On June 16th, 2015, America incurred a wrath of hatred that it wasn’t prepared to deal with. A debt-ridden, ego-infused man rode down his hotel’s escalator to the base of a wooden podium. He announced that he was running for President in front of a backdrop of fake fans. A lot of people laughed at the spectacle, including myself.
But we’re not laughing now.
No one expected the man to capture the nomination, but I think most of everyone expected a semblance of a ‘normal’ election regardless. We can’t blame ourselves for this assumption. Much of our conception of what’s ‘politically feasible’ was forged after centuries of experimentation and discovery. What we have now in our system is by-and-large a product of over 200 years of trial and error. And, for the most part, what we have works (to the fullest extent that it actually works. Actual governance is a whole other story).
But it’s time to come to grips with reality. 2016 isn’t an election of norms. It’s a vast, psychological experiment in what happens when norms change before our eyes.
It seems like every day we’re witness to another shock to America’s vital organs, only able to watch from the side of a hospital bed as our body politic struggles with another dose of our own poison. Every single hour and day is another reminder of just how abnormal this election has been. And every morning we wake to the realization that the worst is still probably to come.
Yet since the conventions, the mass-media has been obsessed with the idea of a ‘Trump pivot’. Many wanted to believe that a man of 70 years would wake up one morning and undo all of the wrongheadedness of his campaign. Call it the hopeful pleas of the Republican Party or the click-driven obsession of American media, but the narrative of ‘the pivot’ was and is a thing.
But The Trump pivot in actuality doesn’t exist. It was never really a thing. It was merely the fantastical creation of a media machine and pundit-sphere that wanted to believe that this election would follow political norms.
But there is a Trump pivot that exists beyond the traditional narrative; it’s the pivot of the GOP’s resources to the most hateful elements of its base, and the disintegration of any semblance of moderation in the party of Lincoln.
There’s a recent trend among pundits to term the batshit-crazy wing of Trump’s most fervent supporters as the ‘alt-right’. In this title is a supposed distinction between themselves and the more traditional elements of the modern Republican Party. And for the casual observer of American politics, their entrance into the public discourse is an entire surprise. But it shouldn’t be. These people and their ideas have always had enormous sway in the sphere of American politics. We just don’t want to admit it.
Call them the ‘Alt-Right’ or the ‘National Socialist’ wing of Conservatism, but there’s no denying what they are; racist, regressive, fascist-bigots. And every single day they flock towards the open arms of the Trump campaign. On the heels of daily comments that push Trump’s position from crazy to preposterous, we see revealed the lengths at which these people will go.
In their talk of ‘white genocide’ and racial purity, the Alt-Right and it’s fascist followers don’t even pretend to hide from their racist beliefs. They embrace it. And while American conservatism since the Reagan era has stuck to a quiet sort of hatred of ‘the other’ and love of ‘the real America’, this new movement disregards the antiquated forms of social nicety. The Alt-Right goes all-in on hatred of anyone that isn’t like them.
The media at large is quick to ignore the presence of the alt-right. For a lot of people, the only loudspeaker for bigots like these comes on Twitter, Reddit, and long comment-boards devoted to talking up the most radical of Trump’s beliefs. This brand of American conservatism is an afterthought for many, and non-existent for others. But it exists, and it isn’t just a belief.
It’s tough for some to grasp, but 2016 isn’t an election just about numbers and polls. We live in such a data-driven and quantitative world that numbers in a poll seem like that: just numbers. Hop on any of the mass-consumed political websites or blogs and you’ll see chart-after-chart after spreadsheet. In that wide array of numbers and percentages, it’s possible to think that November will be decided by a chart.
Sure, elections are determined by numbers and ballots, but ballots aren’t cast by numbers: they’re cast by people.
That’s why, even when Hillary Clinton is up by near 16-points in a crucial swing state such as Virginia, it’s hard to be entirely enthused. Because somehow, in the midst of that debilitating lead, we’re faced with the realization that there are millions of other Virginians and Americans who are polling, quite enthusiastically, for Trump.
We can be objective, look at the polls as they are now, and rationally conclude that Donald Trump probably won’t be the next President. But that shouldn’t bar us from looking beyond November. It needs to be the objective of the entirety of America, from millennials to baby boomers, to figure out why and how Trumpism ever came to be a thing in the United States. And there’s a crucial question to be asked alongside this; what will become of the alt-right and America’s fascist movement after the November elections?
That’s as much a goal for the post-campaign as it is now. We have a civil and moral responsibility to make sure that Trumpism doesn’t survive as an ideological alternative to traditional American conservatism. And we have even more of an obligation to make sure that Trumpism, and it’s fascist foundations, doesn’t turn into America’s next conservative party.
If we allow the white-genociders to captain the ship of the GOP into the future, there’s no saying where the extremities of American politics could end up. As we’ve learned in 2016, fascism and American racism aren’t dead ideas in American politics. They’re at times growing, building up steam at a time when public disenchantment with the political establishment grows by the week. And with this large ‘populist’ move towards the extremes, we have the opening-up of our discourse to hate. And when hate acts as a tool of debate, hate also becomes a tool of power.
The Trump campaign is an experiment in hate as power. If he wins in November, hate has won. But if he loses to Hillary Clinton, it’s not necessarily true that hate has lost either. Beyond Donald Trump, and whatever becomes of the man in public, the echo of his hate and incitements of political violence will emanate with millions of his followers.
We can’t expect that those followers will somehow remove themselves from the debate on national issues. No, there’s a good chance that they’ll take a larger role after defeat. It’s only rational to assume that, in the wake of defeat, the crazies will come to seek revenge.
It’s not enough to defeat Donald Trump. We have to defeat the idea of Donald Trump. American society has to come to grips with the most hateful elements of its politics and return to a semblance of public rationality.
In some ways, I think it’ll be harder to do that than win in November. But it’s something that has to be done, so long as we want a society undefined by hate. The normalization of hate and violence is a severe political crisis at the base of conservatism, and it threatens to endanger the rest of our beliefs. And if we truly want to defeat Donald Trump, we need to defeat the idea, not merely the man.