Donald Trump’s formidable lead among Republican contenders for the presidency suggests that good political common sense is officially in short supply. My statement does not lack for hyperbole, but it is entirely commensurate with the alarming cultural farce that is a Trump campaign for president. Nothing makes clearer the kind of social hysteria and lack of reason driving politics on the right these days than widespread support for Donald Trump, a candidate who up until now has provided endless entertainment of the slightly racist uncle who vocalizes outmoded views at the dinner table variety. Such characters usually exasperate us and they may even manage to make us laugh, but no one takes such figures seriously.
However, if the Republican primary were today, Donald Trump would most likely emerge the winner. Polls suggest that people appreciate Trump’s form of “truth telling,” plus the fact that he isn't a Washington insider. However, let me be less generous and less polite in my own assessment of the man:
Donald Trump makes clear that he primarily cares about capitalism, about wealth, and about power. While I view his particular performance of right-wing politics and white masculinity as buffoonish, he seems to offer comfort to those on the right who are deeply invested in returning the country’s leadership to someone who looks and thinks like them. What’s interesting, then, is that Trump’s billionaire status likely indicates that he has little in common with the everyday citizen. But his brash and unapologetic political incorrectness bespeaks comfort, a seeming return to normalcy for those Americans who believe that progress and change are happening too fast.
While Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have become more explicit about saying “Black lives matter,” Trump recently argued that we actually need to “give power back to the police.” Nothing about the rampant culture of overpolicing in this country or the surveillance state in which most urban people of color live would suggest that this is a reasonable position to take. The police have more power than they have ever had, and they continue to use that power to intimidate and abuse ordinary citizens of all backgrounds, including African-Americans, Native Americans and white people.
Like many of us born in the late 20th century, I am ambivalent about the political process. I vote religiously in national elections, mostly because I am reminded that the right to do so was won in actual Black lives lost. But I also vote out of fear. The level of popular support for Trump is yet one more reminder that a significant segment of the populace would have us return to a world in which women have no reproductive freedom, Black people’s voting rights are significantly curtailed, and rich, white, propertied men rule the roost.
There are two competing views of democracy in this country, and one of those views is rooted in “taking the country back” from African-Americans whose outcries about injustice are treated as unwelcome ambient noise that disrupts the standard daily functions of white America. The right wants “to take the country back” from liberals, from Latinos, from Barack Obama, from women who want control over their bodies. And if they have to support Donald Trump in order to have a shot at this goal, they will support him unabashedly.
No one believes Trump is a serious presidential contender, but we should pay close attention to what it is about him that the conservative base finds so compelling.
The explanations that suggest that Trump’s “refreshing honesty” and “lack of political corruption” make him popular are surface-level truths that point to a deeper set of lies. Trump legitimizes the most irrational and base impulses of those on the right. He makes it seem OK to have views that are politically retrograde and fundamentally at odds with a democratic project. He makes white discomfort with progressive discourse and policy feel like a legitimate anxiety.
The presidency of Barack Obama has so deeply unsettled such a significant segment of the American populace, that nothing but right-wing political zealotry will make them feel settled again. This is what Trump represents – the kind of zealotry meant to balance the extreme feelings that many conservative (read: white) Americans have about what they’ve been “forced to endure” for the last eight years.
This lack of reason driving our current political climate does not merely concern me – it makes me afraid. Any candidate who thinks the police need more rather than less power when we are greeted almost every day with video evidence of police abusing their power to intimidate citizens of color is not a candidate who will make the world safer for those who look like me.
I have no expectation, given current attitudes among the Republican voter base, that any of the conversation in Thursday’s first presidential debate will address the volatile and violent racial climate that is currently dominating conversation among Black millennial voters. Support for Trump constitutes a concerted refusal to acknowledge that the country is on the brink of a new full-fledged 21st century movement for civil rights.
Deliberate political obliviousness is especially egregious and dangerous, because we need the kind of political leadership that does not act as though ignoring problems will make them go away. This seems to be the current thinking among conservative candidates and voters –there is no racial crisis bubbling just under the surface, stretching our national body at the seams. It is possible for a conservative candidate to fully acknowledge and address these concerns, but the current thinking seems to be, “let’s not dignify this social upheaval with a response.” I have asked many times how we have yet again found ourselves in the throes of a national identity crisis that resembles the political struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. White people in my generation believed that they were incapable of perpetrating the racial crimes of their grandparents.
But their great grandparents believed that slavery “wasn’t that bad.” Some believed that African-Americans actually fared better under those conditions. Their grandparents in 1960s frequently claimed that the country had no race problem, other than the one caused by “outside agitators.” Among millennials, one study found that 48 percent of respondents believe that “discrimination against White people has become as big a problem as discrimination against racial minority groups.” Only 27 percent of people of color agreed with them. Meanwhile, 41 percent of white respondents believed that “the government pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups” compared with only 21 percent of people of color respondents.
Much of Trump’s current popularity is predicated on a deliberate refusal to acknowledge many of the concerns that are driving the new movement for racial justice. At the same time, I believe that there is also a hyperawareness, a deep anxiety and a visceral fear of what the voices screaming at the margins mean for the lives of those who are so deeply invested in acting like they are not there. It is this fear that has a significant segment of the white middle class willing to support candidates who care far more about money and power than about the quality of life of the American middle class. The only thing that I’ve ever known to make white people vote against their own political and economic interests (e.g., against healthcare, for massive corporate tax cuts, against reproductive rights for women, against a social safety net) is racism.
Trump adamantly resists such demands for a more inclusive and representative democracy. He represents a feeling of safety for those white people who long for a return to the “way things were.” And because of that, a Trump candidacy represents a serious threat to Black people for whom the recent past was deeply inhospitable and the present is increasingly unbearable.