American democracy is in peril, teetering between democracy and authoritarianism and under siege by Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the larger white right. To call them "conservative" is an insult to language.
In a recent Salon essay, historian Robert McElvaine addressed this directly, calling out "the media's ingrained tendency to aid and abet the enemies of democracy through the careless use of language," and especially "the ubiquitous use of the word 'conservative' to describe extreme right-wing radicals and their beliefs, which only seek to conserve white supremacy — and more specifically the class or caste supremacy of a small minority of wealthy and nominally Christian white men."
Even President Biden, a career politician and a conflict-averse lifelong moderate who still yearns to "unite" America, has publicly warned that the "MAGA Republicans" — which at this point means nearly all Republicans — are the greatest internal threat to the country since the civil war.
America's democracy crisis is a drama of raw political power, and a nationwide campaign by the Republican fascists to end America's multiracial democracy. If they prevail, Black and brown people, most women, LGBTQ people, those with disabilities, non-Christians (or liberal Christians), immigrants, poor people and anyone else targeted as the Other more generally (and thus deemed "un-American") will literally become second-class citizens both under the law and in daily life.
Many Americans who believe they are safe from American fascism because of the color of their skin, their money or other forms of privilege will rapidly learn that their freedom, safety and quality of life will be greatly diminished as well. In a recent Salon interview, author and activist Brynn Tannehill summarized this harsh reality:
Everybody who watches a zombie movie assumes that they're going to be part of the resistance and not part of the shambling, undead brain-eating horde. All these people assume that under a fascist system they are going to be among the winners. There are many more losers in a fascist system than winners. The winners make sure that their people get taken care of first, and if you're not near the front of the line for the goodies you aren't going to get them. The vast majority of Americans are not going to be rewarded by fascism.
American fascism is not a foreign import or unimaginably alien. It is in our soil, and in many ways a continuation of this continent's long history of white supremacy and racism going back to the 17th century. Trump and the other neofascists are like political necromancers: They summoned up these dark, lingering energies and are now using them for their own purposes.
Trumpism, like other forms of neofascism and fake right-wing populism, is based on a cult of personality and pathological feelings of shared identity between the leader and the follower. Any criticism of the leader is experienced as an attack on the follower, and an existential threat to one's racial identity and core sense of self.
Trump's anger is rooted in the assumption that a rich white man is above the law — and that it's a violation of the natural order for a Black woman to have any power over him.
As Donald Trump faces the real possibility of finally being held accountable for his many obvious crimes, whether those be fraud, seditious conspiracy or violations of the Espionage Act, he will incite and channel even more white rage and white tribalism. He will urge his acolytes and followers to tear the country down rather than see him face justice. He will urge them to do so again if he or his party are somehow defeated at the polls in the upcoming midterms or the 2024 presidential election.
Words presage action; depending on the context, words and language can be a type of violence. Donald Trump has repeatedly said that the prosecutors who are investigating him for alleged crimes in New York and Georgia — all three happen to be Black — are "racist," "horrible" and "mentally sick" people who are unfairly targeting him, and by extension his overwhelmingly white followers.
The assumption here is that white people, especially rich white men, are above the law and moreover that it is a violation of the natural order of things, or American "tradition," that Black people (and Black women in particular) could in any way potentially have so much power.
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AP reporter Bobby Calvan interviewed a communications scholar about how "Trump's rhetoric has escalated, perhaps because he recognizes that some among his base are receptive to more overt racism":
"It intensifies that discourse and makes it explicitly racial," said Casey Kelly, a communications professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who for years has pored over transcripts of Trump's speeches.
At a recent rally in Arizona, he said — falsely — that white people in New York were being sent to the back of line for antiviral treatments.
And now Trump is using the investigations against him — and the prosecutors behind them — as "evidence of a larger systemic pattern that white people don't have a place in the future of America and he's the only one that can fight on their behalf," Kelly said.
Michael Steele, who more than a decade ago was the first African American to chair the Republican National Committee, said Trump was being Trump.
"If he can race bait it, he will. These prosecutors, these Black people are coming after me — the white man," Steele said….
Trump is questioning their legitimacy, said Diana Becton, another Black district attorney who serves in Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay area.
"His accusations are certainly not subtle. They're frightening," Becton said. "It's like saying, we are out of our place, that we're being uppity and we are going to be put back in our place by people who look like him."
At the National Hispanic Leadership Conference last Wednesday in Miami, Trump continued with his racist victimology, telling attendees that "No other president has been harassed and persecuted like we have." He also attempted to compare the FBI search of his redoubt at Mar-a-Lago for classified documents with the compounds of drug cartels in Mexico:
They raided Mar-a-Lago, but the cartels, they have their own Mar-a-Lagos — those are fine….Leave them alone. Let them continue to destroy our country.
Think how sick it is — what's happening in this country….We're a country of investigations. We don't talk about greatness anymore. Everybody gets investigated. … The cartels — nothing's happening to them. But they go after politicians!
Trump's fundraising and other political emails repeatedly emphasize the fictional narrative that his supporters and other "real Americans" are being victimized and are under attack by "Democrats" and their supporters, including Black Lives Matter activists and "elites" who want to destroy American heritage, values, culture and traditions. (All of which are understood as white by default.)
Trump's fundraising repeatedly emphasizes the narrative that his supporters are under attack from "elites" who want to destroy American heritage, values, culture and traditions.
Such language is not a racial dog whistle or coded appeal. These are blaring sirens. Public opinion polls and other research have consistently shown that a high percentage of white Republicans believe that white people are the real "victims" of racism in America and are somehow oppressed or otherwise discriminated against because of their skin color, religion or cultural values and beliefs. There is no evidence to support such delusional fantasies.
In reality, American society from before the founding and through to the present is based upon the creation, protection, perpetuation and expansion of white privilege and other unearned advantages for those deemed to be white by birth or otherwise identified with whiteness and white power. Yet the compulsion toward white victimology and white grievance-mongering is so powerful in the Age of Trump that a majority of Republicans and Trump supporters now believe in some version of the antisemitic "great replacement" conspiracy theory.
In a previous essay for Salon, I wrote:
Did Republicans and Trump supporters feel shame and disgust about themselves when they learned that the terrorist who killed 10 black people in Buffalo shared their delusional beliefs about white people being "replaced" or "oppressed" in America? Of course not. If anything, the Buffalo attack appears to have reinforced their commitment to protecting white privilege and white power by any means necessary.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted ... only days after the Buffalo killings found that 61% of Trump voters believed in the central claim of the "great replacement" theory that "a group of people in this country are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants and people of color who share their political views." ...
According to this poll, almost three-fourths of Trump voters and more than 60% of Republicans believed the fantastical claim that "discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against Black people in the U.S." ...
Another new poll, this one conducted in April by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Tulchin Research, found that while a plurality of Americans had "a positive view of the country's changing demographics," that was not true for Republicans, "a majority of whom viewed those changes not only negatively, but as a threat to white Americans."
The white supremacist mass shooting earlier this year in Buffalo represents a much larger trend in American history: White racial paranoia and feelings of white grievance and victimhood have been the fuel for massive acts of violence against Black and brown Americans. Notable examples include the end of Reconstruction and the Red Summer. Indeed, Donald Trump's coup attempt and the assault on the Capitol by his followers on Jan. 6, 2021, was a textbook white-rage attack against the very idea of multiracial democracy.
In his new book "American Midnight," historian Adam Hochschild describes these historical continuities of white supremacy and white rage:
On Memorial Day 1917, a march of some 1,000 Klansmen though the New York City borough of Queens turned into a brawl with the police. Several people wearing Klan hoods were arrested, one of them a young real estate developer named Fred Trump. Ninety years later, his sone, with similar feelings towards people of color, would enter the White House.
During Donald Trump's presidency, the forces that had blighted the America of a century earlier would be dramatically visible yet again: rage against immigrants and refugees, racism, Red-baiting, fear of subversive ideas in schools, and much more. And, of course, behind all of them is the appeal of simple solutions: deport aliens, forbid critical journalism, lock people up, blame everything on those of a different color or religion.
In his book "On the Pleasures of Owning Persons: The Hidden Face of American Slavery," anthropologist and psychiatrist Volney Gay explains how ethnic violence entrepreneurs such as Donald Trump use fear, anxiety and feelings of group victimization and aggrievement as a way to expand their power:
Because splitting is a universal form of thinking, savvy political leaders use it when necessary to advance their agenda. In this sense, many politicians are canny. They recognize their subjects' anxieties and then exploit them to increase panic, anxiety, and regression to primitive solutions…. These appeals to group solidarity and to a mythic past are identical. In each instance, a dominant group fears annihilation of its way of life and its identity (or at least manufactures those anxieties in its subjects).
With the rising neofascist tide, both here and around the world, the American people are at a crossroads. They are experiencing two countervailing forces where a fascist reactionary force is pushing back — with great success — against centuries of positive revolutionary struggle whose aim was to create a better, more inclusive, multiracial pluralistic democracy in the United States. The American people, and white Americans in particular, now have to decide what type of nation this will be. Do we move backward into some of the worst parts of our history, or do we move forward along that long, often broken arc of progress to a better tomorrow?