HOW A TRUMP PRESIDENCY MIGHT AWAKEN THE DARKER ELEMENTS OF OUR CULTURE
Way back in June, 2015, when the rest of the world was shocked by the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, and were waiting for his fraudulent campaign to implode, I was not so sure. I believed he would go far because he was giving the right wing of the Republican Party exactly what they wanted, a high charged, politically pornographic, show of anger, racial antagonism and high testosterone infused masculinity. He was, as I stated in a post at the time, a “right wing wet dream.”¹
I never accepted the claim that the Republican Establishment hated Donald Trump and would never line up behind him. After all, Trump is at his core a run of the mill corporatist. He wants low taxes, low wages, deregulation. He’s the Ayn Rand Übermensch. Trump fit right in with the neo-liberal end of the Republican Party and the conservative establishment in general.
The problem that the right had with Trump was not with the core of his politics, but rather with the pornographic nature of his showmanship. He didn’t use the standard, rhetorical devices developed by the Nixon Administration and brought to a high art under Reagan. Trump’s campaign was openly bigoted and misogynistic. Racial anxiety that the right had always channeled into subtle resentment, Trump aroused with an orgy of outrage. Whereas the conservative establishment, now entrenched at the top of the Republican Party, had a history of gently coaxing the more monstrous elements of the racist right with treats and cues, Trump inflamed the beasts with bloody red meat.
Like President Obama, and consistent with most liberals, I really believed that this open demonstration of every negative American archetype incarnate in a single man, a veritable walking satire of all that is wrong with our nation, would be Trump’s downfall. After all, “this isn’t who we are as a people.” Is it? Is it?
Well, it turns out…
Look, one of the great successes, or at least one of the apparent successes of the civil rights movements and the ensuing culture wars, was the marginalization of openly racist/sexist rhetoric. It was understood that the American people no longer tolerated open prejudice and discrimination. Yes, racist and sexist ideas were still out there in some collective unconscious of the nation, but appeals to open bigotry were understood as culturally repulsive and political suicide. Lee Atwater’s infamous acknowledgement of this in 1981 has since been taken as a truism.
Problem is, Trump has demonstrated that an openly racist candidate is not politically dead. What we can call the Atwater Limit has been broken. Now this may be a phenomenon specific to Trump that cannot be reproduced by a less charismatic actor on the national stage. Such exemptions, however, make me uncomfortable. If Trump can run a successful, openly racist, campaign, why not anyone else?
Remember, the presumption of the Atwater Limit is that open racism is culturally
repugnant, that the American value system had changed in the last half of the twentieth century and bigotry is now relegated to the cultural margins and disreputable subcultures. But now those disreputable subcultures, namely what is known as the “alt-right” has representatives in the highest echelons of the executive. We have neo-Nazi conferences in which individuals are actually “heiling” the President of the United States. If bigotry is not as politically marginalized as we thought, and it is clear that it isn’t, then it is impossible to think that our cultural value system is any more enlightened than is our politics. It is more likely that bigotry is not as negatively sanctioned by our society as we presume, and these subcultures are not nearly as marginalized as we had hoped. The results of the 2016 election indicate that bigotry is not only alive and well in the United States, but has no reason to fear living in the open. On one hand, bigotry is embraced by a significant number of the population, that has always been the case. On the other, bigotry is not as subject to sanction as we thought, as most others are not motivated one way or the other by bigotry, at least not enough to vote against it. That is something we didn’t see coming.
If this is the case, and a Trump Presidency is a good indicator that this is, in fact, the case, then one might predict that millions of bigots who once concealed their animus from their communities for fear of sanction will now be emboldened to show themselves and act on their prejudice openly. They are no longer relegated to the dark corners of cyberspace to find solace in like-minded individuals and spew their venom. They can do so openly with little fear of recrimination. This seems to be the case as we see reports in numerous news sources and as is being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It appears that the social controls we thought were permanent fixtures of the U.S. value system were nothing more than gossamer restraints.
This brings up a few questions, not the least of which is, is this a temporary aberation? A result of post-election euphoria? Or is this a new normal? Have the culture wars taken a regressive turn in which those of us interested in justice and equality will be forced to engage in battles we thought were won thirty years ago?
On thing is clear, however. The United States has not made nearly the progress we thought we had. This is especially true if the “we” being referred to here is educated white liberals like myself who really, really hoped that our society was better than it turned out to be. Now, with President Trump as the role model, there’s no reason to think that his success will be interpreted as anything less than an invitation for the Monstrous Deplorables to act on their hatred.
Which means those of us who recognize bigotry for what it is had better be ready to confront it head on. The Atwater Limit existed for a reason, people enough people in our society were so offended by bigotry that it became a taboo. The problem is that not enough of us were so offended for bigotry to be permanently displaced in our cultural and political discourse. Now we are seeing a resurgence. At this point we do not know how invasive the Trump Effect will be. We do know that if bigotry meets only anemic resistance, as it did in the election, then it will spread.
- I’m not claiming prescience, here. I was making a sociological observation about the nature of Trump’s appeal. In June of 2015 I didn’t believe we’d be looking at a President Trump.