Even if Trump loses in November, his toxic legacy will live on.
- By Sarah KendziorSarah Kendzior is a writer and analyst who studies digital media and politics in authoritarian states. She has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University. Her work has been published by Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, Slate, Radio Free Europe and numerous academic journals.
Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican party has sparked panic about what would happen to America if he wins the general election. These concerns change daily as Trump spouts an increasingly erratic and dangerous array of policy prescriptions. Will he pull the U.S. out of NATO and sanction a Russian-led invasion of Eastern Europe? Will he round up Muslims? Will he deport Mexicans? Will he tweet classified information? Will he paint the White House gold and build monuments of himself on the National Mall?
But there is another troubling question that is less frequently asked, though it concerns the most likely outcome in November: What if Trump loses?
For over a year, pundits — especially Republicans who have a stake in legitimizing their party’s abject surrender — have been claiming that Trump will eventually pivot from his extremist positions. They said this before the primaries, they said it after the primaries, and they said it even after the GOP convention, when, as on other occasions, Trump was deemed “presidential” for his ability to read a script off a teleprompter. But his moment of relative composure was short-lived. Trump has spent the last week encouraging Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and attacking the family of a deceased Muslim war veteran — just two examples of “gaffes” that, in a regular election, would destroy a candidacy.
But this is not a regular election, and Trump is never going to pivot. What Trump is doing — and has been doing all along — is pivoting Americans toward his bigoted and paranoid worldview. He has made extremism mainstream to the point that David Duke now feels comfortable running for Senate. With his encouragement, his supporters have attacked non-white and non-Christian Americans. And, in its desperation for ratings, the financially struggling U.S. media has been key to normalizing Trump, giving him more airtime than any other candidate and often failing to challenge him on his lies and his bigotry.
But Trump is not just a media creation. He has stoked bigotry and fury over the state of the economy — abetted by the media — but these problems existed long before his campaign. After all, the middle class has been declining since the mid-1970s, when wages began to plummet and manufacturing jobs disappeared. And if Trump loses, these problems — now hitched to a virulent strain of nativist politics — will remain.
What will America look like under the presidency of Hillary Clinton? It will look a lot like the America we have right now: suffering, anxious, and violent. To describe the country as merely “divided” is, unfortunately, too optimistic. This election has exposed deep rifts within both the Democratic and the Republican parties and highlighted the prevalence of radical views on both the right and left that range from neo-Nazism to anarchism. Social media has spread conspiracy theories and hate speech, helping shift the fringe to the center, while Trump’s new role as GOP standard-bearer has confused what it means to be “mainstream.” We do not know who we are, as a country, anymore. The center cannot hold when no one can find it.
Wary of Trump’s rise and the violence that has surrounded his campaign, the Democrats are doing their best to rebuild this center. The “big tent” approach of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Convention — which featured passionate speakers representing a vast array of ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, professions, and ideologies — showcased an America that is diverse, but united in its patriotism and desire to improve the public good. It is a message that will need to be put into practice should Clinton win — precisely because Trump’s candidacy threatens to leave behind three particularly toxic legacies.
First is the continued rise of right-wing extremism and militia groups. On June 26, five people were stabbed in a face-off in Sacramento between neo-Nazi white supremacists and anti-racist activists, some of whom were self-proclaimed anarchists clad in black. You may have forgotten this event — a story that would have once dominated headlines — given the weeks of violence that followed: the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the killings of police in Baton Rouge and Dallas, and a series of terror attacks abroad, not to mention the Orlando massacre two weeks before. In a post-Trump America, five people stabbed at a White Power rally is an afterthought.
But the rise of hate groups is part of a long-brewing trend. Since Obama took office, the number of militia and white supremacist “patriot” groups has soared from 150 in 2008 to 1400 in 2012. We do not know how many new hate groups have emerged since Trump launched his campaign, but we know that he has attracted and emboldened them.
If Trump loses, neither he nor his followers will take it well. Some pundits wonder whether Trump will even concede. On August 1, Trump declared that the election will be “rigged”: a preemptive move to delegitimize a possible loss as his poll numbers fall. The next day, Trump’s advisor, Roger Stone, proclaimed there will be a “bloodbath” if the election is “stolen.” When I interviewed Trump’s supporters in March, several told me they would form militias if he did not get the nomination, and other reporters have heard the same. Trump’s loss could be the cause that unites disparate hate groups across the country, potentially leading to standoffs against the government like that of the Bundys in Oregon, or to violent clashes like the neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento.
The second major challenge is that, thanks to Trump, economic discontent has become linked to white populism. In an attempt to diagnose the Trump phenomenon, D.C. wonks have written profiles of imaginary Trump fans, as if his fan base were a monolith. In fact, the Americans voting for Trump are as diverse in their reasoning — open bigotry, economic agony, hatred of Clinton, vague longing for change — as the supporters of any other candidate.
Where they are not diverse is race: Trump’s fan base is almost uniformly white. It includes the militia and hate organizations described above. But many Trump fans are simply down-and-out white male workers. This faction’s primary concerns are jobs, trade, and a feeling that the government has abandoned them while crowing about misleading statistics of low unemployment.
The problem is that, while not always openly racist, these voters implicitly condone racism through their support for Trump, contributing to the mainstreaming of white supremacy. The appeal of Trump’s racialist version of the economic discontent argument is so great that it has extended to surprising audiences. A small but vocal contingent of the Bernie Sanders fan base seems to have migrated to the Trump camp. Ideologically, this switch makes no sense, but given the precedent set in the primaries, it is not surprising. The Democratic primaries were the most racially divided in U.S. history — states with black or Latino populations of over 10 percent almost always went to Clinton.
As white men with disparate ideological perspectives unite under the Trump banner, many of them have come to espouse or condone his racist views, tainting their legitimate economic grievances with an ugly nativist edge. Meanwhile, America’s much-vaunted economic recovery is still failing to create enough well-paying jobs. As a result, white populism is set not only to keep growing, but to become further incorporated into mainstream American politics.
The third major challenge is the continued decline of the media. As a major contributor to the rise of Trump, the mainstream media should not be dismissed (though it may be despised). That said, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Since January, a large number of outlets have shuttered or laid off staff: Al Jazeera America, Mashable, HuffPost Live, Yahoo News, the Guardian, the New York Times, and so on. The media industry’s anxiety over its long decline is why it promoted Trump in the first place. Network heads like Les Moonves have bragged that Trump’s campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” This sentiment shared by other networks, including CNN, which hired Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (who once assaulted a female reporter) as a paid commentator.
When the Trump train grinds to a halt, mainstream outlets will see more lost funding and more layoffs, leading to poor coverage of the new administration and an even more fractured political discourse. The media has learned that the exploitation of violence, riots, and bigotry brings clicks and cash. This is not a new lesson — as the old saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads” — but the 2016 campaign has shown the mainstreaming of extremism to be uniquely lucrative. As the two disaffected white fan bases described above lash out at Clinton, her supporters, and non-white citizens, we should expect these men to be portrayed as one of two equally legitimate “sides” — not as a threat to the safety of other Americans, but as a mainstream perspective. As with Trump, the shock will eventually fade, and continual exposure to extremist views will make it harder for Americans to recognize them as such.
What will Trump himself do now that he is no longer a candidate? Media insiders are predicting the rise of “Trump News,” a media empire that will cater to, as one insider said, “a base of the population that hasn’t had a voice in a long time.” If the media organization mirrors Trump’s campaign, that base will include Klansmen, militia members, and everyday racists, and will likely circulate conspiracy theories and lies, further muddling reporting in a decimated media economy.
These are merely three aspects of a Trump loss, but they all follow the same theme, perhaps the main theme of the Trump phenomenon: the mainstreaming of extremism. Trump’s campaign has pulled the fringes to the center, exposed weaknesses in the media and the two-party system, and exacerbated discontent. Whether he wins or loses, his campaign has already caused a profound and dangerous shift in American political culture. Come November, it may not officially be Trump’s America — but we will still have to live in it.
Photo credit: JOE MAHONEY/Getty Images