Donald Trump is a boorish, brash, braggadocious blowhard. He’s the kind of guy who’s richer than — and therefore better than — you, and if you don’t agree, then you’re an idiot. He’s tailor-made for the shame-drained slime bucket that is American politics. This fact ought to be a no-brainer at this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, but America’s over-paid beltway media fluffers still can’t comprehend why the GOP voting base laps up Trump’s uncouth stew of xenophobia, bigotry, sexism, and overt plutocrat sanctification like a St. Bernard who’s jowls-deep in a bowl of gravy-slathered kibble.
In an article for Reuters, for example, Bill Schneider claims that Trump is a new kind of candidate, an unholy, Frankensteinian daemon cross between “the political outsider and the fringe candidate.” This makes the blustery, ball-capped billionaire all the more perplexing to Schneider, who observes that, “Trump is a multibillionaire running against the establishment. He’s a candidate with no coherent political philosophy running as a conservative champion. It doesn’t make sense. But, so far, it’s working.” Trump’s conservative grass-roots appeal confuses the American punditocracy because they don’t want to admit that the secret to U.S. politics is exclusivity: that those with their grubby white maws already stuck in the national cookie jar will always vote to exclude other groups who are demanding some crumbs of their own.
The idea that Trump represents the political fringe is a feature, not a bug of his candidacy. In American politics, the fringe is where you need to look if you want to understand the raw emotions that fester just below the “respectable” surface of the American body politic — the kind of emotional slime that bottom-feeding political consultants slurp up from the muck-ridden American pond basin and regurgitate as less-potent rhetoric that still sends dog whistles to all the right (and white) voters.
In an article titled “Why Donald Trump isn’t as Fringe as You Think,” Talking Points Memo’s Michael Arceneaux takes the pundit class to task for writing Trump off as political sideshow. “I was initially annoyed with the attention lavished on Trump’s run for the presidency,” he writes, “but now I realize it’s a valuable opportunity to illustrate how Trump is a monster Republicans helped create. He is nothing more than a louder, shameless example of what the GOP has become.” That pretty much nails the essence of the Trump phenomenon, except for one major point: the Republican Party hasn’t really “become” anything. Rather, the conservative movement in America, in different manifestations in different historical eras, has always relied on the politics of exclusivity — the notion that my identity — that my privilege — as a “real” American is truly exclusive; a privilege that exists in direct contrast to your status as an outsider who doesn’t deserve access to the exclusive club that is America.
Thus, when The Donald rages apocalyptic against immigrants, Muslims, welfare recipients, African-Americans, Syrian refugees, and politically correct Starbucks cups, he’s tapping into a deeply ingrained sense of resentment among segments of mostly white conservative America. This voting coalition, who have bolstered the careers of everyone from Goldwater, to Nixon, to Reagan, to George W. Bush, to the Tea Party Congress, is perpetually convinced that a host of “not like me” forces are working in cahoots to dismantle the exclusivity of American identity.
To the average Trump supporter, American identity is paradoxically as strong as a bald eagle’s talons yet as fragile as a robin’s egg. To the average Trump supporter, American identity is inherently GREAT and powerful, but it’s also under constant siege from so many different forces — liberals, Mexicans, commies, moochers, losers, terrorists, #BlackLivesMatter, Washington insiders, China, Russia, STARBUCKS — that only a blunt-talking corporate manager can lead America in this multi-front war. The kind of indestructible, yet relentlessly delicate sense of American identity that Trumpism purports to defend is the most exclusive club on earth, and all the wrong people are trying to sneak past this club’s self-designated billionaire bouncer.
Conservatism is, and always has been, about much more than taxes, welfare, and burly national defence policies. The American identity that the Right Wing longs to protect is a deeply, defiantly exclusivist identity. All of the Right’s pet projects, which essentially boil down to doling out unnecessary aid to society’s most privileged while demonizing society’s most vulnerable, are mere extensions of the conservative movement’s need to guard the contours of America’s power structures from the “un-American” hordes.
Take immigration. Trump’s hard-line immigration rhetoric harks back to the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement of the 19th century, but anti-foreign fear-mongering hardly stopped there. Consider President Warren G. Harding’s State of the Union Address, which he delivered on December 8, 1922. The supposed threat posed by eastern European immigrants loomed large in the American WASP consciousness during this era, and Harding legitimized this paranoia in his address to Congress. “There are pending bills for the registration of the alien who has come to our shores. I wish the passage of such an act might be expedited,” Harding stated. “Life amid American opportunities is worth the cost of registration if it is worth the seeking,” he continued, “and the Nation has the right to know who are citizens in the making or who live among us and share our advantages while seeking to undermine our cherished institutions.”
Harding wasn’t a total reactionary (in the same speech he spoke out against the “evil” of child labor, which today’s Republicans seem eager to resurrect), but his splitting of the American public into camps of “citizens,” and an amorphous mass who were “seeking to undermine our cherished institutions” spoke to a fundamental national anxiety that everything great about America could crumble in an instant should the “wrong” people be let into the exclusive American club. Heck, it isn’t hard to connect Harding’s warning against those “who live among us and share our advantages” to Trump’s railing against illegal Mexican welfare sponges and criminals.
Immigrants, however, aren’t the only group trying to wriggle into the exclusivist Club America. Conservatives have long demonized “minority” groups, usually black people, as a perpetual threat to American identity. After all, first them coloreds wanted to be emancipated from slavery, then they wanted equal rights, then the wanted to vote just like white people! The nerve. Unsurprisingly, then, calls for equal rights on the racial front have historically resulted in fierce pushback from butt-hurt whities who wanted to maintain the exclusivity of THEIR America. In 1948, for example, Democratic President Harry S. Truman made a lukewarm appeal to Civil Rights, and for his efforts he got hammered by racist representatives from his own party.
Speaking to the House of Representatives in April 1948, Mississippi Democrat William Colmer accused Truman of fomenting a revolt within the “Real” (read: white) America of the time. “Is it any wonder…that a revolt has arisen all over our country, from Mississippi on the shores of the Gulf-kissed coast in the South to the stony crags of Maine in the North, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, by southern Democrats and those freedom-loving Americans everywhere, at this attempt to destroy the true civil rights of the citizens of our great and common country?” Colmer fumed.
Only in the discourse of American conservatism could an “attempt to destroy the civil rights” of one group be inextricably connected to an attempt to grant civil rights to another group. In the wider right-wing worldview, being a true American has always hinged on the contrasting fact that others who don’t look like you cannot be true Americans. Thus, the “revolt” of which William Colmer spoke was the blowback Truman fomented among white people incensed at the thought of equal rights for all Americans. After all, you can’t have exclusivity when everyone’s invited to the national party.
According to Colmer and other racist representatives, Truman’s rocking of the Civil Rights boat “encouraged the arrogant demands of these minority groups to whom it was designed to appeal.” Colmer then gave the example of a black Pullman car porter named William Randolph, who had the gall to suggest that if black men were going to fight and die for their country, then the armed forces ought to be de-segregated. Well lan’ sakes alive, there simply warn’t no cause for such uppity talk! “Such ingratitude, such arrogance, such treason can only be attributed to such political bargaining as this proposed program [Civil Rights],” Colmer fumed. Again, it ain’t hard to draw a line from the blustery racism of mid-20th century segregationists to the to reactionaries who fill Trump’s rallies to hear their dollar-studded hero explain how “we have to take back the heart of our country.” Trumpism thrives on conservatives’ resentment towards “the arrogant demands” of minority groups who are trying to tear down the exclusivity of white American identity.
Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum frames the thinking of a Trump supporter as such: “the blacks, the Hispanics, the disabled, the immigrants, the poor: sure, they’ve got problems, but who doesn’t? They’re just making a big deal out of it in order to gain sympathy and government bennies that the rest of us have to pay for.” This is the very essence of the exclusivist interpretation of American identity: privilege is fine for me, but when applied to “undeserving” others, privilege dilutes the very exclusivity of American identity itself. Trump won’t let this aggression stand, man, and GOP and independent voters love him for it.