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America's Simmering Cauldron
The rise in bigotry and hate reminds us what's at stake as the 2024 election beckons
Over the last six years, I’ve often thought about comedian Aziz Ansari’s Saturday Night Live monologue the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. He captured then what many of us were feeling in the wake of Trump’s ascendancy—and what I’ve often felt since. “The problem is, there’s a new group,” he said.
I’m talking about this tiny slice of people that have gotten way too fired up about the Trump thing for the wrong reasons. I’m talking about these people that, as soon as Trump won, they’re like, ‘We don’t have to pretend like we’re not racist anymore! We don’t have to pretend anymore! We can be racist again! Whoo!’
His fist pump turns into a Nazi salute.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! No, no! If you’re one of these people, please go back to pretending. You’ve got to go back to pretending. I’m so sorry we never thanked you for your service. We never realized how much effort you were putting into the pretending. But you gotta go back to pretending.
We’ve all seen less and less pretending, more and more reveling in anger, grievance and violence, egged on by a demagogic ex-president who exploited the bigotry and rage to shake the nation’s liberal foundations and strengthen his power with extremism. We’ve all seen what happened since he relished in the idea of “American carnage” on the steps of the nation’s capitol on inauguration day:
There were neo-Nazis demonstrating in Charlottesville that “Jews will not replace us” with their president insisting there are “fine people” on both sides…an anti-Muslim travel ban…degrading, dehumanizing attacks by Trump on refugees as “vermin” and “animals” and more. There was the mass murder of 23 humans at an El Paso Walmart, targeting Hispanics near the Mexican border…the mass murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh…the mass murder of 10 Black people in a Buffalo grocery store…stochastic terrorism and bigotry unleashed….on and on and on again.
There was, as Ansari feared, less and less pretending. What in another time may have been simmering—a covered cauldron of racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia—was now out in the open more and more. Rising numbers of hate crimes. Growing belief in the legitimacy of political violence. Feelings of freedom and power to say anything no matter how much pain it caused others. Sick pleasure in the power that emanated from creating fear, encouraged by Trump as the way to consolidate power.
January 6 was the apotheosis of that feeling and belief.
Here we are, years later, and that simmering cauldron of hate has boiled to a new level since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism counted a 388 percent rise in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. just since Oct. 7, the day of Hamas’ attack in Israel. That includes over 300 reported incidents of harassment, vandalism and violent attacks between Oct. 7 and Oct. 23. That includes a Cornell University student threatening to kill Jews and target a Jewish center on campus. These days also include the brutal murder of a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy by his family’s landlord.
“The reality is that the terrorism threat has been elevated throughout 2023,” FBI director Christopher Wray said at a Department of Homeland Security hearing on Tuesday, ”but the ongoing war in the Middle East has raised the threat of an attack against Americans in the United States to a whole other level.”
And where does Wray and the bureau see this going?
We assess that the actions of Hamas and its allies will serve as an inspiration the likes of which we haven’t seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate years ago. In just the past few weeks, multiple foreign terrorist organizations have called for attacks against Americans and the West…
Here in the United States, our most immediate concern is that violent extremists—individuals or small groups—will draw inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks against Americans going about their daily lives. That includes not just homegrown violent extremists inspired by a foreign terrorist organization but also domestic violent extremists targeting Jewish or Muslim communities.
It’s not like this climate of violence and bigotry hasn’t been part of the American experience throughout its history. Milestones along this history of tears: the genocide of the Indigenous population, the reliance on and abuse of enslaved people, the vicious resistance to freed slaves and their rising power during Reconstruction, the widespread lynching led by the terrorist Ku Klux Klan in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the struggles for civil rights which continue to this day.
But this moment feels especially fragile, the fabric of society taut, fraying, at risk of ripping beyond repair. In such a moment, those of good will are required to seek out decent leaders to advocate for calm and the openness of heart that can quiet the storm.
We have almost exactly one year before the 2024 national elections—one year to advocate for democracy and against violence and bigotry. Here’s an opportunity to revive the hard-fought belief in the healthy impulses of liberal government to improve lives and stem the demons that tear us apart. Anything less may lead to autocracy and the end of America’s promise, leaving us with little more than a memory of what was and a dream of what could have been.
We have a year to sort this out. We’ve been told by Trump that his mission is retribution. We’ve heard that Speaker Mike Johnson’s goal is to turn the clock back toward “18th century values.” And in recent days, we’ve learned from New York Times reporting that Trump acolytes are working to put in place a network of anti-democratic lawyers and other extremists (not weak legal “squishes” from the Federalist Society) to fully do Trump’s bidding and fulfill his autocratic dream if he returns to power.
As much as we may think keeping Trump out of the White House solves the problem, this autocracy-seeking effort is likely to persist with or without their malignant leader. In a twisted sense, they are doing all of us who still care about democracy a favor; they aren’t pretending—they are providing the clearest possible choice. What kind of country, what kind of society, do we want? The choice is still ours.
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