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Republic of Fear

Donald Trump has already transformed American culture. Even if he loses the election, Trumpism is here to stay.

Joshua Lott

Late in February, a curious incident happened at a basketball game between two high schools just outside Des Moines—one mostly white, the other mostly Hispanic—where white students hurled the phrase “Trump, Trump, Trump!” at their opponents. Not long after, something similar happened in Indiana at another basketball game: Students from the predominately white Andrean High School in Merrillville, while holding aloft a big cutout of Trump’s head, shouted “Build a wall! Build a wall!” at Bishop Noll Institute’s predominantly Hispanic players and fans. The taunted students responded by yelling back: “You’re a racist!” Luckily, neither of these episodes escalated into physical violence. But they testified to the way Trumpism is rippling out across society, far beyond the political arena—and being felt even in such banal, ordinary settings as high school hoops contests. 

From the moment he stepped off the Trump Tower escalator last June, and in his campaign announcement speech called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, Donald Trump’s presidential run has been an exercise in white nationalism. The questions that have obsessed political pundits since that moment—Can he win? Will he cause a crack-up in the Republican Party? What happens if there’s a brokered convention and the establishment tries to take the nomination away from him?—are important, of course. But they’re far too narrow. What really needs to be asked is this: How is Donald Trump changing America? Not how he will change the country if he lands in the White House, but how he’s already changing it. Because Trump, even before he secures the Republican nomination—and even if he never wins the presidency—has transformed America as much as any political figure of our era. It’s a transformation that transcends politics and bleeds deeply into our culture.

Fear is the very essence of Trumpism. Political scientists have found that his most ardent supporters are white people with authoritarian tendencies who are afraid of the way the country is changing—economically, culturally, and demographically. He wins them over by posing as the strongman who is tough enough to fight back against the feared agents of change, whether they’re Mexican or Muslim immigrants, Black Lives Matter protesters, or “politically correct” liberals who say “happy holidays.” But Trump hasn’t simply pandered to such fears, as Republican candidates have since Richard Nixon first cooked up the “Southern strategy.” He is a demagogue who’s turning white people’s anxieties into anger for political advantage. Trump isn’t simply reflecting fear; he’s conjuring it—both among his followers and among those he demonizes.

The most visible example of the Trump effect has been the well-documented abuse and violence directed at protesters (and sometimes reporters) at his campaign rallies. This behavior isn’t the rowdy spillover of hard-fought politics, as Trump likes to paint it, but a direct result of the candidate’s own encouragement. At a February 1 event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Trump told the crowd, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell—I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.”

Trump’s “promise” has become a sanction for racial taunting and beatings that have become a ritualistic part of his campaign. On March 9 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, TV cameras caught a white 78-year-old Trump supporter named John McGraw sucker-punching a 26-year-old protester, Rakeem Jones. The following day, when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked him about the incident, Trump responded thusly: “You’re mentioning one case—which I haven’t seen, I heard about it—which I don’t like. But when they see what’s going on in this country, they have anger that’s unbelievable. They have anger. They love this country. They don’t like seeing bad trade deals, they don’t like seeing higher taxes, they don’t like seeing a loss of their jobs where our jobs have just been devastated. And I know—I mean, I see it. There is some anger. There’s also great love for the country. It’s a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all, Jake.”

Trump’s words are worth parsing because this is how he has responded, over and over, to his followers’ disturbing, sometimes criminal behavior: First, there’s an initial silence that implies sympathy with the racist aggressors, followed by praise of his supporters for their passion and love of country, and then, grudgingly, there’s a pro forma renunciation of violence. When he’s not blaming the protesters for whatever happens to them, Trump casts the violence as a result of nothing but legitimate economic grievances and frustrated patriotism, feelings that are not only justified but even commendable: “a beautiful thing.”

Donald Trump is a big bully who is enabling many little bullies. His campaign for president has made white Americans more comfortable with their bigotry, giving them permission to be more vocal and confident in expressing their prejudices, resentments, and hatreds. This is exemplified by the fact that the word “Trump” has become a taunt used to humiliate or intimidate—a sort of verbal cudgel. On March 12, Khondoker Usama, a Muslim student at Wichita State University, reported that he and a Hispanic friend had been accosted at a convenience store by a man yelling, “Trump, Trump, Trump,” and “Brown trash, go home. Trump will win.” Similar sentiments were expressed last August, when a Hispanic homeless man in Boston was beaten up by two white men who yelled, according to the police, “Donald Trump was right,” and “All these illegals need to be deported.”

Trump was initially, characteristically, hesitant to comment on the hate crime in Boston that was committed in his name. “I haven’t heard about that. It would be a shame, but I haven’t heard about that,” Trump said. “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, they want this country to be great again.” After repeated challenges by the press, Trump finally tweeted: “Boston incident is terrible. We need energy and passion, but we must treat each other with respect. I would never condone violence.”

But Trump is doing more than condone violence; he’s drawing it forth. And while much has been written about the grievances, legitimate or otherwise, of his white working-class followers, less has been said about what it’s like to live in Trump’s America if he’s cast you as someone to fear.

Along with Latinos, Muslim Americans have borne the brunt of Trump’s attacks. Some are starting to wonder whether they have a future in America. “A lot of times, I question whether the U.S. is still going to accept me as an American who happens to be a Muslim. I didn’t have that question after September 11. I have this question now,” Ali Zakaria, a litigator in Houston told the Toronto Star in February. “From a psychological point of view, that’s a big change.”

That understandable anxiety is music to the ears of organized white nationalists, who have cheered Trump’s rise—and have clearly been emboldened by it. Rocky J. Suhayda, chair of the American Nazi Party, captured the enthusiasm last September when he wrote: “We have a wonderful opportunity here folks, that may never come again, at the right time. Donald Trump’s campaign statements, if nothing else, have shown that ‘our views’ are not so ‘unpopular’ as the political correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”

Trump, when pressed, has frequently said he doesn’t want to be endorsed by organized white nationalists. His strategy is to maintain plausible deniability while also bear-hugging the haters—often by retweeting them. Queried in November by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly about retweeting a wildly false and inflammatory claim that 81 percent of white murder victims are killed by blacks, for instance, Trump responded, “Bill, I didn’t tweet. I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert, and it was also a radio show.” But retweets are an excellent way to wink and nod at the extremists—to communicate a solidarity that even Trump, who’s broken so many of the boundaries of polite political discourse in his campaign, doesn’t feel he can openly express. In light of this recurring pattern, Trump’s notorious refusal to disavow his support from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan two days before Super Tuesday looks less like a novice politician’s mistake—or the result of wearing a faulty earpiece, as Trump later claimed—and completely in keeping with the way he plays footsy with white nationalists.

It is comforting to imagine, as many liberals and anxious conservatives do, that the Trump phenomenon will prove to be an isolated, ugly episode—a case of temporary mass insanity that will leave no lasting scars on American culture and politics, especially if Trump is ultimately defeated. This is wishful thinking. The destructive forces he has unleashed won’t be easily boxed back up and contained. And the Republican Party will, from all indications, continue to be a vehicle for Trumpism even after his political career is done.

While establishment Republicans like Mitt Romney have passionately denounced Trump and plotted ways to block his nomination, the party’s official response to its front-runner has been a pattern of appeasement—even after he threatened violence against the party itself. On March 16, less than 24 hours after knocking Marco Rubio out of the race and taking another step toward the White House, Trump was asked on CNN about the possibility of a brokered convention where he could be denied the Republican nomination. “I think you’d have riots,” he replied. “I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous—many, many millions of people.”

True to form, the Republican National Committee decided to downplay these incendiary remarks. “I assume he’s speaking figuratively,” said Sean Spicer, the RNC’s chief strategist.

By introducing the threat of violence into the very heart of a presidential nominating process, Trump was plunging the country into uncharted territory once again. It’s easy to see him as being part of a long tradition of American demagogues—the Father Coughlins, Joseph McCarthys, George Wallaces, and Pat Buchanans. Yet Trump, who has held the polling lead in the Republican race pretty steadily since July and has repeatedly bested his rivals in the primaries, is a much more formidable and dangerous figure than any of his predecessors.

Consider Wallace, the politician who Trump most closely resembles. Like Trump, the Alabama firebrand capitalized on racism for political gain, mounting a third-party run for president in 1968 as the candidate of white backlash against the civil rights and antiwar movements. Wallace relished inciting his crowds to beat up the hippies and eggheads—and to shout their hatred from the mountaintops. Yet Wallace never came close to winning control of a national political party, though echoes of his repellent politics could long be heard in both the Republicans’ Southern strategy to inspire white solidarity and in Democrats’ “tough-on-crime” support for the mass incarceration policies of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

But today’s Republican Party has undeniably become Trumpized. You can see it in the campaign of his rival for the nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, who has insisted Trump is unfit to hold office even as he’s hardened his own stance on immigration and mimicked the frontrunner’s xenophobia. Trying to outbid Trump’s promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants—and then provide a mechanism for allowing the ones who are law-abiding to return—Cruz has said he’ll deport all these people but not let any back in. Trump’s birtherism and Islamophobia once seemed shocking in a major political figure, but Cruz has mirrored it by surrounding himself with advisers like Frank Gaffney, founder of the far-right Center of Security Policy and a notorious conspiracy theorist who believes the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the highest levels of American government. Together, Cruz and Trump had won 77 percent of Republican delegates through the March 15 primaries. That’s hardly an indication that Trumpism is somehow an outlier, a momentary eruption, in the GOP.

And in politics, of course, success breeds copycats. Barry Goldwater might have been clobbered in the 1964 general election, to give one notable example, but he showed how an archconservative could win the Republican nomination—and ultimately paved the way for the election of his ideological disciple, Ronald Reagan. Goldwater-Reagan conservatism was the driving force in Republican politics from 1964 until 2012. Now the GOP—which dominates American politics at every level but the presidential—is the party of Trumpism.

We can expect future Republican presidential candidates, running in a party that has not only lastingly alienated Americans of color but threatened them with open hatred and violence—even expulsion—to borrow from Trump’s strategy of racial polarization. Trump might fail, in other words, but Trumpism will live on. And given the fact America has a two-party system and voters will inevitably want change, we have to face the prospect that even if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins the White House for Democrats in November, the historical odds say the United States will eventually elect a Trumpian president.

Yet Trump’s enduring impact won’t merely be political. “This is a movement,” Trump exulted last August during a campaign speech in Nashville, Tennessee. “I don’t want it to be about me.” He was right about that: Trump may be the icon of the movement he’s ignited, but it’s gone far beyond his actions or control. And while organized white nationalists are the animating core of the movement, beyond them are the far more numerous Americans who harbor racist attitudes and economic resentments but have no links to the likes of David Duke.

For decades, this cohort has had to grapple with the fact that public expressions of racism were becoming taboo. When politicians tried to win over these voters, they had to use code words and dog whistles. Trump has changed all that: The dog whistle has given way to the air horn. And now when white people want to harass Hispanic basketball players or Muslim students, they have a rallying cry: “Trump, Trump, Trump!”