Donald Trump has not sown the seeds of anger and hatred so much as he has reaped their fruits in a bumper crop. Their roots go very deep, and they will blossom anew in the wake of a Trump defeat.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has confounded conventional wisdom to become perhaps the most unconventional presidential candidate since Andrew Jackson, through a disordered personality and uncanny ability to play to the fears of white conservatives. Trump shares many of Jackson’s traits, from his volatile temper to his “populist authoritarian appeal,” as psychologist Dan P. McAdams writes in The Atlantic. Trump’s own near textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder, and its attendant need for constant attention, certainly contributed to his knack for garnering nearly $2 billion in free media.
As with Jackson, Trump’s detractors (including yours truly) fear “what a popular strongman might do when encouraged by an angry mob.” Trump rode a wave of white conservatives’ anger, fueled by racial and economic anxiety and resentment, all the way to the Republican nomination. Indeed the racial attitudes of Trump’s supporters has over shadowed their economic concerns, as they rally around his rhetoric. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll put the racial attitudes of Trump’s supporters into sharp focus.
- Nearly half of Trump supporters described African-Americans as more "violent than whites.
- The same amount of Trump supporters described African-Americans as more “criminal” than whites.
- Forty percent described African-Americans as more “lazy” than whites.
Two recent studies suggest that racial resentment plays a bigger role in Trump’s support than previously thought. Yet, Trump can convince his supporters they’re not racist merely by steering clear of racial epithets while speaking in coded terms; and offering half-hearted renouncements of white supremacist/white nationalist supporters, while still retweeting their information.
You can see how there would be something almost intoxicating about that for a certain kind of white man. He keeps hearing about “privilege” but he doesn’t feel privileged. His hometown is becoming diverse in a way he’s not too pleased with—but he’s not supposed to say it’s a bad thing. His job isn’t great and his boss is kind of a jerk—but the last thing he’s allowed to do is act like Donald Trump and tell the boss where to shove it.
What appalls the rest of us feeds the ardor of Trump’s base, because at his most crass and vulgar he is saying and doing what they long to, and he’s saying it to the entire country on their behalf — and winning, at least in the primaries. He is their hero, because he gets away with it where they can’t.
When Trump rails against “political correctness” and says he wants to “Make America Great Again,” when he bullies or belittles Latinos, Muslims, African-Americans, or women, he’s appealing to what Thomas Edsall calls “the anti-p.c. vote.” Trump is tapping into his supporters’ anxiety about changes in the demographic makeup of the country — changes that mean a majority-minority US in the near future — and their resentment of the accompanying “anti-bullying” culture that renders certain actions and expressions socially unacceptable, if not illegal. It’s no coincidence that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans jumped from 23 percent when he entered the race to 57 percent when he started referring to Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists.
Trump is merely reaping a harvest of bigotry that Republicans sowed the “Southern Strategy,” fertilized with covert appeals their base’s racial anxieties, and secured by drawing lily-white “safe” districts left them unprepared to face a more diverse America. Meanwhile, the economic anxieties of the voters now propelling Trump to within shouting distance of the Oval Office were left untended. Trump may be using racism to sell himself to the GOP base, but that’s only because it works. It works because Republicans spent decades making sure it would.
It could work well enough to put Trump in the White House — a frightening thought for many Americans. What’s equally as frightening is what might happen if Trump loses, or even if he quits. In 2013, in a series of posts titled “The GOP and Obama’s Second Term: Rage of an Unprivileged Class,” I wrote that a Romney victory in 2012 would have signified a restoration of primacy to white conservatives; of what they perceive as their rightful place as what anti-racist author Tim Wise described as “the dictionary definition of an American.”
What if Trump loses? At a rally in Maryland earlier this year, Trump told the crowd, “I don’t think I’m going to lose, but if I do, I don’t think you’re ever going to see me again, folks. I think I’ll go to Turnberry and play golf or something.” Don’t bet on it. His love of media attention and adoring crowds makes it unlikely that Donald Trump will go away if he loses in November. He may not even concede.
A Hillary Clinton victory will mean another failure to restore white male supremacy circa 1950, which is what Trump means by “making America great again.” The anger that spawned the tea party movement after a failed restoration in 2012, and moved Republicans to vow to make Barack Obama a one-term president when he upended the natural order in 2008, will likely come roaring back. Given the right’s white-hot hatred of Hillary Clinton, it could make the tea party look like child’s play. It never really subsided, and Trump probably won’t let it.