Fear and loathing on the Trump trail

February 25, 2016

How can Donald Trump still be the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination with all the vile rhetoric he spews daily? Nicole Colson provides some answers.

"IT'S COME to the point where you almost can't run [for president] unless you can cause people to salivate and whip on each other with big sticks."

Those words are from the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, in his brutally hilarious dissections of the 1972 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone magazine that became the book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

But even Thompson might have been shocked by the cesspool that is the Republican Party presidential primary campaign 44 years later.

No one embodies the "whip on each other with big sticks" mentality more than Donald Trump--except he not only bashes his opponents, but large parts of the U.S. population, especially immigrants and Muslims, but not excluding anyone else who might serve as a convenient scapegoat for America's supposed decline.

Trump is all about fear and loathing--and he wants to ride it all the way to the White House.

With three straight primary wins under his belt--the latest, in Nevada, where he got the support of 46 percent of Republican caucus-goers, nearly double that of second-place finisher Marco Rubio--Trump is playing to the most bigoted instincts of the Republican Party base.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

And it's working. One poll in South Carolina found that among Trump supporters in the state's primary last weekend, some 80 percent want to ban Muslims from traveling to the U.S. and about a third want the same ban on LGBT immigrants.

Those who downplayed the possibility of Trump becoming the Republican nominee a few months ago are having to reassess--even as the sewer rhetoric coming from the billionaire reality TV star intensifies. It reached such a level in Nevada that right-wing media blowhard Glenn Beck fled, calling the state's caucuses "scary and sad"; Trump's supporters fascist "brownshirts"; and Trump himself "a very dangerous demagogue who is teaching people to strike out."

Coming from Beck, who has spent years spewing equally noxious bigotry and hate, all that hyperventilating is completely phony. But it's telling when the Tea Partier-in-chief starts denouncing another right-wing demagogue as "dangerous."

BECK ISN'T the first person to person to label Trump's campaign as fascist or fascist-like. As writers on the left have pointed out, Trump doesn't, in fact, fit the classic definition of fascism, and there are significant differences between the base of support he has built up in the Republican primaries and the far-right political movements of the past and present that really are modeled on groups like the Nazis.

But Trump is giving legitimacy to disgusting racist and reactionary ideas--and confidence to the most right-wing elements of U.S. society that would sign up with a fascist movement.

Particularly grotesque has been Trump's ratcheting up of Islamophobia. At a recent rally in Charleston, South Carolina, Trump repeated an apocryphal story about Gen. John J. Pershing--an American military leader who supposedly used bullets dipped in pig's blood for the executions of dozens of Muslim prisoners in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War of the early 20th century.

According to Trump's telling, Pershing left a single prisoner alive and told him to "go back to your people and you tell them what happened." Trump's implication was that the U.S. today should use the same kind of tactics in the "war on terror."

At a time when Islamophobic hate crimes are on the rise, Trump's rhetoric has a particularly dangerous edge. It's a minor miracle that no one has been seriously injured at a Trump rally yet, given the fanaticism of some of his supporters and the toxic rhetoric coming from Trump himself, especially when a protester dares to challenge him.

At a campaign stop last November where Black Lives Matter protester Mercutio Southall Jr. was assaulted by Trump backers, the candidate told a reporter, "Maybe he should have been roughed up." Just this month, Trump responded to a protester at a rally in Nevada by saying, "I'd like to punch him in the face...In the old days [protesters] would be carried out on stretchers."

Yet none of this seems to stick to Trump, at least as far as the mainstream media is concerned. He says whatever bigoted, moronic thing crosses his mind, and it tends to be shrugged off as "just Trump being Trump."

But if Republican Party leaders are recoiling in horror now that Trump stands a good chance of becoming their presidential nominee, they have only themselves to blame.

They, along with a large part of the mainstream media, tolerated and encouraged exactly this kind of right-wing populist bigotry in the form of the Tea Party, and the Christian Right before that, to serve as battering rams to drive through their conservative agenda, both ideologically and practically. Now, Trump is threatening to permanently damage the image of the first party of American capitalism--but the party establishment can't figure out how to control him, and especially his supporters.

MANY LIBERAL commentaries on Trump's success tend to focus on the supposed irrationality of downscale supporters giving their votes to a billionaire who scapegoats any handy section of the working class.

They're missing the point. Trump is gaining a hearing precisely because of the steady deterioration of living conditions for the vast majority of people in U.S. society, especially during and after the Great Recession, despite the official "recovery."

Inequality has escalated, with many Americans trapped in low-wage jobs with few benefits. Household income for people on the bottom half of the income ladder has declined since the 1970s. The nightmare of the U.S. health care system that Barack Obama promised to fix is still a disaster.

In this kind of climate, racism, immigrant bashing and Islamophobia are easy answers for the likes of Trump--a blunt instrument to get those at the bottom blaming each other. Trump asks why America isn't "great" anymore because he has an answer ready: It's the fault of those people--and not only the easy scapegoats, but political leaders who won't deliver.

That he is seen as even slightly credible by any significant part of the U.S. population is a testament to the bankruptcy of official U.S. politics. As In These Times wrote:

The answer to the Trump conundrum may lie, in part, in one Iowa poll's finding that Trump captured 46 percent of Republican caucus-goers who wanted a president from outside the establishment..."Trump is the only hope to defeat the kingmakers," as one key figure in the rise of the contemporary religious Right, Phyllis Schlafly, said in her endorsement of him. "Because everybody else will fall in line."

OF COURSE, Trump has absolutely nothing different to offer than the "kingmakers." Down the line, he supports policies that would defend and extend the power of Corporate America, and he defends them in the most boneheaded manner possible.

Consider his recent MSNBC appearance where he was asked about the minimum wage. When Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski told Trump that "nobody can live on" the current federal minimum wage, Trump's response was: "Our taxes are too high. Our wages are too high. We have to compete with other countries."

It ought to be easy to take down stupidity like that. But the problem is that Trump isn't likely to be confronted with a left-wing defense of making the minimum wage a living wage--because the Democrats want to challenge Trump from the center, not the left, and that means conceding political ground before the debate even begins.

The number of Trump supporters in favor of banning Muslims from coming to the U.S. isn't only the result of the bottom-of-the-barrel rhetoric coming from the Republican Party--not after both parties have participated in the demonization of Islam, along with demanding the Muslim community in general police "radical" elements in its midst. That only encourages the idea that there is a "Muslim menace" lurking within the U.S.--and confirms Trump's bigotry.

What's really needed is a challenge that calls out Trump's lies and scapegoating. Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has excited millions of people because he is offering real answers, at least on many questions. But he remains, even after strong showings in the early primaries, a long shot against the party's anointed choice, Hillary Clinton.

Come November, the message from the Democratic Party is likely going to be that the best we can do is support the "lesser evil"--and Democratic voters need to keep quiet about their angry opposition to Trump so as not to scare off moderate "swing" voters.

As Jim Naureckas wrote at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, "[A] successful challenge to Trumpism has to have a message that offers a plausible alternative to the real problems that Trump offers bogus solutions to. And, no, 'learn how to embrace compromise' is not that message."

INSTEAD OF pinning our hopes on Clinton or compromise or the Democratic Party to confront Trump's racism and bigotry, we should look to the example of people like Suzanne Barakat.

Barakat recently issued a challenge to Donald Trump on Twitter: "Meet me in person and tell me my brother, Yusor & Razan, were deserving of the bullets."

Barakat's brother, Deah Barakat, was murdered last year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, along with his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and his wife's sister, Razan Abu-Salha, by a man named Craig Hicks who apparently targeted the three because they were Muslims. Trump's bigotry, Barakat said, "allows for the Average Joe to see Muslims the way Craig Hicks saw my brother and his wife of six weeks and her sister. As 'The Other,' as subhuman, because of their faith."

According to Barakat, Trump's remarks were "a moment when I just said, 'Enough is enough'...I want him to tell me to my face that he would ban someone like me if he were to become president of this country," she said. "I want to show him pictures of Deah and Yusor and Razan and tell him about who they were and what they did. I want him to tell me to my face that I don't belong here."

In addition to this example, there are those who have been dogging Trump at his campaign events to chant down his racism and proclaim that refugees are welcome. At the same Nevada rally where Trump talked about his desire to punch a protester, another protester raised a banner reading: "Veterans to Trump: End hate speech against Muslims."

The politics of solidarity--that's the way to defeat the reactionary tide coming from Trump.

"How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?" Hunter S. Thompson asked in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The Republican race this year seems to be showing that there's no low that's too low. Our side needs to challenge Trump and his reactionary views wherever we can, whether that means demonstrations against the candidate himself or confronting any expression of his views that we find on our campuses, at work or in our communities.

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