AS DONALD TRUMP scrounged for votes in this nation’s shadiest corners, his rhetoric about making America strong and respected was a direct appeal to white men. At its core, his slogan “Make America Great Again” is about restoration of white male supremacy — and the notion that for this nation to be great, white men must be dominant, front, and center. For some of these men, it’s been an unbearable eight years with Barack Obama as president; electing a woman would have been a bridge that much farther.
Trump’s stridency made him president, and now white supremacists and nationalists are acting as if they’ve hit the swastika sweepstakes. Meanwhile Trump, who riled up white men by promising to return America to a “Mad Men”-style era that will never again exist, pretends recent outrages have nothing to do with him.
Of course, others voted for Trump as well. Yet no demographic backed his candidacy with as much fervor as white men of all ages, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds. For them, Trump was a corrective candidate, someone with potential to make their country into a place they again understood and recognized.
Even his oft-repeated assertion that only he could save us and make the world right was a proclamation of male superiority. (No woman would ever make such a claim.) Trump’s man is one for whom negotiation and compromise are tantamount to capitulation. When Trump bellowed about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it, he was flexing a stark, redoubtable version of American brawn right out of a John Wayne movie.
For white men who feel put upon, it was an antidote to a near-decade of impotence. Now Trump’s most disreputable supporters are moving on his promises of supremacy.
At the recent conference of the National Policy Institute in Washington, D.C, self-described as “an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world,” leader Richard Spencer greeted his audience with “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” In his speech, he spoke of an America that was “until this past generation, a white country designed for ourselves, and our posterity.” He added, “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
At the end, in a room filled mostly with white men, they flashed Nazi salutes.
For months, hate has feasted on hate. Yet Trump acts as if it’s just something happening outside his window, and he’s as shocked as anyone else. When asked by Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes” to respond to the swell of bigotry and violence spurred by his election, the best the soon-to-be 45th president could muster was: “I’m so saddened to hear that, and I say, ‘Stop it,’ if it helps.”
It doesn’t help when I say, “Stop it,” to my dog when he’s dragging his bum across the rug. Hard to imagine such a flaccid retort will have any effect on those spraying swastikas on buildings or telling Hispanics and Muslims they’ll soon be deported.
Throughout his campaign, Trump drew sharp lines between his supporters and everyone else, including immigrants and Muslims. Now he sits there like butter won’t melt in his mouth, unwilling to acknowledge his role in giving his most extreme backers a voice.
As Trump confronts what he might actually have to do as president, he’s slightly moderating his tone for some audiences. He’s already disenchanting some supporters by backing away from his promise to hound Hillary Clinton into an orange jumpsuit.
He can’t afford to alienate those who’ve anointed him messiah of their movement. Yet he also can’t control them. With the way things are already going, Trump may soon discover the monster he’s unleashed is worse than he ever imagined.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.