Q: How stupid do they think we are? A: Very.
Last night, Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time in his presidency. The event was largely seen as a test in the wake of a first month in office that has been so chaotic, so cataclysmic, and so darkly portentous of what is to come that scarcely a day has passed without some new aberration.
Perhaps because the crazed rollercoaster ride of Trump’s administration has (as it is intended to) incited collective whiplash and instilled a deep emotional exhaustion, many, even vocal Trump critics, seemed desperate for him to behave in a way that could be read as “normal.” Days before the speech itself, it was being framed as an opportunity for a “reset.” People deluded themselves into believing that now (not after the Mexican rapists comment or Pussygate or Michael Flynn or telling black people they have nothing or not paying his taxes or dealing with nuclear policy emergencies at dinner with civilians in his private club or praising Putin), now was the time he’d reset and finally become presidential. Our capacity for optimism is great, but our capacity for total denial appears to be boundless.
Trump knows this, and his team knows this, and so they delivered. The night’s crucial moment was a gift of high political theater and military-grade optical tactics for the administration. Trump — in his “restrained,” “presidential” (apparently these words now mean “not tweeting lunacy at 5 a.m.”) mode, praised Navy SEAL’ William “Ryan” Owen’s memory as his widow joined her hands in prayer and raised her tear-stained face to heaven. Carryn Owens looked like a religious icon. Trump looked like a benevolent deity shedding light on her husband’s memory. Ivanka sat next to her, the embodiment of beatific sympathy. The composition of the image was Medici-perfect. The spectacle was any politician’s wet dream. The base loved it. Congress loved it. Some of Trump’s most vocal critics loved it. He was honoring fallen heroes. He was being presidential. He was reassuring us that we could all work together and he could stop being divisive.
The problem with the picture is that it is a lie, his tone was a barely sustained act, and the Trump critics praising him didn’t love it — they fell for it.
Owens died in an ill-planned raid (Trump gave the go-ahead, as is his wont, over dinner) that was carelessly thought out and stupidly executed. Civilians and children also died in it. While the Trump camp ranted and raved about preventing terrorism by refusing entry to people from countries who have not been involved in a single terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 (sweet American Southern boy Dylann Roof shot up a Bible study group in Charleston), the raid cost the U.S. the ability to carry out ground missions in Yemen — a critical operating theater in the actual fight against global terror since at least the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden Harbor seventeen years ago.
Owens is dead, and his wife is a widow, and it is Trump’s fault. (He tried to blame the generals.) Others will die because of this administration’s negligence, fear-mongering, terrorist-stoking tactics. That will also be his fault. He will also try to blame someone else.
So how, when we know these things, do not only members of government and civil society, but the very press whose job it is to be critical, and who Bannon has dubbed the “opposition party” get taken in? How does someone like Van Jones, who has never pulled his verbal punches when it comes to Trump, who has been a consistent and relentless voice of reason and condemnation, end up referring to this as ““one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period,” and claiming that, in that moment, Trump “became president of the United States”?
Because Trump used the spectacle of a grieving woman — the Virgin’s tears, the fragile silhouette pacing the widow’s walk — and leveraged it to his advantage. In a dispatch on the Women’s Marches that I wrote for N+1 what seems like a century ago but in fact was only a few weeks, I talked about the twisted chivalry that protects white women. It was that twisted chivalry that made the Women’s March a peaceful gathering of cute hats and winky signs, instead of the teargassed bloodbath it would have been had Black Lives matter congregated on the Mall. It’s the same twisted chivalry that drives 53% of white women to vote for an avowed and unapologetic serial sexual harasser.
And it’s the same chivalry that Trump shamelessly, cynically used to make himself look good last night. He built up his credibility on the tears of a woman whose husband is dead because of him.
Deeply embedded in the masculinist, white-supremacist DNA of the U.S.’s history, identity, and national psyche is the belief that white men are the protectors of white women, and that this undergirds the entire social order. That everyone’s safety, even our very existence, depends on this protection. It’s difficult to overstate how toxic this is: it deprives women of agency and deludes them into believing that leaving their fates in the hands of a daddy-figure is in their best interest — even if he is an abuser, a rapist, a thief. And it is so powerfully tied into our emotional wiring that even those who know better are susceptible. A close friend recently reminded me that facts matter less than feelings to most people; at no point has that been in starker relief than it was last night.
We should not now make the error Jones and others made. Rather, we can continue to learn what authoritarianism looks like on our own soil, in our own language and visual vocabulary. Authoritarianism is about spectacle, and anyone who believes last night represented a shift towards a more inclusive or democratic style of government has it precisely backward: the spectacle of the Great Leader protecting the Widow of the Martyr is vintage authoritarianism, as any cursory look at Soviet or Nazi propaganda will show you. Trump was not changing anything — he was doubling down. As Sarah Kendzior wrote today, “Every autocrat flirts with benevolence, promoting themselves as the sole protector against threats, the strongman who remembers ‘the forgotten people.’” By this measure, last night’s false empathy was simply another predictable step in the playbook.
Authoritarianism is also about crushing acceleration and destabilization. Events that in any other time would be seismic, epoch-defining, seem to linger in the public mind for barely the time it takes a puff of smoke to clear a room. (Whether our country will ever escape the motel-room reek of the Trump presidency remains to be seen.) The Women’s Marches; the shock-and-awe tactics of the Muslim ban; the threat to send federal troops into cities; the rounding-up of immigrants; the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for his illegal conversations with Russian contacts; the Golden Showers brief; kicking the head of the Joint Chiefs out of the National Security Council and appointing Steve Bannon; the ever-burgeoning evidence of the Trump team’s ties to Russia; Education Secretary Besty DeVos citing the HBCUs established under Jim Crow as a stellar example of “school choice;” the President threatening a business for severing ties with his daughter’s company; the continuing emoluments issues; the nuclear football posing for selfies at Mar-a-Lago; the gutting of the State Department under Putin Order of Friendship Recipient Rex Tillerson; the scorched-earth attack on voting rights led by the president and his attorney general; the systematic dismantling of the EPA and a host of other agencies — these are but the tip of the iceberg. Taken alone, any one of these events is astonishing. As an ensemble, the picture they create is perhaps too overwhelming to be taken as a whole, which may be why viewers last night, including vocal Trump critics, were desperate for a respite.
The respite is not something we will get by wishing for it, and the desire to succumb to illusory versions of normalcy is akin to falling asleep in the snow. Trump reset nothing. He represented himself as exactly what we know him to be: a callous, infinitely selfish entertainer who will stop at nothing to keep looting our country for his personal benefit for as long as possible. If ever you need a refresher on what the president thinks of those who die serving to our country, remember his treatment of Humayun Khan’s parents. And remember that nothing — not a polished speech, not even a widow’s tears — can wash William Owens’s blood from Trump’s hands.