Since the Donald Trump campaign kicked off with demagoguery about Mexican immigration, political watchers have been on quiet but alert fascism watch, carefully monitoring Trump to see if he steps over the line. You can feel in your bones that Trump and his supporters long for to give into the sweet oblivion of balls-out racism, rather than dealing with the tedious process of carefully measuring the lines so you can toe them without stepping so far over that liberal journalists are freed up to use the F-word.
For whatever reason, however, Trump just went there this past week, making headlines for agreeing with the Nazi-reminiscient idea of having a database to keep track of Muslims, which meant that it was game on for liberal journalists to say "fascism." Now other Republicans are pouncing, denouncing Trump for this registry idea, portraying themselves as champions of the American ideal because they don't draw comparisons to dictators past. And therein lies the real danger that Trump's turn to the more belligerent represents: Not that he'll win the Republican nomination (though that is always a danger), but that he is making all of his competitors look moderate in comparison. As long as Trump keeps lowering the bar, other Republicans can wallow in all sorts of grotesque behavior, knowing that they still look pretty good in comparison.
Trying to psychoanalyze Donald Trump is a fool's game, but he had a weekend that likely cheered up every Republican trailing him in the polls. Until last week, Trump had been wisely toning down the overt racism a bit, styling himself a legitimate candidate and creating very real concern that he might not, as everyone assumed over the summer, self-immolate before the primary season. But he clearly got tired of that game over the weekend, spending time engaging in blatant racism against African-Americans, to go along with his notorious nastiness to Mexican immigrants and Muslims.
On Sunday, Trump retweeted a shockingly racist meme.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2015
As Scott Kaufman explains, the statistics in this are just made up, with the most egregious lie being the claim that most white murder victims are killed by black people, when in fact they are killed by other white people. The blogger Charles Johnson did some digging and found that apparently the earliest iteration of this meme online came from a neo-Nazi's Twitter account, but let's face it. You don't even need to do the research to guess that probably came from a white supremacist, since it really embraces that neo-Nazi aesthetic, as well as some of their common (and false) arguments.
Some Trump supporters physically attacked a Black Lives Matter protester in Alabama this weekend, as well, to which Trump said, "Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing."
Trump seems to know that there are downsides to making George Wallace sound reasonable, retweeting people who are trying to minimize his comments about the Muslim database and his encouragement of violence against BLM protesters. But he's not backing down, either, since his overt racism seems to be exactly what his supporters like about him.
All of which suggests that the anticipated self-immolation is still in the cards between now and the primaries. But while it would be most enjoyable to watch Trump flame out, there is a strong reason to be almost as worried about him losing as there is to worry about him winning the nomination. That's because, if and when Trump flames out, whatever Republican wins the nomination instead of him will get a boost just by virtue of not being a fascist.
As I noted back in October, the worst possible situation for a Democrat, either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, is to be in race with a Republican who can effectively lull the public into thinking he's not that bad. Al Gore should have been able to walk away from the 2000 race as a clear winner, riding on the coattails of a popular incumbent, but because George W. Bush was then perceived as harmless, a narrative grew up that there wasn't much difference between the candidates. That, in turn, suppressed voter turnout, leading to a close enough race for Bush to massage his way into victory. Both Sanders and Clinton have the same wonky nerd reputation that Gore had. All that needs to happen is for the Republican to be seen as not so bad, and it might once again be a tight race that the Democrat could lose.
The problem is that all the Republicans in the race are radical right wingers, with nary a moderate amongst them. Just this past week, Ted Cruz wallowed in outrageous stereotypes about lying Muslims and trumpeted the endorsement of an anti-choice activist whose second-in-command literally did time for an attempted terrorist plot against an abortion clinic. Marco Rubio has been fear-mongering about Muslims, implying that lots of mosques are deliberately stoking terrorist plots and using heavy-handed language about a "civilizational struggle" that suggests this is a Christian vs. Muslim struggle, as opposed to the terrorists vs. everyone else struggle it actually is. Jeb Bush endorsed the idea of religious tests---to somehow "prove" you are Christian---for political refugees. John Kasich is running around arguing that tax dollars should go to pro-Christian propaganda, even though any fool can see that lecturing people about how you are a better than them rarely produces the assenting reception that you would like.
Every single Republican in the field is a full-blown culture warrior. But they aren't retweeting neo-Nazi propaganda, so they are able to portray themselves as more middle-of-the-road and non-threatening because hey, at least they aren't Donald Trump. Right now, a lot of people in the Republican establishment hate Trump because he's sucking all the oxygen out of the room. But in a few month's time, when they need to start fluffing up their eventual nominee's reputation as an aw-shucks guy who is so harmless that you don't even need to bother to vote, they will be extremely glad to have Trump's outrageous behavior as a point of comparison.