Why Donald Trump has already won

Illustration: Keshav  

The former grand wizard of the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, cautioned his (presumably white) radio listeners that voting for anyone besides Donald Trump would “be treason to [their] heritage”. He further stated that Mr. Trump has made it acceptable to talk about the “incredible concerns of European Americans today”. Without a doubt, the defining characteristic of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been an unapologetic endorsement of nativism.

Nativism is more than a mere rhetorical assertion of national identity. At its core, it is the exertion of control over a country’s institutions and policies for the expressed benefit of a dominant ethnic group. Mr. Trump has not been shy about promoting the interests of the white population. His policy proposals include building a wall between the United States and Mexico, banning all Muslim immigration, and ending the H-1B visa programme that has brought so many foreign workers to the U.S.

How did things get so ugly?

The U.S. is not an obvious candidate for this brand of nativism. In perhaps the most popular patriotic song in the U.S., ‘God Bless the USA,’ Lee Greenwood offers, “I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.” Americans tend to define their identity rather obliquely, in terms of “freedom” and “liberty” and the dogged defence of these ideals — hardly the sorts of proclamations that should stoke any kind of nativism.

Contrast this to Europe, where identity is often explicitly defined in terms of ethnicity, religion, or language, and where nativist parties like the U.K. Independence Party and Front National in France have been agitating for decades. To be sure, the U.S. has a nativist past, but, until recently, nativism was stuck in the fringes of American talk radio and didn’t seem to have much of a future as a mass political strategy.

But something has changed. This year, the Republican National Convention that crowned Mr. Trump as the party’s presidential nominee hosted nativist darlings Nigel Farage (from the U.K.) and Geert Wilders (from Holland), who joined the chorus to “make America great again.” This signalled not only a frightening turn in American politics but also America’s entry into the carefully coordinated nativist movement sweeping the globe.

Many have pinned the rise of nativism on the shrinking manufacturing sector in America and increased globalisation. But, as Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight.com has shown, the median income of a Trump supporter ($72,000) is actually quite a bit higher than that of his opponent, Hillary Clinton ($61,000). Furthermore, globalisation has been a long-term, steady process over the past fifty years, not the sort of economic shock that one can easily associate with the arrival of mass-scale nativism in the past few years. Rather, the catalyst for the sudden rise of nativism in the U.S. seems to have been the 2008 election of Barack Obama. It is the result of many in America’s white population, incensed by Mr. Obama serving as the leader of their country, attempting to reassert control over the country’s institutions.

Constructing a nativist argument

To understand why nativism followed Mr. Obama’s election, one must take a few steps back to understand how America’s institutions work. America’s institutions have never been fair, especially to America’s black population. Today, according to official statistics, black males are five times more likely to be jailed than white males.

According to The Sentencing Project, one in eight voting-age black males was ineligible to vote in 2014 due to America’s highly discriminatory election laws. When American Football player Colin Kaepernick sought to peacefully protest these injustices against the black population by kneeling during recitations of America’s national anthem, a standing Supreme Court judge (a supposedly liberal one at that) called the protest “dumb.” Research has consistently shown that institutions like the police, elections, and the courts are significantly biased against the black population. This is a status quo that suited white Americans well until Mr. Obama was elected in 2008. The visceral image of a black American President, born of a Muslim father, who spent many of his formative years outside of the U.S., represented a perceived loss of institutional control for a large segment of the white American population. The accompanying loss of social prestige led to a highly reactionary form of politics to “take back” American institutions for the benefit of white Americans.

The rise of Mr. Trump in politics has its roots in the extremist “Tea Party.” While the origins of the Tea Party are murky, there is little doubt that it gained political traction soon after Mr. Obama’s election, becoming a major faction of the conservative Republican Party. In a well-researched book on the Tea Party, political scientists Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto show that the Tea Party displays an instinctive hatred for Mr. Obama, harkening back to a paranoid, reactionary form of politics that often arises in periods of great social change and accompanies a perceived loss of social prestige. This type of politics is differentiated from standard conservative politics in key ways. For instance, they provide survey data showing that 71 per cent of those belonging to the Tea Party believed Mr. Obama was “destroying the country,” whereas only 6 per cent of non-Tea Party conservatives believed that statement.

Donald Trump gained prominence in this movement in 2011 by openly questioning whether Mr. Obama was born in the U.S., and asking him to produce his American birth certificate (Mr. Obama did in 2011, but Trump refused to accept its authenticity until September 2016). Mr. Trump has since followed the paranoia script diligently, linking corporations, media, Ms. Clinton, and Mr. Obama in one vast conspiracy. A CNN/ORC poll taken in September 2015 found that 54 per cent of Mr. Trump’s supporters believed Mr. Obama to be a Muslim (he’s Christian). The same poll found that only 61 per cent of Mr. Trump’s supporters believed Mr. Obama to be born in the U.S. despite his American birth certificate being shown years earlier. These are foundational lies for Mr. Trump’s movement; they manufacture the conspiracies that allow one to believe that American institutions need to be rescued, forming the basis for the nativist argument.

What’s next?

If we take the opinion polls at face value, Mr. Trump seems likely to lose the presidential election on November 8. But Mr. Trump is not losing because of his rhetoric, he is losing because of his character. Mr. Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, remains deeply unpopular with many Americans. A Donald Trump that isn’t so abhorrent to women, and who does even a little bit of homework on relevant political issues, is an eminently winnable candidate in 2016. Nativism remains popular with much of the American electorate, and, win or lose, the movement Mr. Trump created isn’t going anywhere.

The damage that has been inflicted will have lasting consequences, including for democratic institutions, which Mr. Trump has shown little respect for. He has threatened to jail his opponent, if elected, and stated that the election is likely “rigged” against him. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 70 per cent of Republicans believe that a Trump loss would be due to illegal or rigged voting. This is a dangerous game. It threatens to unleash an angry, paranoid population that no longer trusts American institutions and is ready to tear the American system to pieces.

Today, the greatest threat to the American way of life lies not outside, but within America’s own borders.

Neelanjan Sircar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 12:05:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Why-Donald-Trump-has-already-won/article16084624.ece

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