With last week’s primary in New Hampshire, this year’s momentous presidential contest has now begun in earnest. At last, the political world has actual votes in actual ballot boxes to focus on.
But looming behind all the critical issues of policy and process that are – and are not – going to be discussed is an ominous, multi-part question: What are the American people going to do about Donald Trump’s poisonous political legacy?
There’s no question he’s already left one that’s unprecedented in presidential-campaign politics: a combination of carnival-barker bluster, street-hustler shiftiness, and a deliberate embracing of ignorance of even simple policy matters – along with overt racism and the crudest public language possible this side of outright profanity.
That’s Donald Trump’s political platform. No political extremist has ever before attempted to show all those “qualities” simultaneously at the national level. Nor have we ever had such dramatic evidence that apparently so many White conservatives are eager to participate in such a degrading hustle.
The latest proof there’s no brake on Trump’s – and his mob of supporters’ – slide to deeper levels of cesspool politics came the day before the primary. Then, at a rally in Salem, N.H., Trump took up the disgusting insult of Ted Cruz a woman shouted from the audience.
According to the account of it in the Washington Post, after the women shouted the insult, Trump said to the audience, “She just said a terrible thing. You know what she said?” before turning to the woman and commanding her to “Shout it out.”
The woman did so, but, the Post account went on, her voice “still couldn’t be heard throughout the cavernous arena. ‘Okay, you’re not allowed to say and I never expect to hear that from you again,’ Trump said with mock seriousness, like a father reprimanding a child. ‘She said-I never expect to hear that from you again! She said: “He’s a pussy.” That’s terrible.”
The Post story noted that at this point “The crowd of several thousand burst into cheers, applause and laughter, while reporters asked one another if they had heard that right.” Later, it stated that Trump “made a show of distancing himself from the insult he had just repeated: ‘You’re reprimanded, okay?’ Smiling, he then polled the audience: Can she stay? Can she stay? The answer: A roaring yes.”
This is the character of the frontrunner for the Republican Party nomination for the presidency.
And of the people who support him.
One online reader of the Post article responded: “This is why the most awful thing some Republicans can call you is ‘politically correct.’ They want to cuss and snicker like teenagers in a locker room. It felt cool once, didn’t it?”
No fun and games
Of course, there’s something more sinister than juvenile dirty hijinks at work here. For one thing, it’s easy to imagine the furor that would have erupted across the political and media spectrum if this despicable spectacle had occurred at a Democratic campaign rally. Or at a rally with a predominantly Black audience.
And one can also accept that during the last presidential-election cycle, even when Trump was riding the crest of his “birther”-driven campaign against President Obama, such a stunt would likely have forced him from the primary contest.
But last week no Republican Party official or other GOP candidate mentioned the outrageous stunt at all, let alone denounced it. Indeed, public attention to the incident barely survived that evening’s news cycle.
This was partly because of the primaries occurring the next day. But it’s also a powerful testament to how used the Republican electorate and the media have gotten-especially during this primary round-to hearing GOP candidates’ promises to be cruel. Those boasts, along with crude language and behavior, have become the dominant “values” the Republican electorate has pledged allegiance to, and it’s stripped the frightened Republican establishment of any sense of decency.
Venom, not anger
Many say Trump has tapped into his supporters’ “anger.” But what he’s actually tapped into is their venom, their bigotry, their wanting to dominate others, their wanting to be cruel. That’s what their addiction to his language of crudeness, insult and cruelty particularly toward people of color shows. This isn’t “populism” – a virtually meaningless term in the modern political era. Trump’s supporters want to reconstruct that old, dirty American tradition: White rule.
For that, however, one can’t blame Trump and his howlers alone. His leading the GOP presidential primary shows the profound damage done to the American political tradition by the Republican Party’s decades of thinly-disguised racist appeals and its stoking for the last eight years the “Obama Derangement” rhetoric of conservative politics.
What kind of future for American politics as a whole does that suggest?
Lee A. Daniels is based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in “Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014)”, published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, “Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014,”, is available at www.amazon.com.