Adam Serwer On How Donald Trump Rose To Power : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders The Cruelty Is The Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump's America, is journalist Adam Serwer's new book, based on a popular essay he wrote for The Atlantic. Serwer talks with guest host Ayesha Rascoe and lays out the ways in which Donald Trump came to power, the historical roots of his vision of law and order, and how he managed to build a loyal political following on the basis of cruelty.

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Trump's America And Why 'The Cruelty Is The Point'

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

What was the moment for you that crystallized your explanation of Trump's policies and his appeal?

ADAM SERWER: So the title of the book, which takes its title from a column that I wrote in 2018...

RASCOE: This is Adam Serwer.

SERWER: ...Was, you know, approximately inspired by, you know, the first two years of the Trump presidency, but also by this particular event which was a rally that was being held during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings...

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CHUCK GRASSLEY: Judge Kavanaugh, we welcome you. Are you ready?

SERWER: ...After the testimony by Christine Blasey Ford, in which she accused Brett Kavanaugh and a childhood friend of sexually assaulting her when they were all teenagers.

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PATRICK LEAHY: What is the strongest memory you have, the strongest memory of the incident, something that you cannot forget? Take whatever time you need.

SERWER: And one of the more compelling aspects of her testimony was when she talked about the laughter being, as she put it, indelible in the hippocampus.

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CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD: Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense (crying).

SERWER: That resonated because a lot of people - you know, when you have a traumatic memory, there are certain, you know, strange details about that memory that stick in your brain. And what struck me about the rally that followed that was not simply that Donald Trump was saying that, you know, Kavanaugh was innocent and that Blasey Ford was lying, which, you know, of course he was going to say, but that he specifically held her up for ridicule.

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DONALD TRUMP: What he's going through - 36 years ago, this happened. I had one beer.

SERWER: He had sort of heard her testimony and identified this vulnerability that she had expressed in her testimony and decided to specifically attack that point by making these thousands of people who had gathered to hear Donald Trump speak laugh at her.

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TRUMP: How did you get home? I don't remember. How did you get there? I don't remember. Where is the place? I don't remember. How many years ago was it? I don't know. I don't know.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: I don't know. I don't know.

SERWER: And that was when I sort of had this epiphany of - the cruelty is the point because it seemed very clear to me that everybody was having a very good time causing this particular person pain, but also that this was a pretty regular part of the ritual and that everyone involved was greatly enjoying themselves.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.

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RASCOE: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. And today on the show, my chat with Adam Serwer about his new book, "The Cruelty Is The Point: The Past, Present, And Future Of Trump's America." In this episode, we'll hear how Adam thinks Trump came to power, the historical roots of his vision on law and order and his continued appeal in American politics and why the media was so reluctant to name race as a key factor in Trump's rise. But first, let's get back to where Adam started, about Donald Trump's enduring appeal to a base that found community in making fun of others.

And so can you just, you know, lay out that thesis that - of that essay from all of these people being there and enjoying the ridicule of someone else?

SERWER: Right. So I think, you know, this is really a part of human nature. The sort of depoliticized version of this that I try to offer people to explain the idea is, you know, when you're a kid and you see a bunch of the cool kids making fun of a nerdier kid, they are forming a kind of community with that transgression. They are putting the nerdy kid they're making fun of on the outside of that community, and they are bonding together through this act of cruelty towards that person. It is human nature to sort of draw lines around an us and a them and then justify acts of cruelty by the us against the them.

And the larger thesis of the book is really that this is partially incentivized by our system because the structure of the American political system, whether it's gerrymandering in the House or malapportionment in the Senate or the Electoral College itself, allows one party to hold power by winning sort of an ideally geographically distributed segment of the electorate, which also happens to be the most conservative segment of the electorate. And when you're the party that represents that part of the electorate, it becomes even more urgent to persuade that group that they're on the verge of destruction, and so anything they do to prevent that is justified.

And you can see that in Donald Trump's rhetoric in terms of saying, you know, I'm the one who's standing in between you and them; they hate me because they really hate you, and I'm protecting you from them. And what that does is that makes an act of cruelty not simply a justifiable act of self-defense but a heroic deed.

RASCOE: I want to - the essay, "The Cruelty Is The Point" - it was your biggest essay - probably most-read essay ever. I wonder - you're explaining, you know, very well now everything that - the thesis of what you were trying to put forward. Do you feel like people, with that essay, "The Cruelty Is The Point" - did you ever feel like - that the phrase somewhat got away from you, that people maybe didn't totally understand what you were saying? Or do you feel like people really got it, what you were trying to explain in that essay?

SERWER: Look; any time you see politicians using something you wrote, using a phrase you wrote or a phrase that you popularized, it starts to make you a little uncomfortable.

RASCOE: OK.

SERWER: Right? Because, you know, I have my political views.

RASCOE: Yeah.

SERWER: I'm a lefty, but I still consider myself a journalist first, and I want to maintain a certain amount of distance and independence. So, you know, when someone like Joe Biden is using the cruelty is the point, you know, I sort of want to ask him, do you actually mean that?

RASCOE: (Laughter) OK.

SERWER: Because, you know, there are many aspects of the American system that are cruel that Donald Trump may - whose cruelty Donald Trump may have exploited, but he didn't make them cruel. He simply - you know, in some cases, for example, our immigration system - he may have exploited them to make them more cruel and diminish their redeeming qualities, such as refugee admissions and asylum, but our immigration system is designed to be cruel to deter migration. And, you know, part of the idea behind this book is really to broaden our understanding of that kind of cruelty in politics and where it comes from so that it's not - you know, it's not simply something that describes the Trump era but something that describes a phenomenon in politics, a kind of exclusionary politics that really has its origin in the founding of this country.

RASCOE: And, you know, when you talk about that exclusionary part of the American process, do you - you also talked about how in - not just in America, but people often, when they're engaging in acts of cruelty or they're engaging in policies that are exclusionary or they're engaging - that they are not honest with themselves about what they...

SERWER: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Are actually doing. You called it the cruelty of the lies we tell ourselves. One of the things that I felt like was a lie that the country was telling itself was the idea that race had very little to do with Trump's political rise. Why do you think it took so long for the media to accept that race was a key factor?

SERWER: Well, look; there's a power that comes from being a demographic majority in the country, and white people are the demographic majority in the United States of America. And white Americans, by and large, do not like being accused of being racist. And so when you say that millions of people are supporting a politician who shot up to the head of the Republican presidential field in 2011 because he said the first Black president was not born in the United States, that - there is a big motivation not to alienate audiences by suggesting that racism is playing a role in the rise of someone who is a very popular politician in large swaths of the country. The problem with that is that it warps your perception of the truth.

I think that an interesting irony of the situation was that in 2008, a lot of prestige outlets, you know, hired a lot more Black reporters in particular, but they diversified their newsrooms because they understood that, you know, to cover this - the Obama administration, they needed a level of cultural literacy that their newsrooms did not previously possess. And what happened when Donald Trump came along was that there was - you know, within newsrooms, there were now people there who were seeing, you know, what we described seeing very clearly and were disinclined to rationalize what they were seeing because they have a kind of memory of this kind of politics that they've either witnessed for themselves or they've heard their, you know, relatives talk about.

And so it was - you know, many of us were not as willing to sort of dismiss the nature of what we were seeing in 2016 simply because, you know, some readers or viewers or listeners or audiences might get mad at us for suggesting that race had something to do with a guy whose political career began by saying that the first Black president was not born in the United States.

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RASCOE: Coming up, we turn to the role of law and order in politics and break the stereotype that all racist politics is exclusive to the American South.

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RASCOE: I wanted to switch gears a little bit, and I wanted to dig into one of the new essays that you did for the book, and it's focused on police unions. You write that police unions offer a worldview that matches with Trump's view of law and order, and that was something Trump talked about a lot. What is that view of law and order, for those who may have not studied Trump's words (laughter) the way I did?

SERWER: I mean, I think that Trump explicitly believes that the role of American police is to guard the color line. I think that that's what he believes, whether or not - you know, I think there are many police who do not believe that. But I think that that is what Trump believes about the role of the police. And I think that he has stated that fairly explicitly, you know, when you go back to, like, the Central Park Five and his taking out that ad calling for their execution, saying, you know, bring back our police. And, you know, of course, he maintained their guilt after they were already exonerated, which is, you know, in my view, in itself an expression of they're guilty not because they actually committed the act, but because they are a member of an ethnic group that he perceives as being collectively responsible for crime.

And part of, you know, what I was trying to do in that essay is to say I think there is an unfortunate stereotype that all racist politics in America is the exclusive province of the American South. And in fact, Donald Trump's politics are not Southern. They very much are the politics of, like, the police unions in New York. And in that essay, I go through the - sort of the history, you know, beginning with Giuliani leading the cop riot in 1992 against David Dinkins...

RASCOE: Yes. That - so that...

SERWER: ...You know, who was the first Black mayor of New York City.

RASCOE: Yes. I want to get into that...

SERWER: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Because when you talked about that police riot, I had only heard about that police riot because I think someone mentioned it on Twitter. And when I found out about this police riot and read about it, I was shocked because I don't think most people know that there was a police riot in 1992 in New York. I don't think most people know that.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The police are angry over a proposal by Mayor David Dinkins to create an all-civilian complaint review board who oversee police misconduct cases.

SERWER: It's not only that I don't think most people know that. I think that what's extraordinary about it is that David Dinkins was a very pro-police mayor. If you look at his record, he hired - I mean, like, some people have argued, in hindsight, that his hiring of scores more police officers to deal with the crime wave that New York was dealing with at that time is probably what lowered the crime rate that Giuliani later took credit for, because he then defeated David Dinkins.

But he - as The New York Times put it at the time, he curtailed his social agenda substantially to fund increases in police. But he didn't do everything they wanted. And so the police union rioted in what - you know, one of the officers at the time - he was a Black New York City police officer who I spoke to for this story. You know, he's sitting there trying to police the guys who are outranking him. And he says to me, you know, this is a white racist rally. I'll never forget it. That's extraordinary.

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RUDY GIULIANI: The reason the morale of the police department of the city of New York is so low is one reason and one reason alone - David Dinkins.

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DAVID DINKINS: Let's assume this is the worst legislation known to man. It is still no excuse for the behavior that - or at least the reports I've gotten of how they behaved out there today.

RASCOE: Because they were using racial slurs about Dinkins...

SERWER: Yeah, to describe the mayor.

RASCOE: ...And Giuliani was there.

SERWER: And Giuliani was there, and it was just this - you know, this idea that somehow the police are elevated as citizens above the public, above the elected representatives of the public, to where they are entitled to use their authority as police officers to determine who should be mayor of the city of New York. And that, to me, was extraordinary.

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DINKINS: Some of them out there yesterday who were calling out [expletive], for instance - why would the people of our communities have confidence that they have the capacity to handle a tense situation in a minority community, I ask you? I ask you.

SERWER: You know, the thing about police unions is that all unions advocate for their workers, and sometimes that means advocating for workers at the expense of the consumer or the public. The difference is that police unions have the authority to use lethal force. And what that means is that as an organization, they have an interest in maintaining impunity for their members for the use of force against the public who they are also meant to protect. And this is a system that, regardless of the good intentions of individual police officers, ensures that the people who really should not be officers continue to be able to wield that authority. And so this is just sort of a vicious cycle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

RASCOE: Stay with us. We drill down on the real definition of democracy.

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RASCOE: Going back to Trump a bit, it seems like a lot of - and what you're saying and what I kind of saw in covering him is that so much of his views on the world was shaped by - I don't know whether it was '70s, '80s, '90s, but this view of, like, New York and crime and, you know, spikes in crime and police and, like, that was his view of law and order. And he seemed to always go back to that, talking about, you know, I'm going to be tough on crime, don't vote for this Democrat because they're soft on crime, when a lot of times people don't even use that type of rhetoric anymore. But he would say, oh, I'm going to be tough on crime, not even really clear what that meant. And when he campaigned in 2020, he very specifically went even away from talking about immigration and terrorism, which is the way he used law and order in the beginning. In 2020, what he did was he said, oh, I'm not just protecting you from immigration and terrorists. I'm going to protect you from those dangerous Democrat-run cities. And he literally said...

SERWER: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...I'm going to protect the suburban housewives because if you don't vote for me...

SERWER: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...Then all those people in the city - they're going to come and get you, suburban housewife (laughter). Why do you think that...

SERWER: My favorite...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Oh, go ahead.

SERWER: The best - you're missing the best element of the suburban housewives line, which is, Cory Booker's coming for the suburban housewives.

RASCOE: Yeah. Oh, yeah, it's Cory Booker.

SERWER: Cory Booker...

RASCOE: Yes (laughter). I forgot that. Yes.

SERWER: ...Is the absolute - I mean, look. Whatever you think of Cory Booker and his politics, that is not a threatening man.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

SERWER: OK?

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

SERWER: He's not...

RASCOE: But he was...

SERWER: ...Someone you're scared of.

RASCOE: He was the theat.

SERWER: He's just Black. That's it (laughter).

RASCOE: He was (laughter). That was one of the things...

SERWER: He...

RASCOE: ...Where it was like, Cory Booker is going to come and get them (laughter)?

SERWER: It's so egregious, right? Like, everybody's like, so what does Cory Booker have to do with this?

RASCOE: (Laughter) He's...

SERWER: You know what I mean? Like, it's (laughter)...

RASCOE: He is - yeah. It was like, how did he...

SERWER: It's...

RASCOE: ...Get caught up in this? But, yeah, it was (laughter)...

SERWER: He's going to shovel your walk. He's going to bring over some sugar because you needed some. Like, what is he going to do in the suburbs?

RASCOE: He's going to bring over a nice vegan meal (laughter).

SERWER: Right. Like...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

SERWER: And, I mean - and it's extraordinary. But this is like - you know, that is very much - you know, there's a writer who's now an editor named Ezekiel Kweku who wrote a piece that was sort of about how - it was - this was in, like, 2015, 2016, that Donald Trump's vision of New York is from a New York dystopia from, like, 1970s movies like "The Warriors..."

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

SERWER: ...Or "Escape From New York."

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

SERWER: And it's just stuck in that place. And he can't get outside of it. But the thing is, is that the base that he's talking to also, like, is willing to believe that these cities are, in fact, hellscapes, when it's like, you know, they're, you know...

RASCOE: "Mad Max," yeah (laughter).

SERWER: Right. It's, like, this crazy, dystopian universe, when it's like, you know, there was obviously - there was property damage. There was rioting. But the vision in their minds is that these cities were, you know, absolutely burned to the ground. They looked like "The Hunger Games" or something. And it wasn't true. And it was rooted in a kind of racialized imagination of what American cities are like and what they would be like if - you know, without police officers. The flip side of it, of course, is that crime is very much a concern for people across backgrounds. So in...

RASCOE: Yes.

SERWER: ...Some ways, you can see how the tough on crime rhetoric resonates with a broader subset of people than, you know, many of the things that Donald Trump was doing in 2016.

RASCOE: Why do you think it didn't work this time, though?

SERWER: I think it did work. It just didn't work well enough. You know, one of the things about - I mean, white identity politics is a very strong force in American history. But it's not invincible. It's not magic. You know, if you mishandle a pandemic, there's going to be some drawbacks. But the other thing is, is arguably it worked quite well. Because Joe Biden won many millions more votes than Donald Trump, but it was kind of a squeaker in the Electoral College.

RASCOE: Yeah.

SERWER: And Trump expanded his base. He defied expectations. And he showed that his kind of politics actually is viable, which is why they're continuing to follow that course.

RASCOE: So when you introduce the essay on police unions, you talk generally about how culture creates laws and laws create culture. And this idea is woven throughout the book - the distinction between creating change through public policy and changing individual attitudes on race in order to create a truly multiracial democracy, as we've been talking about.

SERWER: Right.

RASCOE: I was particularly struck by this line of yours, and I'm going to quote it verbatim. "The Black Lives Matter movement is arguably a product of this discontinuity between what Americans say we believe and what we actually do." And my note for that was say more (laughter). So...

SERWER: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...What do you mean by that?

SERWER: So I think that, you know, Black Lives Matter starts in the Obama administration. The term was first coined after Trayvon Martin. And I think there's a kind of reevaluation of American history that occurs after the Ferguson protests, where people are sort of asking, we have a Black president, but we still have all these problems of racial inequality. And I think, you know, that reevaluation of history that began there and was sort of spurred on by, you know, the massacre in South Carolina at the church, by the rise of Donald Trump on this, like, kind of overt white identity politics, that I think people thought the country that elected Barack Obama could not also elect Donald Trump. And I think, you know, that is such a vivid expression of our duality as a country.

You know, this reevaluation is sort of spurred on by Donald Trump's success, and it sort of comes out during the George Floyd protests. And I think what people need to remember is that George Floyd was the third such incident in a very short time. There was Breonna Taylor. There was Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. And then, you know, at the same time, everybody's dealing with the pandemic. Everybody's stuck at home. The George Floyd reckoning was something that was, I think, many years in coming and was a result of this kind of reevaluation of American history.

And you can see, even now, there's been a backlash to that. I mean, when you look at some of these laws that are being passed in the states, these are attempts to avoid reckoning with the extent to which current racial disparities are the product of deliberate decisions of American public policy because if you acknowledge that then that creates an obligation for the state to do something about it. So, you know, on the one hand, it's very hard to change hearts and minds. On the other hand, there's a kind of harmony that can occur when people - when these awakenings collide with the political will to do something about it. And we've seen America take great steps forward in those moments, whether it's the Civil War and Reconstruction Amendments or President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act during what's known as the Second Reconstruction. But what usually follows them is a tremendous amount of backlash. And I think, you know, to a certain extent, we're seeing that backlash now.

RASCOE: And so, you know, this is a broad question. I'm not going to ask you to fix all the problems in the country. I won't ask you to do that. But I sometimes feel like if America was a person, I would tell America to seek help, to talk to a professional because America has all of this trauma - right? - that it has not dealt with, it has not resolved. And if you don't deal with the trauma of your past, it will deal with you. And so how do you think this country can ever really deal with this past, you know, even as we still are fighting over, like, what just happened six months ago on January 6 with the insurrection? Like, how can this country ever really deal with that trauma?

SERWER: You know, I don't really have an answer to that question. What I'll say is that we have been fighting over what America is, who America is, since the founding, and, you know, we're still fighting about that now. That's what this battle is really about. I don't think it's something that can be, like, definitively resolved. I don't have a real answer to, you know, how do we resolve this conflict because I think the whole point of democracy is managing conflict. You know, if everybody got along, you wouldn't need democracy.

Democracy is a means of managing conflicts so that different groups of people can live together without trying to destroy each other. And I think the important thing is not that we just all get along or all agree on everything. I think the important thing is having a political equality where we can all participate in the political system without being disenfranchised or excluded because one group of people does not want to share power with the other.

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RASCOE: Thanks again to Adam Serwer. He's a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the book "The Cruelty Is The Point: The Past, Present, And Future Of Trump's America." OK, listeners, don't forget - this Friday, we're back with another episode. And for that, we want to hear the best thing that happened to you all week. Record yourself and email the file to me at samsanders@npr.org. All right, until Friday, thanks for listening. I'm Ayesha Rascoe.

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