Wednesday, July 17, 2019
"Sure, Donald Trump’s past two days have made his innate, obliviously crude racism obvious for everyone who hasn’t fallen for his reality-distorting authoritarian appeals. But it has also established something perhaps even more important, especially in an age of rising right-wing violence and terrorism: The man in the Oval Office is now, unquestionably, America’s eliminationist-in-chief.
Trump’s rhetoric has featured eliminationist undercurrents from the very first day he announced his campaign for the presidency in 2015, and they have only intensified over time as he has pursued a relentless campaign of ethnic, religious, and cultural division, fueled by incessant demonization and hysteria directed at the objects of his ire.
This week, it was the four nonwhite women who hold seats in the U.S. Congress targeted by Trump in a series of tweets in which he told them to “go back” to try to fix the “crime infested places” they “originally came from.” After those tweets created a predictable uproar on Monday, Trump doubled down on Tuesday, telling an audience, “If somebody has a problem with our country, if somebody doesn’t want to be in our country, they should leave!”
There’s been a lot of arguing over whether or not these remarks are racist (which, fundamentally, they are). What’s also unquestionable is that they are deeply, profoundly eliminationist—which in many ways has similarly far-reaching consequences, especially when we are talking about a man who holds the power of the presidency.
What exactly is eliminationism? Please settle in for a detailed explanation—and a discussion of what it means to have an eliminationist as our president.
Here’s the definition of eliminationism you’ll find at Wikipedia, and in fact this is wording that’s generally agreed upon by academics and analysts:
Eliminationism is the belief that one's political opponents are, in the words of Oklahoma City University School of Law professor Phyllis E. Bernard, "a cancer on the body politic that must be excised—either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination—in order to protect the purity of the nation.”
It was largely coined by Holocaust scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, about the role played by everyday German citizens in the Holocaust, which he described as fueled by “eliminationist antisemitism.” The book describes how, while our primary image of the Holocaust is of mounds of bodies slain by gas in death camps, in reality the largest numbers of Jews and other victims killed by Nazi directive were rounded up and gunned down or immolated en masse and buried in mass graves by ordinary Germans and non-Jewish residents of German-occupied territories.
As Phyllis E. Bernard acutely observes in her study of eliminationist rhetoric, “When Americans encounter this type of discourse in in the United States, we become deaf with denial. We assume that American notions of civilization reach too deeply and broadly to permit the tragic outcomes seen in other nations, such as Germany, which provided the template for more recent tragedies in Rwanda.”
Longtime readers are aware that I wrote a book in 2009 titled The Eliminationists that revolved around the subject, describing how eliminationist rhetoric fueled the radicalization of the American conservative movement, leading us to the path down which Trump is leading the nation even today.
As I explained way back when on my old blog, eliminationism first is expressed in rhetoric, and then that rhetoric inspires action, most of it violent in nature. It’s a rhetorical twofer, expressing both contempt (which inspires the view that the target is beneath the intended audience) and disgust (which inspires the impulse to purify). And it has a history.
Eliminationist rhetoric has very distinct and immediately identifiable traits.
It always depicts its opposition as simply beyond the pale, and in the end the embodiment of evil itself—unfit for participation in its vision of society, and indeed toxic and harmful to the well-being of that society, and thus in need of elimination.
It often depicts its designated "enemy" as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches).
It also associates them with disease, depicting them either as diseases outright or as carriers of horrible diseases such as leprosy. We have seen multiple recent examples of this, thanks again to Lou Dobbs.
It also depicts them as “invaders” or their presence as an “invasion.”
A slightly less virulent variation on this is claims that the opponents are traitors (who will “stab us in the back”) or criminals, or gross liabilities for our national security, and thus inherently fit for elimination or at least incarceration.
Regardless, any target of eliminationist rhetoric is depicted as a threat to the purity of the community—with clear sexual overtones. They are often depicted as threats to “virtuous white womanhood”—that is, potential rapists. As innately foreign bodies, people who fit the target description are often told to “go back where you came from,” even if in fact they are multigenerational citizens or even Native Americans. And yes, it's often voiced as crude "jokes," the humor of which, when analyzed, is inevitably predicated on a venomous hatred.
The most important aspect of eliminationism, however, is how it functions, i.e., what it does: It creates permission. And what it creates permission for, ultimately, is the unleashing of our darkest id, our violence. It’s easier to kill something you see as vermin.
Eliminationism is buried pretty deep in the European psyche, closely associated with early Christian notions of filth and purification, which often related to violent means of ridding the world of sources of contamination, including self-flagellation. It also grew out of early Christian beliefs about the world outside of their own, particularly “wild” places full of “savages” who were not always deemed human. Those same beliefs became closely associated with other views about filth and contamination, which were the domain of women.
The most egregious outbreaks of eliminationism in early Europe were the anti-Jewish pogroms that began in about the 12th century and were often associated with returning Crusaders. This later morphed into such phenomena as the various Inquisitions, notably those in Spain, which featured mass killing events known as autos-da-fé.
When Europeans arrived on the American continent, this attitude translated neatly into the genocidal treatment of the indigenous populations there. Indeed, early Spanish invaders used autos-da-fé as a means of imposing “discipline” on Mayan natives. These attitudes deepened and hardened over the ensuing centuries. By the time American settlers engaged in the process of depriving Native Americans of their land holdings over the course of the 19th century, their subhuman status was considered a given.
Thus, when Col. John M. Chivington ordered his men to massacre women and children at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864, he justified it with the exhortation, “Nits make lice!” An estimated 500 people, all natives, were killed.
Similarly, when California was flooded with settlers in the 1800s, ranchers placed a $100 bounty (a small fortune at the time) on the heads of the remaining bands of Native Americans, which led to a bloodbath in which the most psychopathic killers were richly rewarded. One contemporary account describes the horror:
The guards stole and sometimes literally tore children and half-grown girls from the arms of their white friends or employers, murdering them in view of anyone who was present except when enough men were at home and heavily enough armed to beat them off. "We must kill them big and little," one of the guards is quoted as saying, "nits will be lice."