In the first US presidential debate, Donald Trump played the tough guy, as he so often does. “There’s bad things going on, some really bad things,” he declared. “We need law and order.”
Imposing law and order, be it clamping down on black criminals in the inner cities or torturing terrorists – either for information or simply for revenge – has been a theme of Trump’s campaign. It’s crude and often vulgar, and is pandering to racial and religious fears, but in an anxious age it resonates with millions of American voters.
When the history of our era is written, the events in San Bernardino on 2 December 2015, in Orlando on 12 June and in Dallas on 7-8 July will feature prominently. The massacre of social workers by two Islamic State sympathisers at a Christmas party in the southern California city, the murder of five police officers by a Dallas sniper during a night of protests against police brutality, and the slaughter of dozens of clubgoers in Florida all bored their way deeply into the American psyche. So, too, did the execution of more than 100 Parisians by Isis jihadists last November, the reaction in the United States to this event mirroring the disbelief felt in France. All these killings took place during a US election season hijacked by a venomously demagogic personality willing to exploit any and all acts of violence for his own ends.
Usually after a terrorist attack, politicians tone down the partisanship, at least for a few days. Not so after the Orlando attack in June. Within hours, Trump made a speech essentially accusing President Obama of a treasonous liaison with Isis. If clubbers had been armed, one of them would have shot the gunman Omar Mateen between the eyes and, Trump said, that “would have been a beautiful, beautiful sight”. It was a combination of an almost cartoon-like fetishisation of guns (in the right, white hands) and a remarkable display of Big Lie oratory.
There are, these days, seemingly endless cycles of fury in this overarmed society, this country where I live that now has more guns than people: fury about crime, police brutality, terrorism, economic malaise, social and demographic changes, mass shootings and proposed gun controls. Each year in America there are dozens of mass shootings and thousands of incidents in which individuals get shot. The media fascination with these feeds into a panic mentality – and a resultant willingness to condone violent responses by law enforcement. Every year, hundreds of Americans are killed by police officers and sheriffs’ deputies – there were 1,146 victims in 2015, according to a Guardian count. No other Western democracy comes close to these figures. Many Americans, of course, see this as a scandal, and it has been framed as such by activist groups including Black Lives Matter. Yet it is viewed by many other Americans – especially suburban, rural, conservative voters – as the necessary price of stability in a chaotic, freewheeling culture.
High though America’s violence rates are in comparison to western Europe’s, the US in 2016 is not more besieged by crime than it has been in the recent past. In fact, with few regional exceptions, it still has far lower levels of violent crime today than at almost any point in the past quarter-century. But in a post-factual era, this emotional sense that we’re all on the ropes, that things are spiralling out of control, is a potent force, and one that plays to Trump’s strengths.
In this milieu, his promise to protect the silent majority – the term, first popularised by Nixon acolytes fifty years ago, has been deliberately appropriated by the Republican presidential nominee – has acquired huge weight. For he offers a vision of authoritarian governance to reduce unrest and crime, immigration and terrorism, and in so doing to magically “Make America Great Again”.
Nixon scholars such as the historian Rick Perlstein point out that Tricky Dick was infinitely more of an ideas man than is Trump. Reporting from the GOP convention for the New Republic in July, Perlstein noted that Nixon would have loathed Trump’s penchant for pseudo-magical solutions to complex problems. “Amid everything else,” Perlstein wrote, “he was a grinder, obsessed with meticulous preparation, study, details, discipline, knowing your stuff.”
Yet Trumpism does feed off silent majority furies. His deliberately unsophisticated anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant TV commercials tapped in to a heartlands groundswell of fury about a culture perceived to be under threat. In an anxious era, nuance never plays as well as blood-and-soil simplicity.
That is why Trump can call for the expanded use of torture against terrorism suspects, and revel in the imagery of killing terrorists using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, and advocate collective punishment of terror suspects’ families. That is why he can use the broad brush to paint entire ethnic and religious groups as the country’s enemy. He knows there’s a critical mass of anxious, fearful, angry American voters who will lap it up.
I observed this during the Nevada caucus in February, when numerous Trump supporters told me they would expel all Muslims from the country. An elderly man went further, saying he would give Muslims in America a choice between “the trench and exile”, and mimed a pistol-to-the-back-of-the-head execution.
If Trump ultimately loses – and the latest polls show that to be a strong probability – it will be less because his violent racial and religious rhetoric was finally viewed as being out of bounds, and more because of the sheer banality and vulgarity of his now-notorious 2005 sex-talk tape. All of the other toxicity was tolerated by the Republican elite because they knew all too well the visceral support such a message had among much of their base.
This is truly the alt-right moment – the “alternative right” representing a populist, protectionist, racially tribalist counterpoint to the laissez-faire, small-government, plutocratic vision of more mainstream American conservatives – when white nationalism takes centre stage in US politics. The recent Republican calculus, never really adhered to by much of the base, of creating an ethnically diverse coalition in pursuit of a rigidly conservative economic policy, of playing “dog-whistle” racial politics while pretending to be colour blind, is being replaced by a Southern strategy on steroids – one that explicitly appeals to tribal divisions, racial tensions and religious animus in order to maximise the white, Christian vote. This is a moment, Perlstein argues, that owes at least as much to the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace’s third-party candidacy in 1968 as it does to Nixon’s “silent majority” rhetoric of the same year.
For Eric Rauchway – a historian of American politics at the University of California, Davis – Trump’s rhetoric is redolent both of Wallace and of Lee Atwater, the GOP strategist in the 1980s who “memorably said that by the late 1960s, you could no longer say ‘n*****’ – but you could talk about states’ rights, law and order, forced bussing”. Atwater utilised nod-and-a-wink euphemisms, allowing for “plausible deniability” when people accused him of using a racist strategy. Today, the nod-and-wink has, once again, been replaced by explicit appeals to white solidarity.
In the past, this grab-bag of venom was called “fascist”, or at the very least “racist”. It was the uncouth, embarrassing stuff of the British National Party and football hooligans in the UK, of the John Birchers and the White Citizens’ Councils in the US. Now, it goes by the slightly more soothing title of “white nationalism” or the “alt-right” and it has become polite dinner conversation. But there’s nothing soothing about it: it is the politics of the prison gang, thuggism brought out from under its rock and making a serious run for power. And, in Trump, it’s all wrapped up in faux-patriotism: huge flags as a backdrop to his speeches; his addressing the American Legion’s national convention and promising that children will be taught to respect and salute the flag – as if, in this land of the daily Pledge of Allegiance in schools, they weren’t already; his embrace of a might-is-right, America First approach to politics, to international relations, to human interaction.
This is the scoundrel’s patriotism warned against by Winston Churchill. An authoritarianism which, once in control, would begin dramatically to undermine independent thought and corrode free speech. It is the patriotism of the totalitarian, the Pinochet figure who believes that love of country must equate with the suppressing of all dissent, that the discontent of the outsider must be squashed by the full force of the state and its acolyte armed supporters.
The idea of Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart – a race-baiting, religion-baiting, nationalist website that peddles propaganda and conspiracy as facts – leading a major presidential campaign emits a political and cultural stench almost beyond imagination. And yet, this is where America in 2016 is. In a conspiracy-believing atmosphere, it makes perfect sense for a wounded Trump to tour the country urging his supporters, in advance of the election, to reject its results as being “rigged” or “stolen” or “fixed”; as being illegitimate because of African-American voters in inner cities engaging in wholesale voter fraud.
What is fuelling this anger, this political insanity? The first is economic dislocation. Even before the financial crash in 2008, for tens of millions of working-class Americans, things were heading in the wrong direction, and fast. Their real incomes had fallen; their access to pensions, to paid sick leave, to affordable medical coverage, to reasonably priced higher education for their children had collapsed; their debts had soared; and their chances of climbing the socio-economic ladder had become ever more remote. This was partly a product of globalisation, with manufacturing jobs lost to developing countries; yet the scale of inequality unleashed in America is bigger than in other Western democracies. In the US, as trade unions were marginalised, and as wealthy individuals and large corporations came to gain a stranglehold on the political process, via well-paid lobbyists, the country witnessed a staggering transfer of money and power to the wealthiest citizens.
For the poorest 20 per cent of American workers, real earnings peaked back in the Nixon era. By contrast, for the wealthiest tier – the fabled “One Per Cent” – one has to go back to the late 19th century to find times as good as they are today. After 2008, a sizeable portion of the middle class similarly came to feel besieged, their assets – in particular their homes and pension funds – shrunken in value, their earning power diminished and their children’s life prospects worse than those of their parents. Though the economy has recovered from the 2008 collapse, with unemployment now at 5 per cent and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index close to record highs, on the ground things don’t look nearly so good. Many of the jobs created in recent years are less secure and pay worse than those lost during the crisis. Nearly 45 million Americans are living in poverty; one in six is “food-insecure”. One can see food lines in city after city. Many of those needing charity meals have jobs – but their jobs no longer pay the bills.
For many economically anxious Americans, the governance of traditional Republicans and Democrats alike has failed them. “I do think it’s up to liberal Democrats to show what they are doing for the white working man whose industrial base has left but for whom nothing has come forth to replace it,” said Arlie Hochschild, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award.
This sense of angst is magnified by the enduring psychic dislocation unleashed by the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001 and the wars that followed. The sense of being unmoored is made worse by the normalisation of torture during the Bush administration, with the inevitable cultural coarsening that accompanied this. And the siege mentality is amplified by the racial animus and reaction unleashed among parts of white America in response to Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008, as well as the uncertainties created by rapid social change – from the legalisation of gay marriage to the unavoidable prospect that many states, in the coming years, will become “majority minority”. Seen as a whole, all the ingredients are in place for a terrible season of rage. Although none by itself was enough to cause the sense of chaos America is experiencing, together they have created a brutally combustible moment, one that Trumpism ruthlessly exploits.
Rage and incandescent fury are the fun-house mirror distortions of “hope and change”. Trump’s genius was to see, earlier than any of his competitors, the political capital to be made by exploiting all of this anger from the right, by promising to make the country “great again”, not through progressive policy solutions – nor, indeed, any policies that go beyond easy-to-grasp soundbites – but through an unapologetic embrace of tribalism and authoritarianism.
Across the Western world, the open society is under extraordinary threat, assaulted from the outside by groups such as Isis, undermined from within by demagogues such as Trump and Marine Le Pen – figures willing to flirt with the unfathomable horrors of race war, of a clash of civilisations, as a way of shoring up their support among angry, mainly working-class, white voters.
In the United States, anti-Muslim sentiments, kept largely on a leash by political leaders since 9/11 (George Bush did many dreadful things, but he went out of his way to explain that America was not at war with the entire Muslim world), have now been decisively unleashed. There are state legislators in Oklahoma and elsewhere who publicly denounce Islam as a “cancer” destroying American society. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, supports subjecting all US-based Muslims to an ideology test to root out religious extremists. Trump has episodically flirted with the idea of creating a “database” to register all Muslims in the country.
During the primaries, some running for the GOP nomination argued that only Christian refugees from Syria should be admitted into the country. Armed vigilante groups such as the Bureau on American-Islamic Relations send gun-toting thugs out to intimidate people attending mosques. There are increasing numbers of hate crimes – from an imam killed on the streets in Queens, New York, to a slew of arson attacks against mosques and Islamic cultural centres, to the man in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who taunted his Lebanese Christian neighbours, whom he assumed were Muslim, for years and then ran over one member of the family and killed another. Several mosques have been smeared with pig fat or adorned with bacon. Sikhs have been murdered, in California and elsewhere, by idiot bigots who mistook them for Muslims because of their turbans. There are signs going up in homes and businesses in the heartlands that say “Muslim Free Zone”.
A slew of polls through the spring showed that roughly half of all Americans supported Trump’s proposal to bar Muslim immigrants and visitors – on average, 8 points above the percentage of those who opposed the plan. Among Republican voters, more than two-thirds support these bans, which Trump has claimed would be “temporary”, until “we can figure out what’s going on”. In some states, such as Texas, the proportion approaches 80 per cent. Other polls have shown that in some states half of GOP supporters believe that Islam should be banned from the United States.
This is the slurry out of which Trumpism has emerged. And it is the slurry that Trumpism is, in turn, making respectable.
None of this should come as a surprise. When a tone of violence becomes normalised it does not remain the preserve of only one group against another. Instead, with a politician of Trump’s kind demolishing standards of behaviour that allow for pluralistic, peaceful political debate, there is a fragmentation of civility, as well as a growing acceptance of violence at multiple levels and against multiple groups.
It is now accepted that when a public figure speaks out against Trump, he or she will suffer a barrage of hate mail and be trolled on Twitter, that death threats will be hurled their way, that their in-box will be filled with anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-black, anti-Mexican insults. Take some of the notes sent to Doug Elmets, a speechwriter in the Reagan White House, after he spoke at the Democratic National Convention explaining why he would, for the first time, be voting for a Democrat in this year’s presidential election. He was accused of treason and threatened with violence; some correspondents said they hoped his wife and daughter would be raped and murdered. Or take the voicemail that Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, left for a Democratic legislator who dared to speak out against the former’s race-baiting claims that all drug-dealers in the state were black or brown. LePage called him a “socialist c**ksucker” and said he wished it was 1825 so that he could challenge him to a duel. Or take the statement by the governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, that patriots might soon have to shed blood to defend their values against the encroachments of a liberal state.
This summer, the West Virginia GOP state representative Michael Folk called for Hillary Clinton to be hanged on the Mall in Washington. Think about that: an elected official in the world’s self-declared greatest democracy publicly calls for another official to be hanged. And although his comments generated outrage, it fairly soon faded away, lost in the tsunami of outrageous comments that have come to define this election.
Folk was the extreme edge of what has become a viciously anti-democratic, anti-civil moment. “Lock her up” is the chant that gets most enthusiasm at the Republican nominee’s rallies, as his fans urge incarceration for his opponent. Meanwhile, Trump’s butler, reputedly one of the people closest to the business mogul (yes, a modern presidential candidate actually has a butler), posted Facebook rants urging the lynching of President Obama. And Trump himself has routinely egged his followers on to commit violence against protesters, who have been punched, kicked, Mace-sprayed and spat on, and had racial slurs hurled at them.
It’s in such an environment that, in Louisiana, the former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard David Duke can make another run for the US Senate (he ran once before, in the 1990s, and narrowly lost). It’s in such an environment that the KKK can rally in public in Anaheim, California; that huge crowds opposed to Mexican migration, and to Mexican cultural influence in the US, can chant: “Build the wall! Build the wall!” Trump’s candidacy has empowered the worst, most spiteful, least thoughtful elements. A few months ago Jared Yates Sexton, a reporter for the New Republic, reported hearing a man say to his wife at a Trump rally: “Immigrants aren’t people, honey.”
It’s in such an environment that neo-Nazi skinheads can feel empowered to march on California’s state capital building in Sacramento. At that event, which I reported for the Nation magazine in late June, violent clashes erupted between skinheads and anarchists, resulting in several people on both sides ending up in hospital, after being stabbed or suffering savage beatings with sticks and concrete blocks. It reminded me of a British football riot during the Thatcher years – or, perhaps more apropos, of the violent street politics of the 1930s, as armed ideologues in Europe battled each other for control of urban areas.
We are, I fear, watching a catastrophe unfold. A large part of the United States, arguably history’s greatest experiment in mass democracy, is embracing demagoguery, and coming to accept as mere background noise the violence that, inevitably, accompanies it. If, as looks likely, Trump loses the election, millions of his armed followers will remain convinced they were cheated, that the ballot box itself conspired against them. It’s entirely conceivable that, buoyed by his appalling assertion in the final presidential debate that he would keep the country “in suspense” as to whether he would accept the legitimacy of the election, some of his supporters will resort to violence. The consequences of this rejection of democratic norms, whether he wins or loses, will ricochet around the globe for years to come.
Sasha Abramsky writes regularly for the Nation magazine and is the author of seven books, including“The American Way of Poverty” (Nation Books)