Some days just seem to roll by very slowly despite our best efforts to make them bearable. Today is one of those days. Yesterday I went to take a nap right after work and slept for nearly 5 hours. Of course, this meant that I could not go back to sleep last night so I rolled out of bed this morning already dreading whatever might happen today.
Those things are out of my control, so I am trying to make the best of the day. I have a few errands to run immediately after work, and then I will come home to rest and prepare for tomorrow, and whatever challenges await me then.
When Donald Trump recently tweeted a dark warning of a “Civil War like fracture in this Nation” were he to be impeached, it was further evidence of his Administration’s troubled relationship with that period in American history. The President has also suggested that the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was still alive; asked, “Why was there the Civil War?”; and described white supremacists rallying around a Robert E. Lee memorial as “very fine people.” His former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, compared California’s immigration laws to Confederate secession; Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, referred to Lee as an “honorable man” and said that the Civil War was caused by a “lack of ability to compromise.”
But the philosopher Susan Neiman argues that it’s not just Trump or his Administration. Most white Americans are fuzzy on the cause of the Civil War—slavery—and even more are unaware of the decades of racial terror and oppression that followed Reconstruction: lynching, convict leasing, mass incarceration, racist labor practices. “For many people, and I’m including myself until recently, the period between 1865 and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is just a blank,” Neiman told me the other day. This is not incidental. If Americans were more familiar with the darkest parts of the country’s past, she argued, “it’s hard to imagine that Trump would have been elected.”
Neiman, an American who directs the Einstein Forum, a public think tank outside of Berlin, has recently published a book, “Learning from the Germans,” that makes the case for an American version of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, a word that she translates as “working off the past,” which refers to the decades-long process through which Germany has come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust. Today, the country isn’t free from racism and anti-Semitism, as the recent attack on a synagogue in Halle showed, but its culture and politics remain deeply informed by its history. All of the arts, including TV and film, regularly refer to and treat Nazi history. And the country pauses to perform what Neiman calls “public rites of repentance” around events such as the liberation of Auschwitz, Kristallnacht, and the end of the war. Then there’s the iconography: the Holocaust Memorial sits at the center of a reunified Berlin. There are also the famous “stumbling stones”—small brass plaques placed throughout the city to mark where Jews and other victims of the Nazis last lived, before they were deported. By comparison, she writes, “Imagine a monument to the Middle Passage or the genocide of Native Americans at the center of the Washington Mall. Suppose you could walk down a New York street and step on a reminder that this building was constructed with slave labor.”
Neiman was in town recently, and she visited the exhibit “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. In her book, she points out that the Nazi era is, ironically, quite prominent in American culture. There are more Holocaust museums in the U.S. than in Germany, Israel, and Poland combined—and almost none devoted to slavery. This isn’t an accident, either. Imagining Nazis as “monsters who are not like us” allows us to “outsource evil,” she said at the museum. In the book, she calls our fixation on the Holocaust “a form of displacement for what we don’t want to know about our own national crimes.” She talked about the backlash when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to migrant detention camps at the U.S. border as concentration camps. It made people think of Auschwitz. “But that’s not a concentration camp,” she said. “It’s a death camp.” We tend to focus on the very worse, and forget everything else—the many smaller camps, and lesser crimes, that the Nazis also committed. Were those not evil, too? “People talk about never forgetting, and learning the lessons of Auschwitz,” she said. “As long as you’re not putting people in boxcars and gassing them on arrival, then you’re not evil. Unfortunately, that is the lesson that way too many people have learned.”
Neiman’s interest in such comparisons comes from her life experience: she grew up in Atlanta, during the nineteen-fifties and sixties, witnessing both segregation and the civil-rights movement. Her mother, a Jewish housewife from Chicago, took part in a campaign to desegregate Atlanta’s schools. And she has spent much of her adult life in Berlin, as an American Jew. She first moved there, in 1982, to study German philosophy, and was shocked by “how present the war was in everybody’s mind.” The people she hung out with—politically progressive people, including artists and academics—seemed to talk about it constantly. “I thought, ‘Why are they so focussed on this, when Americans seem to do their best to forget history?’ In a certain sense, that question, the ways in which the Germans have faced their national crimes and catastrophe, has been on my mind ever since.”
She decided to write about it four years ago, after watching President Obama’s eulogy for victims of the Charleston shooting. Dylann Roof, a twenty-one-year-old white supremacist, had murdered nine African-American churchgoers during a prayer service. Nikki Haley, then the governor of South Carolina, signed a bill removing the Confederate flag from the state’s capitol. Walmart stopped carrying Confederate-themed merchandise. “It really did seem like a turning point,” Neiman said. America was starting to confront its past. “I thought, I’ve been thinking about this stuff for the past thirty years. Maybe I have something to contribute.” Then came 2016 and the election of Donald Trump; also a turning point—just not the one Neiman had expected. “Trump’s racism has been so out front, and so horrifying, that I think a lot of white Americans are recognizing for the first time just how deep it goes,” she said. “Three years ago, the term ‘white supremacy’ was not being used outside of departments of post-colonial studies. And now it’s the New York Times and the Washington Post.”
To research her book, Neiman read a variety of German writings from the postwar period: philosophy books, prisoner-of-war memoirs, best-selling novels. She learned something that she’d never realized before: for a long time, everyday Germans didn’t feel bad about the Holocaust, or their country’s descent into Nazism. Instead, they made excuses for it and thought of themselves as innocent victims. She paraphrased the arguments: “Terrible things happen in war. It was bad for us, too. Our cities were destroyed. Our young men were murdered. We were occupied by foreign troops.” A Nazi brother or uncle was “just defending his homeland.” To a Southern reader, this sounded familiar. “They started sounding like defenders of the Lost Cause,” Neiman said. This German denial came as a shock. “When I first came to Berlin, I would meet people who would tell me, ‘My parents were Nazis,’ and they were ashamed and upset,” she said. “But they would never say, ‘My parents were Nazis, and they thought they were the worst victims of the war.’ ”
The lesson for Americans—particularly those involved in racial-justice work—is that “Nobody wants to look at the dark sides of their history,” she said. “It’s like finding out that your parents did something really horrible. There’s always going to be resistance. It’s normal, and it’s something we should expect.” So what made the Germans change? Neiman writes about a number of historical factors, but the most important, in her opinion, was “civil engagement” by the German public, beginning in the nineteen-sixties. A new generation came of age. “They realized that their parents and teachers had been Nazis, or at least complicit in Nazi atrocities, and were outraged,” she said. A small and often controversial vanguard insisted on digging up history that older generations had refused to discuss. People called them Nestbeschmützer, or “nest-foulers.” But the process they set in motion—a process of uncovering the past and talking about it—eventually reverberated throughout German society.
For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that Trump’s tweet was wrong, and the “Civil War like fracture in this Nation” doesn’t come to pass. Instead, he and his allies lose the 2020 election. A new Administration comes in, dedicated to helping the nation “work off” its historical crimes, to avoid the coming of a Trump 2.0. What can we learn from the Germans? A few things, Neiman said. First of all, any attempt at Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung must be “multifaceted.” It can’t be confined to schools or museums. “Otherwise it’s boring, and it takes on the character of propaganda,” she said. Germans don’t learn about the Holocaust in just one way. “You really can’t escape it,” she said. “It’s in art works, in literature, in movies, in television, done in different keys and in different registers. There’s no one message.”
Similarly, government initiatives can’t just be a top-down, federal effort. “It needs to be local, spurred by citizen engagement,” she said. She talked about the Stumbling Stones project, which a German artist began in 1996, and which is now the largest decentralized monument in the world, with plaques all over Germany. “In many, many parts of the country, it’s citizen-financed,” Neiman said. “So if you want to put a stumbling stone in your house or in front of your building, you have to research the history of the people who lived there, you have to come up with the fee, a hundred and twenty euros, and get permission from the city. It’s quite interactive. And thousands of people do this.” Meanwhile, white Americans are still getting married at plantations—a practice that Neiman said Germans would probably view with horror. “After all, plantations were concentration camps for black people,” Neiman said.
Her final lesson was about balance. She brought up a charge recently made by conservative critics of the Times’ 1619 Project, which commemorates slavery: that focussing on the worst parts of a nation’s history is depressing and, worse, delegitimizing. “They complained about it in Germany as much as Newt Gingrich and company are complaining about it now—‘It’s going to tear the social fabric, and we won’t have a national identity anymore! People won’t have anything to celebrate!’ ” There’s some truth there, she said. When planning monuments, “I think it’s really important that it not just be sites of horror, that we also remember heroes.” Is this to make us feel better about ourselves? “Yes,” she said. “I make this analogy which may seem a bit hokey: having a grownup relationship to your history is like having a grownup relationship to your parents. As a kid, you believe everything they tell you. As an adolescent, you may be inclined to reject everything. But having a grownup view involves sifting through with some distance, and saying, ‘O.K., I’m glad that my mother had those values, and that’s what I’m going to pass on to my kids. Not the other stuff.’ ” She mentioned a few of her own heroes: Sojourner Truth and Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Brown and Harriet Tubman, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson. She said, “It’s like being orphaned if you can’t say, ‘No, there are people, and not a few of them, in my nation’s history whom I really admire.’ ”
Lizzie Widdicombe is a staff writer at The New Yorker.Read more »
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Pete Buttigieg Discusses America’s Crisis of Belonging
The Presidential candidate discusses the deep division in America, the lessons that he’s learned as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and how he plans to break through the crowded Democratic-primary field.
I must disagree with Snoopy and The Gang on today’s note about reruns. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter if something is a favorite or not, I simply don’t want to re-live those moments. To get nostalgic, in my opinion, means to live in the past and never look forward. I want to explore and see what lies ahead of me. New challenges are out there, but I have to seek them out.
Nostalgia has its place. It is the place that we go to when we need a break from the present. There is nothing wrong with looking back, provided it is only a glance rather than a stare because otherwise, we cannot see where we are going.
These are the most frightening words Trump has uttered since becoming president:
“Sometimes you have to let them fight a little while. Sometimes you have to let them fight like two kids. Then you pull them apart.”
He said this at a campaign rally, naturally. In Texas, naturally. He tossed out the remark like just another chunk of red meat, so we can assume he meant what he said, because that’s when Trump tells us who he is, when he’s standing before an adoring crowd and he goes “off script.”Advertisement:
Trump’s entire presidency has been “off script,” but it’s telling when his excursions into the la-la land of his mind are this specific. He was speaking of the Kurds and the Turks, who have been engaged in bloody battles along the border between Syria and Turkey ever since Trump effectively gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to invade Syria on Oct. 5. Kurdish forces have already lost as many as 11,000 since they began fighting ISIS alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. Now hundreds more have died, and thousands may yet lose their lives. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and are refugees. It’s a bloody disaster that Trump refers to as a fight between children on a playground.
It isn’t just that Trump is a chickenshit draft-dodger who was famously exempted from military service because of bone spurs on his heels, and it isn’t just that he is famously disdainful of the advice of his own military commanders and foreign policy experts.
Because he is the president of the United States, he is the man who as commander in chief has the power to use nuclear weapons, and for the first time since he took office, I am afraid that he would not hesitate to use them if he thought it would help him win re-election.
What he just did to our allies the Kurds and the way he described it at his rally is all the evidence we need that he not only has no regard for human life, but he has no idea whatsoever what the waging of war is, what it means, what it does and what it costs. Just as money accrues to measure wealth, to Donald Trump, war is just another way to keep score.
Look at what he said this week when he belittled his former secretary of defense, James Mattis, during a meeting with congressional leaders. After criticizing him as “not tough enough,” Trump bragged, “I captured ISIS. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month.”
Let’s take a moment and have a look at everything that’s not merely wrong, but hideously stupid, about that remark. There is Trump’s puerile obsession with “toughness,” of course, but beyond that, there is his use of the word “captured.” What does he think the war against ISIS has been? A game of Capture the Flag? The goal of the campaign we waged against ISIS with the Kurds was never to “capture” them. It was to end their effectiveness as a fighting force, to destroy their so-called Caliphate, and to prevent them from sending their fighters to this country to commit acts of terrorism. It didn’t happen in “a month,” and it didn’t start with Donald Trump. It took years of fighting to bring ISIS to its currently weakened state. Years and many, many dead bodies, most of them Kurdish, but some of them American.Advertisement:
These aren’t the words of a commander in chief. They aren’t even the words of a schoolyard bully. They’re the words of a deeply and completely stupid man. Trump doesn’t bother to dumb things down for an audience like the one in Texas. It’s what he actually thinks, an ongoing sum total of all that he doesn’t know and has no interest in learning. It’s evidence that he doesn’t care about the purpose and power of waging war. He doesn’t know or care that wars kill people, thousands of people, sometimes tens and hundreds of thousands, and in the not too distant past, even millions. Command over armies and navies and air forces in war should never have been granted to such a helplessly ignorant fool.
Trump has no idea where American soldiers are in Syria, or what they’re doing. He has no idea if they are still in harm’s way. They are. He has no idea how many Kurds have been killed since Turkey invaded northern Syria, nor does he care. He has been dismissive of our Kurdish allies and what they have helped us accomplish, not only in the war against ISIS, but in bringing a relative peace back to northern Syria and areas of Iraq all the way east to Mosul. This week he dove even deeper into his well of lies when he declared that the Kurds are “no angels” and are “worse than ISIS.”Advertisement:
Even as Trump bragged about pulling 1,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, he sent 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia on a mission that still hasn’t been defined, other than as an unfocused response to the recent Iranian drone attack on Saudi oil fields. He prepares to start new wars at the same time he lies about ending old ones.
All this is just more willful ignorance contained within his usual fog of lies. But it was his description of the grief of families meeting the bodies of their dead at Dover Air Force Base that was most illustrative of his abject disdain for human life. “They scream, like I’ve never seen anything before. They’ll break through military barriers. They’ll run to the coffin and jump on top of the coffin. Crying mothers and wives. Crying desperately.”
Let’s put aside the callousness of using the grief of fathers and mothers and husbands and wives. That’s a given. It’s the way he treats that grief as spectacle that illustrates Trump’s inhumanity. For him, the tableau of families witnessing the grim ritual of military bodies being returned on a cargo jet at night to American soil is just another scene in the reality television show that runs in his head 24 hours a day. Trump has no idea what a bullet or a piece of shrapnel does to a human body. He has no idea, in fact, what the death of a soldier is. His description of the scene at Dover is the worst kind of voyeurism, and yet another example of Trump’s inability to feel or express empathy. Advertisement:
The least you must do if you are a commander who sends soldiers into battle is to be able to understand what death is. Trump does not. It’s all just a big game for him. He likes Erdogan. He’s “tough,” he’s a “real leader.” He likes Putin. He’s “tough.” He’s a “real leader.” In the world of Donald Trump, they are in the Trump club of “real” men who understand what it takes to win and are willing to do it. He admires them because he sees himself in them.
Trump doesn’t have any more of a clue about the devastating destructive power of a nuclear weapon than he has of the effect of a single bullet on a body. That’s why he is so dangerous. He was willing to sacrifice our Kurdish allies, to kill hundreds if not thousands of them so he could go down to Texas and stand on a stage and appear tough and feed the insatiable need of his base to worship him and his falsehoods. All he cares about is how he looks — and whether he wins.
Mark my words: Donald Trump will take us to war, even nuclear war, if he thinks that is what it will take to win this election. You read it here first. Advertisement:
LUCIAN K. TRUSCOTT IV
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. He can be followed on Facebook at The Rabbit Hole and on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.MORE FROM LUCIAN K. TRUSCOTT IV Ads by Revcontent
By the time Representative Elijah Cummings left the pulpit during the funeral services for Freddie Gray, on April 27, 2015, he had delivered a word, as the church elders are prone to call it. “I’ve often said our children are the living messages we send to a future that we will never see,” the congressman told the congregation of New Shiloh Baptist Church, in Baltimore. “But now our children are sending us to a future that they will never see. There’s something wrong with this picture.” Gray, who died on April 21st, a week after sustaining injuries while in police custody, at the age of twenty-five, had become a symbol for the relationship between black people and the police in Baltimore, and beyond. (Charges against officers who were involved were later dropped.) When I visited the city, two days before his funeral, it seemed to be edging toward detonation. Not long after I arrived, a protest march wound through downtown, then past the courthouse and the inner harbor, before concluding in sporadic rioting just outside Camden Yards, where the Orioles play. I watched from an overpass, as groups of young men smashed the windows of police cars, and officers in riot gear marched toward the demonstrators. The violence there resulted in two people being injured and a dozen arrested.
At Gray’s funeral, Cummings reminded the audience that he knew intimately the loss they were experiencing. “Family, there are those who will tell you ‘Don’t cry.’ I’m not gonna say that. I put my nephew in a grave four years ago,” he told them. “Blasted away—still don’t know who did it. I mourn every day.” Cummings’s ability to speak to that moment and its indelible hurt underscores the reason that Baltimore itself began grieving on Thursday morning, as its residents awoke to the news that the congressman, aged sixty-eight, had died, a few hours after midnight.
Pay attention to the responses to outrages involving police and African-Americans and you begin to see patterns, especially among elected leaders. Some seize on the national spotlight, making scripted displays of unity. Others tend toward bureaucratic responses and a reflexive defense of flawed institutions. A small number possess both the honesty and the insight to speak truthfully. Cummings belonged to that number. He was seemingly everywhere in the chaotic aftermath of Gray’s death: on the streets, cautioning people to protest peacefully; in the pulpit, offering a balm to the people Gray left behind; and chastising those who set fires in protest of the state of affairs that allowed situations like those surrounding Gray’s death to arise in the first place. Mostly, though, he was present, a powerful politician who still spoke like a concerned neighbor, a man who was so identifiably and devoutly a product of the communities he represented that at times he seemed to be the only person capable of credibly speaking to the hostilities that Gray’s death had brought to the surface.
The obituaries made note of his achievements on the national stage: that he was a twelve-term representative of Maryland’s Seventh District and that he chaired the crucial House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of the committees directed to conduct an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Cummings grew up in Baltimore, graduated from Howard University, with honors, before earning a law degree at the University of Maryland, and then served for fourteen years in the state legislature, before running to replace Representative Kweisi Mfume, when he left Congress to head the N.A.A.C.P., in 1996. What most struck me about Cummings, however, was the role that he played in shepherding Baltimore through the aftermath of Gray’s death. In the past decade, the city’s population has shrunk by eighteen and a half thousand people; more than sixteen thousand houses stand empty. The poverty rate is nearly twenty-four per cent. The city was immortalized in “The Wire,” which was the most nuanced and profound meditation on the decline of American cities and a catalogue of the reasons people were fleeing cities like Baltimore. In short, it is a place that, like the rest of America these days, is badly in need of visionaries.
In July, when Trump assailed Baltimore, in typically crude and hyperbolic fashion, as a “rodent-infested mess” where no human would want to live, he was providing an object lesson in the very stereotypes that Cummings had devoted himself to fighting. He invited Trump to visit his district and offered to spend an entire day chaperoning him around Baltimore and its suburbs to clarify the President’s vision of what the place was all about. (Trump did not take him up on the offer.)
One other thing: democracy. Cummings, in his speeches, particularly those he gave in the past few years, insistently invoked it, and not in the inert way that elected officials tend to. He spoke of democracy as something vital and fragile and valuable, an inheritance that had to be safeguarded for future generations. When he spoke of HR-1, the exhaustive election-protection bill that the Democrats introduced in January, as their first piece of legislation of this Congress, he mentioned his ninety-two-year-old mother, who had died a year earlier. She was a former sharecropper, who implored him, “Do not let them take our votes away from us.” He viewed his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee as part of the battle to protect voting rights. His death unleashes a flurry of speculation about whom the Democrats will choose to next lead the committee—Representative Carolyn Maloney, of New York, will serve as the acting chair—and how that person will oversee its portion of the impeachment inquiry. Those matters will be resolved at a future date. What remains clear is the void that Cummings’s absence leaves in his district and his country. This would have been the case at nearly any point in his quarter century in Congress. But it’s even more acute in this one. In a fiery bit of oratory delivered at the introduction of HR-1, he pledged to “fight to the death” in defense of voting and, thereby, democracy. It was a promise that he made good on.
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Nancy Pelosi on the Impeachment Inquiry Into Trump
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, reveals details of a phone call she had with Donald Trump shortly before she authorized an impeachment inquiry against him, and explains why the timing of the inquiry was right.
Idig the distinct Ralph Ellison vibes emanated by “Watchmen” (HBO), Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of the great comic series written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. Settling new territory in the source material’s alternative-history vision of our fallen world, the show is largely set in a warped version of contemporary Tulsa, Oklahoma. Regina King stars as Angela Abar, also known as Sister Knight, a black lady cop with a big job to do dressing up and fighting bad guys. Foremost, she has to shepherd the series’ reckoning with America’s history of slaughter and pillage.
“Watchmen”—and King’s performance—brings Ellison to mind not just because he was a native Oklahoman and an excellent illuminator of unsettling quests for power on this continent but also because of the density and intensity of his vision. The show’s lucid action scenes and perpetual time-bomb tension share a thrilling surreality—a hyperreal vision of how race plays across structures and lives—with Ellison’s “Cadillac Flambé” and his big, posthumous thing “Three Days Before the Shooting . . .” (forbiddingly baggy at more than a thousand pages). They all share a way of facing history with a broken mirror. This might sound a bit far-fetched, but the show, among its disorienting provocations, definitely places itself in conversation with the American canon and issues of black heritage. The sheriff in this town (Don Johnson) is first seen in the audience and an all-black staging of “Oklahoma!,” in an episode titled, after Richard Rodgers, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice.” This alternate universe—a place where Richard Nixon won great glory and many multiple terms, and the republic is now led by Robert Redford—imagines, at one point, that Henry Louis Gates is the Secretary of the Treasury and available to help with a DNA test at a video kiosk. Gates plays himself. “If you like, you can call me Skip,” he says.
This is absurd, and that’s half the point. Thematically, Abar’s missions include avenging, in some cosmological sense, the Tulsa race riots of 1921—the Black Wall Street massacre, in which white mobs stormed and shot up and firebombed a bastion of black wealth. The historical scene engages the show’s themes: power and justice, aggressive oppression and superheroic resistance. Credit for this, and many other crackerjack sequences that follow, goes to the cinematographer Chris Seager, who translates the panel-by-panel perspective of Gibbons’s work onto the screen with a clarity that rebukes the hectic mayhem of so many big-screen superhero flicks. The images the series offers, the tableaux, are ideas in themselves. Get a load of how masks reframe identities and personae, as when one of the good guys, Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), sheaths his noggin in a kind of eyeless Mylar alien skin while interrogating a suspected white supremacist. The interrogator’s head reflects evocative pop images of love and hate that flash across the walls of the room, like some kind of Ludovico-technique video installation.
This is the place in a review where I am supposed to give a linear synopsis of the series, but I’m not sure how much good that would do you, given the show’s commitment to the alinear, the elliptical, and the askew. Six episodes into a series of nine, I’m not even sure what would count as a spoiler, because I don’t know where things are going, or what kind of necklace you get by stringing together the beads of these ace performances and provocative concepts. There are moments in which “Watchmen” recalls Lindelof’s “The Leftovers,” in its moving evocation of catastrophic mood, as well as in its attention to the dynamics of the nuclear family and the dysfunctions of the society for which that family is the basis. (Also, there are moments when it recalls Lindelof’s “Lost,” when I did not care to understand what was going on.)
Striding through Tulsa in her superhero costume, the hem of her cape swishing in her wake, King gives a performance so subtle and muscular as to exhaust all superlatives. Elsewhere, Jeremy Irons opulently dwells, clad in the robes of as Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt, attended by two body servants who share a palpable excitement for his spectral creepiness. It would be unthinkable not to hang around long enough to see if there’s a showdown between King and Irons on an anti-escapist thriller about the colossal wreck that been made of Indian territory. “Watchmen” is to the superhero genre what a revisionist Western is to a basic cowboy myth, with John Wayne in the saddle of the national identity. It’s good enough to warrant repeat viewing. Is it coherent enough to withstand it?
Troy Patterson is a staff writer at The New Yorker.Read more »
Two years ago, amid the maelstrom of Charlottesville and the outrage surrounding Donald Trump’s subsequent praise for various neo-Nazi-adjacent protesters, it went largely unnoticed that the President followed those comments with a defense of Robert E. Lee. The Unite the Right rally had been called in response to the Charlottesville city council’s decision to remove a statue of Lee from a park, and, on the second day of demonstrations, James Alex Fields, Jr., a twenty-year-old white supremacist, drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring dozens of people and killing the thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer.
Still, five days later, Trump tweeted, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” He went on to ask if Washington and Jefferson would be next. I wrote at the time that it was striking to see Trump and his then chief of staff, John Kelly, both Northerners, take up the cause of the apostate Lee. But, given that Trump’s willingness to verbally assail his perceived enemies is equalled only by his willingness to pander to those whom he considers supporters, perhaps it should not have been surprising that a Queens-born politician would wind up embracing Southern Lost Cause denialism. Earlier this year, Trump reiterated that support, referring to Lee as “a great general, whether you like it or not. He was one of the great generals.”
Trump returned to the topic of the Civil War yet again last weekend, when he tweeted a quote from a Baptist pastor’s statement that to impeach Trump would render a “Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Hyperbole is Trump’s native tongue, but, even by that standard, it was a wildly grandiose claim to argue that not only would his impeachment echo throughout the nation a hundred and fifty-four years from now but also that American politics would continue to grapple with the implications of who stood on which side of the question, and museums and entire fields of scholarship would be devoted to helping the country understand the roots of such a catastrophe. The entire narcissistic arc of the President’s public life can be understood as a quest to force the world to reckon with Trump as a man of consequence, even if he is, in fact, a man bereft of ideas and original thought.
We tend to speak of the Civil War as a singular event that took place between 1861 and 1865, which was caused either by the expansion of slavery or an abstract argument over the principle of “states’ rights,” depending on where you stand politically. But the Civil War’s origins don’t lie in the politics of 1861; they’re a product of the politics of 1776. The four years of war between the Union and the eleven seceding states of the Confederacy were the culmination of decades of attempts to forestall armed conflict over slavery. A short list of the political events leading to the war would include the Northwest Ordinance, the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Jackson-era Gag Rules on slavery, the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Crisis of 1831–32, the Mexican-American War, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Dred Scott decision, and the election of Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, when William Henry Seward, who was then a senator from New York, referred to the conditions that preceded the war as an “irrepressible conflict,” he did so with decades of political history to support that conclusion.
By comparison, Trump’s problems are self-inflicted. He brought the freewheeling amorality with which he led the Trump Organization—an enterprise he continues to profit from—to the White House. (An amendment to Seward’s speech that includes Trump would be titled “Irrepressible Conflicts of Interest.”) He is not grappling with vast foundational questions. From the loftiest perch in American politics, Trump has spewed vitriol, trampled norms, provoked violence, nurtured racism and misogyny, invited foreign intervention into an American election, befriended adversaries, and alienated allies. He followed up his civil-war threat on Tuesday, tweeting, “I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of the United States of America!” It was a breathtakingly irresponsible and foolish comment that could reasonably provoke violence among his most devout followers. As the blog Lawfare noted this week, far-right militias are taking Trump’s language about war and the possibility of a Democratic coup d’état seriously.
A hundred and six years separate the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon. Twenty-four years later, in 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, and acquitted by the Senate. Should Trump be impeached, there will be, for the first time in the nation’s history, a generation of Americans that has seen two impeachments in their lifetimes. That is itself a statement on how tumultuous the politics of this era are.
Nevertheless, civil war is not the primary concern that should be raised by the prospect of impeachment. Trump’s potential to provoke volatile divisions is not limited to his fellow-Americans. Among the more unanticipated traits of the Trump Administration is its relative reluctance to use military force, despite the President’s own verbal combativeness. The inability of the now-departed national-security adviser John Bolton to persuade Trump to attack Iran—and Trump’s habit of ridiculing Bolton’s hawkishness—are examples of this. When pushed to retaliate for Iran’s downing of an American drone, Trump approved a strike only to cancel it at the eleventh hour. He was apparently concerned that a military intervention might hurt his chances of reëlection. Yet we have also seen that Trump is acutely sensitive to embarrassment. It’s not inconceivable that the humiliating spectacle of a public tribunal and the possibility of a premature and ignoble end to his fiasco of a Presidency could provoke him to use the military to lash out abroad. Baseline Trump is erratic and unpredictable. The thought of an agitated Trump under the pressure of potential impeachment further navigating the complexities of Iran or North Korea should be profoundly unsettling. The dark portent is not that Trump will inspire a reënactment of the central conflicts of America’s past. It’s that he will author a novel catastrophe all his own.