This election year has officially gone tits up. Absolutely none of the things I expected (except a Hillary Clinton nomination) have happened, and Donald Trump is this bizarrely unstoppable tangerine juggernaut cutting a path of destruction back and forth across the United States. An incredibly alarming rise not just in racist rhetoric but assaults and practices has followed Trump, leading a lot of people to conclude that he’s feeding a rise in racism in the United States, but that’s not actually accurate. It was actually the rise in racism that fed Donald Trump — it’s just that the media is finally reporting on the issue.
The United States is in a state of serious racial tension, and it’s finally figured out that we don’t live in a ‘post-racial’ society. White people are convinced that someone is going to take their toys away now that we have a Black president and people are more outspoken about racial inequality. People of colour appear to be tired of this shit on a whole new level, although they’ve been tired of this shit since 1492.
They’re tired of being gunned down by police. They’re tired of being sent to prison in disproportionate numbers. They’re tired of poverty. Of educational inequality. Of health disparities. They’re tired of a complacent white community every bit as much as they’re tired of an overtly racist one. Being a person of color in the United States isn’t actually very much fun, and people are finally gaining enough of a foothold that white people are being forced to hear what they have to say, from the streets of Oakland to the halls of Congress.
For people who are very fixated on their white identity and sense of racial superiority, for people who fear change, for people who think that seeing anyone get ahead means that they will lose out, this is incredibly threatening and scary. And their reaction to it is to dig deep, to wriggle down, plant themselves in the sand, and spew ever more aggressive racism. There’s a huge conservative backlash happening in this country and race is a big driver behind a fair amount of the horrible bullshit that’s going on.
That backlash has been a long time coming. It’s the anti-Arab rhetoric rooted in hatred of Muslims in the wake of the 11 September attacks. It’s fury at Black people because we elected a biracial president. It’s fury at the Black community for having the gall to protest being routinely shot by police. It’s anger at the Latinx community over the perennial claim that they are stealing our jobs. There’s a whole lot of white anger, and it is toxic.
And Donald Trump fed on that, like a giant tangerine tick. His approach to the world was already racist, and he further refined and tailored it in response to what he saw as a very real social phenomenon. He knew that playing on racial tensions would make him popular among a certain swath of American voters, especially when he could ladle on the misogyny as well, so that people who found his racism unpalatable would still show up for attacks on Secretary Clinton.
It’s not that Donald Trump made this country racist, but that this racist country made Donald Trump. And that’s an important distinction, because we can’t talk about Trump as a phenomenon who came along in a vacuum and suddenly turned this country upside down. He snuggled up to an existing problem and made it his own, realising that he could tap into white outrage to build an incredibly strong, loyal base.
He also knew that the very act of building that base would create an endless closed loop: As people responded to the racism, they validated the sense of fear and outrage felt by the racists, who got more racist, driving more horrified conversations about the level of racism associated with the campaign. People transitioned from angry insular racism and grossness to outward extrusions of racism, to attacking protesters, to screaming for the heads of people dragged out of Trump rallies, to cheering with glee at the prospect of what might happen to people of colour under a Trump Administration.
Trump is a lot of things, including a misogynist, an asshole, a terrible businessman, a poor critical thinker, and a literal overcooked carrot. But he’s also pretty canny when it comes to finding out what people want and selling it to them, at least in the short term. Trump in many ways represents the ideal that a lot of people have, the guy with lots of money and flashy things who does what he wants and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. That appeals to people who are convinced that ‘political correctness run amuck’ and other such things are threatening their very way of life — Trump isn’t going to tell them to stop being racist, he’s not going to change their tax schedules, he’s going to protect them from the incursions of the outside world. He’s very soothing, in that sense.
Has there been a radical uptick in racist rhetoric and behaviour as a result of the Trump campaign? It’s certainly being covered more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more of a problem than it was before. Really, all it indicates is that it’s just been dragged out into the open, kicking and screaming and moaning, and it’s shaken itself out in the sunlight and decided that it likes it here after all. Maybe more racism is being reported, and it’s being taken more seriously, but it’s been there all along, and those who were enduring it will probably tell you that you just weren’t looking hard enough.
Image: Donald Trump, Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons