When Protect Doesn’t Mean Keep Safe; Invoking Survivors as a Political Antic?
I was working on a crisis hotline the night of the second presidential debate between Hilary Clinton and now President Trump.
I was working on a crisis hotline the night he was elected as 45.
I was facilitating an in-person support space for advocates taking hotline shifts the day #MeToo was tweeted.
I took crisis calls from survivors every day of the Kavanaugh hearing.
For each political stunt of the last two years where survivors have held their breaths as sexual violence entered our public discourse, my vantage point has been direct service.
I made the decision to watch the State of the Union live rather than recorded tonight, a decision in part to avoid any build up, or leaked commentary before I listened first.
There are a lot of things to respond to about tonight’s address, many of which will be explained far better by other thought leaders and political pundits and grassroots organizers and thinkers.
But it’s worth highlighting the use of violence and safety to frame almost every element of the president’s agenda, both in the ways his tone broke from his patterns, and from the language that harkened back to his laden rhetoric. Not fiery, but coded, harkening to a view of what creates violence that favors America as simultaneously the strongest and most wronged actor in any situation. One where those who inflict violence are known and labeled — as foreigners, as unlawful, as not innocent, as unredeemed, as not supporters of greatness. Violence is any wrong to America, referred to generally as unfairness. America is constructed as having interests pitted against the entire world, and having only positive impacts on allies and citizens. The chants of U-S-A are heard multiple times, only quieter that the impromptu sung happy birthday.
Survivors of the antisemitic attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg are among the Presidents invited guests; the same city that formally requested that the President not come to visit initially.
He used words like coalition, fascism, human trafficking, slavery, mass incarceration, criminal justice reform, without connecting to white supremacy, imperialism, state violence, or marginalization.
He more than once appealed to assault, body autonomy, trafficking and women’s rights, in every case to establish credentialing for his calls to secure our borders, expand military presence, separate families, and restrict abortion access.
As is intended, State of the Union addresses are deliberate in the chosen language and imagery. We heard in this speech a scaling up of specific rationale that appeals to popular myths in American ideology. Myths about what prevents and escalates violence. Myths about who is inherently violent, and who is targeted by violence. Myths about America’s relationships with other countries, and our roles in stabilizing and destabilizing international politics. Caricatures of social issues that shine positively on whiteness. Uses of divisive issues to express a formerly lacking humanism. Spotlighting examples that are in line with the optics that are necessary to reinforce existing ideologies.
We got a preview tonight of what Trump ran his campaign on, only with a slightly borrowed vocabulary. One that translates the words used to critique his administration and repurposes their meaning as it relates to his priorities of safety, nationalism and security. One that implies that we are saying many of the same things, and if we don’t see it that way, then we’re reacting emotionally rather than in line with our values. Values we are espoused to share and excel at.
This is not a detailed critique of his individual tactics and statements, only a response to a continuing theme. Using survivors of violence to justify state violence, and negating the accountability to survivors that has consistently remained lacking. The face of violent predators remains everyone’s but white men, and the othering of survivors expands to the examples being phased out of our public perception. Indeed, our imagination is being seized, but not for the purpose of expansion. Carefully constructed, violence is talked around by referring to safety, skirting public questions as follow up.
In lieu of analysis, I offer three questions for those processing what was said tonight.
1) What words did you hear said by the president about his priorities? What examples were used to showcase them practically?
2) What issues were not mentioned by the president?
3) What specific audiences were appealed to and enlisted as current supporters and accomplishments?
I encourage you to relisten to the second presidential debate from 2016. Note what sentiments and themes are being redrawn tonight. Note how survivors are referred to compared to tonight. Listen to Trump’s support of Kavanaugh after Dr. Ford’s allegations. Hear two reactions following the Tree of Life massacre asking Trump to take responsibility for inciting hateful rhetoric in his discourse, from a survivor, and from Pittsburg’s mayor. Listen to our president mock the testimony of a survivor. See Trump’s response to reuniting separated families.
What coded language requires is a subtlety no longer present, because we can’t claim to still be mystified or confused by their meaning. The ideology is centuries’ old, and barely newly interpreted. The images are of a nation grappling with white supremacy or fully intoxicated with itself. The tone is of a nationalism that isn’t considerate of the global and local crisis our inattentive stances magnify. The significance is that our conversation is steered by images and rhetoric that is casually bred into us on nights like tonight. The violence is believing that a lack of bipartisanship is the greatest threat to our democracy. The place of possibility is in asking the one avoided question: safety from what and from whom? Protection does little good for an undefined state of safety, especially when we’ve seen what that looks like.