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A minority position


Masha Gessen on the curious logic by which if something is bad enough that must mean it’s not happening:

Donald Trump has played this trick on Americans many times, beginning with his very election: first, he was impossible, and then he was President. Did that mean that the impossible had happened—an extremely hard concept to absorb—or did it mean that Trump was not the catastrophe so many of us had assumed he would be? A great many Americans chose to think that he had been secretly Presidential all along or was about to become Presidential; they chose to accept that, now that he was elected, his Presidency would become conceivable. The choice between these two positions is at the root of the argument between Ocasio-Cortez and the critics of her concentration-camp comment. It is not an argument about language. Ocasio-Cortez and her opponents agree that the term “concentration camp” refers to something so horrible as to be unimaginable. (For this reason, mounting a defense of Ocasio-Cortez’s position by explaining that not all concentration camps were death camps misses the point.) It is the choice between thinking that whatever is happening in reality is, by definition, acceptable, and thinking that some actual events in our current reality are fundamentally incompatible with our concept of ourselves—not just as Americans but as human beings—and therefore unimaginable. The latter position is immeasurably more difficult to hold—not so much because it is contentious and politically risky, as attacks on Ocasio-Cortez continue to demonstrate, but because it is cognitively strenuous. It makes one’s brain implode. It will always be a minority position.

Kevin Drum makes a related point, after arguing convincingly that no number of credible accusations by women that Trump raped them will make any practical political difference:

This episode hasn’t gotten an awful lot of attention. This is the first I’ve written about it, for example. Why? I don’t think it has anything to do with media outlets not taking rape allegations seriously. The real answer is almost worse: (a) everybody just assumes the story is true and (b) everybody knows that it will have no effect on either Trump’s fans or his Republican Party colleagues. Trump will issue a pro forma denial; nobody will take it seriously; and that will be that. Just like the other 15 times.

Even after more than two years, I wake up every morning and I can’t believe that Donald Trump is the president of the United States. It’s a stain we’ll never live down.

This is how normalization takes place.

As many people have pointed out, the legacy American media are not equipped to deal with a president like Trump. For one thing they can’t absorb the fact that the president of the United States is both a complete moral monster and utterly unfit for office in even the most prosaic terms, because that would mean the system had failed in a radical way, which can’t happen because that’s unimaginably bad, which means it’s impossible.

Something else follows from all this: If you support Donald Trump in any way, you will come to truly despise anyone who points out what a horrible thing you are doing. This too is part of the basic logic of hatred leading to eventual dehumanization: for example, as many students of the Holocaust have pointed out, the Nazis may have started out persecuting the Jews because they hated them, but they soon moved on to hating them because they persecuted them.

A commenter mentioned in another thread, in the context of discussing why the Trump administration is choosing to deny immigrant children in concentration camps access toothbrushes and soap, that the SS would take journalists through the Warsaw ghetto and show them the rotting corpses of Jews who had starved to death, to illustrate what disgusting people the Jews really were to live in such conditions. (Of course trying to bury a corpse made a person subject to summary execution by the SS.)

That is unimaginable in some sense, but it certainly wasn’t undoable. What’s happening now in the concentration camps at our southern border isn’t as bad as that (yet), but it is bad enough to make anyone who supports the Trump administration despise anyone who points out (correctly) that supporting the Trump administration makes one a despicable person.

This will not end well, but it is happening nevertheless.

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