As I wrote in my 2011 book, At this Defining Moment, the dominant narrative to emerge from the American media concerning the 2008 U.S. presidential election was that with Barack Obama’s victory, the U.S. had finally turned the page on its dark history of racial strife, and was well on its way to definitively vanquishing the problem of race. The clear evidence of the past 8 years, however, is that this sentiment was woefully premature. The U.S. is a deeply polarized nation at this time with regard to issues of race and social justice, and nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the startling and disturbing presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
The Man, in His Own Words
Donald Trump’s rise and fervent populist appeal initially baffled, astounded, and flummoxed political observers from all sides of the political spectrum. For months, he grabbed headline after headline with his noxious, racially tingled rhetoric, flagrant anti-immigrant nativism, “frat-boy” masculine bravado, sexual boasting, general aura of crudeness and total disregard for the accepted rules of political discourse. Surely, it was at first believed, Trump’s campaign would be a short-lived farce.
A real-estate tycoon and reality television show star, Trump had never held political office and demonstrated very little knowledge of foreign or domestic policy; and his “exceeding flexible positions on different hot-button issues” meant that he would never pass muster as a true “conservative” with a capital C. In response to the major challenges facing the U.S., Trump had offered only a string of exceedingly vague, boastful proposals, to include ending illegal immigration by building a “big, fat beautiful wall” along the entire U.S./Mexico border, and turning the country around by “hav[ing] so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning.”
Trump has largely built his 2016 presidential bid around a series of inflammatory statements articulated around the axes of race, nation and immigration. He has advocated establishing a database to register American Muslims, killing the extended family members of suspected terrorists, torturing military enemies and overturning the 14th amendment to end birthright citizenship. Following the June 2016 mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, he went as far as to propose “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Much of Trump’s rhetoric has also centered in on “Mexicans.” “When Mexico sends its people,” he told an enthusiastic crowd gathered at his campaign kick-off in June 2015,
they’re not sending their best. . . . .They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
The candidate caused an uproar in early June 2016 with his repeated insistence that the U.S.-born federal judge Gonzalo Curiel was unfit to preside over a lawsuit against him because the judge’s parents had immigrated from Mexico. And though Trump claims to “have a great relationship with the blacks,” in February 2016 he gave a wink and a nod to the American white supremacist movement, by repeatedly refusing to disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, saying that he needed to do some “research” before he could distance himself from any group that might be “totally fine.” The day after the interview, Trump issued a brief disavowal, blaming “a bad earpiece” for his earlier failure to disown the KKK.
The Clear Choice
The Trump campaign, however, was not a farce. And it soon became clear that Trump succeeded not in spite of his inflammatory speech, but because of it. In the Republican primary, Trump easily defeated more than 15 declared rivals, including 9 state governors and 5 U.S. senators. Desperate, organized efforts on the part of GOP leaders in early 2016 to thwart Trump’s pursuit of the nomination met with utter failure. His campaign boasted in early June that Trump had won more primary votes than any other Republican candidate in history, a claim that several media outlets subsequently verified as true.
Trump is reviled by the American left, which views him as pompous, uninformed, racist, nativist, misogynistic and anti-American, or some combination of the above. In an interesting twist, Trump has come to be perhaps equally reviled by much of the conservative intellectual class. A wide swath of prominent thinkers to the right-of-center have condemned Trump, describing him as a crude “megalomaniac” with no actual allegiance to the conservative cause, “epically unprepared” to be president, and likely to destroy the Republican party. In the words of one conservative journalist,
Donald Trump has risen to become the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee over the strenuous objections of just about every rightist who’s ever lifted a pen.
Members of the Republican establishment, for their part, have been bitterly divided over the candidate. While some openly support him, others, such as former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have vigorously denounced him. For the majority of Republican elected officials, however, Trump appears to be an albatross wrapped around their necks; the clear, if inexplicable, choice of their base, a man that they must hold their noses to accept and endorse through gritted teeth.
Making America Great Again
Trump is now one of two people that will become the next president of the United States. His run-away success in the race thus far comes despite condemnation from the American left and the conservative media and the limited, grudging support of GOP insiders. Trump’s rise cannot, therefore, be explained on the basis of conventional political allegiances and the normal workings of the two-party system. The key to his ascendency lies, instead, in his ability to appeal directly to the rage and aggrievement of a powerful key demographic- working and middle-class white American men, and his concomitant promise to elevate white American manhood again to its rightful place of dominance and superiority.
There are clear parallels, in my reading, between Obama’s first race for the White House and Trump’s current bid. In the 2008 campaign, Obama figured as a kind of black “messiah” or “savior” figure among white liberals, endowed with “superhuman powers” to “redeem” white Americans and to heal the nation’s racial wounds (Logan 2011).
Trump occupies a similar role in this race among his supporters on the right. He figures in the election as a populist superhero, a crusader and champion of the cause of a right-wing white masculinity that perceives itself to be profoundly imperiled and deeply aggrieved. Brash, braggadocios, and unapologetic, Trump’s racialized, patriarchal rhetoric articulates a rage rooted in a deeply felt loss of racial and gendered entitlement. For an angry, dying brand of white American masculinity, he stands as validation, spokesman, and belligerent defender.
Trump’s candidacy can be described as a response to Obama’s presidencies (race) to Hillary Clinton’s rise (gender)—both made him more possible, more likely at this time. He is also a response to the “dog-whistle politics” of racial and gendered resentment and the blatant obstructionism of President Obama’s policies practiced by Republican leaders during the last 8 years. But the anger and aggrievement fueling Trump’s rise have much deeper roots as well; grounded in a decades-long resentment of those- “minorities,” immigrants, feminists, gays and liberals – who have usurped “our” country and taken away “our” freedoms. Whereas white males have been the losers in American culture for decades now, Trump boldly declares that he is a “winner,” “always” winning. Whereas the U.S. has for too long been going down the drain, Trump proclaims that he will “Make America Great Again,” restoring to prominence the powerful triumvirate of whiteness, masculinity, and American global dominance.
The election thus, has come to reframe the broader culture war in the United States. What is at stake is a definition of who and what America is, who is a person, who has rights, who is fully entitled, and who is a pariah. Just how far should we take this “equality” thing anyway. As one journalist writes,
This election is a referendum on the existence and civic participation of Americans who are not white men — as voters, as citizens, as workers, as members of the military, as presidents.
However haltingly and painfully, change is coming to America. But a core of white American men- many of them Trump supporters- are in open revolt. Railing against the cultural and demographic shifts taking place in the U.S., they have pledged allegiance to the demagogue and authoritarian that gives voice to their rage. Trump now elevates and legitimizes the most base instincts and bigotry of certain portions of the electorate. Thus it is assured that, even given his likely electoral defeat, there are many more years of ugliness and conflict around race, immigration and a host of other issues, to come.
Dr. Enid Logan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.