Steel thyself, America.
Donald Trump is turning toxic. He’s oozing with poisonous scorn for the sanctity of the office he holds. Trapped in his own narcissism, he is oblivious to the damage he’s inflicting on American government and the country’s standing in the world.
And he’s just getting warmed up. He is nowhere near finished sowing discord. We’d better plan our countermeasures.
It might appear that the president is unable to distinguish the torch-bearing white supremacists spewing anti-Semitic and racist chants in Charlottesville, Va., from the counter-demonstrators who gathered in response. Don’t believe it. He knows the difference.
His weak “both sides” rationalization of last weekend’s rioting and murder is easily explained. His entire political career has been built on exploiting racial anxieties in America. He took over the Republican Party as a race warrior — and won an Electoral College decision without moderating that rhetoric — and he’s not about to disown those who rallied to his message.
The demographic changes behind the so-called “browning of America” are real. Many find them unnerving. Add to that the economic decline of the great American middle class, the crisis of rural America and the diminishing prospects for all but the richest and best educated, and you have the makings of a nativist, racist populist backlash.
Trump was uniquely qualified to lead that backlash and did not waste his chance. Racist appeals alone probably wouldn’t have put him over the top.
His genius, if it could be called that, was to speak directly to the “forgotten” Americans: the miners and factory workers, the people who lost out in the housing crash, the inhabitants of flyover country, the downwardly mobile of the Rust Belt. He wouldn’t forget them, he promised, and he would crush the elites in Washington who had.
He would also protect the jittery American from the dangerous foreigner, whether he be an undocumented immigrant or a terrorist. He would shame our allies into paying more tribute to America, and he would humiliate our trading partners into cutting us better deals.
Unfortunately for many who rallied to Trump’s banner, his campaign platform turned out to be a façade of lies. He has packed his administration with billionaires, Wall Street bankers and corporate hacks. He tried and failed to take health insurance away from tens of millions now covered thanks to Obamacare. He has signaled his intention to enact tax cuts for the rich at the expense of the social safety net. In short, he is a plutocrat.
Even his pandering to nativist sentiment — the stepped up deportations of undocumented workers and their kids, the selective travel ban targeting Muslims — has backfired, his cruel motivations transparent.
Then Charlottesville happened. The mask has fallen.
And yet Trump’s failings as a president cannot be allowed to overshadow all else. Those who oppose him cannot lose sight of the deep anxieties that preceded him. It is certain that Trump will continue to exploit those anxieties, to conjure grievances, to produce scapegoats, to drag politics to the level of the street brawl.
Don’t just take my word. Listen to Steve Bannon, Trump’s departed chief strategist, who gave an interview to The American Prospect, a liberal intellectual journal, in which he declared his hope that Charlottesville will refocus Democrats on racism. Indeed, he gloated about the possibility.
In that case, he said, “I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day.”
Bannon thinks he has a winning strategy. Trump will surely follow it. Because following Charlottesville there will be other rallies by white supremacists. They’re already planned.
It’s interesting that Bannon, former chief of Breitbart News, which midwifed the birth of the so-called alt-right, should be so cavalier about the bully boys of Charlottesville. “These guys are a collection of clowns,” he told the Prospect.
I wouldn’t necessarily take Bannon’s comments at face value, but this much is true: Tearing down Trump will not defeat Trumpism. We must resist racism and defend our Constitution and our civic norms. But we must also offer a set of alternative solutions to the anxieties Trump spoke to so well on the campaign trial.
Obviously, the vast majority of Americans don’t buy into the extreme dialogue of neo-Nazis. But many want to build a border wall, shut America’s doors to refugees or support slick sounding remedies to economic concerns.
So fair warning to those who were buoyed by the eloquent statements issued in recent days by former presidents Obama and Bush in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
We’re going to need far more than soothing rhetoric. To prevail in coming elections, the opposition is going to need concrete plans — and ironclad commitments behind them — to enact policies that deliver material benefits to all Americans, that make life better for all.
Talk is cheap. Action takes courage. Nothing else will suffice. That should be the lesson of Charlottesville.