Politics, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds, historian Henry Adams maintained in his autobiography, employing an aphorist’s broad and puckish sweep. If Adams had slipped a qualifying “demagogic” in front of “politics” — and perhaps swapped “resentments” for “hatreds” — he would have had an adage for the ages. And certainly one that explains our current president’s electoral instincts.
Politicians run different types of campaigns depending on the political landscape they see. Someone aspiring to a sweeping national mandate campaigns differently than a candidate whose best hope is for a thin victory along a narrow electoral path. The former is more likely to offer a broad aspirational message. Think Ronald Reagan in 1984.
But an unpopular, polarizing candidate runs in a very different way. If his conscience allows, his political incentive may be to wage a divisive campaign, one that tries to assemble disgruntled voting blocs by activating or energizing latent grievances, be they racial, class, regional, religious, gender, or a notion of who is and isn’t a true, patriotic American.
Now, presidential politics ain’t beanbag, never has been, and never will be. Still, some things should be over the line. In the last few decades, Republicans have too often resorted to the politics of division based on the notion of otherness: We stand up for you, white America, while the Democrats favor people of a different color or ethnicity. It’s not said exactly that way, of course. Instead, the message is conveyed with code words and dog whistles — terms like welfare queen, quotas, “real” or “true” Americans.
That said, the only starkly racist major presidential candidate of the post-civil rights era was a Democrat, though one from the southern wing of the party. That would be George Wallace, the on-again-off-again governor of Alabama, who sought his party’s nomination for president three times, and ran in 1968 as a third-party candidate. Even he denied his racism, with a formulation you can still hear echoes of today: “No, I don’t regard myself a racist. The real racists are the ones who call other people racists.”
Wallace’s last campaign was in 1976. We hadn’t seen a racial provocateur like him until the day Donald Trump descended the elevator and started demeaning Mexicans. But Trump certainly rivals Wallace’s dark skill at playing on racial resentments, and for obvious reasons: He goes by his gut, and that’s what is there.
I’m not one who thinks all Trump voters are racist. I met some very decent people at the 2016 campaign Trump rallies I attended — people like an older Maine custodian at a Nashua rally and the wives of some unemployed West Virginia coal miners at one in Charleston — who simply felt left out economically and hoped a President Trump might help them.
That said, you can’t have experienced the frenzied-to-the-point-of-fascistic “lock her up” chants at Trump rallies, or talked to some of his snarlingly belligerent supporters, or seen the “send her back” chants targeting US Representative Ilhan Omar at last week’s Greenville, N.C., rally, without thinking that other Trump supporters brim with animus of one sort or another — and are along for the full Trumpian ride.
In his efforts to make four young-ish, newly elected, and outspoken but not particularly powerful congresswomen of color who constitute the so-called Squad the face of the Democratic Party, Trump isn’t just taking liberties about what they have said about the United States or Israel or Jews or Al Qaeda, he’s lying, repeatedly, shamelessly, and outrageously, in the service of his antipathy-arousing racial politics.
My hope is that by leaning into racism, Trump is setting himself up for a “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” rebuke, a moment that will resonate with America. My lurking fear, however, is that he may succeed in defining decency down, both for politicians and for average Americans.
That possibility is the most worrisome aspect of the invidious campaign circus he’s conducting.