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President Trump is fuelling a divided America

Clashes with counterprotesters led Donald Trump to criticise both sides. Photo/Getty Images

Far from attempting to calm the stirrings of armed extremists in the divided states of America, President Donald Trump seems intent on the opposite.

While working on Koba the Dread, his 2002 meditation on the horrors of Stalinism, Martin Amis made a transatlantic call to best friend and fellow writer Christopher Hitchens, a former Trotskyite.

“I’m wondering about the distance between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany,” said Amis.

“Oh, don’t fall for that, Mart,” said Hitchens. “Don’t fall for moral equivalence.”

Amis ignored the advice and suffered the consequences: it’s hard to believe a writer has ever been more caustically reviewed by his or her best friend. He took it on the chin, though, and the pair remained close until Hitchens’ death in 2011.

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Bear in mind Hitchens was warning Amis against finding a moral equivalence between Nazism and one of the most evil regimes in history, a pitiless totalitarian apparatus that by acts of commission and omission caused the deaths of at least 20 million of its own citizens. The distinction, wrote Hitchens in his review, “rests on the sheer intentionality and obscenity of the Final Solution”. Amis conceded that while reading about the Holocaust, he experienced “a sense of physical infestation. This is species shame.”

But the President of the United States detected moral equivalence between neo-Nazi white supremacists and counter-protesters who objected to self-styled fascists parading through American streets flaunting Nazi iconography and chanting “Jews will not replace us”. Not even the fact that a fascist committed an act of vehicular terrorism that killed one protester and injured many more could help Donald Trump discern a little daylight between the two.

We know Trump is ignorant, but is he that ignorant? I suspect his response to Charlottesville was worse than ignorance: it was pandering. He was reassuring his supporters that Trump will be Trump with or without alt-right guru Steve Bannon, a message reinforced by his pardon of thuggish and defiantly racist former sheriff Joe Arpaio; that the “globalists” might win the odd battle, but the nationalists are winning the culture war; and that he’s still “the clan leader of white Americans”, as George W Bush speechwriter and commentator David Frum called him.

Trump knows his audience. He told a crowd in Phoenix that CNN had terminated its coverage of the event. That must have puzzled those watching on CNN, but his live audience swallowed it because they want to believe that the other side – the liberal media and its consumers – is corruptly distorting reality. Trump fuels this suspicion of the “fake news” media, which is obviously based on hearsay rather than first-hand exposure, because rage cannot be maintained without hate figures on whom to focus it. Who better than the news outlets that continually deplore him, the enemy within?

White supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12. Photo/Getty Images


Ku Klux Klansman Ben in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park before the start of August 12’s Unite the Right rally. Photo/Getty Images


Police in front of the Robert E Lee statue that was the rally’s focal point. Photo/Getty Images


An injured rally participant. Photo/Getty Images


White supremacists give KKK salutes. Photo/Getty Images


Clashes during the rally. Photo/Getty Images


A white supremacist with broken glasses. Photo/Getty Images


An armed white supremacist and self-appointed “peace-keeping” militia men. Photo/Getty Images


An armed white supremacist and self-appointed “peace-keeping” militia men. Photo/Getty Images


Counterprotesters. Photo/Getty Images


Rally participants and counterprotesters face to face. Photo/Getty Images


Tribal warfare

More than anything, the white tribe wants to believe Trump will reverse the demographic trends enabled by godless liberalism that threaten “their America”.

Whereas his predecessors have, by and large, sought to be unifiers, Trump has unambiguously taken sides in America’s great divide. An American retiree, who thinks Trump’s a “jackass”, emailed me recently to say foreign commentators had to understand “we are basically 50 different countries trying to live together”. A bleaker view would be that America is two different countries on a collision course.

The sociocultural and political divide is starkly illustrated by the 2016 electoral map showing just four blue (Democratic) states in the vast red heartland. The conservative media fawns on Trump, and in his supporters’ eyes he can do no wrong, but elsewhere his sanity, let alone fitness for office, is openly questioned. As the divergence grows and the discourse gets wilder, the middle ground in the political landscape is shrinking towards a point where there are few outcomes between victory and surrender.

As well as charting Trump’s mental state, his chaotic administration and special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s ever-widening investigation, the mainstream media regularly raise the prospect of impeachment. But as last week’s Listener editorial warned, an attempt to impeach Trump in the current environment will provoke an angry and probably violent response from his base.

After the Charlottesville incident and Trump’s response had disturbed the ghosts of the American Civil War – the white supremacists were ostensibly protesting against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee – Trump confidant Roger Stone predicted impeachment proceedings would trigger “a spasm of violence, an insurrection like you’ve never seen”. Any politician who voted to impeach, he said, “would be endangering their own life”. Pressed by the interviewer, Stone confirmed he was talking about “some kind of civil war”.

Stone, it must be said, is hardly a dispassionate analyst: he’s a right-wing provocateur from way back, a veteran of Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks operation. He and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, were partners in a lobbying firm that specialised in opening doors in Washington for unsavoury regimes. Manafort is now squarely in Mueller’s sights and Stone could join him, so he has a vested interest in seeding the notion that to move against Trump and his acolytes would be playing with fire.

Yet Stone is surely right to point out “this is not 1974”, when Nixon had to resign to avoid impeachment. The nation isn’t exhausted and chastened by multiple assassinations and years of civil strife over the Vietnam War; the atmosphere is more rancorous; the President is a rogue operator who considers himself above the law and despises democratic institutions, including his own party; and the most militant groups in the country are armed and dangerous.

Militants on the march

In 2010, the number of domestic extremist groups and militias in America advocating radical anti-government doctrines and conspiracy theories was estimated at 512. In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organisation that monitors extremism, counted 784 active hate groups. Although it’s tempting to dismiss these groups as trailer-trash fantasists, the dumb leading the dumber, many are known to have stockpiled weapons and prioritised the recruitment of military veterans. And we shouldn’t forget that the worst terrorist act on US soil before 9/11 – the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and injured almost 700 – was the work of militia-movement sympathisers.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has written that “we are living through a battle for the soul of this nation”. It’s still essentially a battle of ideas, but some of the ideas are little more than hateful slogans and some participants are energised rather than alarmed by the prospect of escalation. Most worryingly, the individual who should be taking the lead in cooling passions clearly believes it’s in his interests to inflame them.

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.