There has been a lot of talk over this presidential campaign about the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton compared with the excitement and energy among Donald Trump's followers. It is a bit overblown; there are plenty of highly enthusiastic Clinton fans who are very excited to see the first woman president.
But it is nonetheless true that Trump has inspired a group of remarkably passionate and committed followers. And while many of these people have legitimate economic gripes that are finding expression in Trump's "angry outsider" populism, what electrifies many of them is something else entirely.
They chant, "Build that wall!" and "Lock her up!" They cheer wildly when Trump says he will ban Muslims and send refugees back where they came from. They catcall the media and shove and hit protesters while Trump cheers them on from the stage. They enthusiastically endorse his promise to torture terrorist suspects and "take out their families" and cheerfully back his calls to let the police take the gloves off to restore law and order. They wear overtly misogynist T-shirts that say “Trump That Bitch" and “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica.” (A new slogan has recently been added to the collection: "I wish Hillary had married O.J.")
Outside Trump rallies, where Confederate flags are commonly displayed and sold, videos show that people are worked up, energized, febrile. Reporters overhear snippets of conversation like “You can’t trust Latinos. Some maybe, but not most,” “Immigrants aren’t people, honey” and “You know them crazy black girls, how they are.” Something feral and undomesticated has been set free.
This week the Los Angeles Times reported on the surge of political activity among extremists, particularly white supremacists and the alt-right, noting that online hate groups are now dominated by pro-Trump conversation:
Andrew Anglin, editor of the Daily Stormer website and an emerging leader of a new generation of millennial extremists, said he had “zero interest” in the 2012 general election and viewed presidential politics as “pointless.” That is, until he heard Trump.
“Trump had me at ‘build a wall,’” Anglin said. “Virtually every alt-right Nazi I know is volunteering for the Trump campaign.”
In the same edition, the Times reported that hate crimes had risen sharply in the Los Angeles area over the past year. It wasn't the worst year for hate-inspired violence in recent times (2001 and 2002 hold that record), and when you look at the numbers year over year, you can see that this current is always lurking underneath the surface. What's unusual about the present moment is that we have a political leader who is unapologetically drawing it to the surface and giving it light to grow and flower.
This is not to say that the right hasn't been exploiting bigotry and hate for decades to advance its cause. But in the modern era there has been an awareness among political leaders and thinkers that it would be very dangerous to let it run freely. In the early 1960s when the John Birch Society's anti-communist fervor had evolved into a stew of conspiracy theories and paranoid witch hunts, The National Review's William F. Buckley condemned such ideas as "drivel" and "lacking common sense," turning it into a fringe group of pariahs. Buckley had a lot to answer for with his own racist beliefs but his actions in that moment were necessary to stop those dark impulses from getting further out of control.
He's not the only one. As historian Rick Perlstein pointed out in what I consider to be the most insightful piece about the Trump phenomenon (written a year ago!) most modern conservative leaders have understood that their right-wing fringe was dangerous:
Previous Republican leaders were sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage. Think of Barry Goldwater, who was so frightened of the racists supporting him that he told Lyndon Johnson he’d drop out of the race if they started making race riots a campaign issue. And Ronald Reagan refusing to back a 1978 ballot initiative to fire gay schoolteachers in California, at a time vigilantes were hunting down gays in the street. Think of George W. Bush guiding Congress toward a comprehensive immigration bill (akin to that proposed by President Obama) until the onslaught of vitriol that talk-radio hosts directed at Republican members of Congress forced him to quit. Think of George W. Bush’s repeated references to Islam as a “religion of peace.”
Take John McCain in 2008, when confronted with a supporter claiming that Barack Obama was "an Arab." He corrected her and said, "I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States." (Donald Trump, by contrast, spent years demanding Obama's birth certificate and repeated at this week's debate that he's proud to have done it.)
These were all people who knew that the bigots of the far right were part of their coalition but also understood that it had to be restrained. They winked and dog whistled, but when the crazies threatened to get out of hand they pulled them back. This time the crazies have broken the chain and nobody in the Republican political leadership has been brave enough to do anything but run with the pack or get out of the way.
This week's story in The New York Times Magazine about the conservative media battle over Trump shows just how futile the #NeverTrump movement, led by Buckley's successors at the National Review, has been. The rest of the right-wing media outlets are reconciling themselves to the fact that they are actually slaves to the mob rather than leaders:
This February, [Rush] Limbaugh, who has applauded Trump without endorsing him outright, posed to [Erick] Erickson the question of whether a commentator should try to act as “the guardian of what it means to be a conservative.” In effect, the legend of talk radio was laying down an unwritten commandment of the trade, which applies as well to cable TV: Do not attempt to lead your following.
That's what Trump is doing, too, saying out loud what unhinged right-wingers have long been thinking and giving them permission to do publicly what they've wanted to do all along: rapturously, ecstatically and openly wallow in hate. They're having the time of their lives.