Over the weekend, a group of Donald Trump supporters punched and kicked a Black man who attended a Trump rally, and disrupted the event with cries of “Black Lives Matter.” When asked later about his fans' deplorable and violent behavior, Trump remarked that “maybe [the man] should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” There have been no cries of outrage about how this man’s right to free speech was violated through use of intimidation and violence.
Instead, Trump condones white violence against a non-violent protestor. And in doing so, he demonstrates not only the complete hypocrisy of the right wing on questions of race but also the extent to which a deep desire and will to do violence toward Black people exists just beneath the surface of most right-wing political discourse. Many White Americans carry seething racial resentment toward Americans of color, with special enmity reserved for Black folks and those of ostensible Middle Eastern descent whom they would hastily deem “terrorists.”
Trump continues to be a formidable candidate for the Republican nomination because he grants legitimacy to most basely racist notions of the GOP base. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we have arrived back at a moment rife with such overt antiblack racism. Many of us in the African American striver class had been convinced that while our society was still rife with covert racism and dogwhistle politics, that white Americans had evolved past the moment where they would dare express such explicit racial animus with no expectation of serious repercussion. These are not the same Republicans who forced Mississippi Senator Trent Lott to resign from his Senate Minority Leader position in 2002, after making favorable comments about Strom Thurmond’s run for the presidency.
While too many White Americans decry the rise of the millennial generation with its incessant demands for “safe spaces,” dismissing such demands as infantile, whiny, and evidence of decreasing social fortitude in the next generation, many of these same Americans support a man who mode of political discourse largely relies on the art of the perfectly timed temper tantrum. White rage freely expressed in a system of white dominance is a wholly dangerous thing, largely because it proceeds unchecked by riding the coattails of calls for honest, pull-no-punches political discourse.
The White Americans who love Donald Trump finally feel like they can breathe free oxygen again, like there might be a return to some semblance of an America they know. Ultimately I believe that many of these people don’t actually want political discourse to look this unruly forever. Many of them claim to be fervent believers in civility. One of their biggest critiques of the Black Lives Matter proclamation is that it lacks civility. However, these are desperate times, times in which progress has come too fast in the person of Barack Obama. Thus I think many conservatives who a decade ago would have understood Trump to be rash, gauche, and a liability to the march of conservative values now stand by watching this train wreck of public discourse in order to restore white equilibrium.
Many readers will balk at my audacity to try to delineate what too many white conservatives feel. They will tell me that I don’t know the thoughts of white people. But there is nothing sophisticated or particularly deep about what I’m saying. Trump supporters are owning the room like toddler tantrum throwers tend to. Toddlerist political discourse is inconvenient, annoying, and violent, but it definitely isn’t difficult to understand.
I could continue to be flippant and dismissive, but for the fact that right-wing political discourse undergirds anti-Black violence. The Trump attackers will not be charged for their violence. But in the few days since Trump lauded their actions, his presidential candidacy is still going strong. And it is the potential for Trump’s right-wing demagoguery to whip up GOP supporters into a violent frenzy of the sort that happened this weekend that should concern us. Dylann Roof’s crazed rantings about Black people taking over the country and needing to be stopped don’t sound wholly different from the things Republicans say quite publicly these days.
This attack coupled with the attack of a Black student at Lewis and Clark College by three white men who reportedly yelled racial slurs demand that we indeed have a conversation about the relationship between racially antagonistic language and physical violence. There are also early reports that three white men shot five Black Lives Matter protestors at in Minneapolis who were protesting the killing of Jamar Clark. Meanwhile, Trump continued to inflame his base by tweeting out inaccurate information about Black on Black violence. His rhetoric seems to be actively fomenting acts of racist violence against Black protestors.
In the postmodern environs of the university, we spend quite a bit of time thinking about the ways that discourse instantiates violence. The ways that groups of people are spoken about in the public sphere, if they are even spoken of all, both indicates and shapes our perception of those groups and their worthiness for social protections.
If Trump evinces such public enmity for Black lives, Mexican lives, and Muslim lives, then surely, he can be trusted to govern in a way that is overtly adversarial to all these groups. In floating the outrageous idea to register and track all Muslim Americans, he has explicitly declared his intent to govern in just such a way. My god-sister and god-brother are Black Muslims. I care about such policies because they are anti-American but I care even more that such animus would do harm to people I love.
That Donald Trump continues to hold his ground in the presidential race suggests that we are in an era in which too many white folks can’t even be shamed into anti-racist pretension. In our endless discussions about post-racial discourse over the last 7 years, those of us who study race had been frustrated that this era seemed to be marked by an inability to nail down racism because the language of racism had become nebulous and indeterminate even though the policies continued to be as concrete and immovable as ever.
This moment, however (hopefully) fleeting, is both new and old. We see explicit racist discourse re-emerging boldly and shamelessly in public life. The rub is that the American public on the whole has been no more responsive to Trumpian racism than it has been to post-racial, covert, racism. And that is downright shameful.