Reprinted with permission from Andrews McMeel Syndication.
The scariest thing about Donald Trump’s presidency isn’t the steady stream of outrageous lies cascading from his White House or the cavalcade of offensive and ill-informed tweets, or even the clear nepotism and suggestions of corruption. His campaign’s possible collusion with Russia isn’t the most frightening thing. Nor is his reckless bluster toward North Korea and Iran.
The scariest thing about Trump’s presidency is that millions of voters continue to support him no matter what he does, continue to believe him no matter what lies he tells, continue to pardon his every transgression, no matter how dangerous or treasonous. (A June Associated Press-NORC poll shows that 75 percent of Republicans still approve of the job he’s doing.) If this great democracy is lost, history will show that the seeds of its demise were embedded in the troubling appeal of its 45th president.
Pundits and political scientists have already expended countless joules of intellectual energy to explain Trump’s election, with economic insecurity among the more popular answers. But several researchers who have pored over the data have concluded that anxiety over lost jobs and closed factories didn’t propel Trump into office.
An analysis of data from the American National Election Studies confirms what some of us have long suspected: Trump’s appeal lies in his implicit promise to restore white hegemony, to put black and brown people in their place, to return America to a bygone era of racial repression.
Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College, has studied the ANES data and concluded that “whether it’s good politics to say so or not, the evidence from the 2016 election is very clear that attitudes about blacks, immigrants and Muslims were a key component of Trump’s appeal,” as he told reporter Medhi Hasan of The Intercept. “In 2016,” Klinkner noted, “Trump did worse than Mitt Romney among voters with low and moderate levels of racial resentment, but much better among those with high levels of resentment.”
That hardly means that every person who voted for Trump harbors racist views. In this hyper-partisan era, many rank-and-file Republicans held their noses and voted for the GOP nominee, even if that meant supporting a celebrity TV host with no clue about how to run a country.
But those garden-variety Republicans are still culpable, not just for Trump’s election, but also for the racial animosity that fueled it. For decades, the GOP has pandered to the fears and resentments of those whites who are uncomfortable with a country growing more racially diverse.
Many Americans had hoped that President Barack Obama’s election was a watershed event that signaled the transformation of American politics, that a nation once scarred by racism had overcome its past. Instead, his election sparked a furious backlash, as racially resentful whites saw more clearly the demographic changes that would bring an end to their cultural and political dominance.
Let’s remember that Trump came to the national political stage as the birther-in-chief, promoting the outrageous lie that Obama was not born in the United States. That belief was important to those who couldn’t stomach the idea of a black man in the Oval Office. They preferred to believe a made-up tale that Obama was a usurper who had stolen the presidency.
It’s no coincidence that Trump campaigned on building a wall along the southern border or that he portrayed undocumented workers as drug dealers and rapists. His strategy also relied on painting all Muslims as terrorists and promising to keep Muslim refugees out of the country.
Those pledges are still a bond between him and his supporters. Trump can repeal Obamacare and toss hundreds of thousands of his supporters off the insurance rolls; he can cozy up to Vladimir Putin and share top-secret intelligence with him; he can stand idly by as robotic arms replace human hands on assembly lines and more jobs are lost. None of that matters as long as he builds a wall and bars Muslims.
This is a frightening time — and not just because a man with the temperament of a spoiled 3-year-old holds the nuclear codes. It’s a frightening time because so many of my fellow Americans think that’s fine — as long as the guy with the codes is white.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.