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The bigoted elephant in the room

Donald Trump’s popularity reveals racism of Republican base

July 22, 2015 2:00AM ET

While waiting at a red light a few days ago, a pickup truck decked out in Confederate flags pulled up in the lane adjacent to mine. The driver had two flagpoles attached to his truck bed, each adorned with the flag of the Confederacy, along with Confederate flag bumper stickers and a Confederate flag license plate frame.

I was in New Hampshire, mind you — not South Carolina — and the pickup truck’s license plate was from the Granite State. The only logical explanation left for the driver’s loud display of the Confederate flag after that flag has been universally condemned as a symbol of hatred and racism is that the driver is endorsing the same.

I didn’t ask the pickup truck driver who he supported in the primary, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he favored Donald Trump, based on his recent surge in the polls and outspoken bigotry. As Republican presidential candidates begin to set their sites on New Hampshire, they will need to come to grips with the party’s racial animosity that Trump’s surge represents.

In May, before announcing his campaign, Trump was polling at only 3 percent. Even after he was widely condemned in headlines for his June remarks accusing almost all Mexican immigrants of being drug dealers and rapists, Trump doubled down on his remarks, and weeks later, he quadrupled his polling position, putting him just behind Jeb Bush. Trump’s popularity has since skyrocketed among Republican primary voters. According to polling data from July 17, Trump held the lead with 18 percent of Republicans preferring him, compared to 15 percent for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and 14 percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.  A Monmouth University poll of Tea Party supporters revealed that Trump had flipped a 55-percent net negative to 56 percent approval since June, when he made his racist remarks. This kind of immediate swing in the wake of such comments isn’t necessarily an endorsement of Trump, but an endorsement of the hateful values he openly espouses.

Trump is able to win over that core group of Republican supporters by speaking to their sense of loss in an era of white privilege slowly but surely coming to an end. Census data from the 2012 election revealed that white voters — the GOP’s largest demographic – will no longer play a major role in deciding future presidential elections. It’s also estimated that by 2045, whites, who currently account for 62 percent of the population but 78 percent of deaths, will be a minority in America. When combining this reality with an electorate that elected and re-elected the first African-American president, aging white Republican voters are feeling outnumbered, and are looking for a candidate willing to say all the things they secretly think about President Barack Obama and America’s growing immigrant population.

Even the Republican candidates who recently distanced themselves from Trump only did so after he made insensitive remarks about Sen. John McCain’s military career.

The animosity that Trump and his supporters harbor for President Obama is based on his race, not his policies, as Obama is even further to the right than even conservative hero Ronald Reagan on immigration, having deported more immigrants than any other president in history, while Reagan granted amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants. Obama is also more hawkish than Reagan on foreign policy, as seven predominantly Muslim countries have been bombed without Congressional approval under his administration (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan and Somalia). Even on the economy, Obama has proven to be far friendlier to the corporate establishment than Reagan, presiding over record quarterly profits and multiple record high stock market closings while wages have simultaneously hit their lowest point in 65 years.

Even the Republican candidates who recently distanced themselves from Trump only did so after he made insensitive remarks about Sen. John McCain’s military career. Candidates Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and the rest of the Republicans who publicly criticized Trump’s comments about McCain were silent after he bashed Mexican immigrants. Carly Fiorina even tacitly supported Trump’s anti-immigrant tirade. If anything, Republican silence in response to Trump’s bigoted comments proves these candidates are taking pains not to offend racists among the GOP base. The only leading Republican who said anything about Trump’s racist statement about immigrants was Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who only encouraged Trump to “tone down” his remarks.

While it’s easy to mock Donald Trump over his brash attitude, insensitive comments and unfortunate comb-over, his candidacy is not to be taken lightly. The Confederate flag debate showed that racism is still alive and well in America, and a candidate with a bigoted message will attract a lot of support. Racists are becoming more emboldened after the terrorist attack at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, holding pro-Confederate flag rallies at the South Carolina statehouse in which attendees don neo-Nazi garb and SS uniforms. Predominantly black churches have burned across the South; several of the incidents have proven to be arson.

Trump has said he wouldn’t rule out running as an independent if he doesn’t win the GOP nomination. Such a campaign would be reminiscent of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s 1968 campaign for the presidency on the American Independent Party (AIP) ticket, in which his racist message won over Electoral College votes in the Deep South and threatened to have the presidential election decided in the House of Representatives. The AIP’s 1967 platform — based largely on fervent nationalism and opposition to “big government” — is eerily similar to what Trump and other Republican candidates are proposing today.

The field of GOP presidential candidates, as well as national GOP organizations such as the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association need to quickly and decisively condemn Trump’s racism and convince the electorate that bigotry is not welcome in the party that abolished slavery. Donald Trump and any other openly racist candidate must be relegated to obscurity if our country is to have true racial progress.

C. Robert Gibson is the editor-in-chief of US Uncut, a new social-justice-oriented media company covering economic, racial and environmental news. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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