Donald Trump, mad king of the GOP: What his surging popularity reveals about Republican extremism

Donald Trump's demagoguery has been so successful for the same reason rightwing extremism is on the rise

Published August 14, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
(Reuters/Brian Snyder)

On Tuesday, heavily armed members of the right-wing organization “Oath Keepers,” which reportedly has about 30,000 members and is made up of former military personnel, police officers and first responders, showed up to the uneasy streets of Ferguson. They claimed to be protecting a reporter from Alex Jones’ (although InfoWars denies involvement with the group), while seemingly trying to educate black residents about their constitutional rights, as seen in these strangely cordial conversations. Whether the intentions of these armed white men were sincere, as Andrew O’Hehir concludes in his excellent piece on the subject, is up to debate -- but they were clearly delusional if they expected a warm greeting walking into a black neighborhood -- and one where systemic racism is rampant -- with semi-automatic rifles.

With all of their knowledge of the Constitution, it is hard to believe these men would be ignorant of America's long and dark history of vigilante violence, which has been routinely perpetrated by white men against people of color and left wing radicals fighting oppression over the past two centuries. Indeed, the most famous of all vigilante groups in the United States was the Ku Klux Klan, which was dedicated to using violence and fear (i.e. terrorism) to keep African Americans oppressed and impoverished in the South.

This particular group of militia men, dedicated to defending the “Constitution (their rigid interpretation, I assume) against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” previously came to the defense of infamous Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy, who got into a standoff with the federal government over unpaid cattle grazing fees on federally owned land. After being praised by the right wing media, Bundy ended up showing just how much of a bigoted anachronism he was in an interview with the New York Times:

“[African Americans are] basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

This disgustingly racist view is particularly ironic when it is taken into account that Bundy has been receiving subsidy from the government for two decades as a welfare rancher who hasn’t paid what he owes -- a measly $1.35 per month for each cow, to maintain the public land he grazes on.

“Oath Keepers” is just one organization among many other right wing extremist groups and movements currently growing, and alarming the government. Take, for example, the “sovereign citizen” movement, which has been estimated to have up to 300,000 believers (although there is no central organization). Sovereign citizens are more or less conservative extremists who have taken their ideology one step further than the most dogmatic of libertarians. They do not recognize federal or state governments, and only abide by their own interpretation of common laws -- which is convenient for anyone who doesn’t want to pay any taxes. Over the years, self-described sovereign citizens have gotten into gunfights with police officers, and are considered a major threat by the FBI.

According to a survey that New York Times conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum, out of 382 law enforcement agencies, 74 percent list anti-government extremism as a top terrorist threats in their jurisdiction, compared to just 39 percent for Islamic extremism. Right wing extremist groups range from white supremacy, nationalism, nativism, and anti-government extremism like the Sovereign Citizen movement.

This increase of rightwing extremism in America poses the question of whether these aggressively reactionary movements are actually gaining traction in the political mainstream. Longtime war reporter and columnist Chris Hedges believes that a popular and radical movement is coming in the United States, but whether it will be based on progressive values, as we see with the Sanders’ campaign, or reactionary dogmatism, as we see with organizations like Oath Keepers or individuals like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, is a question that remains unanswered. In his new book, “Wages of Rebellion,” Hedges writes of the reactionary passions we currently see in the United States, and what they could lead to if unchecked:

“Left unchecked, the hatred for radical Islam will transform itself into a hatred for Muslims. The hatred for undocumented workers will become a hatred for Mexicans and Central Americans. The hatred for those not defined by this largely white movement as American patriots will become a hatred for African Americans. The hatred for liberals will  morph into a hatred for all democratic institutions, from universities to government agencies to the press. Beleaguered whites, battered by a stagnant and flagging economy, are retreating, especially in the South, into a mythical self-glorification built around the Confederacy. This retreat resembles the absurdist national and ethnic myths that characterized the former Yugoslavia when it unraveled.”

The form of populism that we have seen Donald Trump embrace, a kind of nationalist nativism, promising to “make America great again” by keeping the brown people out and bringing jobs back to white America, has obviously gained traction. Trump is the antithesis of a career politician. He is openly sexist and xenophobic, but does not have to worry about losing campaign donations from his inflammatory comments. He does not talk like an anti-government rhetorician, but instead embraces the passions of the rightwing base -- whether it be xenophobia, nationalism, or anti-intellectualism -- while also promising to use his strength as president to crack down on all of society's perceived ills.

And here lies a major contradiction with this man, who talks endlessly about the concerns of conservatives, yet promises to address them with the strength of the federal government and executive office -- something which conservatives are supposed to oppose.

When given a choice, it seems that followers of the extreme right are willing to use the strength of the federal government, as long as it is addressing their concerns (e.g. national security, illegal immigration, abortion, gay marriage). Of course, not all conservatives have embraced Trump, and many see through his demagoguery -- but the people (at least a current plurality of GOP voters) have been enamored by his strongman shtick.

Trump is just one person, and may very well fade away in the months to come -- but it is becoming clear that the right wing has increasingly retreated into a “mythical self-glorification,” as Hedges put it. Trump and his followers want to “make America great again.” But what does this mean? No doubt, Trump would say cutting our debt and bringing back jobs from China and Mexico, which is something most Americans would agree on. But the overwhelming rhetoric against immigration, foreign nations, and diplomacy (and diplomats) does point to a kind of retreat from reality into a hyper-nationalist mythology of American exceptionalism. Conservatives seem to be craving a strong personality like Trump, who can come into office and restore traditional values and America’s global supremacy with his superhuman business know-how. This similarly happened in the early 20th century, when strongmen like Mussolini and Hitler rose to power with a promise to restore national supremacy, while creating scapegoats for their problems. Trump wants to restore America’s greatness, and is going after immigrants and foreign nations to provoke much of white America.

Again, there’s a good, perhaps even overwhelming, chance that Trump will eventually fade, but what about this growing reactionary energy? The surge of rightwing terrorism and extremist groups doesn’t seem to be fading, while the Republican party has become increasingly extremist over the past decade. When adding up the percentages of GOP primary candidates with 5 percent or more in the polls, it is found that 70 percent of GOP voters favor rightwing extremists who are anti-abortion, anti-government, anti-immigration, and even authoritarian (as seen with Trump). While progressivism has risen from its shallow grave over the past decade, so has reactionary populism of the right. It would be naive to think that society cannot turn back on the progress that has been fought for over time, which it has in the case of unionism and worker rights since the ‘80s. This is what the increasingly extremist right wing wants: to turn back time; and without a strong progressive movement standing in its way, this could all too easily happen.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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