On March 22, 2016, three bombings struck Belgium, two at Brussels Airport in Zaventem and one in the Maalbeek metro station. 32 civilians were killed and 316 were injured. Given its relatively close proximity to the November terrorist plot in Paris, much of Belgium shut down as a security measure. Eager to capitalize off the tragedy, presidential candidates took to Twitter and early morning news programs to express their condolences and elaborate on their respective national security policies.
Perhaps most notably–other than Ted Cruz’s repugnant call for increased patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods–Donald Trump appeared on “Fox and Friends” to reiterate his controversial view of halting Muslim immigration into the United States. Trump smugly maintained that he was “right” about the precarious situation in Belgium in the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks. When describing the atmosphere of terror that was created and reinforced by the recent attack in Brussels, Trump bragged that such panic accounts for his dominance in the GOP presidential race.
“This is just the beginning. It will get worse and worse because we are lax and foolish,” Trump asserted on the show. Later that day, on CBS News, Trump callously warned, “This is going to happen in the United States.”
On March 26, Trump was interviewed by The New York Times about his foreign policy views. In the interview, answering a question about using nuclear weapons in response to foreign threats, Trump said, “When people talk global warming, I say the global warming that we have to be careful of is the nuclear global warming. Single biggest problem that the world has. Power of weaponry today is beyond anything ever thought of … You look at Hiroshima and you can multiply that times many, many times, is what you have today” (The New York Times, “Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views,” 03.26.2016).
Trump’s entire campaign was launched around the platform of closing America’s borders and halting undocumented immigration. To elicit support for the plan, Trump pandered to people’s fears and prejudices, infamously pontificating, “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically … When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems…they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” (The Washington Post, “Full text: Donald Trump announces a presidential bid,” 06.16.2016).
The controversial introduction to his presidential bid eerily forecasted the tumultuous political environment that Trump would soon foster and revel in.
There exists a common thread between these seemingly isolated Trumpisms. Donald Trump has become an expert master of fear-mongering and capitalizing off terror, violence and feelings of insecurity. The entire basis of his campaign is “protecting” America from illegal immigration. He has prided himself on the claim that he has brought the issue of illegal immigration to the forefront of election discourse. Despite the twisted veracity of that, the type of speech and rhetoric Trump engages in can barely be called discourse.
Just take a look at his word choice. The generalizations, the lack of nuance or complexity to his assertions, the repetitive, banal bromide of “we have to figure out what’s going,” and the sensationalizing warnings of constant impending doom (recalling images of nuclear bombing in Hiroshima when talking about nuclear security) all contribute to the cult of fear Trump’s popularity necessitates. As Cassia Leo famously quipped, “Fear is blinding; it can make us miss the warning signs flashing right in front of our eyes.”
This criticism of Trump is, of course, not new. While it may be a seemingly obvious sentiment, Trump’s political legitimacy derives from his dependency on a fearful populace. As journalist Timothy Egan describes, “His [Trump’s] only path to the White House is to do everything he can to make people feel very afraid” (The New York Times, “Trump’s Terror Dependency,” 03.25.2016). To understand the seemingly unthinkable and unprecedented rise of Donald Trump is to understand a frustrated America’s (well, a frustrated white America’s) fear of economic instability, global terrorism, loss of “traditional” institutions and disillusionment with the state of establishment politics. Analyzing the cause-and-effect of these fears reveals some disturbing information about the views of Trump supporters.
While it would be a crass generalization to brand every Trump supporter as a bigot, exit poll data and public polling agencies discovered some horrifying beliefs among large percentages of his voter base.
In a piece analyzing data collected from Trump supporters in South Carolina after the Republican primary, YouGov and Public Policy Polling findings used in an attempt to navigate the complex and nuanced motivations, beliefs and circumstances of Trump supporters. While it can be argued that the data is skewed due to Public Policy Polling’s democratic alignment, the findings of YouGov and exit poll data could be considered more or less unbiased. The data collected was nothing short of shocking.
In South Carolina, 20 percent of Trump voters disagreed with the Emancipation Proclamation. 70 percent wish that the Confederate flag was still hanging on the grounds of the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. 74 percent agreed with Trump’s proposed policy of temporarily banning Muslim immigration.
Only 69 percent disagreed with the notion that whites were superior to other races. A third believe that the internment of Japanese-Americans following the attacks on Pearl Harbor was a good idea. A third believe that LGBT individuals should be banned from entering the country. (The New York Times, “Measuring Donald Trump’s Supporters for Intolerance,” 02.23.2016.)
Although it is important to note that Trump has not spoken at length about or overtly encouraged any of these views, it is equally important to remember the types of people supporting him.
On Feb. 25, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and noted antisemitic conspiracy theorist, urged his followers to vote for Donald Trump. It took Trump nearly 48 hours to properly disavow Duke’s endorsement.
What do we make of this? Trump has invigorated nativist ideals within a disillusioned and ultimately frightened section (working-class white people) of the American electorate. Jeet Heer of New Republic sets forth the argument that Trump is simply rehashing the Southern Strategy employed by Republican Party since the 1950s. Like Trump’s, this strategy was sustained by fear and prejudice.
As Heer describes, “The Southern Strategy has long relied on coded appeals to racism … This sort of winking racism no longer works … Trump’s signature trait is that he doesn’t hide his bigotry, so he excites voters” (New Republic, “How the Southern Strategy Made Donald Trump Possible,” 02.18.2016). This manifests itself in many of Trump’s supporters asserting they like him because he “tells it like it is” and isn’t afraid of “political correctness.” It is this very historical, internalized prejudice that contributes to, constitutes and espouses the terror and fear Trump feeds off of.
The seeds of intolerance and deeply entrenched prejudices were already long existent in the United States before Donald Trump. Trump did not invent white supremacy. His rise, however, exposes and implicitly encourages these attitudes. Trump successfully capitalizes off fear and prejudice in exchange for political power and success. Without this fear, without these prejudices, without the oppressive legacies of state-sanctioned racism, without political disenchantment, there is no Donald Trump.
The only way to properly combat and prevent his political momentum is to recognize the social conditions that allowed him into the realm of mainstream politics. While regular criticism and activism against Trump are imperative in chipping away at his popularity and hopefully preventing a rise to the presidency, these efforts are fruitless without sociohistorical context. Deconstructing the cult of fear must be at the forefront of political critiques of Donald Trump.