Below is an excerpt from the penultimate chapter of my forthcoming book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, due out this summer from Verso Books. It seemed especially relevant right now.
From the first day that Trump assumed the presidency, the White House was embroiled in some kind of chaos – some of it internal wrangling, some of it a product of the press responding to his provocations. Longtime Beltway observers were shocked by all the turmoil, believing it signaled an administration already in distress early in its tenure.
But the chaos was by design, something Trump positively cultivated, following the pattern set by dozens of other authoritarian leaders throughout history – using the turmoil to create so much general uncertainty that his rigid, unyielding positions eventually come to define the general consensus. Wielding his Twitter account – which he described as his way of “speaking directly to the people” – like a combat veteran with a grenade launcher, Trump also demonstrated that he was masterful at creating distractions that kept his critics and the press hopping from one “outrage” to another, paying little attention while he quietly enacted his agenda on a broad array of policy fronts.
Trump’s first real foray into asserting an authoritarian style in enacting his agenda came when he followed through on his campaign promises to sign a Muslim immigration ban when he became president. His first attempt at doing this came with one of his first executive orders, issued Jan. 27, banning all travel from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
When the order came before the courts after several states sued to block it, Trump’s legal team attempted to argue that the order was not a “Muslim ban” – that is, a religious-based ban that would have run afoul of the Constitution on several counts, notably the Establishment Clause – but in short order, ran aground on the shoals of Trump’s own campaign rhetoric. The federal judges who reviewed the case all cited the candidate’s vows to institute a “Muslim ban” as evidence the order was intended to apply a religious test and therefore likely unconstitutional, and ordered it blocked.
The judges’ rulings infuriated the president, who tweeted after the ruling February 4: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”
Yet when the case went before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump’s legal arguments again foundered. “Are you arguing,” queried Judge Michelle Friedland, “that the president’s decision is not reviewable?”
After much obfuscation, Department of Justice lawyer August Flentje said: “Uh, yes.” The appellate court upheld the order blocking Trump’s order.
That weekend, the Trump team sent out Stephen Miller, the 31-year-old “senior adviser” who was a onetime Jeff Sessions staffer closely associated with Stephen Bannon, and himself had a background of dalliances with white nationalists, out to act as the administration’s spokesman on the news talk programs. And he made an indelible impression.
“The president’s powers here are beyond question,” he told Fox News Sunday. “We don’t have judicial supremacy in this country. We have three co-equal branches of government.” He also criticized the appellate court. “The 9th Circuit has a long history of being overturned and the 9th Circuit has a long history of overreaching,” he said. “This is a judicial usurpation of power.”
A week later, on Feb. 21, Miller told Fox that any replacement order would follow the same template: “Fundamentally, you’re still going to have the same basic policy outcome for the country, but you’re going to be responsive to a lot of very technical issues that were brought up by the court and those will be addressed. But in terms of protecting the country, those basic policies are still going to be in effect.'"
So when Trump filed a second executive order banning travel from Muslim nations – reduced to six nations, with Iraq dropped from the list – that, in order to bolster its case, claimed erroneously that Islamist terrorists posed the greatest domestic threat to Americans, and that those six nations had a history of producing immigrants who later committed terror crimes. That order, too was struck down by a federal judge, who ruled that Miller’s Feb. 21 comments were evidence that the order’s intent had not changed.
Floundering displays of incompetence amid assertions of authoritarian certainty such as this became part of the daily White House circus. In mid-February, it emerged that National Security Adviser Mike Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials during a November meeting, and after a weekend of turmoil, Flynn was fired. Trump eventually replaced him with a vastly more respected national-security figure, retired Gen. H.R. McMaster.
The chaos became ceaseless. Sean Spicer banned outlets from press briefings. Another cabinet pick, would-be Labor Secretary Andrew Pudzer, was forced to withdraw after allegations of abuse by his ex-wife emerged. Thousands of open government jobs went unfilled because, Trump explained, the administration wasn’t even trying to fill them.
Tension with the press became intense, especially as Trump attempted to control the message to the public. He did this by regularly asserting the Alt-America version of reality, making himself the final authority of what was “factual” in that universe. True to that reality, he inverted the concept of “fake news” on its head by labeling the mainstream press “fake.” While the press scrambled to make sense of his seemingly open dissembling, his real audience – his red-capped Alt-America followers – received the message clearly: Don’t believe the lying press. The only person you can believe is Trump.
Thus, Trump’s response to the increasing blizzard of stories detailing his incompetence was to blame the institutions recording it, rather than addressing the chaos and floundering. At his contentious February 16 press conference, he went to open war with the media.
“The press has become so dishonest that if we don't talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people, tremendous disservice,” he said. “We have to talk about it, to find out what's going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
The next morning, he tweeted:
The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
Trump’s Twitter account, indeed, became his chief agent of chaos, whipping up storms of media and diplomatic controversies that became the focus of much of the daily news reportage around the White House. On March 4, he launched what became his most notorious tweetstorm.
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
Is it legal for a sitting President to be "wire tapping" a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!
I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
It later emerged that Trump was inspired to send out these tweets after reading a Bretibart News story, based on anonymous sources, alleging that Obama had tapped Trump’s phones during the campaign. Fact-checkers found the story to be utterly groundless.
Obama adamantly denied the allegation, as did everyone in the intelligence community. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence under Obama, told NBC’s Meet the Press that in the national intelligence activity he oversaw, “there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, the president-elect at the time, as a candidate or against his campaign.” FBI director James Comey asked the Justice Department to issue a statement refuting Trump’s claim.
In reality, Trump’s tweets had put his own manifest incompetence on public display: Anyone even remotely acquainted with American surveillance knows that wiretapping is an extremely limited practice legally, permitted only after evidence is presented to a federal surveillance court panel that then approves or disapproves the warrant. If Trump really had been surveilled by the Obama administration, as he claimed, that meant there was enough evidence for a court to approve it. He either was making clueless and reckless allegations, or he was in reality in deep trouble.
Nonetheless, the White House continued to insist that other evidence was going to emerge demonstrating that Trump had been right. Sean Spicer spun Trump’s tweets for reporters, using “air quotes” to claim that he hadn’t been referring to wiretapping specifically: "The President used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities."
Spicer then berated reporters for not picking up on news reports that vindicated Trump, notably a report the night before from Fox News pundit Andrew Napolitano, who claimed that the surveillance had actually been conducted by the British intelligence agency GHCQ: "Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, 'Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command (to spy on Trump). He didn't use the NSA, he didn't use the CIA ... he used GCHQ.’”
Intelligence officials in the UK were outraged, dismissing the allegation as “utterly ridiculous.” Fox News backed away from Napolitano’s claims, and shortly afterward suspended him from appearing on the network. But Trump adamantly refused to apologize, claiming that Spicer had only read the news story to reporters.
As the media tried to make sense of it all, Kellyanne Conway’s delicious turn of phrase, “alternative facts,” was heard often. Pundits and late-night comics had enjoyed a field day with the term, using it to scornfully refer to the administration’s growing record of spinning a spurious version of reality.
Conway herself had grown weary of being the butt of their jokes. “Excuse me, I’ve spoken 1.2 million words on TV, okay?” she told an interviewer. “You wanna focus on two here and two there, it’s on you, you’re a f—ing miserable person, P.S., just whoever you are.”
What Conway’s critics missed was that, despite their derision – and to some extent, because of it – the gambit worked.
Overall, Trump’s travails seemed to hurt him badly in the polls. By mid-March, according to Gallup, only 37 percent of Americans approved of his performance, while 58 percent disapproved. Those were shockingly low numbers, especially compared to other first-term presidents at similar junctures in their tenures, who were generally in high-approval zones: 62 percent for Obama, 58 percent for George W. Bush, 60 percent for Ronald Reagan.
And yet in the places where it really mattered – that is, in the congressional districts of Republican Trump-backing lawmakers – Trump’s ratings remained high, well over 50 percent. Conservative-oriented polls by Rasmussen put his approval rating at 55 percent. Among Republicans over, 81 percent found Trump “honest and trustworthy.”
"I think he's doing good," Gary Pelletier, a Buffalo, N.Y., retiree told a local reporter. "People are complaining that he's not doing enough, but I'm all for whatever he's doing."
"He's doing everything he said he was going to do," said another Buffalo resident named Phil Pantano, 60.
This was always the role that Alt-America has played: a refuge for people who reject factual reality, a place where they can convene and reassure one another in the facticity of their fabricated version of how the world works. From its beginnings in the 1990s as an alternative universe with its own set of “facts,” to its growth during the early part of the new century through the spread of antigovernment conspiracism, through its evolution into the mainstream of conservatism through the Tea Party, and finally its ultimate realization as a political force through the ascension of Donald Trump, Alt-America’s primarily usefulness was as a ready tool for right-wing authoritarianism. The army of followers was already fully prepared by 2015, when Trump picked up their waiting scepter.
It was also the real-life manifestation of Robert Altemeyer’s “lethal union” of right-wing authoritarian followers with a social-dominance-oriented authoritarian leader: that moment, as Altemeyer says, when “the two can then become locked in a cyclonic death spiral that can take a whole nation down with them.”
Other experts on authoritarianism similarly fear the outcome of Trump’s authoritarianism. “You submit to tyranny,” writes Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.”
Accepting untruth, Snyder warns, is a precondition of tyranny. “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” he writes, and “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”
Snyder sees Trump’s insistence on setting the terms of reality as a classic ploy: “This whole idea we're dealing with now about the alternative facts and post-factuality is pretty familiar to the 1920s,” he told Vox’s Sean Illing. “It’s a vision that's very similar to the central premise of the fascist vision. It's important because if you don't have the facts, you don't have the rule of law. If you don't have the rule of law, you can't have democracy.
“And people who want to get rid of democracy and the rule of law understand this because they actively propose an alternative vision. The everyday is boring, they say. Forget about the facts. Experts are boring. Let's instead attach ourselves to a much more attractive and basically fictional world.”
The political reality on the ground, however, will depend on how Trump responds to challenges to his authority. His history so far, particularly his manifest incompetence, points to a bleak outcome.
A longtime Democratic presidential adviser warned Ron Klain told Ezra Klein: “If Trump became a full-fledged autocrat, it will not be because he succeeds in running the state. It’s not going to be like Julius Caesar, where we thank him and here’s a crown.
“It’ll be that he fails, and he has to find a narrative for that failure. And it will not be a narrative of self-criticism. It will not be that he let you down. He will figure out who the villains are, and he will focus the public’s anger at them.”
"I think this might speak to you," said my friend Cate as she sent me a link to The Myth of Closure, a July 2016 episode of On Being featuring Dr. Pauline Boss. In interviewer Krista Tippett's words, the episode explores "complicated grief, the myth of closure, and learning to hold the losses in our midst." (Cate was right: the episode does speak to me, deeply.)
Pauline Boss is an expert on what's sometimes called ambiguous loss -- for instance, the loss someone feels when a loved one is slowly dying of Alzheimer's. Or the loss experienced by a parent whose child dies, or someone whose loved one is kidnapped and never found. Loss without closure. (One of the cases she makes, quite cogently I think, is that "closure" is a myth that doesn't actually help us.)
She talks about people grieving loved ones who died in dramatic ways: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or a tsunami that kills thousands. Those parts of the interview are powerful... but for me the most resonant sections are when she's talking about ordinary losses. For instance, she talks about how American culture expects immigrants to not grieve their decision to leave wherever they came from. And she says:
The more you want people to get over it, the longer it will take for them. And why not remember your former country, your former island, your former culture while you’re learning to fit into the new one? In other words, having two cultures is what it ends up being.
What she says here makes me think of my own life changes, especially the end of my marriage. The life we had been building is the "country" that I left, to which I can't return. I have complicated feelings when I remember the home I used to know -- not so much the literal house where we lived (though I miss that sometimes too), but the psycho-spiritual sense of home that I located in that relationship.
We all go through these changes, and we all experience this kind of loss. "The past is a foreign country," as L.P. Hartley wrote. None of us can revisit what was. Even in a relationship that remains intact, we can't go back to how things were then, whenever "then" was. But in a relationship that comes apart, the sense of loss is more profound... and one can't help remembering what was, even when it is no more.
I'm not the only one who makes the leap between the ambiguous loss inherent in literal immigration and the ambiguous loss inherent in this more metaphorical kind of move between life's chapters or incarnations. At one point in the episode, Krista asks Dr. Boss to reflect specifically on how these ideas about complicated grief and the fantasy of closure relate to divorce. And Dr. Boss says:
"[C]losure” is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them, when they’re lost, you still care about them. It’s different. It’s a different dimension. But you can’t just turn it off...
it’s not as dramatic as the disasters we are talking about, but it’s more common every day. And that is you are leaving someone, you have lost someone by the divorce certificate, but they’re still here. So they’re here, but not here...
[T]hey’re present and also absent at the same time. That’s especially true when you co-parent children. And so divorce is a kind of human relationship that is ruptured but not gone.
Ruptured but not gone: that feels familiar to me. Once you've been attached to someone in a deep and intimate way, that attachment can't be erased. It becomes part of who you are. (Rabbi Alan Lew wrote about this too, in his brilliant This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, which I have cited here so often over the years.) Even when the marriage is over, it remains, like a phantom limb.
In one sense, divorce is real, and it makes a difference. The ritual that ended my marriage was real, and it made a difference. And in another sense, divorce is a fiction -- or at least "closure" is a fiction. Even when one or both partners move on with their romantic and interpersonal lives, the relationship that was never entirely disappears. It is always something that used to exist, and its imprint remains.
And loss and grief are not linear experiences. It's easy and tempting to imagine that one goes from greatest grief, to lesser grief, to no grief at all. That would be so logical, wouldn't it? And that isn't how life works. Grief comes and goes on its own calendar, in its own ways. (I've written about that before -- see Good Grief, 2014.) And grief can coexist with gratitude and hope. They don't cancel each other out.
Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with ambiguity. I can be thriving in every way -- and then be knocked into a spiral of sorrow by the sound of a particular song, or the sight of two people holding hands, or a wedding invitation that arrives in the mail. The grief doesn't negate the truth that I am thriving, and the thriving doesn't negate the truth that I am still navigating grief.
Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with contradictory truths. I was partnered for 23 years, and now I'm navigating life without a companion. I'm grateful for what is, and sad for what isn't. The relationship through which I once self-defined no longer exists, but it will always have existed, and I will always be shaped by it, even as I work on learning to define myself in other ways.
There's ambiguity in all of these things. And my relationship to the marriage, and to the feelings of loss that still ebb and flow as I approach the one-year anniversary of the day when we agreed that the marriage was over, is also ambiguous. I'm grateful and I'm sad at the same time. In one way the marriage is long over, and in another way the marriage will never stop shaping who I become.
Deep thanks to Krista Tippett and to Dr. Pauline Boss for giving me a conceptual frame big enough to hold these ambiguities. Listen to the episode or read the transcript here: On Being: The Myth of Closure.
I'm delighted to be able to announce this happy news: Ben Yehuda Press will be publishing my next collection of poems, Texts to the Holy!
Many of the poems from Texts to the Holy have appeared on this blog over the last few years. It is my collection of love poems to the Beloved, and I am so excited that it will see print.
Ben Yehuda published my most recent collection, Open My Lips, in 2016. You can find all of their poetry collections on their website -- celebrate World Poetry Day by supporting independent poetry publishing!
(And while you're at it, please support Phoenicia Publishing, too -- they published my first two collections, and they've published some amazing work since.)
"I'm deeply distressed at the desecration of Jewish cemeteries," said my colleague Sharif at the weekly chaplains' staff meeting at our small liberal arts college.
"I'm deeply distressed by the mosques set afire," I said to him in return.
We both find hope in stories of interfaith solidarity across what can be a contentious divide between the children of Ismail and the children of Yitzchak. We've read about Muslims raising money to repair Jewish tombstones, and Jews raising money to refurbish torched mosques, and we take heart from those things.
But what could we do on our little campus to foster that spirit of interfaith solidarity and to bring comfort to two minority religious communities whose members are likely sad and anxious about bomb threats at JCCs and reports of rising Islamophobia?
The answer turned out to be powerful and simple: pray in each others' religious spaces, with and for each other...
Read the whole piece at Ritualwell: When Jews and Muslims Pray Together.
Thanks to the editors at Ritualwell for publishing the piece, and deep thanks to the interfaith comunity at Williams for so beautifully and bravely standing together.
I will keep
company with you
where you go
I will go
when bitter exile
narrows your horizon
your tight straits
will be mine too
let me lift you
from the ashes,
dress you in
nothing but light
like a new mother,
I ache to spill
blessings for you
let me carry you
through foaming seas
come undone with me
on the far shore
I will keep / company with you[.] One of my favorite names for God is the One Who accompanies, who keeps us company in whatever life brings.
where you go / I will go[.] See Ruth 1:16.
bitter exile... tight straits[.] Jewish tradition describes Shekhinah, the immanent / indwelling / feminine Presence of God, going into exile with the Jewish people. This could mean exile in the Diasporic sense, or could mean exile in a more existential sense (exile from unity with God.)
let me lift you / from the ashes and dress you in / nothing but light [.] Both of these couples reference lyrics in Lecha Dodi, a love song to Shabbat which we sing on Friday night
breasts over-full[.] From Talmud, Pesachim 112a: "More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to give milk." I learned this as a teaching about how God yearns to nurture and nourish us. Our prayers prime the pump for the blessing God yearns to bestow.
let me carry you / through foaming seas[.] In daily liturgy we remember the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. I often sing that prayer to the melody of "The Water is Wide," reminding myself that God is with me in all of life's ocean-crossings.
This may or may not be part of my next collection, Texts to the Holy. Where the other poems in that series are love poems spoken in my own voice, this one is in the voice of the Beloved. But even if it doesn't go in the book, I think it's part of the same series / comes from the same emotional-spiritual place.
I remember the first time I saw a boy in drag and found him beautiful. It was fall of my freshman year. My first boyfriend lived in the entry next to mine, and he dressed in my clothes for a dance party thrown in Currier Ballroom by the organization that was then called the BGLU. He fit easily into my purple suede miniskirt and blue silk shirt. I made up his face the way I had learned to make up my own. And when his transformation was complete, he was gorgeous.
That I found him equally attractive when he presented as a femme man, and when he presented as a butch woman, was revelatory for me. (Those phrases sound binaristic now, but that was the language we used then.) That was my first step toward recognizing that the qualities that draw me -- intelligence, kindness, musicality, integrity -- aren't gender-specific. My boyfriend dressed in a costume that hid his everyday identity, and seeing him in that guise taught me something about myself.
Purim, which begins tomorrow night, is a holiday of masks and costumes. Everywhere around the Jewish world, people will wear costumes and veils, masks and disguises. Some of our costumes will be silly, or funny. Some will be random. Some will enable us to show sides of ourselves we don't usually get to display. Regardless: the act of putting on a costume invites us to think about the masks we wear every day, and in turn about what it would feel like to set those masks aside.
We all wear masks in daily life. Maybe we hide our vulnerability. Maybe we hide our yearnings. Here in this environment most of us don't feel the need to hide our intelligence -- intellect is valued here -- but we may feel the need to hide our hearts. We may hide a love interest we fear is unrequited, or compassion we don't feel safe expressing aloud. We may hide our strength. We may hide emotions that we learned, in childhood, it wasn't safe for us to manifest or express: fear, or anger, or joy.
The hero of the Purim story is Esther, whose name shares a root with נסתר / nistar, hidden. When Esther enters the palace of Achashverosh, on Mordechai's advice she hides her Jewishness. It's a lie of omission. She just... doesn't mention that part of who she is. Until, of course, the time comes when the only way she can save her community is to come out as a Jew and hope that Achashverosh's attachment to her will extend far enough to save her people too. Esther's willingness to stop hiding saves the day.
There's another figure in the megillah of Esther who's hidden, and that's God. God doesn't appear in this book at all -- at least not overtly. God's name is never mentioned. But our mystics tell us that God isn't absent; only נסתר, hidden. In our lives, too, divine presence may be hidden. But if we search for divinity, we can experience God everywhere: not just in the spaces that look holy, like Shabbat services, but also in spaces that might appear secular or profane, like costume parties or a drag ball.
God's hiddenness, coming out, and drag balls: this d'varling may not be in everyone's comfort zone. (Maybe it's the drag that's uncomfortable for you; maybe it's the God-language.) I want to sit with that -- not flinch from it, not hide it, but embrace it. Because to say that God can be נסתר (hidden) is to say that we find God where we least expect to... including in and through our own spiritual discomfort.
What are the things you habitually feel the need to hide? What would it feel like to have the safety to be your whole self -- not hiding, not silenced, not compartmentalized, but bringing all of who you are to every moment of your life? What would it feel like to recognize that you are a reflection of the Holy One of Blessing, made in the image and the likeness of God, not despite the things you usually tend to hide but precisely and absolutely in all of who you are?
The Esther story reminds us that there's a time for hiding, and a time for revealing. May we continually keep learning more deeply who we are and who we're becoming: when we choose to conceal ourselves, and when we choose to try on different faces, and when we choose to reveal our splendor and our light. May we be safe -- physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually -- when we veil and when we unveil, this Purim and always.
This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association.