When Sadism is All the Rage
Reveling in the pain of others is not just a terrible look, it’s giving up on the promise of America
It’s not like sadism never existed in American political life. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant formed the Department of Justice, prioritizing a response to the terrorizing violence of the Ku Klux Klan that was on a murderous rampage to undermine Reconstruction and deny the rights of formerly enslaved people. Between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 lynchings were recorded in the United States, committed not only by those who relished the doing but also those who enjoyed the watching.
The latest political stunt of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flying scared and uncertain asylum seekers to predominately liberal Martha’s Vineyard obviously is not as depraved as lynchings, but the impulse is not far from it. He and his followers don’t want these migrants dirtying up their world, so he transported them like human chattel in hopes of capturing outraged reactions from hypocritical liberal Democrats who don’t live along a border. (It didn’t work: Locals helped with food and shelter.) Like lynchings, it’s not just the act, it’s also the display, an opportunity to frighten and intimidate the people they want gone and to communicate to other immigrants what they’re up to.
This is a long way from the mindset etched on the pedestal of Lady Liberty in New York Harbor, words crafted by poet Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Laying waste to the idea of linear human progress yielding greater humanity, these words from 1883 are now mocked by practices and policies making it abundantly clear what too many Republicans think of poor and huddled masses, the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore” arriving at America’s borders. I don’t know about you, but I’m not over the sadistic policy that stripped babies and small children from migrant families to make a cruel show of what they think of these humans who entered America in search of a better life.
American immigration policy remains badly broken. It’s one of the central problems facing the country that president after president and Congress after Congress has refused or failed to fix, including President Biden (thus far). The climate crisis will only increase the number of refugees, fellow humans whose lives have been disrupted, who can no longer live where they did and are compelled to seek asylum elsewhere. Current numbers exceed 21 million globally, just an iota of the hundreds of millions that will be displaced in the decades ahead, including many millions that will see America as their desired destination.
But the sadistic trickery of DeSantis or the virulent ugliness of former Trump aide Stephen Miller and his boss to rip apart migrant families to send a message to all those considering coming don’t represent real responses to a complex and growing dilemma. Great countries employ their brains to seek solutions to great challenges, instead of feeding hatred and spreading violence in some misbegotten culture war.
The cruelty of DeSantis may be all the rage in his circles, where the robes have been removed and the hoods have been lifted, where you score points by how explicitly you show off your nastiness, how proudly you scapegoat the vulnerable. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Ted Cruz and Matt Gaetz are just some of the nasty copycats who got the demagogue’s memo and are bent on racing each other to the bottom—a bottom littered with the bodies of innocents just trying to live decent lives.
All this is by no means a recent tale. It’s a tragic story as old as America itself, surely as old as the earliest humans battling over resources to stay alive. But there’s no question Trump exacerbated this sociopathy with all his repetitive and hateful talk of rats and vermin and carnage, making this inhumanity acceptable, even pleasurable, for his cult followers. Sadism became the latest fashion; indeed this was fast fashion cheaply acquired and replaced over and over with a sensational new outfit whenever the impulse hits (and, oh, the impulse hits quite often).
DeSantis wouldn’t be spending millions of his taxpayers’ money to fly around lied-to refugees if he wasn’t convinced that sadism sells and a sizable core of the GOP base will be excited by his strategy. I’m not convinced this is a path to the presidency, no matter what the Florida governor and his crowd thinks, no matter how successful the former guy has been in demagoguing his way to the top.
Sadism may be all the rage now, but rage eventually burns out and people—even a radicalized minority—will want something new and better. For now, it’s up to all of us who still believe in human decency and don’t want a future poisoned by the darkest of human desires to advocate for policies and people that can give voice to our better angels.
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