For Donald Trump, the cruelty is the point

Whenever I think of the human quality of largesse, sooner or later I think of Abraham Lincoln. It was Lincoln who appointed some of his enemies and rivals to his cabinet. That his generosity was, to one degree or another, lost on its receivers was to their discredit, not Lincoln’s. Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward was eventually won over. His Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase was not. Even so, in 1864 Lincoln eventually named Chase Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

It is whence comes the saying “success is the best revenge.” I think most people (whether they are aware of it or not) who experience much of life’s frustrations from the disadvantageous position of impotence, tend to behave with greater forbearance than they imagine they will when the tables are turned. Were it otherwise the saying would really go something more like, “success is the beginning of revenge.” We would also see a lot of new millionaires (or billionaires) going around routinely ruining lives. We tend not to. Once a person becomes successful they are usually (not always) satisfied with it, and are too busy cultivating it to worry about what others are doing. They may take their petty retributions here and there, but most enjoy their improved status too much to worry about getting back at their enemies.

Donald Trump is not such a person. Trump never forgets a slight. We know this from the countless anecdotes that spring up from time to time, compliments of people who have had the misfortune of knowing Trump personally. Trump has therefore become the patron saint of the impotent malcontent, the loser, the angry little man, the bitter, small-minded woman. Donald Trump loves cruelty, and so do the little people who follow him.

As a student of the American Civil War since I was ten, I was struck by the contrasting attitudes between my English friends toward their civil war and my American compatriots toward ours. The English Civil War was a conflict centered around a single personality, King Charles I. The American Civil war was centered around political ideology, centered around the civil right of African Americans to be free and the degree to which individual states could be autocratic and self-determining. The English Civil War ended, in every sense of the word, with the beheading of Charles and the ten year failed experimental protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. The American Civil War has never ended, and has been continuously fought on the battlefield of ideology ever since.

This is why the Confederate flag is so odious a symbol. It represents the willingness of human beings to do to other human beings that which they would consider intolerable were it done to themselves. “As I would not be a slave,” Lincoln said, “so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” In their subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) articulations of repression toward people of color, in their starry-eyed idolatry of the tough-talking strong man, in their rabid, blood-thirsty advocacy of the death penalty, in their racist proclamations about “law and order” and defense of brutal police murders, the modern Trump-supporting Republican declares in a thousand ways every day that they love slavery and they hate democracy. They are still fighting the American Civil War.

This is the disease that has infected roughly one third of the population of America today with the same virulence and deadly potential it infected the people of Germany in the 1930s. Despite the lesson of Donald Trump’s impeachment they cheer William Barr, who recently announced that he will accept information from “the” Ukraine (a vestigial definite article left over from the time when Ukraine was a downtrodden Soviet vassal state) brought by Rudy Giuliani concerning Hunter Biden. It’s all about revenge, it’s all about refighting the same bitter conflicts from the American Civil War. And in the final analysis, it’s all about cruelty.

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