“Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul”, said a President who has gained success by debasing the political conversation and appealing to American’s fear of prejudices. Since his success in 2016, Donald Trump has repeatedly preyed on people’s anger, fear and frustration, intentionally trying to divide the country. This is a politician who has built a career around angry rhetoric, trying to pit groups of Americans against each other. And he’s succeeding. Unashamedly, he schizophrenically condemns the very thing in America for which he is responsible; hate.
Time and time again, TV coverage of Trump’s campaign rallies show him whipping up crowds of supporters against his political enemies, reminiscent of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. He was not bothered in July this year when his supporters chanted at his rally that an American congresswoman should be “sent back” to the country where she was born. They were reacting to Trump’s vilification of Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to the US Congress. Referring to Omar as a “hate-filled extremist”, a charge which even some of his own supporters find ridiculous, Trump continued his tirade, to the delight of the crowd. “They’re always telling us how to run the country, how to do this, how to do that. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave.” “Send her back”, screamed the hysterical audience whipped up by Trump, echoing the “lock her up” mantra against Hilary Clinton during the 2016 elections.
Cameras caught him smiling in agreement when at a rally in Florida an audience member said one way to deal with the “tide of immigrants” would be to “shoot them”. This was classic Trump. He falsely associates immigrants with crime, as when he said during his 2016 election campaign that Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.’ In truth, immigrants commit significantly less crime than the native-born do. But then, President Trump is rarely bothered with facts.
What makes Donald Trump more influential than any previous American nativist is the size of his audience and the devotion of his supporters. Trump has more than 66 million Twitter followers and a powerful echo chamber in the conservative media, allowing him to instantaneously convey his warped ideas to a quarter of the adult population. In this way he has made public expression of nativism and hate socially acceptable. The President’s rhetoric inspires not merely petty violence but occasionally full-fledged acts of terrorism as well. Cesar Sayoc, the man arrested for targeting multiple prominent Democrats with pipe bombs and jailed for 20 years in August this year, was an avid Fox News watcher. In court filings, his lawyers said he took inspiration from Trump’s white-supremacist rhetoric.
President Trump has not specifically endorsed indiscriminate violence, but he’s used jingoism and fear-mongering about immigrants in such a way that’s let white nationalists thrive. This is not surprising, as Trump’s core voting constituency is white nationalism, and in 2020 he will need every vote he can get.
And that’s the point. Everything President Trump says and does is directed at one objective: his re-election. Trump’s continual problem is that he is one of the most unpopular Presidents in American history. A 2018 poll rated him the worst US President since World War 2. Throughout his presidency his “overall approval rating” has languished between 35% and 45%, according to the respected polling agency Gallup. He lost the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election by almost 3 million, and is unlikely to improve on that in 2020.
Gallup’s latest findings reveal just how polarised the US has become. Among Trump’s Republican Party, his “approval rating” has consistently been around 90%, while among the Democrats it was only 4% in November. Trump knows that the only path to success in 2020 is to repeat the process of utilising the gerrymandered idiosyncrasy of America’s election system heavily favouring himself and the Republicans; the Electoral College. The mostly white working class Rust Belt states, decisive in the 2016 elections, remain at the centre of the electoral map and the Democrats have few obviously promising alternative paths to win without these battleground states. Trump’s strategy, rooted in racial polarisation in these states, could energise and even build on his 2016 success.
But why are white nationalists so whipped-up by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, providing him with a solid 40% base? The answer is fear, and fear generates hate. The white population knows that the United States is undergoing a transition period in demography that perhaps no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced. Its historically dominant group, white Republicans, is on its way to becoming a political minority. Within living memory of most Americans, a majority of the country’s residents were white Christians. This is no longer the case and voters are not insensate to the change. Nearly a third of conservatives say that they face “a lot” of discrimination for their beliefs, as do more than half of white Christian evangelicals. These are Trump’s strongest supporters.
But as President Reagan would have said: “You ain’t seen nothing yet”! Sometime in the next 25 years or so, depending on immigration rates and the vagaries of ethnic and racial identification, non-whites will become the majority in the US. For some Americans, that change will be a cause for celebration; for the Republicans it represents disaster. The transition is already producing a sharp political backlash, exploited and exacerbated by President Trump. In 2016, white working-class voters who said that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, or who said they felt like strangers in their own country, were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not.
These concerns have not ameliorated over the past three years. Two-thirds of Trump voters agreed that the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline and when a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has, whatever the cost. With this come dark possibilities. Trump’s generation of vitriol and hate will develop into a frenzy as election-day approaches, purely to energise his electoral base.
Impeachment will polarise the country even further and will embolden his supporters to the point where it will enhance Trump’s chances of success in 2020. When Trump made his notorious comment that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters, he described a country in which his supporters’ views are completely inelastic. Not only did he clearly indicate that he was above the law, but he was confident that his supporters would remain faithful regardless. He calls the charge of a “mere phone call” to the President of Ukraine, or the refusal to give Congress the evidence needed for his trial, as a “crazy witch-hunt and an affront to democracy”.
At a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan last week, on the very day that the historic impeachment vote played out in Washington, Donald Trump stood in front of a raucous audience of 10,000 Republicans. He was firing up the baying crowd of supporters while shrugging off the impeachment vote by taunting, mocking and insulting Democrats, his political enemies. This rust-belt state is one which he won by a mere 12,000 votes in 2016 and is key for success in 2020. “This impeachment is going to motivate me”, said a white Michigan Trump supporter, “we hate the Democrats and people in my circle say that we’re going to do everything to get Trump back in”. For the sake of the Republican Party, from which colour is being drained, they had better succeed; the election on 3 November 2020 could be their “last chance saloon”.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.