A few days ago I had a lengthy exchange (on FB, so you know I’m old) with a Trump apologist. It started when a friend of mine posted a story about a Canadian citizen — but, you guessed it, Muslim, and born in Morocco to boot — being held up, questioned about her views on Trump and about videos on her phone, and ultimately prevented from crossing the border into Vermont. I ran through the comments and was immediately struck not by the baseline of sympathy for the woman but instead by a pronounced inclination to find ordinary things — things that do not raise questions when people not wearing the hijab or born in North Africa do them — nefarious; and, further, to take any remotely colourable ground of suspicion, however baseless, as sufficient justification for whatever treatment Customs and Border Patrol mete out. What kind of person crosses the border for a day trip? Who goes shopping in Vermont when Montreal is so close? (She couldn’t really win here, because the details of her plans that were reported — her desire to take a trip to celebrate her son’s completion of chemotherapy — were dismissed in the same thread as “inflammatory” and “irrelevant”.)
In fact, the commenter I debated even thought the fact that she’d spent four hours at the border answering questions suspicious, as if it that had been her choice — or as if leaving an interview would not also be seen as evidence that she had something to hide. Never mind that Canadian citizens can legally enter the US without visas. Never mind that Morocco was not even on the list of countries singled out in Trump’s Muslim ban. And, of course, never mind that she had not done anything wrong. To paraphrase but not alter his argument: she belongs to a group, “foreign Muslims”, that is categorically suspect. That makes her individual characteristics and identity (even in a context where individual identity is the usual object of concern) irrelevant. Irrelevant to Trump and irrelevant to CBP, of course. But more importantly irrelevant to those good people who will reach for any reason, however lazy or far-fetched, not to think too hard about what they let happen to the vague and elastic category of “foreigners” or indeed to fellow citizens. Not the least perverse thing about the exchange was that this commenter repeatedly criticized US militarism in Iraq and Afghanistan; “they’re right to hate us”, he implied, “so we’re right to bar them.” It’s a clash of civilizations.
But if he thought relabelling a Canadian citizen a “foreign Muslim” made her fair game, he positively resented the fact that people like me — though not actually me, in our actual exchange — compared Trump to Hitler and called conservatives racist. As I’ve over/heard more than once from Trump enthusiasts in the US and elsewhere, it’s just wrong to lump people together like that. This blindly ironic touchiness was the second striking thing about the exchange: the pre-hurt feelings, the hair-trigger disgust at what people like me (at various points in our conversation this included Black Lives Matter, Democrats, “the left”, people who believe the “official” story about 9/11, and pollyannas who deny the existence of terrorism) said about people like him. Calculated or not, this thin-skinned mode of engagement made any substantive discussion almost impossible. First, it constantly distracted from the events ostensibly at issue; whatever I said about this case, someone like me had said something else, somewhere else, about something else that needed to be addressed first. Second, and more insidiously, it made this man’s potentially wounded feelings, not the woman’s actually interfered-with life, the real problem. In this regard, it’s surely no accident that he brought up BLM, for no greater affront to white people’s right to feel that they aren’t racist has appeared in recent memory — until now.
This last point made the exchange both revealing and deeply depressing. As I wrote in my last reply, I have no idea worth writing down whether or not he or people who share his specific views are “racists”. More precisely: I don’t care, because it doesn’t matter. If Steve Bannon is shaping policies that ordinary people don’t question, then who cares whether those ordinary people believe what he believes? What is their “non-racism” worth? If advocates and critics of the Iraq war or the invasion of Afghanistan can come together on defining “foreign Muslims” the world over as a categorical threat, then what difference does it make that one of them sees these “foreign Muslims” as inherently violent and another sees them — all of them — as two-dimensional creations of US policy? Arguing over who is or is not to be called racist becomes at this point a distraction from stopping the thriving work of racism, the violence done to real people at, within, and beyond our borders. One need not be “racist” to speed that work along; worrying more about one’s name than about just what is done in that name will do.
[I originally meant to write about some themes in my research (on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) that this exchange brought up, but these posts have a way of asserting their own logic in the writing. A more history-oriented post follows.]