Can one man push an entire country into a moral crisis? Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump got in front of a cheering crowd last month and declared that he wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. In a country that likes to trumpet the election of a black president as a signal of its tolerance and pluralism, polls show that Trump’s support went up after he proposed this unconstitutional religious discrimination.
As the leading GOP candidate, Trump’s blowhard persona, reality TV background and comically right-wing politics have made him the butt of many jokes in mainstream media circles. Shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” have endlessly parodied Trump and his base of support. But Trump is dangerous, because he reflects, channels and mobilizes a disenfranchised segment of the country that’s highly prone to charismatic demagoguery.
Many Trump supporters feel left behind by the U.S. economy and see the country’s electoral process as a sham. They find it increasingly difficult to get ahead in a country that bails out the rich but punishes the poor. But instead of resorting to progressive visions for radical change and a more inclusive politics, Trump’s overwhelmingly white base finds it easier to rally around a voice that plunges the country into a deeply disturbing terrain. It’s true that many GOP candidates over the years have resorted to racially inflammatory rhetoric, usually euphemistic and deniable, to get votes. But they’ve all tended to use this rhetoric as a means to an end. Trump is the first major presidential candidate in the post-9/11 era to present racial and ethnic divisiveness as the end itself.
It’s much easier for Trump supporters to blame immigrants for the disappearance of living-wage jobs, to blame Islam for national security threats, to blame African-Americans for crime and to blame gays for what they see as the country’s corroding moral center. By voicing these frustrations so bluntly, Trump has surged ahead of his competitors.
It’s easy to blame ignorant voters for giving rise to Trump’s newfound political prominence, but the drastic rightward shift of American politics has much more systemic roots. The GOP has a long history of trying to rally a nativist base to win elections. After 9/11, despite an admirable effort by President George W. Bush to not conflate extremism with the Muslim religion in his speeches, Islamophobia has become another way for this kind of political galvanization to take place. This has dragged the entire U.S. political spectrum rightward, with the supposedly progressive Democrats now resembling a standard center-right party in other developed countries.
This is due to America’s failed neoliberal policies of financial deregulation and putting corporate profits over people. The idea that the market can regulate itself properly should have been burst by the 2008 global financial crisis, but President Barack Obama’s administration decided to bail out the banks responsible for the crisis at taxpayer expense, even as regular Americans suffered through a recession. The legacy of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics, which posits that the rich getting richer will allow them to create more jobs for everyone else, has succeeded in extending the social and political disenfranchisement of America’s underclass.
These failed Reagan-era policies were then upheld by Republicans and Democrats alike. Bill Clinton’s superficial liberalism and on-the-job sexual escapades masked his complete deregulation of Wall Street with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, along with his embrace of big corporate donations. After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush combined this economic status quo with an imperial foreign policy agenda that plunged the country deep into debt while exacerbating the politics of fear and paranoia.
Then, following the rise of Obama to the presidency, the GOP was ready to embrace the large segment of white Americans who feel anxious over the country’s shifting demographics. Demagogues from Sarah Palin to Ted Cruz have spoken to these anxieties, but no one has gone as far as Trump, who knows better than most how to drive this part of the conservative base into a frenzy.
Trump has rapidly become one of the most Islamophobic political figures in the developed world. Even right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen of the French National Front hasn't proposed banning all Muslims from entering her country.
The U.S. political system is now faced with a crisis: A significant portion of its voting population is now solidly behind one of the most intolerant voices in the country. Even in the likely event that Trump is not elected president, if whoever wins instead isn’t able to give this base of voters a reason to be optimistic about the future, then voices like Trump’s will only get louder.
After Obama won re-election in 2012, there was much discussion about how the GOP would be doomed if it failed to embrace minorities in response to demographic changes. But a number of factors, from the electoral college to the Senate to the various obstacles facing minority voters, make it possible for the country’s shrinking white conservative population to punch above its weight in elections. Trump is revealing this reality even as he exposes what a joke the U.S. political system has become. If Trump or a similar candidate takes power some years down the road, extremist rhetoric could become extremist reality.
But even if the extreme right never takes power through the electoral system, they may lash out in other ways. America is a land awash in guns, and the Obama years have seen a rise in right-wing activity in the form of white supremacy and nativist militias. If the political system continues to run on corporate money that crowds out constituent demands, many disaffected Americans may take matters into their own hands. In a country with a long history of vigilante violence, that is not a happy prospect.