The Politics of Fear and Loathing in 2016  

Is this a watershed moment in American politics when the rhetoric of hate and xenophobia moves from the fringe to the mainstream and becomes a winning strategy?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump works a rope line after a town hall Jan. 29, 2016, in Nashua, N.H.  
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump works a rope line after a town hall Jan. 29, 2016, in Nashua, N.H.   Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Everywhere I turn, I find friends and acquaintances who are not merely concerned, but frightened. A kind of raw ugliness to our national politics, not really seen in the post-World War II era, seems to be in fashion.

Nothing has brought this home more forcefully than the success of Donald Trump in recent Republican presidential primaries. Some folks are dreaming and scheming to “Make America Great Again!” The progressive African-American, white, Latino and Asian-American voters I know live in dread for the soul of the nation.

This anxiety has several root causes. Perhaps the single most immediate one is the unabashedly bwana-style politics of Donald Trump. He has pitched himself as a character out of central casting for an old-fashioned adventure movie set in the African bush. The Donald rides in as the “great white hunter” to save us all from a rampaging lion. Although, in this case, the main threat is a horde of Mexican criminals, rapists and generally low-brow ne’er-do-wells bent on weakening the moral fiber of a once-great nation.

More disturbing than the message, frankly, is its astonishing political appeal on the campaign trail. The three leading contenders for the Republican nomination are all profoundly anti-establishment in rhetoric. All of them call for taking seriously the prospect of deporting as many as 12 million individuals now in the U.S., though on an undocumented basis. This is extreme, it is draconian and some have rightly cast it as downright un-American. But it is also winning.

The fault for the current climate of fear and loathing does not rest entirely with Donald Trump. I think Arizona Sen. John McCain has to shoulder a big chunk of the blame. To be fair, ordinarily I regard McCain as a revered elder statesman of American politics, a very thoughtful and serious man with political inclinations that I read as more centrist than far right wing. In simple English: He is a man of respect.

However, and for this he cannot be excused, he single-handedly elevated Sarah Palin to national political prominence by choosing her as his running mate in 2008. In a single, devastating stroke, he also has seemingly forever lowered the level of what is regarded as respectable political discourse on the national stage. Name-calling, the most simplistic reasoning, and disregard for facts and evidence and even the semblance of reason were given a platform that they never should have had. But once Pandora’s box is open, woe be to those caught in the whirlwind that results. Without the terrible precedent of Palin, I don’t think a serious Trump candidacy would have been possible.

Of course, we have had more than 40 years of racially coded “dog-whistle politics,” especially coming from standard-bearers of the Republican Party. From Southern strategies and law-and-order campaigns, to welfare queens and strapping young bucks, to Willie Horton and more, none-too-subtle appeals to racial prejudice have been a staple of our national political discourse. Having so routinized such practices, it should now come as little surprise that someone has stepped into the arena with a blisteringly bigoted assault on many of the immigrants in our midst.

Democrats do not escape blame here. They have typically played a very paternalistic game with minority voters. Democrats have long told black voters to, in effect, “trust us to take care of you,” as in: “We are the whites who care about you.” Yet Democrats too often end up simultaneously advancing policy agendas and lines of political discourse that usually erase from view the unique concerns, needs and agendas of the black community. That combination of paternalism and political silencing cedes entirely too much space in the public arena to the soft bigotry of racially coded anti-black politics on the right. It also cedes far too much in the way of policy formulation and decision-making to those advancing an essentially anti-minority agenda.

The difference from the past in the current moment, however, is that this is not Strom Thurmond running as a “Dixiecrat” third-party candidate. This is not George Wallace on the margins of the Democratic political field. This is literally the top contender for the Republican Party nomination (and his two closest rivals, as well) running at the extreme right edge of the mainstream political spectrum, at least where the rights and status of major racial-minority groups are concerned.

This is scary. This feels tragically like a watershed moment in American politics.  

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