It’s understandable that the media give wall-to-wall coverage to Donald Trump: he gives them great ratings. But at this point, it is not Trump himself we should be focusing on.
By now, we’ve gotten a good look at what Trump is up to, and the spirit he is serving. When even Republicans are using the word “fascist” to describe Trump’s message, the picture has surely become clear enough.
This newly more widespread awareness creates a kind of “teachable moment” to get to a deeper truth about our times. For the only reason that Trump’s fascistic posture is important is that it has the support of enough of the Republican base to make him the runaway Republican front-runner.
If we’re seeing ugly things we’ve never seen before in a presidential election, it’s because something ugly has arisen in the American electorate with a power we’ve never seen.
It has not been the American way to value the hater, the arrogant, the bully, the boaster, the reckless. But at this point in history, as Donald Trump has demonstrated, it is possible to become politically prominent – even dominant – by being all those things. And that’s because such a posture now expresses the passions of so large a segment of the base of one of America’s two major parties.
We know that it comes naturally to Trump to act the bully. After all, he’s the guy who set up a whole TV program to create the recurrent climactic moment of his dashing the hopes of one of his fellow human beings with the line, “You’re fired!” Most people feel a revulsion about having to fire people, but Trump went out of his way to be able to play that role.
But even if a brutal role is appealing to Trump, what he has ridden to power is his ability to read and exploit the dark passions of others.
Trump’s campaign took off from the outset with his attack on Mexican immigrants—whom he characterized as criminal monsters, “rapists.” If there’s any evidence that Trump himself cares about the immigration issue – he who has hired undocumented workers in his construction projects – I am unaware of it. But he has shown himself adept at harnessing the power of the hatreds and fears of millions of other people.
It is not Trump himself that is the main story here. It is the darkness, rising for years in the Republican electorate, he is succeeding by mirroring.
The impulse he is harnessing is clearly deeper than any single issue. For Trump’s rise has been accomplished by expressing hostility not only to Mexican immigrants, but also toward blacks (hence the enthusiasm for Trump from white supremacists), and now of course especially toward Muslims.
What this pattern shows is a general inclination to hate the other. An impulse of hostility toward those who are different from “Us” is one of the most fundamental forms of human brokenness. It manifests in most of history’s nightmares (including, of course, the barbarism of ISIS).
In an earlier essay, I wrote: “In every society, both constructive and destructive forces are always at work. But the balance of power between those forces is not constant.”
And that connects with what is most important – most newsworthy – in the Trump phenomenon. Something in America has changed for the worse.
Racism and xenophobia are nothing new in American politics, of course. But what IS new is that the “hate the other” impulse has now become more powerful than we’ve seen before. Twenty years ago, or thirty, no one could have ridden a starkly dark message like Trump’s, delivered in a manner that transgresses our long-established norms for political leadership, to the front-runner position he now occupies.
So now that so many people can perceive the face of fascism that is arising powerfully out of the Republican base, the important questions that need to be asked in order to expand this newly awakened awareness, are:
- How did so many people in the Republican base get led deeper into this dark space? (Here, we can look at the pernicious influences — of people like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Fox News and elected Republican leaders generally – that have fed people’s hatreds and fears.) And
- What, if anything, can be done to diminish these dark passions among those who are embracing Donald Trump as their champion?