subsides, the killings begin and residents are evacuated from the cities in forced marches, taking them to the concentration camps.
Americans have never lived under a fascist regime. We have never known what it is like to see fellow citizens registered because of their religious affiliation or shipped away to concentration camps, where they await deportation. We have never seen our friends and family justify their support for such policies. And we cannot imagine how we will respond as it is getting under way.
But we would all do well to start, as all of this was implied by Trump’s repeated pronouncements on the campaign trail. And all of it seems possible under his first appointments of racists like Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. We should not expect the Killing Fields of Pol Pot or Auschwitz and Birkenau—it is another era, and Americans have not been prepared for such murderous brutality.
But we should prepare ourselves for millions of Mexican-Americans to pass through a poorly-funded version of our already underfunded prison-industrial complex. And we should prepare ourselves for the unimaginable.
There are many who say we should wait-and-see. They say Trump will shake things up and displace elites, that he is a pragmatist with no clear ideological commitments and can therefore be influenced in the right direction. But they are coping like victims of domestic violence do in situations from which they cannot escape—making excuses and explaining away abuse.
They are ignoring the fact that Trump built his movement arguing the nation’s first black President lied about his religion and country of origin; that he called for Muslims to be banned from entering the country and for 11million Mexican-Americans to be deported; that he came to power through an increasingly radicalized Republican Party, which he helped radicalize; and that his pronouncements have already gone far in tearing the country apart.
The extremity of what he is saying and doing is being coped with by contextualizing it as part of the cyclical swings of political power, when really it is unprecedented in American history. You see this a lot when he is compared with Hitler and people immediately counter with the differences between them, when really it is the similarities that matter. The levels of denial are simply astounding.
People are trying to find a sense of control by understanding his supporters, as if understanding them better would give them more control. Understanding them may be important, but there is something wrong when understanding is divorced from the general sense of alarm we should be experiencing. The effort to understand all-too-often comes hand-in-hand with a shifting of boundaries as well, as if understanding them better excuses the racism and sexism.
The wait-and-see approach, the effort to find a silver lining, the attempts to understand without judgment, all normalize what should never be normalized. And the normalization of Trump lends strength to his movement, telling his would-be followers that their racism and hate are really about something deeper and more reasonable. Meanwhile, it saps the strength of decent conservative leaders who have already risked their careers to stop a man many considered an abomination. These are the people we should be trying to understand and work with, not his followers.
Most people seem to be simply ignoring the problem. They are not engaging in active coping through information gathering, problem solving and strategizing. And there is a lot of placing blame, as if finding the source of who is to blame will make the problem go away. But Trump will not go away without a fight. His legislation will need to be filibustered, his appointments blocked, his pronouncements deconstructed.
And all of this must be done intelligently, so would-be supporters do not band around him in reaction. This requires that we keep track of what he is doing every step of the way, that we think hard about what we are doing, that we act strategically, and that we do not simply erupt in reaction when it is too late.
Author: Theo Horesh & Samar Hanna
Editor: Travis May