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Adam Serwer On New Book: 'The Cruelty Is The Point' In Trump's America


You may have heard the phrase, the cruelty is the point, used a lot over the last few years. It's become something of a catchphrase among pundits as a way to criticize former President Donald Trump and his brand of politics. It was coined by Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic magazine. His 2018 essay of that name was just one of many that he wrote during Trump's presidency as he tried to make sense of it and the larger political movement Trump's base represents. Now Serwer is out with a collection of essays, also with that title. In it, he peels back history to argue that Trump's rise to power was no aberration in American history and that the political project of Trumpism is still very much alive. The full title is "The Cruelty Is The Point: The Past, Present And Future Of Trump's America."

Adam Serwer joins us now. Hello. Welcome to the program.

ADAM SERWER: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: This book is, of course, a collection of essays, many, as we said, that were published in The Atlantic, some new. And it's not all about Donald Trump, but the through line really is Trump and his politics and how we got here. There have been a ton of books published about Trump's presidency. What made you want to add to that collection?

SERWER: So I wanted to look at Trump as a manifestation of some of the ideological trends in American history that have been most dangerous to our democracy. You know, most people think of cruelty as an individual problem. And it is that, but what I'm focused on in the book is cruelty as a part of American politics, specifically the way that it is used to demonize certain groups so you can justify denying people their basic rights under the Constitution and exclude them from the political process, which is substantially what the Trump project was about, both as a means to power and also as a policy agenda.

MCCAMMON: One of the essays that really focuses on what we remember and how we remember is called "The Nationalist Delusion." You write about Alexander Stephens, who was vice president of the Confederacy and deeply devoted to racial hierarchies. But after losing the war, he took a very different posture. Can you tell us more about him and why his story might be relevant today?

SERWER: So Alexander Stephens - he's vice president of the Confederacy. He gives this famous speech known as the Cornerstone Speech, where he says that the cornerstone of the Confederacy is that the African is not equal to the white man and he deserves to be in servitude for all time. And then after he's captured after the Civil War, he's sitting in prison. And he's writing his diary, and he says slavery has nothing to do with the war. I don't have any problem with Black people whatsoever.

And this is the beginning of the whitewashing of the cause of the Civil War, which is something that's still with us. But its role in "The Nationalist Delusion" is to illustrate how people who have the most racially defined worldviews will try to tell themselves that that's not what their values are based on. If Alexander Stephens can do that, it's a simple thing for someone today who holds racist views to tell themselves that if they support discriminatory policies, they're not really racist because, you know, they actually don't have a problem with the people they're discriminating against.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk about the word cruel. And I wonder how you might respond to someone who says, you know, Trump was vulgar. He was incendiary. I don't like the way Trump says certain things. I don't like the way he tweets, but I agree with what he stood for. Would you say that that person's politics are cruel?

SERWER: There's always going to be people who have conservative views on immigration, on religious freedom, on things like that. What I mean by cruelty is specifically the demonization of particular groups in order to deny them rights or exclude them from the polity. It's one thing to say that we're not going to allow in people on the basis of religion. It's another thing entirely to say that we are going to shatter families deliberately because we want to dissuade people from trying to come to the United States for a better life.

We're always going to have disagreements in a democracy. That's what democracy is for. It's for reconciling disagreements. But what is not necessary is a politics where one side is trying to disenfranchise or exclude the other party's voters in order to maintain a grip on power. And that's what I mean when I talk about cruelty on a political level.

MCCAMMON: So much of what made Trump successful as a politician seemed to be about him. I mean, as much as there was a long history that led to the Trump moment, he was a unique, at least for the moment, an unusual political figure, which makes me wonder what is next for Trumpism. Is he essential to Trumpism?

SERWER: No, Trump is not essential to Trumpism. The politics of cruelty that Trump's employed are a product of a system that encourages a minority of the country to engineer the government so that they are no longer accountable to the public. And what - Trump's real innovation was showing how much of that the Republican Party can get away with. The only solution to this is for the Republican Party to have to reach out beyond the base that it currently has to serve a more diverse constituency so that it can no longer rely on fomenting the kind of intolerance represented by Trump's politics of cruelty.

MCCAMMON: Something I think about a lot and that I think your book underscores is the degree to which our ugly racist history as a country is just always there. And, you know, I think every time we think we've made progress, we realize the degree to which we haven't. And it's pretty discouraging. And I wonder, you know, is there anything that gives you hope that we as a country will just get out of this ugly, destructive cycle we seem to find ourselves in?

SERWER: While I was writing this book, I was inspired tremendously by the people who throughout American history have fought to expand the blessings of American democracy to everyone. And I think that what people need to understand is that America is the Declaration of Independence, and it's the three-fifths clause. These are both organic, authentic parts of the American tradition, and they're always going to both be a part of who we are as a country. And all we can do is try to hew as best we can to our best traditions rather than the ones that make us feel shame.

MCCAMMON: That's Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of "The Cruelty Is The Point: The Past, Present And Future Of Trump's America." It's out Tuesday.

Adam Serwer, thanks so much.

SERWER: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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