It would be unfair to blame the troubling and potentially disastrous appeal of Donald Trump on the very people most alarmed by him – unfair, as well as too vague, since Trump’s critics range from those in his own party, like Ted Cruz and John Kasich, to millions of progressives and moderates too. A lot of people are worried about Trump. But among all the explanations offered for his popularity, no one has acknowledged that Trump’s supporters may be acting out a role scripted for them by his most demeaning detractors.
While there’s little doubt that Trump attracts an element of racist whites, or that he openly preaches hostility to Muslims and Mexicans, a general attitude of bigotry has been ascribed to conservative campaigners for years. The GOP has dominated the American rural south since the 1960s, to the moral contempt of northern urban Democrats: Trump’s followers have simply stopped apologizing for themselves. Indeed, even when conservatives have made gestures of social conciliation, they’ve been accused of using “code words” or of playing “dog whistle politics,” using subtle rather than overt signals of racial bias. Yet “code words” itself has become a kind of code, insinuating that while the politicians who are said to speak them may not have actually uttered any ethnic slurs or inflammatory jokes, they are nevertheless guilty (deem the liberal pundits who alone are qualified to judge) of thinking them. This is why Trump has got so much mileage from his sneers at “political correctness.” If even civil, sensitive figures are labeled as rednecks, just for questioning immigration levels or welfare payments, then there’s little point in being civil at all.
Interestingly, the Trump demographic’s embrace of the ugly nativism their predecessors took pains to disavow parallels the Bernie Sanders partisans’ open admiration of his “socialism,” a term often leveled at but always denied by earlier Democrats. Each group appears to have concluded that there’s more to be gained than lost in living up to the labels imposed on them by opponents. The difference is that Sanders’ rhetoric of revolution doesn’t portend the actual violence and disorder threatened by Trump’s.
In Stephen King’s The Shining, the embittered and frustrated recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance develops a homicidal grudge against his wife’s suspicions:
…if a man reforms, doesn’t he deserve to have his reformation credited sooner or later? And if he doesn’t get it, doesn’t he deserve the game to go with the name? If a father constantly accuses his virginal daughter of screwing every boy in junior high, must she not at last grow weary (enough) of it to earn her scoldings?
Perhaps a parallel grudge has arisen in the embittered and frustrated lumpenproles now backing Donald Trump. After all, many Republican leaders of the last fifty years have been characterized as right-wing extremists by the chattering classes: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney were frightening quasi-fascists, according to orthodox thinkers on the left. Now that a truly frightening quasi-fascist has a shot at the US presidency, Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Romney seem both reasonable and responsible, but orthodox leftists have already exhausted their vocabulary of condemnation. Even conservative Canadian politicians like Stephen Harper, Stockwell Day, and Preston Manning – Preston Manning, whose mild demeanor is that of a nerdy high school science teacher’s – were supposedly incipient Hitlers. Is it any wonder that right-of-centre voters, patronizingly warned about their preferred leaders for so long, have finally picked someone worth warning about?