The Cruelty Was Never the Point
Adam Serwer’s famous essay, now anthologized, is the most toxic piece of journalism of the Trump era.
The Cruelty is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America by Adam Serwer (One World: 2021), 384.
Adam Serwer’s “The Cruelty Is the Point” is the most toxic piece of journalism of the Trump era. After the shocking election of 2016, the liberal establishment showed glimmers of willingness to ask hard questions about how it had happened. If millions of Obama voters were now switching their allegiance to a reality show billionaire, perhaps the Democratic party had done something to ill-serve these people? Then along came Serwer in the Atlantic to tell them that, no, Trump voters did not have any legitimate grievances. They were evil racists, simple as that.
The phrase took on a life of its own. Politicians from presidential candidate Julian Castro to “Squad” member Rep. Ayanna Pressley started using it. “Do these five words define the Trump years?” asked Brian Stelter on CNN. It became ubiquitous on cable news and Twitter.
Now Serwer has published a book under the same title. You might think the 2020 election, which saw Trump gain among black and Hispanic voters, would have caused him to reconsider his thesis that the source of Trump’s appeal is racist hate. Not a bit. Each essay in this collection comes with a short introductory essay describing how Serwer came to write the piece and how he thinks it has held up in retrospect. He makes very clear that, with the benefit of hindsight, he has no regrets.
Looking at the title essay fresh, two and a half years after it was first published, one is struck by how offensive it is, and with how little justification. It opens with a lynch mob. “Grinning white men stand next to the mutilated, half-naked bodies of two men lashed to a post in the street,” writes Serwer, describing an old photograph. He leaps from this haunting image to a Trump rally, where he detects the same “rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them.”
His evidence for this incendiary claim is a rather hasty list of talking points, very few of which live up to his tendentious billing. He accuses Trump of “seeking to ethnically cleanse 193,000 American children,” which refers to his not renewing temporary protected status for certain Salvadoran refugees. “Mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria” refers to this clip, which you can watch for yourself to see how innocuous it is.
Serwer tells us that he first came up with his signature phrase after watching Trump mock Christine Blasey Ford, “a woman whose only crime was coming forward to offer her own story of abuse,” at a rally during the Kavanaugh confirmation. Curiously, he never quotes any of this mockery directly. Looking at the hyperlink from the original article, the riff in question was this from an October 2018 rally in Mississippi:
How did you get home? “I don’t remember.” How did you get there? “I don’t remember.” Where is the place? “I don’t remember.” How many years ago was it? “I don’t know.” What neighborhood was it in? “I don’t know.” Where’s the house? “I don’t know.” Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? “I don’t know. But I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember.” And a man’s life is in tatters.
It is obvious why Serwer never quotes his original inspiration. It would have made it clear that, from the very beginning, cruelty was not remotely the point.
Serwer plumes himself on his courage for having dared to write mean things about Trump voters. “Opinion journalists like me were encouraged to accept benign explanations for Trump’s victory,” he explains. “I refused. My reporting told me what had happened and why.”
“Reporting” is a strange word to use in this context, because it suggests that Serwer’s case is grounded in things he has seen and heard. In fact, his interviews with Trump supporters only manage to turn up quotes saying racism had nothing to do with it. “I don’t feel like he’s racist,” says one. “I think the other party likes to blow it out of proportion and kind of twist his words,” says another. Making America great again is about “people being able to get jobs, people being able to come off food stamps, welfare, and that sort of thing,” says a third.
Denying their racism just proves how racist these people are, according to Serwer. Only a racist would “worry far more about being seen as racist than about the consequences of racism for their fellow citizens.” It’s an unbeatable catch-22.
Reading his essays back to back drives home that Serwer always reverts to the same ploy. Even the coronavirus epidemic was, for him, an opportunity to accuse Republicans of racist malice. In “The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying,” he argues that Trump stopped caring about the pandemic after he learned minorities were dying at higher rates. His evidence is Trump’s saying in September 2020, “If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at. We’re really at a very low level, but some of the states—they were blue states and blue-state managed.” Obviously the target of that remark was Andrew Cuomo, not the New Yorkers of all colors that Cuomo’s incompetence killed.
Serwer got his start at the Atlantic as a guest blogger for Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the two have a lot in common. They both think that racism is the most important issue in America, the driving force behind all resistance to the progressive agenda, and they both disguise their lack of evidence for this thesis underneath grandiloquence and historical allusions.
Despite their similarities as writers, Serwer’s personal background is very different. Coates grew up poor in Baltimore, the son of a single mother and a former Black Panther. Serwer is a graduate of Vassar and Columbia Journalism School whose parents are Daniel Serwer, longtime vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, and Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Not only do both of their institutions have buildings on the National Mall, both have buildings on the National Mall that were built in the last ten years. In the 21st-century liberal order of soft power and social justice, Serwer is an aristocrat.
Serwer’s personal background, and his awful book, would not be worth examining in such detail if he were an ordinary hack. The country is full of journalists willing to twist facts in the service of their side, left-wing and right-wing. Serwer is something worse. He does not produce journalism. He produces poison.
Here are some examples of the things he has written about his fellow citizens, quoted at length to show that I am not misrepresenting him:
I think the reason it [“The Cruelty Is the Point”] resonated was that it articulated something many of us implicitly felt but struggled to put into words: that the president enjoyed hurting people in ways large and small, and that many of his supporters enjoyed it when he hurt people. The more anguish you felt, the more fun it was for them. This is not simply an ethos but a policy approach…
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united…
Donald Trump has claimed credit for any number of things he benefited from but did not create, and the Republican Party’s reigning ideology is one of them: a politics of cruelty and exclusion that strategically exploits vulnerable Americans by portraying them as an existential threat, against whom acts of barbarism and disenfranchisement become not only justified but worthy of celebration.
At a certain point, I started wanting to ask Serwer: Do you realize what you are accusing us of? If someone really believed all this, they would not want to defeat Republicans at the next election. They would want to outlaw their institutions and put their leaders in prison. Democracy cannot survive when one side thinks the other is too evil to deserve a voice in it. I am not being glib when I say that this kind of talk is a threat to the republic.
Every magazine I’ve ever worked for has published pieces I thought were bad. Often these were intemperate outbursts that their authors later regretted. Serwer has had almost three years to reconsider whether he really wants to argue that his political opponents are not just misguided or stupid or selfish or craven but sadistic. He stands by it. It is immoral for him to repeat this charge, immoral for his editors Jeffrey Goldberg and Yoni Appelbaum to publish it, immoral for Laurene Powell Jobs to fund it, immoral for One World publishing imprint to put it between two covers and try to sell it. I don’t think they are motivated by cruelty. I think they are blithely indifferent to the harm they are doing. But in this case, cruelty, or its absence, is not the point.