Polarization for Power and Profit: the Balkan Echoes of Trump’s Politics

“There is nothing scarier than scared white people,” Omaha poet and civic activist Michelle Troxclair  was quoted last week in an NPR report about a questionable “self-defense” shooting of a black man, James Scurlock, in North Omaha.  And nothing has been more profitable – politically and financially – for Donald Trump than scared white people.  He rode a wave of resentment and fear to the White House four years ago by aggregating them into a self-aware personal constituency. 

The gratuitous and protracted killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day spurred an unprecedented outpouring of black American demands for police accountability and systemic change – beginning in Minneapolis, with some high visibility instances of property destruction, looting, and violence.  But in the main, nationwide protests have been peaceful.  They also exhibit hitherto unseen transracial and societal solidarity, well outside the urban areas where protest began.  This is a rapidly developing constituency with the potential to drive a major recalibration of American society.

Much remains uncertain.  But the breadth of the perception gap builds on an already stunning polarization in American society as the November elections approach – and the prevalence of firearms (and their centrality in the identity, in particular, among Trump’s constituency) makes this a particularly volatile moment.  What became abundantly clear with Trump’s attempt to militarize responses to protests and unrest, as well as having Lafayette Square cleared of peaceful protesters for his photo op at St. John’s Church, was that there are no limits to his efforts to drive polarization.  It is not incidental to his agenda.  It is essential.

The political dynamics playing out at present emerge organically from the soil of America’s four centuries of racial oppression and inequity.  But the Black Lives Matter Movement and demonstrations nationwide gained a global resonance and solidarity, spurring societal reflections and calls for justice.  These are both closely related to the abuse of power which generated the popular outrage – systemic police brutality, but also local issues of systemic unfairness and lack of reckoning with the past.  So while this historical moment emerged with specific American contours, it is a global one. 

Some parallels can be made from quarters not typically high in the US public consciousness.  Trump’s operating system is strongly reminiscent of those which have played out from the late 1980s to date in the former Yugoslavia.  The resemblance is so strong that I have called Trump “our first Balkan president.”  

Inated States of America

Trump’s initial and continuing appeal to his constituency has been reaction to and fear of societal change, as well as resentment at its perceived prime movers and beneficiaries.  In what became the waning days of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milošević appealed to Serbs, first in Kosovo where they felt outnumbered and displaced from a rightful dominance by the majority ethnic Albanians, but then throughout Yugoslavia, playing on their sense of having been cheated in the multinational Yugoslav federation.  A potent element in his – and other nationalists’ – repertoire was inat (Ee-not), a word brought via Ottoman Turkish usually translated as “spite,” but closer in meaning to German schadenfreude, requiring a longer explanation in English.  It connotes in four letters “this is going to hurt me, but it’s going to hurt you more – and I am going to enjoy that you are suffering.”  While English has no snappy equivalent, it is clearly felt here and has become pandemic.  “Owning the libs,” “rolling coal,” and “triggering” are all evidence of this trend.  Donald Trump’s harnessing a deep seam of untapped inat made him presidentHis administration has been a breeder reactor of it ever since. 

The fear of a reckoning for past wrongdoing can be a strong bonding agent for communities and societies.  This was evident in Nazi Germany in 1945, as Allied armies advanced from east and west. Germans flocked westward, fearing the revenge of a ravaged Soviet Union.  In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik has often said the country was untenable because of Bosniak desire for “revenge,” while continuing to deny that genocide had been committed against them by Bosnian Serb forces in the war – a legally established fact.  His rationale was clearly to frighten Bosnian Serbs to cleave to his leadership, for fear of being overwhelmed.  Demographic fear of being outnumbered by Muslim fellow citizens proved of great utility as a mobilizing tool among Serbs in particular; a “green transversal” theory was touted – and remains in circulation.  Genocidal policies and acts from the wars of the 1990s have provided inspiration for white identity nationalist violence worldwide, most vividly in Anders Breivik’s 2011 Utoya massacre in Norway and in the Christchurch shootings in 2019The “great replacement” theory – that whites and Christians will be outnumbered and dominated by migrants and non-Christian minorities – gained traction in Europe and the wider West, despite the evidence contradicting the apocalyptic Clash of Civilizations visions.

While the demographics at play in the United States are very different – African Americans are 13% of the population – the fears of the waning of white dominance in the US have been central to Trump’s appeal to “Make America Great Again.”  But the direction of travel toward whites ceasing to be the majority in just a generation, provides an ambient fear environment undergirding the entire Trump agenda.  Trump’s referring to white nationalist demonstrators at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as “very fine people” was widely seen as validation. (The rally featured a Nuremberg-style torchlit march in which participants chanted “you will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” and one antifascist demonstrator, Heather Heyer, was killed and several more critically injured in a deliberate car attack.) The fact that Trump advisor Stephen Miller, behind the Muslim ban and institutional brutality toward asylum seekers, is reputed to be writing an upcoming Trump speech on race, is indicative of the likely content.  The timing and venue of that speech – initially scheduled to be delivered on June 19th in Tulsa, Oklahoma – seems as calculated and egregious an expression on inat politics as any in the Trump presidency.  June 19, “Juneteenth,” is the day American blacks celebrate the end of slavery; Tulsa was the scene of a particularly devastating racial pogrom against the black community in 1921.  The fact that the rally has been shifted a day has done nothing to dull the initial message sent that black lives do not matter, but rather only provides (im)plausible deniability.

Such calculated polarization to maintain power remains endemic in post-Yugoslav politics.  A Catholic mass in Sarajevo, sponsored by the parliament of Croatia, to commemorate victims of the summary executions by Tito’s partisans of Croat and other collaborationists (including civilians) fleeing Yugoslavia in Bleiburg in 1945 was the most recent such example of spectacles designed specifically to inflame and divide.  The backlash in Sarajevo against the mass was predictable, though its scale surprised many during the current pandemic.

Now that a much more pronounced demand for an end to police brutality against blacks has been made, and the disproportionate harm the coronavirus has wreaked upon the black population in particular (and people of color more broadly) has come into focus, demands for a more thorough recalibration of the American social contract and order are being heard.  It precipitated palpable angst, particularly in exurban and rural white Trump strongholds, in large part due to disinformation.  Yet in that same terrain, less predictably, unprecedented solidarity demonstrations continue.  Polling conducted on June 9-10 shows overwhelming support for peaceful protests, with even a 59 percent majority of Republican respondents in favor – 82 percent for banning police chokeholds.  This is a tectonic shift.

Trump’s call on governors to “dominate” the protests, employing overwhelming force, as well as insistence on the theatrical deployment of National Guard and militarized, unidentified federal agents, demonstrates a clear desire to play to those fears and escalate a sense of crisis.  It is likely that he wanted to seize the initiative to precipitate more confrontation and violence, to give both a pretext for the harsh crackdown he desired and to scare white voters who might have thought of gravitating to Biden or sitting the election out into voting for him.  In essence, by escalating radically, he aimed to force them to choose between fear and a sense of justice or fairness.  The greater the perception of chaos, the more likely they would vote for him.

Efforts to escalate deep social divides for political gain were seen recently in another part of the former Yugoslavia – North Macedonia – twice in two years.  In both cases – a still murky firefight between security forces and ethnic Albanian militants in the town of Kumanovo in May 2015 and a “spontaneous” nationalist attack on opposition lawmakers to prevent the formation of a government in April 2017 – the evident aim was to stoke fears of renewed ethnic conflict (or even actual violence) to justify a clampdown and Nikola Greuvski remaining in control (in 2015 as prime minister; in 2017 as the clear power behind a caretaker government).  In neither case did it have the desired effect.  Gruevski is now a political asylee in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

Trump’s Phantom Paramilitary Boogeymen

Dominance of media isn’t feasible as before – but it doesn’t need to be once society is so polarized that the information space is effectively politically segregated.  In this world – in broadcast, online, and social media – Antifa, a loose self-organized agglomeration of leftist streetfighters who sometimes appear at demonstrations and engage in violence, has been amplified from the fringe phenomenon it truly is into a fearsome paramilitary army in the Trumpworld imaginary.   But this has already had real world consequences, with peaceful multiracial Black Lives Matter marchers having to pass a long lineup of heavily armed residents in northeast Indiana – in sight of police – being just one of many examples of the potential confrontations set up trough manufactured fear. 

In the past week, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has provided a perfect window into this dynamic, showing a number of Yugoslav-era parallels.  In his monologue, Carlson acts deliberately as a white fear agitator and amplifier – both to Fox’s overwhelmingly white, right-wing viewership, but at least as importantly to President Trump himself, playing to his most authoritarian and repressive instincts.  It is, in effect, an admonition not to “go wobbly,” but rather to radicalize, as demonstrated in Lafayette Square.  He spoke of “the mob” swarming “like hornets,” calling on those in government to “protect your people.”  Carlson in particular among major media commentators is promoting what might be called a “black scare,” stoking an ambient fear of chaos which can only be met with repression, both from the government, but also from militia types.  The fact that such messages continue long after any significant incidence of property damage or violence from demonstrators is telling.  In a recent episode, he argued that any engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement was a slippery slope.  Maintaining group homogenization – and segregation – is a staple of top-down Balkan politics.

This is a typical post-Yugoslav technique.  Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik, for example, could have scripted this immediate grasp for the lever of fear.  In response to demonstrations at poverty and lack of accountability which erupted in Bosnia and Herzegovina in early 2014, Dodik spoke darkly of the threat to the Republika Srpska from the neighboring Federation half of the state, illegally establishing checkpoints, as well.  But he was simply the best positioned to act with coercive power on the fears he stoked; other politicians in the country had parallel instincts to ethnicize the protests to deflect public anger away from themselves. The fact that this failed to gain traction was not lost on citizens throughout the country.  Four years later, following the still murky murder of a Banja Luka youth, David Dragičević, demonstrations began, led by his father, Davor, against widely suspected police misconduct and perhaps involvement.  The deep public distrust of the official version from Dodik’s authorities helped the movement grow – and gain palpable solidarity across ethnic lines, merging with demonstrations in Sarajevo against authorities for the killing of local youth Dženan Memić – also with high suspicion of official malfeasance.  The fathers of the young men became allies and friends – and struck fear into the static political establishment like no bottom-up effort since the war.  Violent suppression of demonstrations in Banja Luka in late 2018 broke the momentum.  But the demonstrated popular solidarity challenged the dark soul of the country’s corrupt power-sharing machine, showing the limits to the effectiveness of the old divisive toolkit. In another parallel, the Covid-19 crisis has given established political leaders the ability to direct public resources in blatantly self-dealing ways – or without any transparency at all.  This phenomenon was observed ludicrously in Bosnia, where an SDA-connected raspberry farmer was able to get a concession for ventilators at an absurd markup – a fact exposed through investigative journalism.  In the US, Trump’s Treasury Department refuses to disclose the distribution of $500 billion in aid to businesses, with Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin stating that the information concerning this public money was “proprietary.”  In both cases, fear of accountability is evidently absent, as patronage is surely present.

The movement’s rapid growth, wide reach, and wider pool of sympathy may, counterintuitively, stiffen resistance and its recalcitrance.  The very diversity of participation in the growing demonstrations, as well as their broad reach, is likely an amplifier of angst for a certain segment of the white population.  If my children, grandchildren, friends or neighbors don’t evidently share my fears, at least I know Trump does – and he has my back. 

Over the course of the Trump presidency, much has been made of his erratic nature, that he seems to lack a governing strategy.  But in a land without strategic opponents, the intuitive tactician is king.  Trump has a thin playbook (the very term is antithetical to his ethos), but the plays in it are tried and true.  General James Mattis correctly observed he hasn’t even tried to unite the American people.  This is by design.  He never could to begin with; his goal is to keep his own constituency galvanized behind him and to keep his opponents divided or otherwise neutralized.  The noxious, caustic atmosphere of division, resentment, fear, and enemies is the only air that he can breathe to survive politically.

His trip to the White House bunker was therefore metaphorically perfect, as well as a reflection of genuine fear – leading to his performance of authoritarianism in “the battle of Lafayette Square.”  The broadening of a popular movement for change against police brutality, which he has advocated and supported, does not bode well for him.  The terms of the political discourse in America have already changed radically as a result first of a global pandemic, and now a concurrent movement demanding equality and justice.  That changes the atmospheric composition to one upon which Trump cannot survive.

Social movement research demonstrates that developing breadth in a movement – and cutting into support bases of the regime – dramatically increases the possibility of success.  And this is precisely what Trump fears.  Furthermore, the loyalty of security forces is also essential.  The unwillingness of the (rump) Yugoslav Army and much of the police to violently disperse crowds in Belgrade after Slobodan Milošević’s attempt to steal an early presidential election put paid to his regime – and ultimately landed him in the dock to face war crimes charges.  The statements by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and several other secretaries of defense, chiefs of staff, and defense officials are clearly aimed at encouraging those in uniform to not obey an illegal order.  The June 11th statement by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley that his appearance with the president in his photo op had been “a mistake” which made the military appear political, amplified this.

We may never know what went through Trump’s mind as he heard chanting crowds outside the White House and hurried downstairs.  But his phone call to governors and photo op soon after seemed an attempt to calm himself, to “take back control.”  But like the Wizard of Oz, his machinery failed him.  Unfortunately, he is not the only one afraid.  And we can count on the fact that he will do his utmost to amplify and capitalize on those fears.  There’s nothing scarier than scared white people.