Why does anyone support this racist asshole?

December 10, 2015

Elizabeth Schulte examines the basis of Donald Trump's ongoing political popularity.

THE DAY after President Barack Obama's speech in response to the shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two people who were apparently ISIS sympathizers, Donald Trump--the billionaire reality TV star/buffoon and improbable frontrunner for the Republican Party presidential nomination--seized on the public climate of suspicion toward Muslims and fanned the flames into a three-alarm blaze.

According to his own campaign's proudly distributed press release, "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

Trump was quoted as saying: "Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. If I win the election for president, we are going to Make America Great Again."

Trump does want to "Make America" something. But I think the word he was looking for rhymes with "Great."

Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

Try "Hate."

Trump's incendiary attack on the 1.6 billion people around the world who are Muslims might have been dismissed as the ravings of a crackpot if not for the fact that the billionaire celebrity is the Republican frontrunner--by a wide, and getting wider (so far), margin--in the 2016 election circus. So his words were broadcast across the country, adding to the fears and unease many people feel after the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, and then the shootings in California.

Trump's disgusting rhetoric so closely mimicked that of fascists like Marine Le Pen and France's National Front, which also take aim at Muslim organizations and which advocate expelling immigrants, that candidates of both mainstream parties, Democrat and Republican alike, were forced to respond.

Martin O'Malley, the barely noticed third-place candidate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted "‪@realdonaldtrump‬‬ removes all doubt: he is running for President as a fascist demagogue." But even some Republicans were peeved enough to roll out the f-word. GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush's adviser on national security issues, John Noonan, likewise tweeted: "Forced federal registration of U.S. citizens, based on religious identity, is fascism. Period. Nothing else to call it."

Political commentators and columnists had a field day asking the question: Is he a fascist or isn't he? The New York Times and CNN debated the question, while Bloomberg View concluded that "Trump Is Scary, But Not 'Fascist' Scary."

The same question came up, more productively, among the left on social media. Trump doesn't, in fact, conform to the classic definition of a fascist, and there are significant differences between his base of support and France's National Front, for example--still more with an openly Nazi-worshipping cult like Golden Dawn in Greece.

But in the mainstream media discussion at least, the assurances that Trump isn't a fascist like Hitler and Mussolini missed a larger point: His campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has created a sounding board for extreme, racist ideas. It is providing them with legitimacy, so that beliefs that usually hover at the far fringes of mainstream politics are reaching center stage.

To understand the real dangers about what Trump says and the audience who supports him, it's useful to look beyond the candidate and acknowledge the political moment that allowed Trump to gain a hearing.

TRUMP HAS a leg up on most scapegoating xenophobes because he has the money and influence to get a wider hearing. But besides that, Trump probably wouldn't have an audience at all if his politics of hatred and scapegoating didn't find fertile soil in today's unsettling world.

In a world where mainstream political leaders fail repeatedly to provide a solution to the pressing questions that people see in their lives and on the news, it's possible for fear, ignorance and hate to fill the vacuum.

Scapegoating isn't just Trump's answer--it was the same answer given by 31 governors, mostly Republicans, who released statements saying they would bar Syrian refugees from entering their states in the aftermath of last month's Paris attack.

Trump himself explained the dynamic well: "Every time things get worse, I do better," he told supporters at a rally in Iowa in early December. "People want strength."

Add in the day-to-day precariousness of life for most working people dealing with stagnant wages, lack of access to health care and no hope at a comfortable retirement--while at the same time they see Corporate America make an amazing rebound from the Great Recession--and you have an audience for the victim-blaming that Trump offers.

The audience for Trump's ideas has certain characteristics. According to an October poll by the Pew Research Center, the typical Trump supporter is white, more likely a man than a woman and tends to be older. According to a YouGov poll, seniors are about twice as likely to have a favorable view of Trump as millennials--the generation that came of age around the turn of the 21st century. Some 51 percent of millennials are "very" unfavorable toward Trump, compared to 38 percent of seniors.

Trump backers tend to have less education--voters with a high-school degree or less are twice as likely to support Trump than those with college degrees--and they are more likely to come from households making $40,000 or less than above $75,000.

But while Trump's rhetoric about being a Washington outsider who fights for ordinary Americans wins him support, the policies he champions hurt the very groups inclined to back him according to these measures. Trump is virulently opposed to unions--one institution that clearly helps the working poor improve their conditions--and to raising the minimum wage.

Still, if anything stands out in uniting Trump supporters, it isn't working-class anger about inequality and low wages--it's suspicion of immigrants and Muslims that is being whipped up by his campaign.

After the November terror attacks in Paris, Trump's opinion poll ratings jumped higher. According to a December CNN/ORC Poll, 36 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents backed Trump for the GOP presidential nomination--his nearest competitor trailed by 20 points.

According to the Pew poll, among Republican voters who say they would be more likely to support a candidate who wants to deport all immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, 34 percent supported Trump.

Trump may not be a fascist, but he is providing a space for racist lies and far-right ideas to flourish--and for marginalized individuals to become emboldened to take action on these ideas. This was demonstrated last month by Trump supporters in Birmingham, Alabama, who attacked a Black Lives Matter protester at their rally. Afterward, Trump said, "Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing."

The danger of such ideas and actions going unopposed has been reflected by recent anti-Muslim attacks, such as the savage attack on a storeowner in Queens, who said his assailant yelled, "I kill Muslims."

THIS ISN'T the first time in history that a fake populist message has been used in American politics by an "outsider" claiming to fight for ordinary people, while actually upholding the status quo. For now, Trump says he won't run as a candidate outside the Republican Party--although he doesn't promise that he won't. But he does share some common ground with notorious right-wing populists of the past.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, figures like Louisiana political boss Huey Long and Michigan radio personality Father Charles Coughlin were able to pull behind them people marginalized by poverty and divert genuine anger into anti-Semitism, anti-communism, anti-immigration and opposition to "big government" programs of the New Deal.

In the 1960s, the campaign of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace targeted the civil rights movement and the so-called liberal elite, gaining a hearing among a section of the white working class that reacted against the gains won by Blacks.

The Republican Party would later adapt Wallace's rhetoric, but using coded racist language, rather than open white supremacy, to try to convince white workers to support politicians and policies that were ultimately against their interests. This offensive shifted attention away from the real culprits in Corporate America who were leading a one-sided class war against workers.

So as much as Jeb Bush and the rest of the Republican establishment claim to be embarrassed by Trump's openly racist rhetoric, you can't separate today's Republicans from those who supported turning back the gains of the civil rights movement.

There is a more recent experience of right-wing populist agitation: the Tea Party phenomenon following the election of Barack Obama.

But though they talked about going after the Washington political establishment, the people who pulled the strings in the Tea Party "movement" were Republican Party insiders like former congressional power broker Dick Armey.

In the interest of drumming up new support for the GOP after the drubbing they suffered in 2008--and again in 2012--the Republican elite was willing to open a Pandora's box of racism and xenophobia, with large parts of the party base believing that Obama was a secret Muslim born outside the U.S.

Now it is Trump who is the beneficiary of support from the hard-line right-wing base of the party. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich--leader of the so-called Republican Revolution that swept to power in both houses of Congress during the 1990s presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton--said after Trump called for banning Muslims from the U.S.: "I think Trump's idea may be too strong, but I think something jarring is very helpful in leading to a national debate in how big this problem is, and how dangerous it is."

GIVEN TRUMP'S lead in the polls for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination race, it might seem like the tide is running overwhelmingly in the direction of the right. But that is only one side of a polarized response.

In fact--as even Republicans admit--the biggest beneficiary of Trump's reactionary outbursts may be Hillary Clinton. Every time the Republican presidential frontrunner says something racist and outrageous, millions of people, limited by the confines of the two-party system, find themselves coming to terms with the prospect of another Clinton in the White House.

Clinton is far from a perfect candidate, from the Democrats' point of view. She doesn't excite the more liberal base of the party, and she has plenty of skeletons in her closet for the scandal-obsessed media to pick on. But against Trump, she would win the 2016 presidential election by a landslide. According to a CNN poll, if a general election took place today, Clinton would beat Trump by a 49 percent to 39 percent margin.

This is exactly the kind of campaign that Clinton wants to run. With nothing about her--a career politician and power broker--to excite support, she wants an election where she can get votes by being the "lesser evil" to the Republican "greater evil."

Trump fits the ticket perfectly. The Democratic leadership has even been able to use Trump against a challenge within the Democrats from Vermont socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, even though he has vowed to remain loyal to the party's eventual nominee. Nevertheless, a recent Salon article was titled: "Bernie supporters could blow this election: Why refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton will only make everything worse."

This shows how the lesser-evil dynamic pulls the entire political spectrum further to the right.

For example, everyone knows how vile Trump is on the question of immigration. Clinton's position is far better by comparison to Trump--but even further from what would constitute a just policy to meet the demands of immigrants for fair treatment.

Likewise, in the wake of the recent terror attacks, Clinton was among the first political leaders to promote more government spying on the Internet. "You're going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera," Clinton said in a foreign policy address. "But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we've got to shut off their means of communicating."

TRUMP'S IRON grip on the media's election spotlight--despite all the outrageous things he's said and done--has helped feed a sense of defensiveness and powerlessness among many people. And it's squeezed out a lot of the room for talking about the kind of alternative we should have in the 2016 election.

The mainstream media have tried to characterize Trump as a figure who can mesmerize and fool working-class people. But the truth is that workers will make up the bulk of the opposition to political figures like Trump, along with everything they stand for.

As much as the support for Trump represents a growth of support for right-wing policies among a section of the population, another section is moving to the left. In this respect, Bernie Sanders' popular campaign promise for a "political revolution" shows the potential for something different. So does the range of organizing to protest Trump and his racist policies.

We need to build an alternative to Trump's politics of despair--and to the Democrats' politics of the lesser of two evils. That means rebuilding an independent, left-wing alternative that can speak to the needs and desires of large numbers of people for a fundamental change.

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