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Donald Trump’s Loud, Familiar Crusade Against Imagined Enemies

The president routinely targets marginalized groups to fire up his white, middle-class base. His tactics may be loud, but they’re not new.

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In the final week of July, Donald Trump stood before a rally on Long Island to give the most brutish speech of his presidency.

Trump was at Suffolk County Community College, which serves 27,000 students. The auditorium was packed with thousands of his supporters, and a few dozen uniformed police officers stood stiffly behind the president as he wound into an extensive denunciation of the global crime syndicate Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). A week and a half before Trump’s visit, Suffolk County police had arrested more than 15 members of MS-13 in connection with a quadruple homicide in a local park, among other violent crimes. The gang members face federal charges. U.S. Representative Peter King, a long-serving Republican, described the violence to Trump as “a national catastrophe” and invited the president to meet with him and speak to constituents on Long Island. Trump seized the opportunity to rant at great length about immigration.

For Trump, gang violence and foreign terrorism are twin specters that justify his calls for tougher policing, heightened border security, and tighter controls on immigration. In his speech, Trump described MS-13 as “particularly violent,” and then reveled in describing that violence to his bloodthirsty crowd. “These are animals,” Trump said about the street gang as he glorified its methods. “They don’t like shooting people because it's too quick,” Trump said. “They like to knife them, and cut them, and let them die slowly because that way it’s more painful. They enjoy watching that much more.”

“They” are the ubiquitous villains of any resounding Trump speech. “They” are immigrants, indigents, and killers. “They” are mendacious cable news anchors, too, and really anyone who is not aligned with the biases of cloistered, conservative white identity. “They” are the subjects of Trump’s perversely captivating subgenre of American rhetoric, which casts the white middle class—the great “We”—as a brutalized underclass in revolt. “They” are the encroaching others.

It’s a familiar alarm; Trump has rung it to death, and so have countless soapbox demagogues before him. His Long Island speech recalled his infamous June 2015 press conference at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president, during which he described Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” Trump’s obsession with violence also recalls his nomination speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he read the nation’s fortune aloud for 75 minutes, spelling nothing but doom, death, and despair.

“I, alone, can fix it,” Trump said, referring to a global trade system that is “rigged against our citizens.” In this system, immigrants circumvent our borders and customs and, thus, circumvent the rules. At best, according to Trump, they are day laborers stealing white wages; at worst, they are terrorists. In any case, they are low-rent agents of American decline. “I believe the time has come for new immigration rules which say that those seeking admission into our country must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years,” Trump told a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, crowd in June, promising that Congress will develop legislation to this effect “very shortly.” Of course, Trump’s signature immigration proposal from the campaign trail is a bit more dramatic than welfare reform. For two years, Trump has implausibly promised that the U.S. will build a wall along a thousand miles of the U.S.-Mexico border to keep southern invaders out.

So far, Trump has failed to finance his wall, much as he has failed to accomplish anything else of note in the first seven months of his presidency. What he lacks in the way of substantial legislative achievements, or even promising legislative pursuits, Trump has overcompensated for tenfold with his massive docket of social grievances. Indeed, these grievances are the sum of the Trump administration’s policy goals: purging immigrants from the country, purging blacks from the national voter rolls, discharging transgender soldiers from the armed forces, and barring the poor from access to basic health care. The Republican Party, Trumpism’s somewhat reluctant host, has incorporated many of these demographic resentments for the past half century. And Democrats, now billing themselves as “the resistance,” oppose such bigotry dramatically, if not always effectively.

The reactionary fervor that animates Trump’s political career predates the president, and it will outlast him. Trumpism is, after all, just the latest permutation of a long, white American nationalist tradition. Pundits often describe Trumpism as a sort of populism, instead of white nationalism, if only for sake of politeness, but that’s not quite right: Historically, populist movements in the U.S. are working-class movements, powered by laborers seeking economic redress. But Trump’s base is middle class and higher, and they are more concerned with foreign bogeymen, apocryphal Americans (real minorities), and tyrannical adjunct professors. Trumpism isn’t a wage movement pitting itself against management and/or globalization. Trumpism is more akin to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s endless ravings about communists and anarchists, which had vindictive and disastrous results—for himself and, more importantly, others.

For Trump’s most maligned constituents—the president ostensibly serves all Americans, after all—Trump’s rhetoric is a nightmare not because it forms some previously unthinkable hostility to their very existence, but rather because it dispels the pleasant myth that history represents linear progress away from barbarism. The spectacle of Trump’s presidency—precipitated through social media, reality TV, and cable news—is so inherently new and modern that it is impossible to dismiss Trump’s prejudices as simply a throwback to old politics. But the fact that Trumpism follows from a longer, multicentury lineage of American resentment politics suggests that Trumpism isn’t some exceptional fit that will inevitably pass. It is Richard Nixon’s private streams of racism and vicious paranoia broadcast at max volume, without shame, into a public sphere that has gone numb against vitriol. In the century of social media, that vitriol has flooded all waking corners of American life, and that vitriol is addictive. Despite the many wonders that American pluralism has wrought, the politics of resentment are this country’s great, unshakeable vice.

Trump launched his political career with a quest to find Barack Obama’s birth certificate. His “real” birth certificate—the one that would inevitably reveal that President Obama was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya, thus invalidating his eligibility to serve. “If he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility,” Trump told Today in April 2011, “then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.” TV news hosts such as Matt Lauer and Wolf Blitzer mocked Trump for pursuing this theory. But the tea party movement that had widely promoted birtherism in 2010 quickly rallied around Trump, and tea party voters have empowered him ever since. The White House would produce Obama’s long-form birth certificate later in the same month as Trump’s Today rant, and Trump would go on to challenge the document’s veracity until after he accepted the GOP presidential nomination last summer.

Birtherism was a potent preview of Trumpism, a white nativist movement that holds pluralism, feminism, and the international community in contempt. It is bunkered, antisocial nonsense. It is McCarthyism, but louder. In fact, Trumpism prides itself on absolute candor about blacks, women, gays, immigrants, others, and stands in opposition to “political correctness.” This movement groans about and bemoans identity politics as practiced by liberals, and yet Trumpism is little more than a white nationalist cult that’s enamored of its own whiteness. In a few cases when black Trump supporters sought to make themselves comfortable at one of Trump’s rallies, the hyper-white majority saw to it that they were escorted out. Trumpism can’t even pretend to incorporate black sympathizers, or blacks in general, as anything more than rhetorical props.

Trumpism is hardly the first divisive movement of its kind. The Confederacy, which sustains a national fandom to this day, dedicated itself to racial bondage at the expense of national cohesion and 620,000 casualties on both sides of the Civil War; and even after that, in the century after Reconstruction, segregationists doubled down on their control of Southern courts and legislatures to preserve whiteness through racial division of everything from lunch counters to criminal justice. The nativists of the 1920s, including the Ku Klux Klan, regarded the arrival of job-seeking Catholics, Jews, and Eastern Europeans as an onslaught. At the turn of the 20th century, Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge advocated for English literacy tests to weed out immigrants who were from races that were “most alien to the great body of the people of the United States.” Withstanding deportation, these immigrants faced two prospects: assimilation or vilification. This is the classic stress test that American nationalism poses, and a crucial benefit of assimilation is that groups that do so successfully can then go on to vilify later generations of immigrants. Whiteness is a pyramid scheme in this way.

And like all pyramid schemes, Trumpism will ruin everyone but its founder. The fundamental problem with Trumpism is that it is led by Donald Trump, whose ignorance, inexperience, and erratic communication endangers all 325 million of us, including Trump’s base. The president and his allies in Congress might still dismantle health care access, and their constituents will live, if they’re lucky, to regret it. Worse yet, the president is now using troublingly bellicose language against North Korea, risking an escalation that even Trumpland’s foreign policy hawks might struggle to survive, much less justify. For conservatives, there is little rejoicing in many of these potential outcomes.

Still, Trump dominates TV news with his bizarre and contemptuous manner, even as his approval ratings sink to unprecedented lows; the president grows only more combative (in interviews, at rallies) as his administration flounders. As governance, Trumpism has proved to be a failure. But as politics, the ideological ecstasy of Trumpism feels like a conservative victory in the culture wars and on television, if not in the halls of power.

The president’s Twitter feed aside, Trumpism’s premier battleground these days is the White House briefing room. It is high ground for our TV-obsessed president: a closed set flooded with falsehoods and cameras. The briefing room brings the White House press team into bare-knuckle contact with the state’s biggest enemies of all, the free press, which Trump and his eccentric flacks belittle with flair. Trump has reduced established media outlets like CNN and The New York Times to a punch line, “fake news,” thus rendering truth a subject of hopeless, disingenuous litigation in the press. In his corner, Trump has recruited the conservative bellwether network, Fox News, as his administration’s semi-official propaganda arm, which frames even the most humiliating news cycles as loss or hypocrisy among the president’s critics. All the while, Congress has accomplished very little, the major Cabinet agencies such as State and Treasury remain woefully understaffed, and the constitutional functions of the presidency increasingly seem beside the point. Trumpism is an ideology, an attitude, a rhetorical style—but it’s no way to govern.

It is easy to pick fights and make enemies; it is tempting to tweet to distract from one’s work. Campaigns for office—and brands—can be strengthened by sloppy, spiteful bullying. But the task that follows a successful presidential campaign, governing a nation—a famously diverse nation, at that—will inevitably be mismanaged by someone who views a good number of his country’s citizens as tackling dummies. The politics of resentment served to catapult Trump into the White House, but they can carry him only so far as his minimal practical comprehension of his job will allow.

That incompetence reveals itself even in Trump’s most deliberate villainy. In July, he announced a startling change in enlistment standards for the armed services. “The United States government will not accept or allow … Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” the president tweeted, citing “tremendous medical costs and disruption.” This was news to the Pentagon, which quickly distanced itself from the supposed policy shift, and which just last year announced that transgender soldiers were welcome to serve openly. Trump’s proposed ban was also news to anyone who might have ever believed the pro-LGBTQ posture that Trump sold on the campaign trail and, in fact, as recently as January. “President Donald J. Trump is determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community,” the White House announced just a couple of weeks after his inauguration. And yet Trump’s proposed ban of transgender soldiers would imperil an estimated 15,500 servicemembers. Like “don't ask, don't tell”–era gay and lesbian servicemembers, transgender people in the military would face the prospect of outing, harassment, and discharge.

But the Pentagon has pushed back. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to senior military officials that the armed services will treat all current personnel “with respect,” while suggesting that the Pentagon has no immediate plans to discharge anyone without more specific guidance from the White House. Furthermore, the Congressional Research Service quickly published guidance suggesting that Congress, not the White House, could have the last say with regard to the ban. A similar stall played out in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency as federal courts quickly blocked and dismantled the first iteration of the so-called “Muslim ban” that was issued in his initial flurry of executive orders. Of course, as his failures compound, Trump’s resentment only grows. Currently, he’s been reduced to feuding with his own attorney general and churning through senior White House staff.

Trump faces similar policy obstacles beyond the Beltway and the federal courts. Across the country, big-city mayors of “sanctuary cities” (including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) have pledged to resist federal detention efforts despite the Trump administration's aim to increase deportations. Boston Mayor Marty Welsh gave a particularly impassioned speech defying Executive Order 13769 and Trump’s general crackdown on undocumented immigrants. “If people want to live here, they’ll live here,” Walsh said at a dramatic press conference in the week following Trump’s inauguration. Similarly, many of these mayors pledged to honor global climate guidelines regardless of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. Seventeen governors and 211 mayors have said they’ll honor the previously agreed-upon goals to reduce carbon emissions. When Trump invoked Pittsburgh as a higher political priority for U.S. policymakers than Paris, the mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, spoke up to counter the administration. “The United States joins Syria, Nicaragua & Russia in deciding not to participate with world’s Paris Agreement,” Peduto tweeted. “It’s now up to cities to lead.”

These vocal mayors are just one element of the so-called Resistance—the amorphous, center-left vanguard against Trump’s abuses of decency and power. The Resistance isn’t simply a political counterweight to Trumpism; it bills itself as a sort of running reality check, a necessary cohort of frustrated politicians, pundits, entertainers, and civilians. This is not normal, the Resistance says. We are better than this.

But the fact that American history is so rife with episodes of Trumpism by other names suggests otherwise. In fact, the Trump administration’s latest declared grievance is an oldie but goodie: affirmative action. The Justice Department, led by the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is considering “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions,” according to internal guidance reported by The New York Times. The language is deceptively neutral; while discrimination certainly affects people of color, it is “anti-white” sentiment that Sessions and his allies seek to investigate. Like all other major priorities of the Trump administration, affirmative action is yet another opportunity for the president to valorize the white man as the great victim of modern American life. Trump’s appointment of Sessions, a former federal prosecutor and Alabama senator with a record of hostility toward civil rights groups, signaled a flat rejection of the Obama administration’s civil rights agenda, or any civil rights agenda whatsoever. Trump doesn’t pick these fights as a matter of practical achievement. He picks them because he can think of nothing better to do.

Turns out, Trump came to oppose affirmative action only in recent months after having denounced Antonin Scalia’s uncharitable characterization of minority applicants in a case that came before the Supreme Court less than two years ago. Now, however, the president is embattled, and Trumpism essentially requires him to hurl new indignities at a classic American scapegoat; a fight over purportedly undeserving minority college students re-endears him to a fan base that might otherwise stand at the brink of demoralization. Trump’s about-face on affirmative action wouldn’t be the first time he’s reversed himself against a civil rights protection just to give his reactionaries a morale boost. Nor will it be the last time an American politician points to distant, disgusting characters as the cause of all our problems. Trump’s supporters feel outnumbered by the creeping pluralism that has, for centuries, kept white reactionaries up at night. So, of course, at Trump’s rallies, these imagined victims gang up—and the president strikes out to defend them exclusively.