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Will there be blood?

Donald Trump has left America speechless.

By Lee Siegel

Like the partners in a disintegrating marriage, the right and the left in America, it seems, are not able to understand the same words in the same way. So severe is the breakdown in communication that it is perhaps not too far-fetched to imagine half the country one day seeking out the solace of a third party, a Russian or a Chinese lover, as it were: “I can talk to you. You understand me.”

Judging the public language of powerful people should be simple. A candidate for president of the United States, who is also a former US president, and who is, according to polls, favoured to win the presidency this November, should not be making the following statements, which Donald Trump has made over the past few months: “We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”; undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country”; “I don’t know if you call [undocumented immigrants] people. In some cases, they’re not people, in my opinion… These are animals, OK, and we have to stop it”; “Now, if I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath, for the whole – that’s going to be the least of it – it’s going to be a bloodbath for the country.” Children are not allowed to talk like that. Adults are not allowed to talk like that. No one is allowed to talk like that. Especially a man who wields tremendous influence over tens of millions of Americans.

Plenty of people were quick, rightly, to compare Trump’s rhetoric to the language used by Hitler to dehumanise Jews. You did not have to go back that far. Years of Hutu radio announcers describing Tutsi people as “cockroaches” prepared the way for the 1994 Hutu genocide of the Tutsi in which up to a million people were slaughtered in 100 days. What is particularly chilling is that mass murder did not only require that the Tutsi be dehumanised into insects. The Hutu radio announcers often objectified the Tutsi, who are generally taller than the Hutu, as “tall trees” that must be “cut down”. Most of the Tutsi victims were hacked to death with machetes.

Not only has, to my knowledge, no American president ever used the rhetoric Trump did, but no American figure of consequence has ever spoken publicly in that way. So it was almost a shock to read in the New York Times last December an op-ed essay defending Trump’s historically astounding language, written by Matthew Schmitz, the co-editor of Compact, an online magazine with a right-wing populist slant (where I briefly served as a columnist, before resigning).

Trump’s dangerous, vicious rhetoric, Schmitz argues, shouldn’t matter. What should matter, he says, is the belief that Trump is “less an ideological warrior than a flexible-minded businessman who favours negotiation and compromise”. (Examples of that skill in negotiation and compromise were Trump’s unilateral decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and the so-called Abraham Accords, brokered by Trump’s administration and having the effect of shutting out the Palestinians; two diplomatic initiatives that made the Israel-Hamas War all but inevitable.)

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As for the rhetoric itself, Schmitz seems to approve of it in an all’s-fair-in-love-and-war kind of way. It is not the deranged language of a man sick with a lust for power and revenge. It is the tactic of a brilliant businessman and, to a lesser extent, “an ideological warrior”.

This is a large claim to make. Along with being an incompetent businessman who has had several businesses declared bankruptcy and is alleged to have welched on his financial obligations numerous times, and who was ordered to pay almost half a billion dollars for defrauding lenders, Trump has no ideology beyond winning at all costs. That he has taken to using the word “blood” more and more is not because he shares Hitler’s crazed vision of a nation united by the mystic bonds of blood and soil. More likely, Trump, whose viscera are preternaturally sentient but whose intellect is questionable, asked his miseducated minions – people like Steve Bannon – what, historically, “sells”. Well, Mr President, the blood thing was gangbusters for Hitler in terms of election results.

To be fair, there is a calamitous ingenuity about the tactic. The despised elites have prestigious family connections, fancy university degrees, talent and brains in some cases, and impressive cultural accomplishments. But everyone, in the humblest situations, has blood coursing through their veins. To make the blood of your adored and adoring supporters not just biologically, but culturally and socially superior is to elevate the common person above the oppressive elites. It’s not just the toxic quality of the language that is so much of a threat. It is its promise of chthonic gratification.

Trump’s use of “blood” serves another, more explicit purpose. It is the populist right’s very own perversion of James Baldwin’s “fire next time”. If black people do not get the equality and dignity they deserve, Baldwin argued in his famous essay of 1963, then they will bring down in flames America’s sham democracy. At a rally in Ohio, Trump warned that if he was not elected in November, a “bloodbath” would ensue; to reinforce the point, he began his speech by saluting the 6 January 2021 US Capitol rioters – he called them “hostages” – who had been convicted of violent felonies, including using a deadly or dangerous weapon to cause serious bodily harm to police officers.

Having established the violence of 6 January as the framework for his speech, Trump made his threat in the course of promising (absurdly) to put a 100 per cent tariff on any car made in a Chinese manufacturing plant that was located in Mexico: “Now, we’re going to put a 100 per cent tariff on every single car that comes across the line, and you’re not going to be able to sell those cars, if I get elected. Now, if I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath for the whole – that’s going to be the least of it – it’s going to be a bloodbath for the country. That’ll be the least of it. But they’re not going to sell those cars.” Trump’s meaning was simple, punctuated, as his most dangerous insinuations often are, by an ellipsis no doubt learned at the feet of ellipsis-savvy lawyers: if I don’t get elected, not only will the automobile industry be in peril, but the “whole” country will erupt in a “bloodbath”.

It was a non sequitur in the context of Trump’s consecutive sentences, though not in the context of the speech’s 6 January framework. The sale in America of cars made by China in Mexico might be a devastating blow to the automobile industry, but that would hardly result in a “bloodbath” for the entire country’s way of life. (On the contrary, it would, at the cost of industry jobs, make cars more affordable.) No, the blow to the car-manufacturing industry would “be the least of it”. The most of it would be the general chaos and violence, in the style of the “hostages”’s 6 January riot, if Trump did not get elected. Shifting between “selling those cars” and “bloodbath for the country” opens the door to a general threat without having to make the threat explicit. The “but” in the “but they’re not going to sell those cars” indicates an abrupt change in subject, making it clear that Trump is returning from the subject of political upheaval to the subject of cars.

Trump ended his startling speech – in which he calls undocumented immigrants “animals” – in this way: “We don’t have free speech anymore. Today you speak and they want to put you in jail. Today you speak and they want to put you in jail, even if you’re telling the truth. They want to put you in jail. We will restore free speech to our nation, and I will secure our elections. We will have fair and honest elections again.” He finished by returning to his false claim of a stolen election in November 2020, when “a horrible, horrible thing happened”. This is the language, disturbingly faltering and robotic as it is, of a coming political apocalypse, not hyperbole aimed at automotive workers worried about their jobs.

The language is full of a sort of lurching guile, but its meaning is obvious. It is simply not, as Sohrab Ahmari recently argued in the New Statesman, that “bloodbath” was merely “used in an economic context”. Ahmari also thinks that if ordinary Americans who are not influential political leaders use “bloodbath” in all sorts of playful ways – “to describe an especially devastating loss for their favourite sports team” – then it only follows that Trump, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee for president, is using it in the same light-hearted manner. Ahmari seems to believe that the meaning of words has nothing to do with who uses them, or with the context in which they are used.

Perplexingly, though, even Ahmari concedes that “Trump later seemed to broaden the ‘bloodbath’ possibility beyond the auto industry”. But broadening the “bloodbath possibility beyond the auto industry” was precisely what alarmed people about the speech! Having conceded that Trump’s language was cause for alarm, Ahmari then argues that Trump’s language was no cause for alarm.

Ahmari is, however, right to complain that liberals enjoy ginning up Trump’s most dangerous remarks into imaginary portents of “fascism”. True ideologies such as fascism and communism grow out of the dark nutrients embedded in a consistent world-view. Generations of enmity between the Hutu and Tutsi were cultivated by their Belgian colonisers. Aside from weak spurts of white supremacism and nativism, America lacks both an ideology of terror and a murderous historic hatred between different groups of people. The nutrients underlying America’s flourishing antagonisms are of an entirely different type.

More and more, these lines by Wallace Stevens resonate: “The greatest poverty is not to live/In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire/Is too difficult to tell from despair.” Buried in our multiple screens, we encounter temptations so empty of context and consequences that we cannot be certain whether our wanting them is a form of fulfilment or of self-punishment. To put it in the context of rhetoric: cut off from the physical world, we lack common sensory referents to help us make moral sense of the language we encounter.

Abstracted from a tangible social environment, many people have been returned to the condition of vulnerable children, who, because they do not yet possess a store of sensory experiences to compare and judge by, must be protected by parents, guardians and teachers from language that falls upon them like sticks and stones. The idea, embodied in words, that immigrants “poison the blood” is as unforgettable as it is repellent. Lacking the sensory social experience that adds up to regarding people as unique beings beneath superficial attributes such as race and nationality, some people will turn, viscerally – Trump’s viscera communicating with other viscera – to what they instinctively recognise as the effects of poison in the blood: illness, suffering, death. Trump’s language is gestural: it dispenses with language altogether and occurs less like an instance of language than like a physical event. Once absorbed, Trump’s language remains seared into memory like something that happened, not like something that was heard. His sensual evocations of hatred and mayhem fill the sensory void left by digital culture. You would have to be either a cipher or driven by a bitter vendetta to shrug off or smile away the danger represented by Trump’s rhetoric.

What is maddening is that as Trump paints language into the minds of supporters, his opponents, perhaps because they do not know how to silence this new language of non-language, have policed their own rhetoric to the point where they seem to have lost the power to scream aloud, in words, about what could be headed America’s way this November. Trump’s destructive language, defended by his right-wing supporters, goes on uncancelled and unrestricted in one direction, while the left-wing cancelling and restriction of language perceived as “harmful” goes on in the opposite direction. It is like two nuclear submarines passing in the night. Amid this increasingly lethal and inane American cacophony, the country has become virtually speechless.

[See also: Oren Cass: “Trump is an inherently time-limited phenomenon”]

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