A recent reflection about Trump and Trumpism by Editorial Board’s John Stoehr has me thinking of the Marquis de Sade and Fyodor Dostoevsky. To understand the president and his devoted followers, Stoehr says, try sadism.
Stoehr is initially puzzled that people like Trump don’t want power in order to enact policy. He comes to realize that they simply want power to vent their resentments and make other people suffer. To make his case, Stoehr draws on a much quoted Adam Serwer Atlantic article arguing that, for Trumpists, “cruelty is the point.” Here’s Serwer:
We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully. It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
This argument helps me make sense of the Trump supporter who, when hit by Trump’s government shutdown, felt betrayed and lamented, “He’s not hurting the people he needs to be.”
Stoehr agrees for the most part with Serwer but doesn’t think that “cruelty” gets at psychological motivation. “Sadism” does, however:
“Sadism,” politically expressed, explains why some people want power but don’t know what they want to do with it except use it to make others suffer. Why is our government bivouacking immigrant children on military bases and encampments on the border? We’re told it’s for deterrence, but that’s not it. It’s not a deterrent—we know this—and no amount of explaining that will change that view. Why?
Because deterrence isn’t the point any more than policy is. To the president’s supporters, immigrants deserve their suffering, because they are immigrants. Because they are immigrants, they deserve their suffering. Yes, it’s tautological. Yes, it’s insane. That’s what you’d expect from people who take pleasure from others’ pain.
Such a perspective challenges liberals’ belief that people, at their core, are decent and will embrace the better angels of their nature when given a chance. People like me pray that, although America may have turned to its dark side under Trump, over time fundamental decency will reassert itself.
But if 40% of America isn’t repulsed by Trump’s immigration policies even after seeing six-month-old babies separated from their mothers and small children placed in cages, then maybe we should take a closer look at sadism. How deep does it go and how long does it persist?
Sadism owes its name, of course, to the Marquis de Sade, who obsessively explored humanity’s worst impulses. It’s worth noting that he focuses specially on the suffering of innocence and purity, whether in the form of children, young people, or virginal heroines like Justine, whom he subjects to an endless series of tortures. It’s as though he finds their innocence so painful—such a reproof to his fallen self–that he must lash out with all the fury of his imagination.
That, at any rate, is how Ivan Karamazov accounts for child abuse. To challenge his brother’s naïve belief in human goodness and divine justice, Ivan launches into a long and painful description of tortured children. It’s their very vulnerability that sets adults’ “vile blood on fire”:
[I]t is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans; but they are very fond of tormenting children, even fond of children themselves in that sense. It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets his vile blood on fire. In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain, the demon of diseases that follow on vice, gout, kidney disease, and so on.
In the past I’ve turned to Paradise Lost to show how Trump gives his followers permission to follow their inner demons. Adam and Eve are like children–sadistic Satan cackles malevolently as he prepares his plans for them–and when they bite into the fruit, hell is unleashed. His daughter Sin, although situated at the end of the universe, instinctively knows that her and Death’s moment has arrived:
Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep; whatever draws me on,
Or sympathy, or some connatural force
Powerful at greatest distance to unite
With secret amity things of like kind
By secretest conveyance.
Ivan Karamazov unfortunately doesn’t know how to counteract human perversity, and by the end of the novel he has gone mad. By contrast, although shaken by his brother’s words, the saintly Alyosha responds to his diatribe with a kiss. That’s the Christian response.
Ivan reveals the stark reality we are facing. Whether love can win over Trump supporters who feel their wings growing is an open question. In any event, we can’t afford to underestimate the forces we face.