If Trump loses, we shouldn’t downplay what nearly happened here. Once Trump is in the rearview mirror, this whole thing will be easy to laugh off. A lot of people will be tempted to tell the story as one of celebrity and media – of the wackiness of the “reality TV age” – rather than as the genuinely scary brush with fascism it really was.
So, a gentle reminder: Donald Trump is a racist authoritarian nationalist, and he’s going to win over 40% of the vote.
If we want to be optimistic, we might take comfort in the fact that not all of those 40% actually like him. A good-sized chunk of that 40% is people who’ll acknowledge that Trump is terrible, but who simply can’t face the prospect of not voting for the person with the (R) next to their name. Interestingly, a much higher percentage of Trump voters than Hillary voters say they’re voting primarily against their opponent, as opposed to for their own candidate. It seems that Hillary‑hate will account for a good deal of Trump’s eventual vote total, as will pure tribal loyalty. In private, some of those voters might even admit to being relieved when he loses.
But what about the people for whom Trump was their first choice? The guy won 13 million votes in the primaries, all, and stomped all over a much-lauded field filled with Republican governors and senators and brain surgeons. Donald Trump isn’t interesting, but that achievement is. As an individual, Trump is no psychological puzzle; he’s simply what you get when a pubescent bully is inured from consequences by a wealthy father, never needs to learn empathy, and has his disordered narcissism mistaken for ‘winner’s confidence’ by a sick capitalist culture. His win in the primaries, though, requires more unpacking. There’s a disease rotting the Republican Party from the inside, and Donald Trump is a symptom, not the cause.
The Republican Party is extraordinarily white in its make-up, but beyond that, it’s actually not a particularly homogenous group. The modern Republican Party is an uneasy alliance between a number of wildly different forces and agenda, and they sometimes don’t seem to have all that much to do with each other. After all, what do Christian conservatives (i.e. the hardcore evangelicals, the single-issue abortion voters, the homeschoolers and “pray away the gay” people) really have in common with corporatist lizard people (i.e. the neoliberal free-marketers, the super-rich Wall Streeters, the douchey Ayn Rand acolytes and trickle‑down economic fantasists for whom tax cuts solve every problem)? And how closely does either group actually want to be tied with aggrieved racists, the third key faction of the party?
Aggrieved racists have been a critical part of the Republican voting coalition since the ‘60s. Republican leaders know this, but they try not to draw too much attention to it. The GOP tends to overwhelmingly draw its leaders from the ranks of the corporatist lizard people (here is one proudly displaying its hatchlings), and for the most part, they make their electoral deals with Christian conservatives. It’s a tidy arrangement, because their enemies are the same but their goals don’t get in each other’s way. For the corporatist lizard people, it’s no biggie to close abortion clinics and destroy queer kids’ lives if it means a chance at repealing the estate tax. For the Christian conservatives, the details of the tax code matter a lot less than the state of everyone’s souls for the Rapture, so they generally let the corporatist lizard people do what they want on that score. (In a heartwarming gesture of intra-party community, some even attempt to read free market capitalism into the Bible, which, lol.)
This cosy two-way street, however, has left the aggrieved racists feeling out in the cold. Despite all the dogwhistles they got from Republican politicians (and there were many), they weren’t seeing results. America kept diversifying. Social change kept on rolling. Fox News spent decades elevating those racist winks into a broader tide of cultural panic, and when a black man got elected into the White House, a large chunk of the Republican base responded by losing their goddamn minds.
I’m not kidding around with this. A full 43% of Republicans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. 41% believe he was not born in the United States (a fact which would make his presidency illegitimate, and all his governance illegal). Egged on by the profitable world of aggrieved racist media, these people have seen the last eight years as an unending DEFCON-1 situation. They believe their country is under siege, and on the brink of annihilation. They call Obama a “tyrant”, which is perhaps the best way to rationalise the intense anxiety they feel seeing a black man at the presidential dais. They call Hillary Clinton a “criminal”, which is perhaps the best way to pre-emptively delegitimise another presidency whose very possibility offends them to their core.
After the shellacking of Mitt Romney in 2012, some Republican leaders began making noises about changing the party’s platform. They wanted the party to become more inclusive, and even to support immigration reform. (Corporatist lizard people aren’t inherently anti‑immigration, after all; immigrants are a cheap source of labour.) But while the leaders of the party thought this was a move they could make, the white cultural grievance part of the base freaked out. Republican flirtation with immigration reform confirmed everything that the aggrieved racists in the party had long suspected: the dogwhistles are meaningless, and the Republican establishment is the enemy.
This was the environment Trump descended his gold escalator down into: a key part of the Republican voting coalition, feeling ignored and sidelined by the party’s leaders, was straining to make its voice heard in national politics again. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that those views mentioned before – about Obama being a Kenyan Muslim who wants to impose Shariah Law on hardworking Americans – are overrepresented among Trump supporters. Voters with the lowest opinion of Muslims have the highest opinion of Trump. Voters with a greater likelihood of describing black people as “lazy”, “unintelligent”, or “criminal” have a greater likelihood of supporting Trump. Voters with more hostility towards women are – shockingly – more likely to support the serial sexual predator in the race.
It seems silly next to all that more serious stuff, but it’s genuinely striking how often Trump says things like, “When I win, we’re gonna all be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again”. It’s not clear how a Trump administration would enforce such a dictum, but every time he says it, his supporters cheer. Trumpist cultural grievance is an all-purpose demand to return to a past in which everything white, male and Christian was uncomplicatedly in the centre of both public and private life – and everyone else can get in line or get out. Trump first became a hero to a huge swathe of the Republican base by being the most famous person willing to publicly propagate the racist birther myth, cemented their loyalty with his “Mexican rapists” speech, and they haven’t budged since.
There are lots of different ways to understand the rise of Trump, but this is probably the simplest and truest one: the cultural grievance voters found their guy.
And they turned out to be the dominant faction of the Republican Party.
(Sidenote: before you say “Trump supporters are just suffering economically and lashing out” – No. Republicans are on average wealthier than Democrats, and and the average Trump supporter is economically better off than the average American. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have supporters who are hurting economically – he absolutely does, and Clinton has detailed plans to help them – but that’s not how he won his most devoted fan-base. Alternative sympathetic explanations for Trump that focus on “economic anxiety”, in assuming that Trump’s support is especially working-class, betray their own strange form of classism. All the facts point in one direction, which is that Trump’s dominance in the primaries was primarily driven by white cultural grievance. That’s why his core supporters are so devoted to him. He’ll lie about anything else, but on that issue, he’s authentic.)
Given this, it’s almost laughable how toothless the other Republican candidates’ attacks on Trump back in the primaries were. They lambasted him as “not a real conservative”, and his voters didn’t give a shit. They weren’t fiscal conservatives, horrified by his blasé inconsistency about taxes and healthcare. They weren’t Christian conservatives, dismayed by his adultery and lack of any Christian virtues. They were Trumpist conservatives – that is, aggrieved authoritarian racists motivated chiefly by cultural grievance and white identity politics – and there was only one candidate who was speaking directly to them.
(Double sidenote: part of the reason why people underestimated the cultural grievance vote before 2016? Lots of them identify as evangelicals, even if they tend to not actually go to church regularly. If you divide “evangelicals” into two subgroups – those who go to church weekly and those who don’t – it’s only the latter group who’ve supported Trump since the beginning. For them, “evangelical” seems to be less about religion, and more about cultural identity.)
For Trumpist conservatives, the racist dogwhistles of Republican politicians were never a garnish; they were the main course. There’s long been a tension between stock Republican lines about “small government” and the fierce protectiveness many Republicans have about those aspects of big government which benefit them (e.g. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare”). Trumpist conservatives flick away the fiction of wanting small government altogether. What they want is unabashedly big government, mobilised against the targets of their rage. What they want is what Clay Shirky has called the “racist welfare state”: where their kind of people are taken care of, but those people aren’t.
If the libertarian mantra is “don’t tread on me”, in other words, the Trumpist mantra is “tread on them.”
If you want to ask, “How did Trump happen?” – I honestly think this is the truest answer. It’s less about him, and more about the party who elected him. The guy got into the race as a narcissistic publicity stunt, but stumbled into an audience of white authoritarian cultural grievance voters, who turned out (to the dismay of many Republican leaders) to be the dominant plurality of Republican voters. The devoted core of his support couldn’t be any clearer: angry white people who believe delusional conspiracy theories, feel betrayed by Republican leadership, and are charmed by his proposed combination of racism and state power. Trumpist conservatives don’t care about policy details; they care about “taking their country back”, and it doesn’t take great deductive skill to figure out who from.
Hillary’s probably going win, but it will be infuriatingly close. (At this point, anything less than an 80-point smackdown would be infuriatingly close.) If the Republicans lose in a landslide, they’ll be incentivised to find a way to expel this toxin from the party’s bloodstream. If they only just lose, they’ll be incentivised to try it again. The party will become more Trumpian, clean up in the midterms on a purely contrarian message (like they always do), and the next Trump will likely be better at it – smoother, more tactful, less of a comically vengeful toddler.
Guys: this is defeating fascism on easy mode. The candidate is personally incompetent, can barely speak in complete sentences, and has more personal baggage than an airport carousel. He won his party’s nomination with less than a majority in a crowded field, amid a ton of criticism from party elders and conservative intellectuals. Yet it’s still going to be close.
Trump is horrible and boring and will hopefully disappear from all of our lives soon, but Trumpism is gonna stick around for a long while yet. The white cultural grievance voters just realised that they have the numbers to control one of the two major parties in the world’s most powerful country. Even if Trump loses, that isn’t changing.
If this is defeating fascism on easy mode, watch out for what’s coming next.
This is the third in a three-part series on the upcoming U.S election. Andy Wadeson Connor is a writer, dungeon master, and US politics obsessive who grew up in Wangaratta. Andy is currently writing a masters thesis in philosophy, and gives advice in the character of a cartoon moose named ‘Mulbert’ over at http://advicecomics.tumblr.com/