Announcer: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with GBH News in Boston.
Governor Ron DeSantis: Our message to them is, we are not a sanctuary state, and it's better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction, and yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening here to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaking to supporters earlier this month. He is now facing a lawsuit after flying Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard. During an appearance at the Texas Tribune Festival over the weekend, US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spoke about recent decisions by governor's DeSantis and by the Texas governor to transport migrants from their states to democratically controlled cities.
Pete Buttigieg: It's another to just call attention to a problem, because the problem is actually more useful to you than the solution, and that helps you call attention to yourself.
That's what's going on. The problem, of course, it's one thing if that was just people being obnoxious, but human beings are being impacted
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here, Secretary Pete Buttigieg is amplifying the central theme of a recent book by Adam Serwer staff writer for the Atlantic, The Cruelty is the Point. The book is now out in paperback, and I recently sat down with Adam to talk about cruelty and contemporary politics.
Adam Serwer: I think you can see something that Trump did very effectively was that he used cruelty to help draw a line between the people deserving of love and respect, and those deserving of contention violence. I think that you see this dynamic in the way that other ambitious Republican politicians seek higher office. If you're an ambitious Republican, the way to win a primary, the way to win office is to be seen being ritualistically cruel in some way to one of these communities that conservatives are fixated on, and to have that covered by Fox News, who will then rave about what a true conservative you are.
This act of public cruelty is something that draws lines of community around one group of people and excludes another group of people in a way that really forms a relationship between a leader and the people that he's seeking to represent.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's hard to hear you say those words and see anything in my head other than the lynching postcards.
Adam Serwer: I mean, that is obviously an example, but this is something primal in human nature. You think back to adolescence when there's a kid who he's maybe a little nerdier, he's left out of the group and he gets made fun of. There are other kids who will pick on that kid just to show that they're one of the other kids, one of the cool kids. They're in the group. This is really something that's in human nature that Trump elevated to a level of a political virtue, a political principle.
The reason that it works is that the structure of our system is counter-majoritarian, and because of the ideal geographic distribution of Trump's coalition, he can take maximal advantage of things like the Electoral College of the Senate in a way that allows Republicans to win power without winning a majority of the votes, but also, requires them to keep providing new enemies in order to scare their own coalition into thinking that they're on the verge of some apocalypse, so whatever they do in response to that apocalypse is justified.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do you mean by counter-majoritarian?
Adam Serwer: The Electoral College, you don't need to win a majority of the vote to win election. The margins in 2016 and 2020 in terms of the popular vote were very large. Trump has never once won a majority of the votes in the country, but in 2020, he came very close to actually winning the election, because of the geographic distribution of his coalition. In 2016, he did win the election. It was a matter of tens of thousands of votes.
When you have an advantage like that, or like the Senate where sparsely populated states have the same amount of senators as California and New York, you can wheel power in disproportion to your numbers. What you want to do is maximize your support in those constituencies. Part of the way that Republicans do that is by making those communities feel a constant sense of threat from other groups who are different.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was thinking about Cruelty is the Point. Again, our team has been talking about the governors of Texas and Florida transporting migrants who are seeking asylum into basically democratic states and cities. It does seem politically strategically like it's working. It has a good, strong narrative and other team members are like, "Yes, but it's just cruel. It's just wrong. It's just the wrong thing to do." Help me understand these sets of policies within your framework around cruelty being the point.
Adam Serwer: Ron DeSantis having to go to a different state to find people who are applying for asylum, and then trick them into going to a different state with promises of gainful employment, it's so performative. He's using taxpayer dollars to do this public media stunt in order to show that liberals are hypocritical on immigration because they supposedly want open borders, but then when you bring the immigrants to them they're not happy about it. If you want to make that critique of hypocrisy, you can. I think there are some real problems with it, but it is another thing entirely to use a group of human beings to exploit them in this fashion, just to make a point like that.
What enhances his stature very clearly is that the outrage from liberals who say, "Well, you really shouldn't treat people like that. You shouldn't lie to them so that you can exploit them to create a media circus that will help your presumptive presidential campaign." That outrage enhances the effectiveness of the stunt, because when he makes Liberals angry, his own base is delighted with that, and the people who are being exploited, the fact that they are real human beings who don't deserve to be treated this way it falls by the wayside, and it becomes a [unintelligible 00:05:53] fight about who is being hypocritical by what.
There's no actual conversation about what can be done about the underlying problem which is that America has a tight labor market and a demand for immigrant labor, and there's a lot of people who want to come here and try to make a better life for themselves from places where their lives are not working out. Instead of figuring out a way to build a system that can actually accommodate that demand, we simply try to enforce our way out of something that you cannot really stop with blunt force. Trump tried it did not work.
The Biden administration has actually kept a lot of Trump error policies in place, it still does not work. There's nothing that the United States could do in terms of brute force that would prevent someone who is contemplating the idea that they might be able to build a better life for their children. You can only build a system that more efficiently addresses that pressure. What we're left with is an opportunity for conservative politicians to make performative stunts that exploit vulnerable people, and as a result, get them positive coverage in the type of media that is influential among their voters.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The one time that that coverage did seem to be less positive around a policy of brute force at the border is the family separation policy. You didn't quite have the same cheerleading as you do with this transportation of migrants.
Adam Serwer: The problem with the hypocrisy critique is that democratic administrations deport a lot of people. They do not actually fit this conservative caricature of open borders. Democratic administrations from Bill Clinton have worked very hard to deport large numbers of undocumented immigrants, and they always do. The position being held up is the liberal position is not actually the one that democratic administrations take.
You have an argument about a fictional immigration policy rather than the argument that you should be having which is about an immigration system that is not archaic and actually functions in such a way so as to relieve the kind of pressure that you're seeing at the border so that people are not trying to take this dangerous journey to the United States to come here. The border can be more secure, the demand for labor can be met, and these people are not being treated the way that they're being treated, but Trump's treatment of migrants was an escalation, but it was not substantially different in kind from the approach to the border that Americas had for the past few decades.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to go back to your terrifying middle school analogy, having been a nerd and still being one, I have a visceral reaction in memory of how you find the outcast, who then becomes prey. I'm concerned that if it is this visceral almost innate humanity, then perhaps there's no solution.
Adam Serwer: What it means to be human is you can make different choices from your animal impulses. I think if you look at the Democratic Party, it's not that Liberals or Democrats are more virtuous, but they do have a more diverse coalition. You have to figure out a way to unite hipsters in Greenpoint with church grandmas in South Carolina. You really have to figure out a way to get people who are actually pretty different to work together. I think when you have politics where you have to stitch together different constituencies, you have to reach out to a more religiously, culturally, economically heterodox coalition, it breeds the kind of solidarity that really helps make democracy work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm thinking of a piece that you wrote not long after the 2016 presidential election in which, in certain ways, you demonstrated that the Trump coalition was diverse in a bunch of different ways, but homogenous or largely homogenous in one way which is to say, for me, it was your piece that most clearly indicated that it was a coalition of white voters that elected Trump. What are the relevant political diversities that we're having to stitch them together might, in fact, actually work against cruelty?
Adam Serwer: Probably the thing that gives me the most hope right now is the rise of the union movement in the service sector. When you're seeing places like Amazon and Starbucks unionizing. The thing about a union is that, by force, it brings people up together across very different backgrounds. Some people are college educated, some people are not college educated.
Some of these people are in terms of where their grandparents or parents are from, what languages they speak at home, that solidarity I think is really effective in helping to create cross-class, cross-ethnic, cross-cultural, cross-religious solidarity among people who have a common interest which is making sure that they get paid appropriately for the work that they're doing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In this new edition of the book, you have included a new piece around the Supreme court, and you argue that the majority of the Supreme court has pursued the partisan prerogatives of the Republican Party with a thin veneer of constitutionalism. Say more about that.
Adam Serwer: Conservatives only had a five-vote majority on the court. They had to worry about John Roberts being an institutionalist and not wanting the court to be seen as too partisan. Now that they have six votes on the court. They don't really have to worry about what John Roberts thinks, and that means they can accelerate their pursuit of the conservative agenda and look, the justices who are on the Supreme court are the result of a concerted well-organized conservative legal movement that has spent decades trying to get these kinds of people on the bench.
It's very strange to me when people try to say, "Oh, well, these justices themselves say, "Oh, the court is apolitical, we have ideological beliefs about interpretation of the constitution, but we're not partisan." The reality is that a partisan movement put them there and was very careful about selecting them in order to make sure that there would be as little unpredictability as possible on the issues that matter most to the conservative movement.
You can see now that, John Roberts, they no longer have to worry about his vote, whether it's in terms of their exploitation of the emergency docket to get results that they want before the case reaches them on the merits or whether I think a very important development has been there basically deciding that the Voting Rights Act does not matter for the purpose of drawing districts anymore or using it against itself in order to argue that if you draw an extra Black district in a particular state in order to make sure that Black voters have the ability to elect the candidate of their choice, that you are being more racist than if you make sure that most of the districts in the state are white and that's not an apolitical decision, it's the decision that typically ends up benefiting the Republican Party and giving them more seats in Congress.
You could see the Supreme court acting on these particular issues in ways that almost always benefit the Republican Party or fulfill the ideological goals of the Republican Party, the Dobbs case at the moment, the case overturning Roe V. Wade does not seem to have been a huge political benefit to the Republican Party, but it was an ideological goal that they had been pursuing for decades and no one should have seriously expected that that case was going to have any other outcome than the one that it did because those justices were selected for the purpose of reaching that objective.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You had a little bit of a dust up with Justice Samuel Alito. You read about his response to a piece that you wrote. What does that response tell you?
Adam Serwer: I think that justices are used to a deference both from the people they work with and the people who cover them, that is really unearned. These are very powerful public officials and they expect when they say, we're apolitical and the court is not a political institution, they expect people to just say, "Oh, okay, well, if you said it, well," then that's how it is, but it's not really true. In that particular example, Alito was criticizing my coverage of the emergency docket decision that they reached allowing the Texas law that banned abortion after six weeks to go into effect.
That law violated Roe, but because six of the is intended to overturn Roe anyway, they simply did not care that the law prevented women from being able to get an abortion in Texas. Alito's attack on me for writing basically straightforward, every woman in Texas knew, they didn't need the Atlantic to tell them that they could no longer get an abortion after six weeks, which is before most women know they're pregnant.
They didn't need me to tell him that, but he criticized my coverage and some other people as being irresponsible for simply straightforwardly saying what the Supreme court did because it's not enough for them to reach their ideological goals. They want the press to frame what they're doing in a way that reflects positively on them even if that's not actually the truth.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If cruelty is the point, what do you see as pathways out of this place where we are right now? In part, when there are these machines of the fourth estate, the machines of our counter-majoritarian system embedded in the Electoral College, in the US Senate, in the filibuster, and if pointing out that human suffering and cruelty is the result of the policies, whether it's a policy that denies the right to abortion or that separates families at the border if saying this is cruel is not only insufficient but actually maybe advances that project. What's the way out?
Adam Serwer: I'm very uncomfortable about trying to predict the future. I think what history has shown us is that there's always a reaction to everything. There was a reaction to Donald Trump. There's going to be a reaction to these draconian antiabortion laws that dramatically curtail rights of not just reproduction but speech and association and movement.
There's going to be reactions to these things and there's going to be new coalitions and new forms of politics that emerge as a result. That solidarity between people who are different from each other, who don't necessarily come from the same economic, social, cultural background is really the only thing that can effectively defeat apolitics of identity like the one that we're seeing emerge or the one that we saw emerge during the Trump era.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at the Atlantic and his book is now out in paperback with new essays and a new subtitle, The Cruelty is the Point: Why Trump's America Endures. Adam, thanks so much for joining us.
Adam Serwer: Thank you for having me.
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