The show about that thing you love
For months, most Americans have been baffled by the continuous, seemingly unbreachable success of Donald Trump in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination. Pundits, scholars, politicians, activists, philosophers, comedians, casual observers of the news, seemingly everyone we pay attention to is calling Trump a troll, a bigot, a menace, a disaster, a nightmare. And those same people keep holding that candle lit in their hearts that burns with the hope that Trump will drop out, that his numbers will fall, that his supporters will finally see the error of his ways.
The wick of that candle, what holds the flame aloft and keeps is blazing? The belief that Donald Trump’s success, his loyal following, is the result of a mistake. It’s the belief, perpetuated across the media spectrum, that Trump is some mysteriously impervious devil who rose to prominence with no warning and cannot be banished without some sort of miracle moment of clarity for the increasingly vocal “silent majority” he claims as his supporters.
To understand how Trump got to be where he is, and why he isn’t fading the way many had hoped, you have to follow two essential threads of American culture that have evolved since Barack Obama’s election in 2008 (both of which have been fueled by the catalyst of his election): The clash of conservativism on social media, and the ghoulish face of racial politics finally coming out from behind its veil of secrecy.
Obama’s historic success with many disparate groups of voters, particularly the usually apathetic youth vote, can be traced to many factors, but one which fed the media narrative most efficiently was his campaign’s deft, unprecedented use of social media, the novel channel through which many internet users were communicating about their daily lives, things they saw in the culture at large, and whatever abstract or seemingly worthwhile thoughts entered their brains at the time.
The Obama campaign saw something essential in social media at the time that they were able to utilize, but which no one else has been able to capture to the same effect since: Early adopters of nearly all social media platforms at the time were disproportionately young, tech-savvy, and open to new experiences. Politically, they were also disproportionately liberal or libertarian. The Obama campaign took notice of this, and took their chance to galvanize the scattered users of Twitter and Facebook into a movement of young progressives who raised massive amounts of money in small donations and mobilized thousands of individuals into the physical campaign work outside the confines of the internet. And with this new sphere of influence in their pocket, they won the election.
It couldn’t last this way, and it didn’t. While many of the users of the major social outlets were early adopting liberals in 2007 and 2008, their success all but ensured that they would be followed by the multitudes of people whose experience with the internet was still tentative and simple. Think of your parents, or if you’re a parent who joined Facebook after 2008, think of yourselves. There were millions of people communicating almost exclusively through a single hub, some branching out to others, but for years Facebook has remained the home base of many on the internet. It was inevitable that people beyond the hip, young market to which Facebook and Twitter marketed themselves would trickle in.
And with the success of Obama’s campaign, that trickle became a flood. People across the country who had taken no interest in social media decided to dip their toes into the water. And what they found was, well, what Obama saw: Lots of young, often vulgar, users who would post their every waking thought about everything from entertainment to relationships to politics. And those politics were more liberal than ever. They were, after all, the Obama generation, pulled together from many sides into voting for one political philosophy, and a very progressive philosophy at that.
Backlash was unavoidable.
The lessons of the Obama win were many, and they included the notion that social media could be wielded as a weapon of political will. The problem is, that can work both ways. As Republicans began to get their act together and organize their own social media users, whose average age was rising and whose politics were turning increasingly from blue to purple to blood red, they mingled and clashed with the users who’d already existed in that realm. They took notice of the libertarians who’d previously joined with the Obama supporters, and reached out to them with messages of abolishing taxes and legalizing marijuana. Increasingly radicalized, these newer users and the more conservative members of the early adopters blended, and the brew they spat out became the Tea Party.
Moving forward, the internet became an increasingly crowded space for political discussion, and no outlet was safe from confrontations and controversies. And through it all, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit; these sites and others continued to be home bases for users who wanted to expound their thoughts and ideas to the world at large. Think of it like a weekend war, where the soldiers go off to fight their battles in the comment threads on CNN or Fox News or Slate, before retiring home to their social media profiles to fill their friends in on everything they were doing that day, including their siege elsewhere on the internet.
So social media users and sites, frustrated by this hateful and endless bickering, made it easier and easier to segregate themselves from controversy. “Friends” could “Unfollow” other “Friends” whose speech was intolerable or enraging. You could block any posts with certain trigger words or ideas which disagreed with your perspective. This insulation was meant to quiet the noise and allow people to focus on the things which they’d focused on in the early days of social media, things like IRL friendship and events and making fun of celebrities.
The result of this trend, however, was a bubble effect: People could get all their information from a comfortable and safe space, where their ideas were challenged less and less frequently. For many, this meant they could stop caring about politics all together. But for others, it meant that their beliefs could become stronger and more fervent with an increasingly minor risk of disagreement. And when you’re spending your days surrounded by the echo chamber of your own ideas, and you’re not being challenged, it’s understandable for you to think that your ideas aren’t actually controversial, that your view is the only real view.
Meanwhile, America had changed more than its daily communication habits. Most notably, we’d elected our first African-American president. This gave rise to a phrase which has become something of a joke now but which was deadly serious when it was first coined: “Post-racial America.” This was, of course, the idea that having a black president meant that race was no longer an issue in our country and we could move on to talking about other things.
This was, universally, a white idea.
But as silly as the notion of being “post-racial” was, the people who believed in it started doing odd things. They would say racially charged words in public, and then claim they weren’t racist because racism no longer exists. They would say horrible things about the First Lady’s appearance, and then claim it wasn’t because she was black, but because she was famous. They would justify opposing every proposal Obama ever suggested, even if it was an idea their political party had previously said was a good idea, and claim it was all to do with him being a liberal Nazi socialist hater, and not because he was black.
There was an escalation of racist behavior by public figures that had been largely quiet since the Clinton era. But far more dangerous than a few ill-informed politicians was the increasing distrust and resentment that segments of America began displaying towards people of color. As soon as an African-American was voted in as the most powerful man in the world, some white Americans had their hackles raised, fearing words like “reparations” and “race riots” and “civil rights.” They didn’t want “them” to think they were “better” than “us.”
And so, at the same time that African-Americans were becoming politically empowered in ways they hadn’t been in a generation, right-wing movements sprang up across the country to oppose any and all measures that would improve the lives of minorities. Immigration reform, a platform of both parties in 2008, became a battle to keep the Mexicans and the Muslims out of our borders. Health care reform, meant to provide affordable care to millions of Americans including a disproportionate number of impoverished African-Americans and Latinos, became the last stand against socialism and the takeover of our freedoms. Police departments were slowly militarized in largely African-American communities, guns became precious possessions for protecting against “bad guys with guns,” and “Stand Your Ground” laws sprang up around the country under the thinly-veiled spectre of black youths breaking into white families’ homes to steal their daughters.
As videos of cops killing African-Americans became more and more visible to the public, and the rhetoric of the right became more obviously racist, the politics of race in America emerged in a way that it hadn’t since the Civil Rights movement. As many analysts have put it, America is not past race, but is rather, at long last, “leaning in” to race, confronting it head-on and showing its ugly truth to the world.
Is it really a surprise that Donald Trump, leader of the Birther movement, proponent of walling off Mexico, anti-Muslim Twitter superstar, would tap into the galvanized movements of racist, hateful, insulated Americans and become their champion? Is it really a surprise that his poll numbers never drop when his supporters are allowed to exist in bubbles of unfiltered hate speech and political vitriol which reinforces and enables their baser views? What many people fail to understand about Donald Trump and the people behind him is that he isn’t a troll, he isn’t a joke, and he isn’t an anomaly. He’s the inevitable, physical embodiment of America’s underbelly, the dark side which has lain dormant for years out of fear but which has come forth after the election of an African-American president, bolstered by technology which lets it grow and think as one, and which is prepared at long last to storm the country and reclaim it for the worst among us.
I don’t mean that this High Noon standoff with America’s hateful side will end racism or sexism or bigotry or gun violence or ignorance or oligarchy forever. But since the birth of this nation, our leaders have always had to struggle in seeming silence with that uncomfortable blight of our lineage, slavery. Whether it was the 3/5ths compromise or the failures of reconstruction or segregation or Jim Crow or any one of countless measures of political bigotry which has left the state of racial politics in America utterly devoid of hope, there has always been an undercurrent, sometimes easy to spot, sometimes opaque, of racism in America. That it’s been swept under the rug nearly every time it’s come into the light is one of the great shames of our history. The national conversation about race has been largely person-to-person, small time, never quite reaching the heights of, say, a call to war or the space race or the New Deal.
But now, there’s a man nearer to the presidency than anyone can fathom who is making these issues not only visible but unavoidable; the conversation about Donald Trump must include racism to be complete. This gives us a chance to dig in, as a country, to exactly what makes his supporters, staffers, and him say that we need to keep Muslims from entering our country, that most Mexican immigrants are criminals, that Black Lives Matter is “disgusting.”
Not only can we ask these questions, but if he wins the Republican nomination, we’ll have to, because the only way to defeat someone as insidious as Donald Trump in a general election is to pull away at the strawmen that are propping him up until he collapses, and with him, the most horrendous political movement in American history.
Donald Trump’s campaign may be cumulative effect of nearly a decade’s worth of incremental gains for the evils hiding in America’s corners, but make no mistake, he is not alone. He may well be a hydra, and defeating him may mean having to defeat every aspect of him one by one until no more heads can grow. We can’t just focus on the man himself, but rather on the forces that are propelling him. And they are many. It will not be easy. It will not be quick. It’s been a centuries-long struggle, and it won’t be over soon. It may never be over. But this is the best chance our generation has had to confront the sins of our nation’s history and make the
m right. This isn’t something we should let pass over us and wait for it to be over. We all need to confront it in some way or another. We cannot be passive. We cannot be silent.
Accept the gift of Donald Trump, and use it.