Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s looming nomination for the vice presidency, and the whimpering failure of the #NeverTrump movement’s convention coup, consecrate the Republican Party’s decision to accept Donald Trump as their party’s standard bearer and make peace with the kind of politics he practices. Republicans won’t officially nominate Trump until Thursday, but they drafted the deal over the past two months, and finalized the language this past week.
In a news environment that’s saturated with fleeting outrages, false equivalences, and fluctuating poll numbers, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Republicans aren’t just ratifying a new set of policy ideas and crudities. Trump has already awakened and sanctioned a kind of latent social disorder among his supporters, many of whom harbored racist sentiments silently or privately, but who now feel emboldened to act upon their views in public: in classrooms; at cash registers, and kiosks around the country.
It is difficult, but not totally impossible, to quantify this Trump effect, but if you simply listen to the experiences of people in the communities Trump has vilified, his influence over minority experience in American life is easy to characterize. It is ugly and nefarious. And Republicans have decided to normalize it.
News reports have chronicled a variety of incidents across the country over the months of Trump’s political juggernaut, some of which captured the public’s imagination briefly, only to be filed away as a datapoint in a survey that never seems to come to completion.
Perhaps the most famous incident occurred four months ago, at a high school basketball game in Indiana, when “a group of Andrean students produced signs and images of presidential candidate Donald Trump and began to chant ‘Build that wall,’ at the Bishop Noll team and fans, who are heavily Hispanic,” according to a statement from the dioceses that oversees both schools.
But other, similar stories have garnered much less attention.
- A Trump supporter (apparently a white supremacist) screamed “Go fucking make my tortilla motherfucker and build that fucking wall for me” at Trump protesters in Arizona.
- Two northern Virginia third-graders singled out a classmate as one of the “immigrants” who would be sent “home” when Trump is president.
- A Los Angeles journalist described what has become common if not typical in the Trump era. “A couple of weeks ago, while I was running errands in my neighborhood, a stranger asked me if I was ‘illegal.’ Around 10 minutes earlier another stranger asked me if I spoke English. Both were white and one of them even called me ‘señorita.’”
- Last week, a CNN law enforcement analyst said black people are prone to criminality—“Well, they are!”—before partially walking it back.
There was never a time when racist incidents like these didn’t occur. But if we believe the words of the people who are absorbing Trump’s ire, and of the people Trump has inspired, we must reckon with the fact that more people now feel they have permission to participate in them. That is Trump’s doing. Minorities living and working in different communities describe the phenomenon in almost identical words.
“Trump has energized these groups by igniting their hate and making the use of bigoted speech more normalized, if not more acceptable,” wrote Brittany Stalsburg, the founder of a feminist organization. A gay, Jewish colleague of hers had appeared on television news as a Hillary Clinton supporter and received a torrent of emails calling him a “faggot,” “peter puffing pervert,” and “Heblew,” who will soon “crawl back under the rocks that you came from.”
Sarah Ibrahim, the mother of a fourth-grade boy whose classmates told him his mother would be deported, explained to Reuters, “What Trump did was make these hidden thoughts public. He gave people permission to speak out loud, he removed the shame associated with being prejudiced. People know that they won’t be punished.”
Stalsburg lives in New York, Ibrahim in Maryland. And the white nativists who support Trump inadvertently confirm their suspicions. David Duke, for instance, feels Trump has validated white supremacy enough to consider a run for Congress. In his sweeping exploration of Trumpism, New York Times reporter Nick Confessore quoted a supporter at a Trump rally in Richmond, Virginia, who has grievances with Mexican immigrants and credits Trump for making him feel comfortable airing them. “They’ll tell you straight to your face, ‘This is our country now—no more gringos!’” he said. “They’re not in it for our culture. They’re not here to assimilate…. [Trump] says what everyone thinks. He says what we’re all thinking. He’s bringing people together. We say, ‘Hey, that’s right; we can say this.’”
There can be a fine line between asking for numerical proof of the Trump effect, and calling into doubt the testimony of minorities who claim they experience more racism now than before Trump declared his candidacy. But the data we do have, it’s no surprise, supports the views of those who say they feel more antagonized, and those who say they feel more comfortable being antagonistic.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, in partnership with University of California, Berkeley, released a report last month which found that the targeting of mosques nearly quadrupled last year over the two preceding years. In May, Georgetown University reported similar finding.
When analysts at the Southern Poverty Law Center solicited feedback from K-12 teachers about the effect the election is having in their classrooms, they were inundated with reports from teachers volunteering that Trump (whose name did not appear in the survey) is exacerbating ethnic tensions in schools across the country.
The year-plus since Trump declared his candidacy isn’t the first stretch in recent memory when minorities have sensed a heightened level of resentment from whites. What makes the current period unique is the similarity between what minorities experience in their communities and the things Trump says from the lectern at his rallies. Trump may to some extent be echoing grievances that would’ve arisen anyhow in response to things like terrorist attacks. But we don’t need studies to know that Trump has fomented these grievances, and continues to exploit them for political gain.
These are the wages of the Republican Party’s decision to indulge Trump. And the doubly horrifying thing about it is that the GOP’s most influential officials have been candid the whole time about the threat he poses to American social cohesion.
When Trump incited a bigoted backlash to the Latino judge presiding over fraud litigation against Trump University, House Speaker Paul Ryan called it “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Before suspending his own presidential campaign, Senator Marco Rubio made a final plea for the public to reject Trump. “This is what happens when a leading presidential candidate goes around feeding into a narrative of anger and bitterness and frustration,” he said. “If this continues, I think this country will continue to be ripped apart at the seams... you can’t say whatever you want. It has real-life consequences for people in this country and for people all over the world.”
“Donald is cynically exploiting that anger,” said Senator Ted Cruz, hours before his own presidential campaign ended, “and Donald is lying to his supporters.”
All three are speaking in some capacity on Trump’s behalf this week. The convention in Cleveland is their way of saying they’ve seen the impact he’s having on the country, and despite their misgivings, it’s something they can live with.