Donald Trump may well be the most polarizing figure to come along in American politics for several generations. Still, he has managed to unite David Duke and Louis Farrakhan, men whose cultural and political profiles suggest they’d find it hard to agree on anything.
Duke is a former Ku Klux Klan leader who served in the Louisiana House of Representatives before losing several races for higher office. A white nationalist, Duke has traded not only in a frank and forthright bigotry against black people but also in anti-Semitism.
Farrakhan is the leader of the Nation of Islam, a cultish religious organization that claims roots in Islam but is more closely connected to black nationalism. He, too, has a long history of anti-Semitism, as well as reckless and unhinged attacks on white people in general.
Whatever their serious and searing disagreements, both men are attracted to Trump’s presidential candidacy. You probably know by now that Duke has spoken fondly of Trump, telling his presumably white radio audience recently that voting for anyone else is “really treason to your heritage.”
Farrakhan, for his part, has stopped short of an outright endorsement. But he did tell his followers that “I like what I’m looking at” in Trump because the real estate mogul “has stood in front of (the) Jewish community and said, ‘I don’t want your money.'”
If you’ve somehow managed to miss the rise of Trumpism in this most peculiar campaign season, the fawning of Duke and Farrakhan provides a quick guide to the roiling resentments and bitter antagonisms that undergird Trump’s popularity: He hasn’t just attracted bigots, but he has also urged them on. He was slow to repudiate David Duke’s enthusiastic support; he has engaged in a cheap and hateful xenophobia, smearing Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists”; he has vowed to close the United States to all Muslim immigrants.
Though the Republican establishment is belatedly in full-out panic over Trump’s rise, his dominance in the GOP presidential primaries isn’t the most worrisome thing about his campaign. Whatever happens to his candidacy, his voters aren’t going away — and neither are their dangerous passions. Their anger will not be easily placated.
How did we come to this? Isn’t the United States supposed to be the “shining city on a hill,” the exemplar of racial diversity and religious pluralism, the exceptional nation that respects human rights and practices tolerance?
In truth, we’ve never been as exceptional as we claim. Our history shows a faltering and hesitant path toward the practice of our stated ideals, a twisting, wrenching journey toward full equality for all. But either through divine inspiration or sheer luck, the nation has had the right people at the right time, whether Abraham Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt or Martin Luther King.
Still, there have always been forces of backlash and bigotry among us. Those forces are most powerful during times of economic dislocation and rapid social change, when ordinary citizens grow anxious about their jobs and fearful about their place in the social order. And we are living through just such a moment: The population is becoming more diverse just as the crosswinds of globalization and technological change have buffeted the economy. It is only too easy for some people to blame the “other,” to find scapegoats in those people who don’t look or sound like them.
Perhaps the nation might have avoided the rise of Donald Trump and his odious politics if more of our political and business leaders had avoided the impulse to pander to hate and to profit from fear. Instead, there has been pandering aplenty. Politicians have played to the peanut gallery, exploiting racial, ethnic and religious fault lines for advantage. Meanwhile, media moguls interested less in policy than in money have found it lucrative to exploit divisions with tendentious news-talk shows that foster fear and cultivate anxiety.
If the nation survives this crazy season — and I still don’t believe we will swear in a President Trump next January — perhaps our leaders will learn an important lesson: This democracy is a delicate matter, a fragile proposition, and it must be nurtured and protected. Our exceptionalism depends on our making righteous choices.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Arete13 via Flickr