The Coming Purge

Gentle Readers, it appears likely that Donald Trump will announce the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals today. He may have done so by the time you read this. The president of the Electoral College has done many deeply disturbing things in his few months in office, enough to last a reasonable country for at least a few decades. He has applauded Klansmen and Nazis. He has tried to ban an entire religion from entering the country. He has tried to ensure more than ten thousand people die every year for lack of access to affordable health care. Now he has higher ambitions.

Let me explain. Barack Obama established DACA in 2012 to help people who came to the United States as children. They arrived and remained illegally, always unsure of their safety and security, because their parents fled with them from horrors back home. They risked traveling vast distances and placed themselves and their families in the hands of criminal syndicates known for torture, murder, and rape in order to come to the US without our leave. One does not do this lightly; economic opportunity doesn’t draw people to such extremes. They deemed what they faced in their prior homes so terrible for themselves and their children that they took those risks. If we believed our national creeds, we would call them heroes.

DACA permits children who came to the US this way to legally remain, work, and study here. To get that right, they had to report themselves and risk deportation to horrors unknown to them for most of their lives. It took a breathtaking act of faith for almost eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants, Americans in everything but name, to come forward that way. The government vetted them for criminal history and national security before approving their status. That bought them two years safe from deportation, with a renewal option thereafter if they paid a fee. It gave these people a security they hadn’t had before and, by making their status legal, protected them from the exploitation inherent in not having recourse to the police.

Undocumented immigrants to the United States don’t usually come from rich countries full of white people. Rich countries, by pillaging poor countries, have usually bought themselves plenty of stability. Most DACA recipients hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to our racial theories, they don’t get to claim whiteness. It doesn’t matter that they’re ordinary people just like the rest of us and the United States is their only home. They have the wrong color written all over them, so they must go.

I don’t know how this will all transpire, but ending DACA puts eight hundred thousand people on notice that they may be thrown out of their homes. In many cases, they will be forced back into the dangers that their parents tried to spare them from. Some will muddle through, but people will suffer and die from this. When other countries do forced population transfers with reckless disregard for life, we call it crimes against humanity. Consistency demands we do the same here. Americans have had pogroms and genocides before, but until recently we seem to have been dragging ourselves kicking and screaming away from them. We can’t say that anymore. Forcing DACA recipients into these dire situations isn’t an accident of the policy or an unforeseen outcome; it’s the goal.

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George Washington and Robert Lee: Some Thoughts

George Washington and William Lee, whom he enslaved

Gentle Readers, here we go again. The President employs a lawyer, as most officeholders do, to see to his affairs. This president requires one more than most. He has chosen John Dowd. I know nothing about Dowd except for his most famous client and what this New York Times story reports. Many lawyers study history as undergraduates and the skills one picks up in law school have substantial overlap with those of historians. That doesn’t make lawyers into historians, but one would hope they help to some degree. Dowd got an email which purported to vindicate Trump’s late claims about the removal of Confederate statues and forwarded it among his circle of journalists, officials, and friends. The email claims

LEE IS NO DIFFERENT THAN WASHINGTON

Both owned slaves.

Both rebelled against the ruling government.

Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West point.

Both saved America.

Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders.

Neither man is any different than Napolean [sic], Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc.

You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there is literally no difference between the two men.

Where to start? I will pass over Lee’s and Washington’s military virtues as irrelevant. Good generalship accrues to causes infamous and praiseworthy just as easily and so says nothing about the overall worth of the people and causes involved.

Both men rebelled against the ruling government. I don’t feel a great urge to defend the American Revolution, which had at best mixed blessings for anyone who had the wrong skin color, but Washington and the rest fought for more than the simple, bloody-minded desire to preserve slavery against all hazards. Lee can claim no such thing. Nor should we endorse anyone who rebels against a ruling government, unless we endorse Lee, Washington, Lenin, Gandhi, and Hitler as essentially the same. People rebel for causes good and bad, against governments good and bad, with such regularity that smiling on the lot of them requires staggering ignorance or staggering recklessness.

The notion that Lee, who fought for four years to destroy the United States, somehow saved it barely deserves an answer. He fought against everything Washington fought for. He Lee won, the nation Washington helped build would have ended at the point of Lee’s bayonets. If fighting to destroy the United States in the name of slavery makes you a great American, only white supremacists could cheerfully claim the title and the rest of us owe it to ourselves and their victims to be the worst of Americans.

Robert E. Lee

Lee and Washington both owned people, fair enough. Neither treated those people they enslaved well, though both might flatter themselves by thinking so. Both zealously pursued runaways and ordered violent punishments for those who defied them. Both sundered families, though Washington eventually stopped. He also freed those who he enslaved of his own free will, albeit only in his last will and testament. Lee kept the slaves he had as part of his father-in-law’s estate until the last possible minute, and went to court to get that time extended. Washington, for all his numerous faults, kept more slaves at Mount Vernon than he could profitably use in order to preserve families. Lee spent his time as executor of the estate hiring slaves out in Richmond and elsewhere, so shattering family bonds, specifically to increase his profits. None of this makes Washington a good man, despite owning people. He far more than Lee ever did and did so for longer, but it surely counts as a difference.

In myth, Lee refused to bear arms against Virginia and so almost accidentally fell into the Confederacy. In reality, he chose to fight on behalf of slavery and expressed his support for the institution regardless of Virginia’s other political circumstances. Washington thought this about the Union:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Neither Virginia nor any other Southern state sought a constitutional amendment, or even ordinary legislation, to part from the United states. By Washington’s logic they had a duty to obey the government, whoever the president and whatever the policy toward slavery. The first president lived up to that principle through his public career. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, he complained about petty state jealousies and national impotence which left his army short of funds and supplies.

One might argue that Washington did not face the question as Lee did, poised between Virginia and Slavery on one side and the United States on the other. We can’t argue that he actually did, as no secession crisis took place in Washington’s lifetime. However, Washington Edmund Randolph that he had thought about the issue and came to a decision. Randolph later told Thomas Jefferson, who noted the fact in his papers:

the P. speaking with R. on the hypothesis of a separation of the Union into Northern and Southern said he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern

Washington might have chosen differently when the occasion came. Few of us demur from bold talk when not expected to deliver at once. But we have the evidence we have and what Washington said to Randolph matches the consistent tenor of his public life and other declared principles.

John Dowd might not know of the Randolph conversation. It took me more than the usual amount of effort to chase the quote down to a source, so I can’t fault him for that. But given the other howlers in his forward, facts clearly don’t enter into it. Like many of us, Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people he finds easy to relate to.

 

Thoughts on Charlottesville

Gentle Readers, you all know the news by now. Over the past weekend, a group of Nazis (and to whatever degree it makes sense to separate them anymore, Klansmen) carrying tiki torches marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. They chanted their usual slogans, “blood and soil,” “the Jews will not replace us,”  you can get the full list from any documentary. They came armed for war. The police now believe they had weapons cached around the city; the governor of the state believes they packed more heat than the local department did. They came, as fascist groups usually do, hoping for a fight. When the counter marchers, including remarkably brave students from the University of Virginia who faced an armed mob who literally believe their lives expendable, did not offer a fight, the fascists invented one.

One of those Nazis, James Fields, drove a car into the counter protesters, injured several, and murdered Heather Heyer. You know her story. Others may yet share her fate. I’m sure the thought of it makes many of them happy indeed. They win for showing up, win for seeing each other in numbers, and win again for the murder. We must remember them. I offer also this story I saw reported less in the media over these awful days:

Deandre Harris, works at a local high school. He has the hard, draining job of an instructional assistant in a special education program. If you know nothing else about special education, understand that the people who work in those classrooms with those kids are heroes. Harris marched; the Nazis found him. He explains what happened next:

“Me and about five of my friends were out protesting. We thought [the racists] left, but at one point they came back. Everyone was exchanging words with the group, but then the KKK and white supremacists just rushed us,” Harris told The Root in an interview.

“They were beating me with poles. I have eight staples in my head, a broken wrist and a chipped tooth,” Harris said.

Harris had friends who saw him beneath their pile of limbs, poles, and hatred. They stepped in, so he lived to tell his story. This all took place in a building adjacent to the Charlottesville police department. Harris’ case might not fit technical definitions built on nineteenth and early twentieth century crimes, but white supremacists tried to murder him for political activism. Deandre Harris was lynched last weekend. This happened in the United States of America in 2017, decades after the civil rights movement and not one year after our first black president left office.

The horrors continued. Nazis marching openly in numbers should chill us all to the bone and conjure memories of absent grandparents and great-grandparents who fought what we have long called the Good War. We decided as a nation that we would have Nazis as our ultimate villain. The ultimate in American virtue these past eight years fit into a red glove colliding with Hitler’s face. Everything the Nazis were, we were not. The United States existed to destroy Nazism. We kill Nazis in video games. We watch them die in movies. We cheer their failures in comic books. We have no more efficient shorthand for evil.

That was then. The choice to focus on someone else’s sins relieves us of our own burdens. Doing that doesn’t make Americans uniquely evil; everyone would rather talk about the faults of others than their own. But we do have a unique and horrifying history that doesn’t go away for our ignoring it. Rather, by ignoring it we continue that history. According to fascism scholar Robert Paxton, the first Ku Klux Klan might count as the first proto-fascist movement in world history. As in developing proslavery theory to its fullest flower, Americans got ahead of the curve. A nation built on genocide and slavery had advantages in these things. A nation that pretends to a different founding has still more.

The potential for authoritarianism of every stripe exists in every culture. In the United States, it has found its fullest flower through white supremacy. That has been with us from the seventeenth century onward. We have declared victory over it many times and always it has returned. Here we go again.

You have doubtless heard the many denunciations. Politicians must say that this is not us and we have no room in America for it. We all know otherwise, but to we say these things in aspiration; the America we want does not permit such horrors. We are not, we know, better than this. We want to be. When our leaders give the ritual condemnations they remind us of our aspirations and, at least rhetorically, declare that they will not have the American state endorse such actions on their watch. The actual follow-through on such things rarely, with the notable exception of a brief period in the 1960s, inspires confidence but the statements have meaning all the same. They articulate a national creed which disassociates us from the perpetrators and does not work to encourage further acts of white supremacist terror.

If speaking the ritual phrases asks almost nothing of politicians, it at least does that. The occasion warrants at least a briefly lifted finger, sincere or otherwise. The perpetrators know that as well as anyone and watch these responses with care. They also note when attention dies down and the more sophisticated tools of white supremacy march on. That sends a message: We disagree with your methods but share your goals. I wish it said more, but neither the nation’s history nor its current events admit any other conclusion that I can see.

Then the loser of the 2016 election got to become president. Said white supremacist opted to fill our White House and head our Justice Department with more of his kind. They know Donald Trump as one of their own, more so than the usually extensive cast of friends that the white power movement has in Washington. Unlike the polished hands at double talk and dog whistles, the strategy the Republican party embarked upon in earnest in 1968 and hasn’t wavered from since, he says the quiet parts out loud. The immediate response of a man with no filter and a remarkable ability to remember the names of people who displease him for Twitter rants, involved blaming both sides. The Nazis and the Klan knew they had a big green light from Trump and a wave of violence spread immediately after his election. Via Twitter, he gave them a much bigger and more explicit one. The president, at least of the Electoral College, essentially told people he knew capable of murder that they should get right to it.

In the months since November, this has become a cliche. It remains true all the same: If you ever wondered what you would do during slavery or the rise of the Nazi party, you are doing it right now. I don’t know where this is going any more than you do; historians have no particular gift for seeing the future. But I do not believe and we cannot believe that this will all just work out. More likely that not, we will see more assaults and more victims, faster and faster. Maybe we can stop it, maybe not. I can’t tell you what will or will not work. I don’t expect the tactics of the past to necessarily work again. The Civil Rights Movement required a degree of acceptance and support from the federal government that anti-Trump and anti-racist groups obviously now lack. It also cut across partisan lines by undermining white Democratic hegemony in the South in a way that made it appealing to some members of both parties rather than a strictly partisan issue. That is likewise no longer true. If you don’t believe me, consider that states controlled by the Republican party have introduced bills to essentially legalize running over protesters in the street. Consider also this photograph of the majority leader of the United States Senate:

Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

This is the nation Americans live in, more than we have in a long time. It has taken decades of work to bring us to this point. The movement did not need a Trump to get this far, though he may have accelerated their timeline. It will survive him. It stands poised to radically transform the country. We may not survive it. Or it may not survive us.

E Pluribus Unum for White Supremacists

Americans teach our children to admire the country as a place where people of diverse origins can come together. By diverse, we have usually meant the right parts of Europe and believing in the right religion. Just how large a circle that draws varies over time. My surname ends in a vowel, which a few decades back put me into the wrong group. My grandfather grew up in an ethnic ghetto, which they had even in small towns. The Polish people lived on this side of the river, while everyone else lived on the other. They spoke Polish at home and learned English elsewhere. In school two generations later, we always knew the teachers not from the area by how they stumbled over our surnames. By then, everyone else could get at least close to however we chose to render the weird piles of consonants that made sense to our grandparents but we added to the difficulty with inconsistently modifying the pronunciations to fit English spelling conventions. Many Americans have similar stories. Make the number of generations removed from immigration into a variable and you can take in most of us. We become Americans, Americans become us, and the national myth rolls along.

We make exceptions, of course. Native Americans and African-Americans can live in the country for centuries longer than any of our ancestors and remain outsiders, at best contingently human. Part of becoming American, for the rest of us, usually means we join in afflicting them with special zeal. At some point, the unstated logic goes, one has to get on board with the national creed. Irish Americans learned it in the nineteenth century, understanding free black Americans in the North as an existential threat to their jobs. In those days, immigrants worried that the native-born would steal their work. But we muddle through, injustice by injustice, atrocity by atrocity, smiling and linking arms as we go about the national project of making North America a white person’s paradise. To do otherwise would mark us as foreign, like those adults who refuse, in their perfidy, to make the trifling effort to pick up English as a second language. E pluribus unum or else.

For decades now, Americans have understood Nazis as the antithesis of all things American. We have made them into our ultimate symbol of evil. Anything we dislike, we consider something the Nazis did or would have done. Any leader we loathe, we compare with Hitler. We may use other comparisons too, but when only the big guns will do we go with the Third Reich. Some malevolent fools might try it, but no real American could go Nazi. We have no place for such vile individuals.

E pluribus unum, America has worked its magic again.

Charlottesville, Virginia, has a statue of Robert E. Lee. For some time now, many have thought it past time to get rid of the thing because honoring a traitor who fought a nation built on white supremacy and slavery in order to make a new nation still more thoroughly built upon them should not continue. The proposed removal drew protests and, quelle suprise, the Nazis showed up. They came bearing torches, in the hallowed tradition of their German and American heroes. It seems they took a pass on wearing their sheets or brown shirts, but other than that they marched straight out of central casting. They had things to say too, which showed that they had done their homework:

The protesters chanted, “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.”

Richard Spencer, the Trump-heiling unwitting star of this reenactment of Captain America’s first appearance, couldn’t stay away from the fun. All his friends turned out., after all.

Back in the day, American white supremacists thought little of Nazis. The United States had its own ways to hate and for the most part didn’t need tips from foreigners who copied off our paper when it came to racial laws. No one likes a cheater. So we should put this one down on our calendars. Americans who hate like the Klan and the Confederacy come together with Americans who hate like the Nazis, all basking in their magnificent whiteness. When the Klan, our homegrown fascist movement, rode around with torches everyone knew the purpose. Men in sheets didn’t scare anyone much past the age of ten, but men in sheets who would murder you for the color of your skin made an impression. Here too the protesters did their homework.

Other Americans condemned them, as we do. The men who want to serve as Virginia’s next governor joined in, even from the more eagerly white supremacist of the two parties. Spencer and the others probably expected as much. They understand Donald Trump as one of their own even if he makes feeble gestures otherwise now and then to maintain plausible deniability. One candidate, Democrat Tom Perriello asked them to get their hate out of his hometown. Spencer answered back on that they won and he lost. Perriello responded:

I’ll not argue otherwise, though the Richard Spencers of the world have won often enough since 1865. They know their history well enough to know that. I bet Perriello does too, but it doesn’t do for a candidate to admit such things. They also both know that most of the Virginia governor hopefuls condemned Spencer, but one did not. Corey Stewart, former head of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign, seeks the Republican nomination and has made the Lee statue a large part of his campaign. He wants it to stay. Yesterday, he managed to tweet out a Mother’s Day message but not to comment on Spencer or the protest. I have no doubt Spencer and company will cherish the memory of that fact. The rest of us must simply live with the fact that a man who expects to run for statewide office in the America of 2017 doesn’t see a need to distance himself from a Nazi torch mob. Some of us will probably die from it too.

In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Gentle Readers, some of you might enjoy my prose but I suspect you keep reading for the history. That history comes from a mix of original research on my part and the work of others, who guide me to documents and further work through their footnotes. A typical post begins with my reading what a historian has said about something, checking those footnotes, and then reading the sources if I can access them. In the course of that, I also come on things by chance. If you read the acknowledgements of any history book, you’ll find long lists of colleagues, archivists, and others thanked. Still more fill the citations. Every work of history owes much to unnumbered collaborators from librarians to mentors to students, friends, and family.

And they cost money. I do my research through an internet connection, but I can do that because of you. For decades the United States has used tax dollars to fund historical research in much the same way, albeit rather less generously, as it does science. Those countless historians digging through the archives often do so with government grants. If you look through the citations of any history book, except perhaps the most narrow and technical works, you will find numerous references to widely-scattered archives. Even if one has the good fortune to live near an important archive, others always remain that require travel expenses. That’s gas for your car, your airfare, hotel costs, and historians have long accustomed themselves to eating while they do all of this. Grants and other federal funds make meeting those expenses far easier, especially for the vast majority of historians who lack the considerable wealth of the few academic superstars who regularly hit the bestseller lists.

If you have ever read a history book published in the United States in the last fifty years, you have almost certainly read a work that received support from our government many times over. In addition to the historians themselves, the United States funds many of the archives used. It has funded work I do here, by way of the digitization projects which have made so many documents available to me. I lack the funds and ability to travel to Kansas or Missouri where I might find bound volumes or loose issues of those nineteenth century papers. I journey to them through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you have a local museum, university, college, historical site, or library, then your community probably has had funding from them too. The NEH has a search function you can use to find what it has done for your town.

We have a public library here with an impressive local history room, which received $6,000 in 2009. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t have any interesting slavery-related materials, but I have had occasion to use it all the same. Last fall, my father saw a news report about the anniversary of a plane crash. He vaguely recalled the event but not any details, so one Tuesday we hopped in the car and got over to the public library, which hosts the collection. I thought we would probably have to go through the microfilm and we found the proper reel, but we no sooner did that than a librarian came over. She told us that they kept clippings from the local newspaper for aircraft disasters. In less than five minutes, we sat down in a pleasant little room with one of the gray archival boxes you see in the documentaries. We came away with almost everything we needed to know. My father wanted to know about a monument that the families had built on public land. The librarian knew a few local people who studied that kind of thing and put me on the phone with one, who gave us directions. That NEH grant paid for our afternoon’s research and facilitated a thoroughly pleasant afternoon together.

The loser of the 2016 presidential election got to be president anyway. This past week he submitted a budget which does not merely cut the NEH, but actually eliminates it on the grounds, presumably, that the NEH has never killed a sufficient number of people as to impress him with its hard power bona fides. I consider it eminently worth keeping, and vastly increasing, simply for the good work it does. You can’t put a dollar value on the greater understanding of ourselves that the humanities provide. But if one insists, then the NEH consumes such a tiny part of the four trillion dollar budget that eliminating it wouldn’t pay for a brand new aircraft carrier or some other war-winning gadget for a war we have yet to embark upon. If one feels an overriding need to slash spending for its own sake, then the president might well look at his own travel budget. His weekend jaunts to his vacation home in Florida have already cost us millions, rather more than almost every historian will ever see.

The cuts to the arts and humanities will not kill anyone, which is more than I can say for most of the cuts that Trump prefers, but they do strike to the heart of this blog’s mission. I hope you will join me in condemning them and making your opposition known.

Thoughts on Donald Trump’s America

A couple of weeks ago, criminal and authoritarian Donald Trump lost the presidential election and so spared us four to eight years of looting the treasury and rule by open, unrepentant white supremacists, anti-semites, homophobes, and other assorted menaces to human rights, decency, and lives. His loss probably saved the tattered remains of American democracy for that same span. But white Americans don’t like that sort of outcome. We have had quite enough of this noise about non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and non-men deserving rights we feel bound to respect. So we made him president-elect anyway. We didn’t all sign on for that, but I suspect most of reading this can remember the last time the loser got to have the presidency anyway. If the American people all counted equally, we would live in a different world. We have a system that insists otherwise, granting tremendous power to mostly white, sparsely-populated states which they use from time to time to tell the rest of us that their dirt and trees count for more than our lives. Should you have heard the term “structural racism” and wondered how that worked, now you know.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Trump ran an openly racist campaign. At least one person vying for any office in the United States runs a racist, but we had norms about that. You chose policies that just happened to disproportionately harm minorities. You signaled your allegiance to white power with a code: law and order, welfare queens, entitlement cuts, small government, tough on drugs. I could go on. We all know what these things mean, but we pretend otherwise and then scratch our heads at how everyone else votes so differently from white America. They just can’t have reasons; only white people can afford those.

Those norms worked to facilitate racist outcomes, just as everything else in our discourse about “race” does. We imagine race as a thing out in the world, like the weather. What can we do about race or the rain? If we talked about racism instead, then we would have to admit that we choose it. We white Americans struck a deal with ourselves. We agreed to put some of the most egregious expressions of white supremacy beyond the pale, in exchange for keeping the rest. We agreed that the Dylann Roofs of the world had no place in our society, except for letting us denounce them and shrug off the far greater number of lives we waste at the stroke of a presidential pen or by carefully filling out the dot on our ballots. That norm didn’t count for much, but we assented to it away only after a great struggle still in living memory. We do not permit open racist intentions in our politics.

So much for that. He lost the election, but because we have a fundamentally broken system which structurally privileges whites above everyone else, the high-rent version of Dylann Roof moves into the White House in January. Scholars of authoritarianism, both the twentieth century German version and more modern, less famous brands have come forward to warn us; they do not do so lightly. They did not turn out for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, or Ronald Reagan. He has named a segregationist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard, a man so racist that the Republican party of the 1980s rejected him for a the federal bench, to run the executive department founded to preserve the rights of the freedpeople. He has an anti-semite as his chief advisor. He stands poised to use the American government to enrich his personal businesses, just as the masters of stereotypical banana republics do.

I believe we will have elections in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2024; I do not expect the forms of American government to vanish. Putin’s Russia has elections too. They have done nothing to prevent authoritarianism there. We have stronger institutions, but they have endured a decades-long assault. Political parties have the job of keeping out the wildly unqualified and dangerous. They failed. The media ought to serve as watchdogs for our liberties. Instead of speaking of racists, neo-Nazis, the Klan, and all the rest, they deem Trump’s friends merely “controversial”. They wonder endlessly how they lost touch with the white working class, as though no other voters existed. In a nation where billionaires can destroy media outlets through the legal system, you don’t need censors. They’ll do the job themselves.

We imagine that democracy ends with a great crash. The world turns gray, the clouds roll in, and everyone forgets how to smile. The real world doesn’t support Mordor or any reasonable approximation. We will not wake up one day and discover that we have moved to in our sleep North Korea. Life goes on. You will probably still have friends and family. Good days and bad will come and go. Most of us will probably not have a mob rush up and clap us in literal chains. Real world oppression doesn’t work like that. It comes on little by little, small adjustments that don’t seem to mean anything. They happen to people far away, on the margins, to the hated. You get used to one and then the next comes. Things once unthinkable become ordinary, even welcome. Maybe something upsets you, but you learn to stay quiet. The rules become clear and we stick to them. We still have something to lose, after all.

You may choose not to believe me, Gentle Readers. I would gain no satisfaction from getting this right. But let me tell you something: back when I went to school, we reserved torture for the heights of villainy. Nazis tortured, not the United States. Under George W. Bush, the United States adopted torture as a matter of policy. When news of that broke, we did not unite in horror against it. Instead the administration and its defenders insisted we had done no wrong, redefining the word ‘torture’ to hide its substance and making a matter of human rights into one of simple partisanship. Trump has told us he will resume torture, and then some.

Trump’s surrogates now cite the internment of Japanese-Americans as precedent for their proposed national registry for Muslims. They expect us to take that not as a warning, but as a grounding in history they believe we should happily emulate. Come January, we have an administration which promised these things to us. If they come, they will owe their arrival not to surprise or shock, but planning.

Speaking of planning, a national registry of Muslims would serve as an ideal precursor for rounding them up into internment camps. Once we have them there, we might put them to work. If they don’t work, or prove difficult, we have the tools to deal with that too. They have already rolled out informally, as all the Klansmen and neo-Nazis, uniformed or otherwise, understand that Trump’s America has their backs. I don’t know if we will go that far, but we have already crossed more Rubicons than I care to count. The Nazis did not begin with Auschwitz, but with street thugs. They proceeded through roving bands of armed men in uniform, something Americans have plenty of experience with in the form of white sheets. The gas chambers and crematoria came late and killed fewer than those bands.

Don’t believe it can never happen here. This country enslaved four million people and only stopped after four years of bloody war. After it ended, we got almost all the way back to slavery again within twenty years and it took the better part of a century to claw our way back to measures that Reconstruction-era Republicans would have found broadly familiar. We have spent the decades since slowly rolling them back again; we just had our first election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Native Americans did not kindly die of disease to free up a continent for us. We white Americans murdered our way across it and now pretend the survivors’ descendants don’t exist. Past Americans can only show us theoretical ceilings: we know that we can go this far, but we may do them one better. We should not succumb to the temptation of the barrel’s bottom; it has none. The horrors of our past and present have far more often burned themselves out in a frenzy of self-destruction or yielded to overwhelming external force than they have discovered some long-neglected scruple on their own.

None of us knows what will come, but we should open our eyes to what looks likely. We should take seriously the warnings we have received from survivors and scholars alike. I start with this one:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.

I hope I am alarmed for nothing; being right would give me no satisfaction at all. But here I must remind you what Dylann Roof said before he went on his murder spree:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Those words put Roof one paycheck away from giving an official campaign speech. The day before he walked into that church in Charleston, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president with these words:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Roof had only ordinary firearms, themselves all too deadly, at his command. Come January, President-Elect Trump inherits a massive national security apparatus armed with nuclear weapons. We do not have the luxury, for the sake of our lives and those of countless human beings here and abroad, of taking him lightly.