A transcendental meditation teacher once told me that in her belief system, the leaders that emerge and are chosen to lead a particular collective of people, are the direct product of the collective consciousness of that group of people. So what are we to make of Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination? And what does it say about the consciousness of the people who gravitate towards him?
I must admit that I am not in the least bit surprised by his popularity in the race for that party’s nomination. Any level-headed observer of the tone and “quality” of politics on the U.S right – both in the lead up to the 2008 election of moderate President Barack Obama and after that historically significant win – will remember, that when Obama moved into The White House, the right wing moved into the nut house (to paraphrase one comedian).
We remember John McCain, the 2008 nominee (who sold out so many of his own long-held principles to maintain the support of hardliners within his party) trying to calm down the enraged crowds who attended his rallies, whilst simultaneously trying to harness their energy and stoke the fires of opposition to the prospect of the “foreign” named man becoming President. One incident, described in this Politico article, is stuck in my memory: when a middle-aged white woman was given a microphone and told McCain she didn’t want “Arab” Obama in the White House. On that particular day, McCain wasn’t prepared to let the factually wrong statement go uncorrected. He told the woman:
“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
The statement appeared to be a moment of decency, McCain stepping away from the “red meat” script, and yet, the insinuation of the correction was that to be an Arab (which of course, Obama isn’t) also means to not be a decent man or citizen of the U.S. Still, McCain was booed relentlessly by the Republican rally attendees that day, every time he pleaded for reason and calm, in the face of outlandish or slanderous statements regarding Obama being a terrorist, a socialist, and so forth. Politico documented the dynamic between him and the crowd:
McCain promised the audience he wouldn’t back down — but again sought to tamp down emotions.
“We want to fight, and I will fight,” McCain said. “But I will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, and I will respect him.”
At which point he was booed again. [emphasis mine]
“I don’t mean that has to reduce your ferocity,” he added over the jeers. “I just mean to say you have to be respectful.”
Gone are the days when a Republican front-runner called for civility and respect from their own flock. But where do people think the mob booing – and the seething xenophobia and reactionary impulse that inspired the booing – went? Those people, and their energy, obviously did not disappear; and going by their reaction to McCain during that campaign, they were already pining for a new, more extreme, less civil leader. Meanwhile, outside of that arena, Donald Trump was becoming as angry about Obama’s ascendency as the woman who used “Arab” as a pejorative. Trump emerged as a serious ‘birther‘ – one of the conspiracy theorists who wrongly believe Barack Obama was not born in the United States – in 2011.
In April 2011, NPR published this post on its politics blog, ‘Donald Trump, Birther In Chief? Poll Has Him Leading GOP Field With 26 Percent’. It says: “This poll […] indicates there’s a hardcore birther segment in the Republican Party that will reject any candidate who says unequivocally that Obama was born in the U.S. And those birthers are rewarding Trump, who has become something of the birther in chief with very strong support.” It also provides this excerpt of the poll findings:
“23% of these voters say they would not be willing to vote for a candidate who stated clearly that Obama was born in the U.S. 38% say they would, and a 39% plurality are not sure. Among the hardcore birthers, Trump leads with 37%, almost three times as much support as anyone else. He comes in only third at 17% with those who are fine with a candidate that thinks the President was born in the country. Romney, who recently stated he believes Obama is a citizen, leads with 23% with that group but gets only 10% with birthers.”
I took articles like this seriously at the time, and hence have not been surprised by Trump’s popularity amongst Republican voters over the past year. Back in 2011 NPR also published this piece, ‘The Nation: Confronting Trump’s Coded Racism’, which identifies the historical context and racist nature of the accusations that Obama is not a U.S. citizen, and provides links to several excellent pieces (by people of various political stripes) that directly take on Trump’s race-baiting. It also contains this assertion:
“Still, racial dog whistles only work when a lot of people play along. Otherwise a coded attack — aimed at the racists but clinging to deniability — curdles into public, blatant racism. (That’s bad in politics and business, so it would restrain even a business candidate like Trump.)” [emphasis mine]
It would only restrain someone who knew they did not have the support of a large group of xenophobic nationalists and racists; at this point Trump does have their support. And right now, much like the meditation teacher asserted, he is a conduit for their frustrations, resentment, hatreds, fears, and (this is crucial) their egoic aspirations for grandeur. Furthermore, it is not unusual for uncivil language and extreme statements like the ones Trump produces regularly to be rewarded by right wing voters. Anyone who has ever watched a Republican debate that did not include Trump would have still witnessed extreme, violence-endorsing statements being cheered by the audience.
And yes, that audience isn’t only “white”. Much was made this week about the fact that a good percentage of Latinos in Nevada voted for Trump; it is wise to remember these voters were Republicans when processing that information. There are of course other people who are not traditional partisans, who consider themselves to be reasonable people, and who find Trump appealing for one position or another. One Latino man who plans to vote for Trump told The Daily Beast this, when asked what could possibly turn him off Trump – his naiveté is telling: “if he came out and used the ‘N’ word or something like that, I probably would not vote for him. But what is one racist thing that he said? The guy’s never said anything racist.”
Trump recently levelled a ‘birther’ accusation against his Republican rival, Marco Rubio. It has followed a distinct pattern that has characterised his other ‘birther’ accusations. The Atlantic published this piece recently, titled ‘Trump’s Birther Libel’, which makes the case that he is attempting to make American citizenship a matter of “race and blood”. It is important to note that Trump has the endorsement of people for whom race and blood are an obsession: white supremacists. Including a former KKK leader. The reason for this is obvious to all but the most naive.
John Oliver’s show ‘Last Week Tonight’ just aired an excellent, well-informed segment addressing Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, the reasons for his popularity amongst right wing voters, the gulf between the image/brand he has cultivated and his many failures as a business man, his pathological lying, and his unwillingness to outright condemn and distance himself from white nationalists (in essence, his base). Oliver makes an important assertion: that both being a racist nationalist and pretending to be a racist nationalist in order to win votes makes a candidate contemptible. Trump is guilty of one of those.
You can read Vox’s article on the segment HERE.
WATCH the segment below. Or if you live outside the U.S, you should be able to watch it HERE.