Aleksandar Hemon on the Urge to Violence in a Time of Trump
When Neighbors Turn on Each Other, It Happens Fast
Last December I found myself outside a highrise in downtown Chicago where my friend was having a party for her 50th birthday. It was an exceptionally cold night, the wind chill deep in the negative digits. Running late, discombobulated by the cold, my “genius grant” long expired, I couldn’t figure out how to get into the building. Two men and two women stood in the lobby, so I signaled to the man facing the door, asking him to open it. Hands in his pockets, he shook his head, refusing. I wanted to have misunderstood him, so I ignored his disdain and tried to call my friend’s assistant, but she did not pick up. My fingers were icicles. I made eye contact with the guy again and asked him to open so I could ask a question. He refused again, shaking his head. One of the women moved to open the door, but then the guy said something to her, so she stopped, and he laughed. By this time, I was not only freezing but furious.
As soon as I finally stepped into the lobby I unleashed a torrent of insults at the guy. He was tall and bald, just like me. I called him a motherfucker, a fucking asshole and a piece of shit. “I’m not your doorman,” he retorted, with pronounced contempt. Rapidly, we reached a point where violence became tempting to both of us. I was out of my mind, while he was clearly gunning for conflict; the slightest physical contact would’ve lead to a fist fight. A substantial part of me burned to punch him in the fucking face, but I knew better—in America one can easily get shot for much less than punching someone in the fucking face. Thus we continued to rail at each other, our noses nearly touching. At some point I screamed at him: “I’m a person! I was freezing! I’m a fucking person!” while he screamed back at me: “So am I!” Persons though we may have been, his sidekick mocked my accent, called me a “Polack,” while the guy himself generously suggested that I should learn fucking English if I wanted to live in this country, and also that I should go back to my fucking country. The two women stood in the hallway struggling to talk some sense, in Spanish, into their friends.
The spring of anger was so tight inside me that it’s still incredible I didn’t punch the guy in his aforementioned fucking face. It seemed to me at the time that, if anything prevented me, it was that my antagonist was Latino, of immigrant stock, thus my natural and political friend and ally. I do not wish, however, to overestimate my sense of immigrant solidarity on that cold December night, as we were truly a terrible breath away from the violence of the kind I had not indulged in my adult years, if ever. It’s also true that I was aware that to them I appeared white (not least because the sidekick kept screaming “White trash!” at me), as I was aware that an arsenal of racist vocabulary, ardently accumulated by America, was available to be hurled at my antagonists. Of course, I didn’t use it—never have, never would—yet I felt the energy field of American racism enfolding us.
For days and nights after the almost-fracas I kept longing for some form of violent revenge; part of me still does. I’ve envisioned pulping the guy’s facial features, I’ve imagined kicking the back of his knee so that it buckles—the way I practiced many years ago in my middling martial arts classes—then twisting his ear to see the pain on his fucking face. I kept yearning for unchecked retribution, and in my long-lasting state of rage, I felt that I was entitled to it.
At the same time, another part of me—the thinking part, a much larger one, I continued hoping—recognized the pathology of craving violence, knew how wrong it was. The same part of me understood full well that this kind of longing for retributive violence has been essential to the rise of Trumpism. During Trump’s campaign, the promise of retribution had been at the forefront of his bullshit tsunami; in his executive orders soon after the inauguration, the promise was being fulfilled. In the days after the altercation, the constant presence of the vengeful desire made me painfully conscious that the Trumpian psychopathology has been—is still—inside me: though my near-fight could’ve happened at any time, in the age of Trump it acquired a fundamentally different meaning. While my antagonists indulged in the sort of racist abuse they themselves might have been subject to, I recognized in me the same capacity for violence that has fueled Trumpism.
It should be clear that Donald Trump himself is nothing, contains no substance, no thought, no ability to generate anything, other than, maybe, financial losses, pussy-grabs, and Tweets. What he does do is stimulate the worst in America, providing his void as a framework for white resentment and retribution fantasies. Trump was the only one among the not-so-diverse selection of deplorable Republican presidential candidates who didn’t hide behind any pre-fab ideological screen, nor made reference to any ideological authority or reactionary creed. To the wronged whites (and a few of those hoping to scramble up to the heaven of whiteness) he offered nothing other than a promise that somebody will pay dearly for pissing them off. In return they got him elected in order to punish and destroy the system that allowed those others—including my antagonist allies and myself—to dare demand respect while vying for their space in America.
This is all ancient, non-fake news. What I realized in the aftermath of the near-fight is how ubiquitous anger has become, how at home it is in my head, how easy it was for Trump to tap into it, how we must fight it in ourselves. I’m pretty sure that, had some suburban golf-playing, football-watching Trumpist fuck talked to me the way my antagonist friends did, my knuckles would’ve been bloodied, my hand broken, and I would’ve been dead or featured on the evening news, or both. But my anti-Trumpist violence would’ve been just as Trumpist, and I would’ve been just as sick with myself, a person wildly and violently different from who I think I am.
One of the privileges afforded by life in a seemingly stable society is a comfortable belief in one’s psychological continuity. If everything around me appears stable, I can more easily convince myself that I’ve always been the person I am now, that no substantial and abrupt changes in my personality have taken or can take place: I am who I am because I’ve always been myself. What is implied in this continuity is some form of essential selfhood independent, or at least autonomous, from the social and historical circumstances that surround it. Such essentialist individualism is at the heart of American culture, including its literature and self-help industry, where each person’s right and life project is to identify and nurture this core self. This belief in—indeed entitlement to—psychological continuity necessitates a belief in moral continuity: if I’ve always been myself and I’m a decent person, then I’ve always been and always will be a decent person.
Such moral self-belief is possible only if the social/historical circumstances appear never-changing, in which case an unimpeachable personal essence comports with an unimpeachable national essence—if I can believe that I’ve always been and always will be a good person, so I can count on my compatriots essentially being the same way. Hence the comforting, enduring fantasy that Americans are inherently decent people, which the election of Trump should finally put to rest.
Nevertheless, the question remains what happens to that sense of ethical stability when there is a societal rupture, when the infrastructure that allows for essentialist individualism is damaged and destroyed?
Every Bosnian I know had a friend, or even a family member, who flipped and betrayed the life they had shared until, in the early 1990s, the war started. My best high-school friend turned into a rabid Serbian nationalist and left his longtime girlfriend in Sarajevo so he could take part in its siege. My favorite literature professor became one of the main ideologues of Serbian fascism. Just last week, I talked to a Muslim man from Foča whose mother was repeatedly raped by his Serb friend, and whose brother was killed by their neighbor. Yugoslavia and Bosnia had provided a sense of societal stability for a couple of generations, which is why the betrayal was so shocking to so many of us.
Twenty years later, a big part of our enduring trauma is the continuous hurt of irreparably broken trust. How did our friends and neighbors undergo such a moral conversion, how did they become someone other than themselves? If one subscribes to essentialism, then the only explanation of what happened was that those who betrayed us had in fact always been like that, that they’d been lying to us and we should’ve never trusted them, never should’ve let them be our neighbors. This is not, however, an explanation I can accept, if for no other reason than it’s nothing but a version of the collectivist essentialism present in all bigotry, that feeds nationalist discourse particularly well: we must never trust them because they always lie and plot, so much so that we should never let them be among us (we should, say, impose a ban on free movement, and if that doesn’t work, extermination might).
Even if you discard the essentialist approach it’s still difficult to explain how a neighbor can be perfectly decent today, and kill your brother and rape your mother tomorrow. Teta-Jozefina, the woman who I considered my grandmother, once told me a story about her father, who had, one Bosnian winter during World War II, found himself on the way to having his throat slit by his neighbors. With his hands tied behind his back, he stood in line watching the people before him being slaughtered and thrown into the freezing river. When his turn came, he saved himself by leaping into the water before the killer could get to him. A few years later, after the war, my grandmother took lunch to his small store next to the local market. Outside the store, her father was drinking coffee with a man. In Bosnia, drinking coffee with someone is an act of friendship and intimacy, but she recognized her father’s coffee mate as one of the neighbors who had taken him to slaughter. “Do you know who this is?” my grandmother’s father asked her. “He was going to slit my throat.”
At this point in the story, I was shocked by the casualness of the exchange, so I asked my grandmother: “So what did the man say?”
She said: “Nothing. He just shrugged.”
I’ve been imagining and trying to interpret that shrug for many years now. It must have meant something like: “What could I do? Such were the times.” Perhaps the man was ashamed, perhaps grateful for my grandmother’s father’s unforgetting forgiveness, perhaps he learned something from his not seeking retribution. An essentialist would think that the man just retreated into his good-neighbor camouflage with the intention of unleashing his essential war-criminal nature at first opportunity. But what I’ve grown to think is that the man was a good neighbor until the war undid the social structure that allowed him to be so and activated a dormant part of him that could and would kill. And when the war ended, and some semblance of social stability was restored, he could go back to drinking coffee with this neighbor. Of course, what had been done could not be undone, but the neighbor was one person before the war, then he became another one, and then he was back, his criminal responsibility notwithstanding, to his better self.
On the range of human moral behavior there are the extreme ends: on the one side, those who maintain their unimpeachable ethical quality regardless of the social and historical circumstances; on the other side those whose evil nature cannot be altered by any nurture. On one side, saints; on the other, psychopaths. But in between are the rest of us, whose daily lives feature difficult moral decisions and their even more difficult enforcement. Among the rest of us, people have dormant selves and latent tendencies and have to manage and resist them, choosing the right things to do, occasionally failing. That’s the daily struggle of life, the bread and butter (or, sometimes, just the bread) of many a writer, including this one. Ideally, the ethical infrastructure of a stable society—a stick-and-carrot system of laws and opportunities for civic self-actualization—helps with those decisions. We have to learn to be good, to share what we have with those who have less, to practice being polite to our neighbors and not punching them in their fucking face, to abide by the sovereignty of other people and their bodies. If we do it long enough, we begin to think that’s our essential nature, which is much easier if we willingly participate in a shared civic project whose primary purpose is to make us all better people, if the social contract is also an ethical contract. We submit ourselves to a common ethical code because without it we might have a harder time figuring out what to do; with it we can strive for our psychological, moral, ethical continuity. It’s a lot of fucking work, but in a decent society, most strive to be decent.
When war, or authoritarianism, or some catastrophe (say, electing a psychopath for president) undoes the common civic project, and liquidates a society, it destroys the ethical code and, with it, our moral and psychological continuity. Behold the rampant Trumpian lying and racism, the deliberate stoking of bigotry and hatred, the total disregard for even a semblance of ethical behavior—these are not just symptoms of presidential psychopathy, these are essential to the project. For only if all ethical constraints are rendered outmoded can the dismantling of the civic infrastructure, the destruction of the very idea of society really begin; only then can the project go all the way; only then can the previously good neighbors be free to become throat-slitters. Those who orchestrate the rupture—warmongers, fascists, Republicans—count on the worst to do their deeds. What those who believe in moral and psychological continuity experience as traumatic breakdown, those who affect the breakdown see as the dawn of a new ethical era, where dormant possibilities are activated, where latent tendencies not only go unpunished but are socially rewarded. The basic program of any form of fascism is to release the evil in people—America will be great again as soon as it doesn’t give an ethical fuck about anything. “I’m a Leninist,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief advisor, proudly proclaimed. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
The worst and most common killers in any war are those who didn’t know they had it in them, those who enthusiastically actualize themselves in a context where ethical constraints are lifted. But ethical conversion is not a just a prerequisite for war and oppression; war and oppression generate it. Patriotic killing binds the nation, strengthening and reproducing the new ethos. A national consensus is not necessary for genocide; what is necessary is a small, devoted group that will start the process and involve the rest of the nation, thereby implicating it. Once the line is crossed, there is no reason to stop, and the further they go, the more people are culpable, and it’s harder to quit—the end point is a final solution.
The entire Trump campaign and the first month of his presidency were nothing but a process to activate the worst in a sufficient number of Americans so as to claim a mandate to do even worse. First, racism and insults during the campaign, then the Muslim ban, maybe a war with Iran, then, after an “Islamic” terrorist attack, internment camps, the National Guard on the streets supported by vigilante volunteers, by which time you should be avoiding your decent neighbor at all cost.
I must own up to the fact that, despite my best efforts, I’m a far worse person then I was before Trump’s election, let alone than before the electoral season started, and I expect to get even worse. Longing for retributive violence, mainly against Trumpists and Republicans, has now become a crucial part of my day, and my attendant anger. Many other Americans are also lesser human beings than they’ve been in a long time, though the accomplishments of the Bush regime in that respect are still quite impressive. But that moral worsening is not equally spread among the nation—some people are actually, miraculously, better. Nor is the worsening equally divided along gender lines. Trumpism brings out the worst in men more than in any other segment of population.
While it’s true that men in any patriarchy are socialized to value violence as a measure of masculinity, and see it as an entitlement and a guarantee of the dominant social and gender hierarchy, in the US the idea of violence as the main means of social and historical agency is practically infallible. It’s as sacred among the myriad presidents who eagerly invade countries to confirm American exceptionalism as it is among gun owners who sincerely believe they would be effectively disenfranchised if their free and unlimited access to violence was barred.
Moreover, nationalism, including the white American Bannonite variety, sees itself as a primarily, even exclusively, masculine ideology: a strong nation consists of men who bond in strength by way of oppressing women (and homosexuals, and gender-fluid people, and non-violent men etc.) and eliminating weaker enemies. In wartime Bosnia, the Serb-nationalist rape campaign didn’t just intend to render Muslim men weak by violating “their” women, but also to bond the Serb men in a shared sense of superior masculinity. In nationalist discourse, making the country great again always requires (re)masculization, ideally by way of violence and aggression. In Trump’s perpetually Viagra-addled mind, to make America great again men need to be manlier, which is to say more aggressive and violent, more willing to kill for the nation, more willing to hate women. Again, misogyny is not just a side effect of Trump’s psychopathology, but essential to the project. Without this new masculinity the Trumpist authoritarian ethos is impossible, just as it is unimaginable sans Viagra. Trump called upon American men by way braying about his masculinity and bragging about groping and insulting women, promising better, more American violence, and a vast number of them enthusiastically responded. If your previously decent—that is, pussified—neighbor endorses torturing Muslims and/or raping women, or indeed starts doing it himself, it will be so as to feel like a real man.
For a long time after my near-fight with the bald man, I kept obsessively replaying the sequence of near-events, feeling perpetually torn between my longing for retributive violence and self-flagellating shame for being unable to fully escape my violent masculinity. So focused was I on recollecting the conflict, that only a few weeks later did I recall there were two women present in the lobby, that one of them moved to open the door for me, and that it could have well been their presence, or whatever they said to the bald guy in Spanish, that stemmed the male (mis)fireworks and prevented violence.
This realization coincided with the Women’s March in Washington, when it became blazingly clear to me that the brunt of resistance to the Trumpian project, entirely contingent upon neo-fascist, nationalist notions of masculinity, will have to come from women. Women can see the enemy more clearly because they’re not socialized in violence and are thus less contaminated by violent longings, because solidarity comes easily to them, because they can be trusted to restore continuity with our better selves. As I recollected the near-fight with the bald guy, I slipped into imagining the two women telling us to stop the nonsense and behave like grown-ups, making us shake hands and embrace each other. It could—should—have happened. What will defeat Trumpism is not angry men, but courageous women.