In our series “Behind the Byline,” we’re chatting with Atlantic staffers to learn more about who they are and how they approach their work. Adam Serwer is a staff writer on the Ideas desk who focuses on politics, race, and citizenship.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Nesima Aberra: How would you describe your beat?
Adam Serwer: I would say that for the past few years my beat has been race and citizenship. I guess that's a weird, abstract idea, but I think it’s not something that would exist, if not for what has been an assault on the very concept of multiracial democracy by the current occupant of the White House. I think it wouldn’t really exist, absent the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves today.
It just so happened that my being hired at The Atlantic coincided with this big historical and ideological conflict between two mutually exclusive, but coexisting, ideas of American citizenship—about who is really American and who is not, in a way that has had a huge cascading effect on American public policy.
Aberra: In one of your biggest Atlantic pieces from 2018, you coined the phrase, “the cruelty is the point,” which has been shared and reworked all over the place. How did that phrase become the thesis of your piece?
Serwer: The moment it occurred to me—not the phrase but the phenomenon itself—was when I was watching the president’s rally after the Kavanaugh hearings, and how he just really took such pleasure in attacking Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who had accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teenagers. And his audience, in turn, was so delighted by that, regardless of what the collateral damage or consequences might be. It just occurred to me that everybody was having a really good time, and that this wasn’t the first time that the Trump crowd had taken such joy in Trump humiliating someone weaker and more vulnerable.
Taking pleasure in cruelty is not unique to Trump supporters. What’s unique about this phenomenon with the current president is that it’s such an important part of his own political culture. It’s not that people who are not Trump supporters are incapable of engaging in similar behavior. It’s just that he elevated it to a kind of virtue, and uses it to forge a communal feeling with his base.
Aberra: Over the last few months, the pandemic and racial reckoning in America have been covered as the biggest stories in our country this year. You’ve written about the intersection of the two in several articles. What do you think about the rhetoric of calling both issues pandemics?
Serwer: Calling them dual pandemics is a bit of a misnomer, in the sense that one of these was already here when the coronavirus hit. The coronavirus just made it visible. Black Americans were already in a crisis. They’ve been in a crisis since the 2008 recession when a substantial amount of Black wealth was wiped out. It never recovered and still hasn’t really recovered despite the so-called Trump boom, which is really a continuation of growth from the Obama administration. What we’ve seen happen on top of that is tremendous economic collapse, which has disproportionately harmed Black people, Native Americans, Latinos—basically people of color all over the country.
These things are sort of overlapping national crises, but it’s inaccurate to call them both pandemics. One crisis has been here for a long time and is the result of not addressing previous national crises that other people who were not Black, Hispanic, or Native American had essentially learned to live with in their daily lives. What really happened is that the coronavirus brought these things into view, but that’s not the same.
Aberra: Do you have a favorite story or one that you’re particularly proud of?
Serwer: My piece on how the emergence of data on racial disparities of the coronavirus victims has affected perceptions of whether or not the pandemic itself was as much of a national emergency as people said it was. I feel pretty proud of that piece and how it panned out in terms of my examination of what people said and what that said about their motives. And I also think it panned out in terms of how to describe the reasons why the coronavirus has had such a tremendous racially disparate effect across the country.
Aberra: In one of your recent articles, you wrote, “For the past few months, Trump and the conservative propaganda apparatus have struggled to make the old race-and-gender-baiting rhetoric stick to [Joe] Biden.” Now that Biden has selected Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential candidate, how do you expect that rhetoric to change?
Serwer: With Kamala Harris, it was almost as though Trump, the Republican Party, and the Republican Party’s surrogates were able to mix the Hillary Clinton talking points and the Barack Obama talking points together. You have the president and Jared Kushner suggesting Harris wasn’t eligible for the presidency, calling her angry, and deploying all these sexist stereotypes. There was almost a sense of relief, until they had to tide themselves over with old, white Joe Biden, who no one believes is an empty vessel for the radical left or a member of “antifa.” As we’ve seen from the previous couple of elections, people are willing to believe outlandish, crazy things about women and people of color who are political candidates, while white men tend to get the benefit of the doubt. Now, race- and gender-baiting doesn’t always work; I want to emphasize that it did not prevent Barack Obama from winning despite the fact that it was such an endemic part of the criticism of him. It did substantially work against Hillary Clinton. I think they were relieved that they were finally able to reuse these talking points that they had been used to using for 12 years.
It’s not going to change a whole lot of votes for them to try and emphasize or attack Harris, because she’s not at the top of the ticket.
Aberra: In 2016, the media was criticized for “getting it wrong,” with regards to the election results and where the country was headed. Do you think the media and the public are focused on the right issues in this election season?
Serwer: There’s a lot of people chasing silly, shiny objects on social media. But by and large, the health, science, and economic desks at most major newspapers and outlets have done an incredible job of covering COVID-19 as the most important story in the country. As far as the election itself, I don’t know what’s going to happen here, with a system like the Electoral College that grants a much larger degree of influence on votes depending on their geographical distribution. It’s hard to tell what the ultimate result of the election will be. I’m certainly not going to make any predictions.
People are facing a housing crisis. They’re facing an unemployment crisis. They’re facing trouble paying their bills. They’re facing a deadly pandemic in which their relatives and friends might be losing their lives. They don’t know what to do about child care or whether schools are going to open in the fall or whether the pandemic will be under control. So I would say that, for the most part, the public is focused on what matters.