Isn’t it time to acknowledge the contribution Donald Trump has made to American, and indeed, world history?
That is that for all the momentous progress of the last few decades, it’s still possible for a crude, racist demagogue to capture the hearts and minds of a significant segment of White American voters.
Trump has proved that if you’ve got the knack for telling the brazen lie and expressing a bullyboy cruelty that is both juvenile and adult, you can still go far in American politics.
Of course, Trump, an extreme narcissist, is after a very personal redemption, too. After all, who can forget the President Obama-delivered humiliation he suffered in the spring of 2011 when his attempt to hold high the banner of the anti-Obama “Birtherites” ended in gales of laughter at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?
But the game he’s playing now has much larger stakes.
Trump is the anti-democracy avatar of modern-day America. He represents America’s tradition of exclusion – the evil twin to the tradition of inclusion that some Americans love to pretend is the sole representative of the spirit of America. His careening this way and that to attack anyone and anything his mob of supporters will hoot at is a powerful reminder of how thin the commitment to democracy and decency has always been in this society.
It’s not a coincidence, historically speaking, that the rhetorical rampages – heavily focused on Americans of color and foreign nationals of color – that so excite Trump’s near lily-White base of supporters come at the end of the nation’s commemoration of significant anniversaries of both the Civil War and the climactic years of the Civil Rights Movement, two historical moments when decency temporarily won out over racism.
Nor is the fact that Trump has captured a large segment of Republican voters just when the two-term tenure of the nation’s first Black president has symbolized the present and future diversity of American society. Trump’s slogan that he’ll “make America great again” begs an entire history-book worth of questions and answers about what American society really looked like when it was allegedly “great.”
In fact, Trump’s entire campaign is a reminder of how the tradition of exclusion – the underside of “American exceptionalism” – worked in the past.
In his vicious slurs against undocumented Mexican immigrants, one hears the echoes of the government and private sector’s past exploitation of undocumented Mexican farm laborers. And one can also recall the earlier WASP grandees’ labeling as “inconceivable aliens” the First Nations’ peoples who originally settled the land and the Irish and eastern and southern Europeans who formed the 19th and early-20th century immigrant floodtide.
In his “Big Lie” that nearly all Whites who are murdered are slain by Blacks and his casual approval of the “roughing up” of a Black heckler at a campaign rally, Trump reminded us how quickly in the past Whites resorted to violence against Blacks.
His speech this month to the Republican Jewish Coalition – full of old, shopworn stereotypes about Jews – was stunning evidence of how many prejudices against people who are “not like” him Trump harbors.
And his call to ban all foreign nationals who are Muslim from entering the U.S. recalls the numerous instances when America’s White majority declared war on an entire racial or ethnic group: casting Africans and African Americans into the gulag of slavery and then Jim Crow; barring Chinese (and other Asians) via the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; denying entry to many European Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s; and imprisoning in concentration camps Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals during World War II.
These and other echoes of the past prove that Trump’s campaign is an old, not a new, phenomenon. His “special” talents are like those of past demagogues who’ve risen to prominence on the American scene: the bluster of a carnival barker, the oiliness’ of a trickster, an overweening ego and a lack of decency.
Of course, these “qualities” go a long way with the Republican electorate. Last week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 42 percent of Republicans support Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the US. Only 36 percent oppose it.
By contrast, 75 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Independents oppose such a ban.
Ironically, what is new about Trump the presidential candidate is that the Republican Party made his campaign possible. It was the GOP that increasingly over the decades played the right-wing-extremist and White-supremacy “cards” Trump has used to beat the GOP establishment candidates. It was the GOP that used the Citizens United case the Supreme Court decided in 2010 to destroy the restraints on the financing of political campaigns, a development that made Trump’s largely self-financed campaign possible.
So, it’s really the GOP itself that is responsible for the damage Trump is doing to the party – and to the nation.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City.