‘The Snake’: How Trump appropriated a radical black singer’s lyrics for immigration fearmongering

The poem originated in the 1960s from a soul singer and social activist in Chicago, Oscar Brown Jr. Its appropriation as a tool to drum up fear about immigrants has turned heads; some of Brown’s family are asking Trump to stop using it.

.. Democrats (“They’re always fighting for the criminal”),

.. The lyrics were written in the 1960s by Brown, an outspoken black singer, songwriter, social activist and former Communist Party member from Chicago.

 .. Brown’s work has been described as a celebration of black culture and a repudiation of racism.
.. Brown, who died at 78 in 2005, wrote “The Snake” during a time in which he was performing regularly in nightclubs and writing songs that used biblical references and animal allegories for simple stories that held deeper meanings
.. Brown’s family has been harshly critical of the president’s appropriation of the song, and Maggie and Africa said they wished he would stop using it. In particular, they are upset by the fact that it has been repurposed to serve prejudice, saying that use flies in the face of their father’s work.
.. Trump has also failed to credit Brown for the song, which the family takes as another slight. During one rally in Florida, Trump said it was written by the R&B singer, Al Wilson, who popularized the song in the “1990s.”
..  I can see how telling your crowd that you were quoting a man who resigned from the Communist Party in 1956, declaring himself ‘just too black to be red,’ might be problematic.”
.. “Trumps snake story is vicious, disgraceful, utterly racist and profoundly Un-American,” conservative operative Steve Schmidt wrote on Twitter after CPAC on Friday. “That this is how an American President speaks of immigration is a tragedy. This crowd of cheering extremists are the heirs of the Know-Nothing’s and nativists that have always plagued us.”
.. Trump’s love affair with the poem represents a subconscious confession: The president identifies with the snake.
.. “Historians will view it as obvious that Trump was describing himself in ‘The Snake,’ ”
.. Josh Marshall, the liberal editor in chief of Talking Points Memo, called Trump’s use of the poem “some weird psycho-sexual” thing that “must appeal to Trump on like ten levels and also appeal to bible literalists.” 

Know-Nothings for the 21st Century

If you’re a student of history, you might be comparing that person to a member of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors. More likely, however, you’re suggesting that said person is willfully ignorant, someone who rejects facts that might conflict with his or her prejudices.

.. The parallels between anti-immigrant agitation in the mid-19th century and Trumpism are obvious. Only the identities of the maligned nationalities have changed.

After all, Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day. Half of Ireland’s population emigrated in the face of famine, while Germans were fleeing both economic and political turmoil. Immigrants from both countries, but the Irish in particular, were portrayed as drunken criminals if not subhuman. They were also seen as subversives: Catholics whose first loyalty was to the pope. A few decades later, the next great immigration wave — of Italians, Jews and many other peoples — inspired similar prejudice.

.. Yet conservative professors are rare even in hard sciences like physics and biology, and it’s not difficult to see why. When the more or less official position of your party is that climate change is a hoax and evolution never happened, you won’t get much support from people who take evidence seriously.

But conservatives don’t see the rejection of their orthodoxies by people who know what they’re talking about as a sign that they might need to rethink. Instead, they’ve soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.

So the party that currently controls all three branches of the federal government is increasingly for bigotry and against education. That should disturb you for multiple reasons, one of which is that the G.O.P. has rejected the very values that made America great.

.. Think of where we’d be as a nation if we hadn’t experienced those great waves of immigrants driven by the dream of a better life. Think of where we’d be if we hadn’t led the world, first in universal basic education, then in the creation of great institutions of higher education. Surely we’d be a shrunken, stagnant, second-rate society.

.. Moretti argues, rightly in the view of many economists, that this new divergence reflects the growing importance of clusters of highly skilled workers — many of them immigrants — often centered on great universities, that create virtuous circles of growth and innovation. And as it happens, the 2016 election largely pitted these rising regions against those left behind

.. one way to think of Trumpism is as an attempt to narrow regional disparities, not by bringing the lagging regions up, but by cutting the growing regions down. For that’s what attacks on education and immigration, key drivers of the new economy’s success stories, would do.

The Dark History of Fear, Inc.

How politically-driven bugaboos always distract us from the real monsters.

Back in 1835, Samuel F.B. Morse (who went on to invent the telegraph and the Morse Code), wrote a book about a plot to overthrow the American republic. The conspiracy, Morse wrote, was well-funded, highly secretive, and hatched in Vienna by members of the The St. Leopold Foundation, which had dispatched cells of Jesuit missionaries to the U.S. to forcibly convert the nation to Roman Catholicism. This was no small intrigue: The plot’s leaders, as Morse meticulously catalogued, were Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich, Ferdinand V of Hungary, and (of course) Pope Gregory XVI. “It is high time that we awakened to the apprehension of danger,” Morse wrote.

.. Morse’s book seeded the rise of the nativist“Know-Nothing” party, whose goal was to curb immigration, root out Catholicism, and return America to its protestant ideals. In essence, they were the America-firsters of the nineteenth century. The Know-Nothings swept into office in Chicago, were strong in Massachusetts and, in 1856, nominated a national ticket (Millard Fillmore and Andrew Donelson), for the presidency; they tallied nearly 900,000 votes, one-quarter of those cast. “I know nothing but my country, my whole country and nothing but my country,” they chanted.

.. Before the Know-Nothings there were the Anti-Masons, a political movement that warned of a takeover by secretive apron-wearing do-gooders who met for god-knows-why. And before that Americans were warned about witches named Dorothy, Rebecca, Martha, and Rachel, dancing in New England’s forests. Some 120 years after Morse, in 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter dubbed this “the paranoid style in American politics”—a paradigm-shifting essay that catalogued a raft of intrigues peopled by witches, Illuminati, Masons, Jesuits, Mormons, Jewish bankers, Bilderbergers and, in Hofstadter’s time, communist dupes doing Moscow’s bidding.

.. The problem is not that this is patently false (The Germans! The Japanese! The Russians!), but that it’s often exaggerated—and, sometimes, purposely so. Then too, as Hofstadter implied, preying on these fears for political gain not only isn’t new, it’s tried, tested, and often successful. Scaring the dickens out of voters is as American as the 4th of July.

.. John Kennedy insisted that the Soviet Union had outstripped the U.S. in ballistic missile production. There was a growing and dangerous “missile gap” Kennedy claimed, placing the nation in great peril.

.. As it turns out, Kennedy was right: there was a missile gap, but not in a way that he thought—we had plenty, while they had none (a later CIA report speculated that, actually, they might have had three, maybe).

.. The same kinds of claims were retailed by U.S. intelligence services about Russia’s allies: a 1987 CIA fact book said that East Germany’s GDP per capita was higher than West Germany’s, a claim so ludicrous that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan dismissed it to a panel of CIA officers with a legendary quip: “I know a Berlin taxi driver who could have told you that wasn’t true.”

.. The world has problems, big problems but it is not going to hell. Here’s what going to hell looks like. In the autumn of 1941, Europe was under the domination of a genocidal regime that had extended its murderous policies through all of Europe and whose armies were headed towards Moscow. In Asia, large swathes of China and all of Southeast Asia were occupied by Japanese militarists. The two, with Italy, had formed an axis and controlled significant portions of the globe. Their enemies were teetering on the edge of defeat. The world was going to hell, alright, but the U.S. had yet to get into the war.

.. During the early morning hours of September 26, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was notified by his computer system that the U.S. had launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles at Russia. Petrov sat there for a moment, when he should have been on the telephone to his superiors. After several moments he concluded that the warning just didn’t make sense. Why would the U.S. launch only five missiles at Russia, when everyone in the Soviet military supposed they would launch a barrage. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds,” he later told the BBC, “staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it.” Petrov ignored the warning—and may well have prevented a nuclear holocaust.   

Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear

Trump’s candidacy relies on the power of fear. It could be the only way for him to win.

.. Overall crime rates may be down, but a sense of disorder is constant.

.. His acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention similarly made clear the extent to which his message revolves around fear. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” Trump thundered. “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country. Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally; some have even been its victims.”

.. But he also, in a more unusual maneuver, summons fear in the abstract: There’s something going on, folks.

.. When back-to-back terror attacks hit Paris in November and San Bernardino in December, he pointed to them as proof that his warnings about Muslims were justified, and voters flocked to him ..

.. Trump’s standing in the polls rose about 7 percentage points in the aftermath of the attacks

.. Trump supporters, recent polling has shown, are disproportionately fearful. They fear crime and terror far more than other Americans; they are also disproportionately wary of foreign influence and social change. (They are not, however, any more likely than other Americans to express economic anxiety.)

.. It is a feedback loop: He stirs up people’s latent fears, then offers himself as the only solution.

.. fear is a handy tool. “Fear is easy,” Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican ad maker, told me recently. “Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty.”

.. A majority of Americans now worry that they or their families will be victims of terrorism, up from a third less than two years ago

.. Nearly two-thirds worry about being victims of violent crime. Another poll, by Gallup, found that concern about crime and violence is at its highest level in 15 years.

.. “the psychological management of uncertainty and fear” to be strongly and consistently correlated with politically conservative attitudes.

.. the characteristic most predictive of a person’s political leanings is his or her tolerance for ambiguity. “The more intolerant of ambiguity you are—the more you seek control over your surroundings, certainty, clear answers to things—the more you tend toward conservative preferences,” ..

.. he would bring order and control to a chaotic world.

 .. I really thought this was a rational policy disagreement that was headed toward a logical compromise,” Sharry told me recently. “Now, I see it as deeply cultural. It’s racially charged, it’s tribalism, it’s us-vs.-them. It’s a referendum on the face of globalization,
.. The fearful mind sees immigrants as an invasion force, refugees as terrorists, rising crime as a threat to one’s family, drugs as a threat to one’s children, and social change as a threat to one’s way of life.

.. “Trump speaks to our id, something latent in all of us to different degrees. This is not a political campaign. It’s an identity campaign.”

.. From colonial times to the early 19th century, the pervasive, virulent fear was of Catholics, who were seen as inferior, unassimilable, and in thrall to a foreign dictator (the Pope).

.. The mass immigration of Irish Catholics in the 1830s and 1840s ratcheted up the panic and convulsed American politics, with the Whig Party collapsing and the anti-Catholic nativist Know-Nothing Party briefly becoming America’s second-largest political party.

.. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, is now campaigning on a fear-based appeal of her own—the fear of Trump.

.. as President he would escalate the likelihood of catastrophic violent conflict from without and within, posing a serious threat to the future of the United States,” her team wrote in a memo outlining their findings. This message, they noted, was far more effective than emphasizing Trump’s “misogyny” or depicting his economic record as bad for working people.

.. “Every time Clinton says, ‘Trump is dangerous,’ what people are hearing is, ‘The world is dangerous, it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous,’” she told me. “It just plays into the message of chaos.” And the more chaotic the world feels, the more people may look to Trump for comfort.