IN 2016 WE ELECTED A TWITTER TROLL TO BE PRESIDENT. Trump got the job, just barely, by belittling his opponents, lying, making false promises, and generally running the dirtiest campaign in modern American political history. The self-described billionaire didn’t so much win outright, as so tarnish his opponents as to suppress voter turnout. On the night of the general election, millions of voters were so exhausted by the nearly two-year long slog that they either didn’t bother to vote, or else if they did, left the top of their ballots blank. In Michigan, for example, where Trump won by 13,107 votes, or just 0.3 percent, 87,810 people decided that “none of the above” was the best possible option.
Since Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked a marked increase in the number of hate crimes and domestic terrorist events, while the Council on American-Islamic Relations recently announced a 91 percent increase in anti-Muslim activities. The alt-right, a cleaned-up reboot of white supremacy once existing only on the fringes of society, is now mainstream and even counts several of its adherents among the president’s inner circle. We’ve already had a Republican candidate for office, now a member of the House of Representatives, physically attack a reporter on the eve of a special election in Montana, and we’ve been witness to a mass shooting directed at lawmakers in Alexandria, Virginia.
Donald Trump promised to make America great again, but increasingly, with every new outrage, tweet, and act of violence, the nation appears to be instead sinking to the lowest possible depths.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve taken a look at how Trump might be a potential good for liberal politics and how he might be bad for America’s standing in the world. Today, in the last of this three-part series, we examine how the 45th President of the United States is making this country an ugly place.
Donald Trump did not invent bullying or racism or bigotry, but he’s arguably been hate’s biggest booster since George Wallace ran for president in 1964. A gifted know-nothing, suckled at the teat of Roger Ailes’ “news” division and mentored by the likes of dirty trickster Roger Stone and McCarthy attorney Roy Cohn, Trump started his political career with racist claims that Barack Obama was not an American citizen and opened his campaign by declaring Mexicans “murderers and rapists.” On the campaign trail, he encouraged violence against protesters, vilified Muslims, mocked veterans and the disabled, and labelled the media “fake news.” Encouraged by Trump’s bile, many of his core supporters, who had likely suppressed their own ignorant hatful views their entire lives, responded in kind.
Now, with the full, albeit dysfunctional, executive apparatus at his back, Trump’s demented hate-speak and real world ignorance has morphed into government policy. Anti-Muslim bigotry has become a travel ban. Nativism has turned to an attack on legal immigration. Racism is now measured in American tax dollars, appropriated to pay for a southern border wall. Homophobia and sexism are being institutionalized with a trans ban in the military and the lifting of workplace protections for gays and lesbians. In recent months funding has been diverted from investigations of domestic terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan in favor of foreign extremists, despite the fact that most acts of mass violence perpetrated in the United States have been at the hands of Americans. And while Trump threatens trade war with China and nuclear war with North Korea, he has yet to say one unkind word about fellow bigot Vladimir Putin.
It’s telling that Trump chose “America First” as his rallying cry. The term harkens back to the America First Committee, which opposed American participation in World War II. At its height members of the AFC included future presidents and supreme court justices, and spanned the political spectrum, but the organization has a dark legacy. Among the AFC’s leadership were several prominent anti-Semites, most notably the aviator and Nazi admirer Charles Lindbergh, who in a speech in 1941, proclaimed, “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.” He added, “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” The term “America First” has been resurrected many times since, most notably by Pat Buchanan, who also has been accused of anti-Semitism and has repeatedly called World War II “unnecessary.”
Some of his backers might dismiss Trump’s hate-speak as hyperbole or charged political rhetoric or “Trump being Trump,” but traditionally the office of the president has set the tone for the country. This is why, despite war, economic instability, and terrorism, the last five presidents all endeavored to strike a unifying tone. Reagan, Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama each understood that for a diverse society to function and thrive, all its disparate factions had to buy into a unified concept of America. Through his ignorance and hate, Donald Trump threatens to permanently cripple that unity.
In the appendix to his revolutionary treatise, Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” What he meant is that no matter the obstacles, no matter the strength of the forces of the opposition, ordinary people have the capacity to change global events and even the trajectory of history. We’ve unleashed the forces of darkness, but it’s not yet too late.
Let’s get to work.