Several of the headlines emerging from the fallout of President Donald Trump’s recent racist behavior claim that fascism is coming to America. It’s perplexing to read them, because they seem to suggest that there is something new to the blatant and unapologetic racism and xenophobia of the Trump camp. But there really is nothing new here. No surprises whatsoever. Just Trump and his team and his supporters doing exactly what they have been doing since before he announced his candidacy in June 2015.
This article first appeared in Salon.
In fact, Trump’s entire 2016 campaign was littered with racist, sexist, xenophobic and offensive comments. Back then, as now, Trump was called out for it, and none of those criticisms kept him from winning the election. It’s time to take seriously the reality that Trump has done nothing but profit from his racism.
The more racist Trump is; the more successful he is. As disturbing as this may be to process, it is simply true. This means that calling out Trump for his racism, as important and ethically necessary and self-satisfying as it may be, is not going to make any sort of difference. But what might be of interest — and what might work as a counter-strategy — is calling attention to the various ways that he has profited from these tactics.
Trump benefits from his racism in four key ways. If we want to take his fascist tendencies seriously, we first need to understand how they work.
Trump’s racism bolsters his media coverage and his control of the media narrative
Every time Trump goes on a racist rant he dominates the media coverage. Each racist meltdown allows him to turn the news media focus entirely to him. From there, Trump and his supporters come to occupy a tremendous amount — if not all — of the news cycle. In fact, well before Trump was a political candidate his birther attacks on President Barack Obama gave him a significant stream of media coverage — one that may well have helped position him to win the Republican primary.
What we failed to notice then, but is more than apparent now, is that Trump is a master at saying incendiary things that cause the media to focus on him obsessively. In the birther era the general response was amazement that Trump would tout such outrageous positions. Now the common response is outrage. Either way it puts all things Trump back in the center of the news cycle.
But there’s more. Trump’s racist rants often seem well timed to draw public attention away from other newsworthy items, like the Democratic Primary race or climate change or the brewing tensions with Iran. All eyes are always on Trump and they have been since he first announced his candidacy. The sheer amount of free media coverage he has received has far outpaced coverage of any president in U.S. history. As Harvard’s Shorenstein Center reports in his first 100 days in office Trump was the “topic of 41 percent of all news stories — three times the amount of coverage received by previous presidents.”
But, you might be thinking, the media coverage is negative, so it can’t be helping Trump. That seems like it would make sense, except it is wrong. Negative media coverage helps Trump in two ways. First, it keeps Trump the center of attention and, secondly, it allows him to continue his attacks on negative press as fake news. This way no other stories get covered and his supporters continue to distrust any negative press of their president.
There are a few ways to ameliorate this. First of all, when covering the story of Trump’s racism, the news media should avoid endlessly offering him and his acolytes sound bites, media appearances, and free press. In analyzing news coverage of the 2016 election, the Harvard Shorenstein Center found that Trump’s voice was heard more often in stories about Hillary Clinton than her own voice was. They also found that he received 15 percent more coverage than she did. Once in office, the Harvard Shorenstein Center found that “Republican voices accounted for 80 percent of what newsmakers said about the Trump presidency.” Similarly, in print news, Trump’s claims should not appear in headlines. That practice allows the hate speech to be the lede rather than the racism.
Secondly, it makes no sense whatsoever for the televised news media to bring on “experts” or pundits to defend, explain, or justify Trump’s racism. For example, CNN’s Jake Tapper recently had neo-Nazi Richard Spencer on to analyze Trump’s racist tweets. There are not “many sides” to racist and xenophobic behavior and these vile views should not get a platform on cable news or any other news media outlets.
Trump’s racism builds up strength with his supporters
The blatant racism of a number of Trump supporters has been an uncomfortable truth, but, again, these facts have been open and present for years now. Each time Trump has the gall to voice his racism publicly it only stokes and energizes the racist segments of society that support him.
This is the man who announced his presidency calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers, rapists, and criminals; had early KKK support for his candidacy; called for a Muslim ban as a policy platform; and had a history of attacking the first African American president as not legitimately born in the United States. And this was all on full display well before he won the election. Trump tweeting that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” is simply more of the same.
But perhaps the most perplexing part of the story is the way this behavior plays with those Trump supporters who are not racist, or at least not openly and unashamedly racist. Recall when Samantha Bee interviewed a series of college-educated Trump supporters in March 2016, well before the general election. Her goal was to try to understand how this group of people could make a case for supporting Trump.
In case we need reminding, at the time, Trump was openly calling for his Muslim ban and he was also already associated with KKK leader David Duke. When Bee asked about those connections, the college-educated Trump supporters immediately came up with excuses for him. Then, when she asked the one African American member of the group about Trump’s openly racist comments, the interviewee simply answered that Trump “speaks in an old way.”
What she found, and what has since been confirmed in various studies, is that those Trump voters who don’t agree with his racism just brush it off, make excuses for it, blame negative media coverage, or say that they don’t think he really means it. What happens with this group is a classic case of confirmation bias. Thinking of Trump as racist is incongruent for these supporters, so they just won’t do it.
This means that when he goes off on a xenophobic rant he is able to energize his racist base while being ignored by his other supporters. He literally has nothing to lose.
Trump’s racism allows him to sow division and build loyalty
The one silver lining to Trump’s mainstreaming of racism may be the way that it can mobilize unity among the left. Days before his recent racist rant, the Democratic Party was in conflict with Nancy Pelosi expressing disdain for the very same congresswomen Trump would later attack. Trump’s attack on them, though, pulled the party back behind them in an effort to offer a united front.
But even if Trump’s racism works to unite the left, and there is reason to speculate that it won’t, it is important to understand that his racism is sowing lines of division that are designed to develop extreme social conflict. Certainly we can’t fault Trump alone with the rise in political polarization in the United States. The trend has been steadily developing and is largely attributable to the effects of gerrymandering and money in politics.
Yet, what is most interesting is that overall trends show a decrease in party affiliation among Americans. This means that political polarization is less about loyalty to a party and more about dislike of the other party. A recent study conducted by “More in Common” shows that one of the greatest contributors to partisan division is what they term the “perception gap.” What they find is that “Americans have a deeply distorted understanding of each other.” Even more, they found that Americans tend to assume that the views of those on the other side of the aisle are extreme, when, often, they aren’t.
These findings correlate with research conducted by Emile Bruneau on how social conflict becomes extreme and can lead to violence. According to his research, conflict is driven less by what we think about other groups and more about what we think other groups think about us. And when those views are dehumanizing, i.e. when we think our opponents do not respect us and when we think they think of us as less than human, we become more inclined to extreme conflict.
Trump’s racism is highly effective in this context. It works to sow social division because it depends on fostering negative ideas one group has about the other. Each time Trump says something racist, the left hates the right more, and vice versa.
Here’s how it works: Trump says something racist. The left unites to attack the racism while the right says that his comments weren’t actually racist, because they were really about defending America. The critical part of the story is that neither Trump nor anyone who actually agrees with his racist slurs thinks they are racist. Each time a Trump supporter is told that by supporting him they are supporting racism, the unintended blowback is to build greater loyalty to Trump.
Everyone who supports Trump feels unfairly attacked by the left, just as the left feels that Trump and his supporters hate them. And of course this increasing hatred across party lines is real and growing despite the fact that it is often based on misperceptions one group has about the other.