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24 January 2024

Donald Trump and the art of cruelty

Unlike his rivals, the former president knows how to make punitive vengeance fun.

By Jill Filipovic

Ron DeSantis, once a favourite among the Republican Party elite for the presidential nomination, has left the race after a lacklustre and uninspiring campaign. It’s a moment of humility for those of us who thought the Florida governor, as a less flashy but more competent (and therefore more dangerous) reactionary conservative made in Donald Trump’s image, had every advantage, even over the original.  

It turns out that there’s nothing like the real thing. A large majority of Republican voters like Trump’s policies, which DeSantis was ready to adopt. But what many of them really like is Trump’s style, and particularly his recklessness and propensity to cause great damage. They don’t just want a president who will make their lives better. They want a president who will do his damndest to destroy what many of them see as a fundamentally broken system, and punish those who they believe broke it (liberals, feminists, racial justice activists, intellectuals, LGBTQ people, non-Christians and Democrats broadly). They also want to be entertained by the cruelty; they want a brutal leader who creates a spectacle, makes them laugh and gives them permission to be as nasty as they want to be.  

DeSantis is a cruel bully. He used his power to target LGBTQ people and to exploit vulnerable asylum seekers in sadistic political stunts. He signed an abortion ban that has nearly killed women facing pregnancy complications and forced others to carry pregnancies to term knowing their babies would die. And his Covid denialism likely cost scores of lives. None of this is so different from what Trump has done or says he will do. But DeSantis wasn’t particularly fun about it.  

DeSantis seems like an unpleasant person. His cruelty is of the smarmy sort, calibrated to his goal of personal gain, which means winning approval – from Trump or from a voter base he has pegged as malicious and spiteful.  

But even people who support cruel acts don’t typically want to think of themselves, as DeSantis seems to, as callous or vengeful. They want to think that they are pursuing justice and doing what is required to assert a deserved dominance. This means that the cruelty should feel good, and may even be fun. Trump grasps this, which is why he so often makes cruelty a mass spectator sport: in a crowd (or a mob), it’s easy and invigorating to get caught up in the collective pleasure of a shared experience and sense of purpose, and of a common enemy.  

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In his essay “The Cruelty is the Point”, Adam Serwer recounted a trip to the Museum of African-American History in Washington DC, where he looked at photos of lynchings, and particularly at the faces of the white men in the crowd, smiling at their grotesque crimes. “Their cruelty made them feel good, it made them feel proud, it made them feel happy,” Serwer wrote. “And it made them feel closer to one another.” This is perhaps Trump’s highest skill: he draws sharp lines around “us” and an abhorrent, dangerous and vermin-like other, and then brings the in-group into his cruelty with him. It’s not Trump targeting vulnerable groups; it’s Trump pulling us together to defend the collective us, protect the tribe. Anyone who has spent time on a middle-school campus knows that there are bully leaders who attract a group of bully followers, and then there are the mean jerks no one likes. Trump is the former, and DeSantis more the latter.  

DeSantis also found himself in the impossible position of competing against Trump without wanting to alienate any of the former president’s devoted fans. That meant that Trump could go on the attack, but there was no way for DeSantis to adequately respond in kind. He got in the ring, but not before tying his own hands behind his back.  

It’s also notable that while Republican voters have rejected DeSantis, few have objected to his politics of cruelty. They don’t seem to mind the attacks on LGBTQ people, or women, or educational institutions, or migrants. They just don’t really like him. Unlike Trump, DeSantis’s cruelty isn’t amusing. Even worse, there was little opportunity to join in. Trump voters want someone who directs them to action, even extreme chaos that teeters into violence, and who understands exactly what they mean when they say that the 6 January insurrection, which left several people dead and struck at the heart of American democracy, was “fun”.  

This desire for collective cruelty, and a sense that being in a group makes cruelty more entertaining and less the responsibility of any one individual, has roots in the darkest parts of humanity. Public executions persisted in England until the second half of the 19th century; in the US, public executions, lynchings, and mob violence aimed at racial minorities were long popular activities; today in some conservative, autocratic, often theocratic nations, public executions remain favoured spectator sports. As other societies have evolved, democratised, secularised and sought to impose human rights-affirming systems of justice, they have moved away from killing-as-spectacle. But the core desire – to make vengeance a communal pastime – has not died out, especially among those who embrace autocracy, conservative religiosity and traditionalism.  

Trump embodies that desire for retribution as sport. Ron DeSantis hit all the right notes on the punitive vengeance part of the equation. But he failed to make it feel like a party.  

[See also: Is a Kamalaissance possible?]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars