To understand the recent surge of the politics of hate we have to look beyond its loudest and most odious amplifier – Donald Trump. Where do we turn? It may seem counter-intuitive, but the beginnings of an answer lie with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the political dynamics that followed.
The election of an African American president was rich in symbolic (as well as political) meaning. For African Americans, election night was an occasion of enormous joy. Tears mingled with happiness and pride as millions of Black people watched the newly elected president and his family walk onto the stage at Grant Park in Chicago. A barrier, seemingly insurmountable, had been surmounted. A long stride down Freedom Road had been taken. It was a landmark event, a sea change in U.S. politics.
But among white Americans, the reaction wasn’t as uniformly positive. Certainly millions felt profoundly happy and expressed as much in Grant Park and across the country. In electing a Black president, they believed the country had taken a significant step to measure up to its highest ideals, even if much more still had to be done to make the union a more perfect and equal one.
But many other white people considered the election of an African American to the presidency to be a traumatic and wrenching experience. Their world was turned upside down. The election signified for them a new stage in the retreat and decline of a seemingly natural – even ordained – racial and social order in which African Americans were locked into an inferior and subordinate status on the basis of skin color in every area of life, while white people, also because of their skin color, were accorded a position of racial superiority and advantage.
While these differing reactions to Obama’s victory initially went largely unnoticed in the widespread exhilaration of the moment, it soon became clear that the election of an African American to the presidency not only generated great enthusiasm across a diverse populous, but also triggered a spike in racial anxieties, resentments, and rage among a section – millions in fact – of white people.
Moreover, this spike intermingled to one degree or another with a whole panoply of toxic ideological notions – sexism and misogyny, nativism, homophobia, xenophobia, and fear of creeping collectivism – all of which were fueled further by a global economy collapsing and tumbling out of control at the time.
A charged atmosphere
In this charged atmosphere, right-wing extremists, ranging from media flame-throwers like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, to Fox News and Republican Party leaders such as Senator Mitch O’Connell and House Speaker John Boehner, to right-wing think tanks and political action committees, had a field day. This rogue’s gallery, with the lavish support of a group of multi-millionaires and billionaires, like the Koch brothers, egged on, gave voice to, and provided the talking points for this disaffected and angry grouping of white people.
“By any means necessary” became its organizing principle, “Take Back America” its battle cry, and raw and unapologetic racist rhetoric its calling card. The new president was labeled a usurper, an alien, un-American, someone to be brought down “ASAP.”
What followed was the birther movement, assassination threats against President Obama, and legislative obstruction and gridlock, including a Republican engineered shutdown of the federal government that could be described without exaggeration as a “U.S. style” coup d’état attempt. The war on women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and labor scaled up along with police violence against young African American men. Social media exploded with vile racist rhetoric and images, while the racist fringe and neo-Nazi groups used the moment to come out of the shadows. Finally, on the wave of this racist resentment against the new president, the Tea Party was born, Republicans won back control of the House in 2010 and the Senate two years later, and a majority of state governments fell into right-wing Republican hands.
Earlier episodes in our history
At first glance it may seem like a paradox that this right-wing, racist surge erupted on the heels of Obama’s historic victory. But on deeper inspection, it could have been predicted. Earlier episodes in our history – the Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s – show us that sections of white ruling elites and their supporters were thrown into disarray by the undoing of their power, prerogatives, and mode of wealth accumulation.
But after the initial shock, they regrouped and strenuously resisted new anti-racist and other democratic realities. In fact, they doubled down and went on the offensive to restore their political, economic, and cultural dominance and overturn the newly won gains of the African American people and their democratic-minded allies.
In each instance, the preferred weapons of these elite-led coalitions of racist revenge included the reconquering of legislative and administrative positions in government and the systematic use of force – official and unofficial – to strike terror in the hearts of African Americans and their supporters, along with the re-invigoration and adaptation of racist ideology to new conditions.
In short, history never repeats itself exactly, but echoes and similarities from its past episodes can be found in the present moment.
It is against this background that the meteoric rise of Trump is best understood. He is as much a creature as a creator of this new discourse of hate, division, and violence that first surged in the wake of Obama’s election eight years ago. He didn’t create the wave; others did. But he is riding, extending, and orchestrating it now.
This doesn’t make him any less dangerous. In fact, what distinguishes Trump from his mates in elite political circles on the right are four things. First, he, much like those demonstrators against the president in 2008, makes no attempt to conceal his hateful invective; it is unapologetic, in-your-face, raw, and unadorned. He says publicly what the rest of the Republican right in high places say only in coded language.
Second, his behavior is reckless and unpredictable; he isn’t a team player, which causes much consternation among high ranking Republicans and their well-heeled financial supporters.
Third, Trump is a clever demagogue. No one else on the right is able to exploit as adroitly as he does the profound shifts at the political, economic, and cultural level that have caused an upheaval in the lives and thinking of a lot of Americans – not to mention shine an unfavorable light on the failure of both parties to adequately address this mounting turbulence of everyday life accompanying these shifts.
Finally, Trump possesses a “strong man” authoritarian streak, the likes of which we haven’t seen in American politics. (If he would lock up Hillary Clinton, imagine who else this bully would lock up.)
As for his mass constituency, it has some new wrinkles, new faces, but it is largely composed of Tea Party insurgents who angrily attacked President Obama and others going further back who provided the sweated labor for the rise of right-wing extremism (and the reactionary political and economic elites that organize and orchestrate its every move) to an ascendant position in U.S. politics over the past 35 years.
This merger of reckless and bullying demagogue with unruly and violence-prone supporters, it barely needs to be said, constitutes a new and unprecedented danger to the country’s future. It doesn’t necessarily mean that fascism is stage right and about to makes its entrance if Trump is elected; in fact, fascism isn’t the preferred or easily executed option of the top circles of the right.
But what could be in our future were Trump to be elected is a form of authoritarian, relentlessly anti-democratic rule that would drastically rollback political, economic, and social rights; impose a harsh austerity regime; ratchet up the politics and ideologies of hate, division, and inequality; forestall any action on climate change; crush efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system and rein in the police; and reassert the use of U.S. power here and around the world.
Sounds scary, and it is. But in Republican circles interestingly, a Trump presidency isn’t their immediate concern because they think it is now very unlikely. What preoccupies them at this moment is that an out-of-control Trump is bringing down not only himself, but the rest of their ticket, thereby doing irreparable damage to the future of the Republican Party and its right-wing (class) project.
Positioned to score a major victory
A year ago, many believed that the presidency would be tightly contested and few takers could be found to say that Republican control of the House was in play. But as the election enters the final stretch, Hillary Clinton, barring any major mistakes on her part or earth-shaking events that suddenly change the election dynamics, is positioned to score a major victory. Moreover, the Democrats could regain control of the Senate, and winning back control of the House, while a long stretch, isn’t a complete pipe dream.
Which explains why more and more Republican congressional candidates are selling themselves to Republican and independent voters as a check on a Clinton White House.
This isn’t cause for Hillary Clinton’s supporters to shift into cruise control. But it is reason to think that if they make the extra effort in the remaining weeks of this bitterly contested campaign to get out the vote – and that is the overriding challenge at this moment – Hillary and the Democrats will be the big winners and the country can celebrate its first woman president.
Needless to say, if the above scenario happens, it will create a field of struggle that gives leverage to the new administration, change-minded Democrats, and the broad and diverse people’s coalition that rolled up its sleeves and mobilized voters this fall. It won’t silence Trump or his nasty core of supporters; they will cry foul and bitterly claim, as they are already are, that the elections were rigged and the new president is crooked, a fraud, and much worse.
Among the things that we have learned from this campaign in general, and the words and actions of Trump in particular, is that the depth, breadth, and modes of expression of sexism and misogyny in our culture are far greater, far more dangerous and destructive, and far more divisive than many thought. And this won’t change on election night. Indeed, it would be naive not to prepare for a spike in sexism and misogyny as well as racism and other hateful and divisive ideologies. If anything is going to disable the first woman president, discourage and divide the people’s coalition that played such a large role in electing her, and confuse the American people, it is these ideologies (and practices) of hate. If they aren’t challenged in a sustained way, movement of the political needle in a progressive direction will come to a quick halt.
And we can’t let that happen, can we?