I just watched the president* deliver his statement about the recent exchange of hostilities between Iran and the US while taxiing on an O’Hare runway on the way to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. It was something. Now I’m in the air and I can’t stop seeing it play over in my head. During my layover, I had been preoccupied with the conference–a panelist on the roundtables I organized had to pull out at the last second, I still have to figure out who I’m going to be talking to for the book series I edit, I don’t know how I’m supposed to stay awake for 9 p.m. dinners at my advanced age. But this press conference pulled me back into the whirlpool of war worry I’d briefly avoided (skirting that Charybdis for the Scylla of conference scheduling?). It also made me really, really angry.
It wasn’t just that the man enough people somehow thought was qualified to lead the country was so alarmingly out of it, even more unable to read a teleprompter (let alone to breathe) than usual. It wasn’t just that he seemed like he might have accidentally revealed classified intelligence about new weapons (which I somehow misheard as semisonic rather than hypersonic, reminding me of one of my all-time least favorite songs). More than anything, it was the dig about the missiles used in Iran’s attack being paid for by the previous administration that stuck in my craw.
It stuck in my craw because there are times that it seems that the most important of all the things that make the president* so bad at his job and so bad for the country isn’t his greed, power-hunger, venality, or ignorance, it’s his joyful divisiveness. He’s a divider, not a uniter. The jab at his predecessor in today’s statement is of a piece with everything we know about him from his past as inheritor of his father’s racist renting practices, as rabid accuser of the Central Park Five, as birther, from his campaign’s being built on xenophobia, Islamophobia, and the culture war divides that split this country., and from his behavior as president.
I’m not so naive that I don’t know the US has a long and very distinguished career of division, from its displacements of the many natives who were here before to the deportation of the many we should be welcoming today. The 1619 Project’s partly rhetorical move to install 1619 alongside 1776 is nothing if not a reminder of that. But it also has a long history of being better, or trying to be–alongside the history of institutions, conflicts, and policies built on supremacy, on America First and fuck everybody else (including Americans some in power would rather not count as Americans), there is a history of people working against those things. And there are millions of people like me who are hungry for leaders (and voters) who want to be part of that second history, who believe in the old cliches about a national project in which we are united. (I think it’s one of the reasons so many are wary of the primary’s moments of tensions, in addition to the more practical immediate concerns of what it will mean come the general.)
Unfortunately, the president* isn’t one of those people. In a moment when much of the nation he was elected to serve and the larger world was scared shitless at what might happen next, he could have–as most presidents before him would–reassured us. Instead, he rattled his saber, bragged about the size of his guns, ignored the effects on the people who live outside our borders just like he ignores so many within them, and, because he just couldn’t resist, blamed the whole thing on the man who made fun of him one night at a comedy fundraiser. It went by so fast you could almost miss it. If you did, here’s what he said: “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” Never mind that (as he’s been reminded countless times when returning to the subject of this money) it wasn’t a gift, or that there’s no evidence whatever that that money paid for those missiles: the point is to insinuate that the Democrats are on the bad guys’ side.
Two days ago Nikki Haley made a similar move. After our armed forces, without any consultation within our government or with whatever allies we might still have, killed a military leader of another country, some wondered whether it had been a good idea. Many national Democratic figures condemned the attack, but not because they thought the victim was a swell guy. Following the same playbook as her president and working toward the same blatantly political end, she said the people running the opposition party and the people running to oppose the president* in the next election were “mourning” his death. See, it’s not just that people disagree with the president: they’re the enemy, they’re not real Americans, they’re evil. It’s from the same playbook out of which Trump pulled his Let’s make Jewishness a nationality move a month ago, and it’s angering for the same reason. The only people who really matter are Trumps. White Christians are the other real Americans, his actions and words say, so he’ll look out for them a little while slipping their wallets out of their pockets as he gives them a manly clap on the shoulder. Everybody else is suspect. The people getting the shoulder claps are happy to hear it, because they think they’re part of the us and not the them. Somehow this shyster and his party of shysters has fooled them into believing it.
I’m somewhere over the Northern plains right now, somebody I don’t know is asleep on my shoulder, there’s a kid two rows up crying in stereo with the kid two rows behind me, and I’m so lonesome I could cry, because that’s how the president* wants me to feel. We all need to be looking over our shoulders at each other, statements like this morning’s tell us, because we’re not in this together. If we can’t stay here, as the song goes, where are we supposed to go home to. If the American project is shuttering its doors, what the hell happens next?