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Sleep now in the fire

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This is a great piece of writing from Lili Loofbourow. An excerpt:

Once, while in a city I didn’t know, I was kidnapped. I didn’t know it at first. We’d agreed he would give me a ride to the airport and were chatting, though his replies to questions were getting slower and stranger as we drove. Eventually we would arrive not at the airport but at an abandoned monument down a long, muddy, dead-end road. I asked him what he was doing. Rather than answer, he leaned over me to unbuckle my seat belt.

I had been talking myself out of the fact that this was happening, extending him every possible benefit of the doubt. We are all human beings, after all. I needed to get to the airport. I needed for this not to be true. I devised diagnostic tools in the moment: a litmus test that would determine that yes, this was what I thought it was, and I was not being crazy, or paranoid, or uncharitable to someone doing me a kindness. (Behind the adrenaline, there are civilized, finicky questions: How monstrous would you have to be to suspect a kind person taking you to the airport of kidnapping you?) . . .

In the car, I created my test. He met it.I got away. Hitchhiked, made it finally to a train station, then an airport. I found myself looking at random things—security lines, water fountains—with a focus that bordered on hatred. Got to the new city, where I was now late for an important appointment. Hired a taxi. The driver drove me around in circles, refused to answer my questions, seemed amused by the meter’s mounting charges. Something snapped: I got out and started walking in a random direction and a blind fury.

That’s when I saw, in the distance, a man in a business suit, eyeing me. He was, I realized, preparing to shoot out his elbow at the last minute as he passed me to feel my breast. This remains, to this day, one of the stupider forms of harassment I’ve encountered, but it had happened to me dozens of times. These men thought their elbows were sly, and in one sense they were: No one could see what they’d done to me. And though I can’t imagine the experience was particularly satisfying for them—elbows aren’t known for their erotic sensitivity—pleasure wasn’t the point. The game was to molest someone in plain sight, to provoke her with plausible deniability.

In the distance, I heard an older woman say: “How civilized.” A version of me—the one that’s priggishly polite, soft-spoken, and shocked by rude emotion—registered her sarcasm perfectly. It was palpable. It could have been me. Look at this nut case. Attacking a decent man on the street for no reason.

I am by nature an explainer, a justifier, a let-me-tell-you-what-happened-so-you-can-understand sort of person. Those impulses withered, as did a lifelong investment in social niceties. I didn’t look back once. I absolutely did not care—not even for the owner of that stand, who didn’t deserve what I’d done to his stall. . . .

Donald Trump is an anger troll. Rage is the one thing he capably nurtures and grows. He stoked anger in people horrified by Kavanaugh’s confirmation and is now turning it against them. This is an old tactic: drive people crazy, then call them so. As projects of government go, this one is as familiar as it is contemptible. He wants to make his followers feel threatened. To achieve this, he needs his opponents to seem irrational. So he sets about making them angry.

He insults them, railroads them, calls people protesting for justice liars and profit-seekers even as he openly enriches his friends. He gives them offensive nicknames and mocks their pain for fun, and to get them to lose control. He’s doing this in plain sight—it’s pretty obvious why people are angry—but his goal is to make their reaction look inexplicable, beyond the pale. After leading angry crowds to yell abuse at anyone he points to, he turns around and marvels at how irrational and dangerous his targets are.

As tactics go, this one is dumb and transparent, but it’s worth describing it because it works. It works a lot. Trump is not a genius. But he instinctively understands the dynamic of provoking and then delegitimizing someone else’s pain. As Adam Serwer wrote, he’s energized by the suffering he causes others and—secondarily—by the bond that ritualized cruelty forges with his base, which has been connected by fear of others. From Trump’s perspective, it’s kind of fun that people feel compassion for the families he separated. It’s delightful that women are worried about rights he has expressly said he wanted to take from them. And, after insulting and belittling people he’s supposed to be governing, he enjoys acting surprised that they mind.

It’s a silly and ugly game, but it’s the only true rule of Trumpism: be the sorest winner imaginable. Aspire to nothing but power and status. Hold no principle sacred. Withhold justice and insult those who object. Yes, the effects of this are predictable. It doesn’t take a genius of social engineering to be the “why are you hitting yourself?” guy. All it takes is a willingness to be him.

You can find more of Lili Loofbourow’s work here.

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