In accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for president, Donald Trump’s speech purposefully played to multiple layers of racial anxiety (ones that, alternately, cast undocumented Latinos, Black Lives Matter demonstrators and Muslims as foils straight from central casting) that perfectly captured the mood of the Republican National Convention.
Over the course of the week, speaker after speaker framed the upcoming presidential contest as nothing less than a civilizational clash between God-fearing, law-abiding, and Constitution-loving white Americans and radical black protesters, illegal Latino criminals and Muslim terrorists. Trump’s speech served as a capstone to perhaps the most chaotic, angry and vulgar presidential nominating convention in modern American history. Make no mistake: People of color were the enemy, both spoken and unarticulated, standing in the way of Trump’s promise to Make America Great Again.
The crux of Trump’s speech might be summed up this way: White Lives Matter. Especially those feeling economic anxiety, racial fear and anger, and a creeping sense of a measurable loss of white privilege in a world that has lost manufacturing jobs, outsourced once reliable employment opportunities and elected a black man president.
Racial resentment, scapegoating and recriminations contoured the four-day affair, which took place against a national backdrop of Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police killings of black Americans and mourning over the recent deaths of eight law-enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The convention’s first day featured Rudy Giuliani, the race-baiting former New York City mayor, excoriating Black Lives Matter protests and attacking President Obama as being racially divisive.
After Giuliani’s invective, the ironies continued over the next three days, with a litany of speakers painting a portrait of national decline, rising crime, rampant unemployment and racial division orchestrated by America’s first black president.
Each in their own way, speakers throughout the week translated “Make America Great Again” — a Trump slogan that critics rightfully perceive as a threat — into an unapologetic cri de coeur for a restoration of white nationalism, an ideology that advocates defining national identity by racial categories and hierarchies. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” traffics in explicit racial nostalgia. It goes back to the future and promises the restoration of a once invincible racial hierarchy.
Once Trump himself took the stage, the groundwork was laid for his acceptance speech to amplify — to rousing cheers from the overwhelmingly white delegates — the previous days’ anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration fear-mongering.
“We cannot afford,” observed Trump, “to be so politically correct anymore.” He then proceeded to detail a parallel universe of rampant violence and lawlessness. Trump cited urban violence in Baltimore, Chicago, and the nation’s capital as signs of social decay, pointed to rising deaths of police officers as exemplifying lawlessness, and criminal activities of illegal immigrants as a national scourge.
Reality check: Violent crime is down since its mid-1990s peak, as are assaults against law enforcement. And Trump’s pledge to restore the postwar economic boom and racial homogeneity of Eisenhower-era America rests on magical thinking, economically and politically. He promises the kind of infrastructure investment no Republican Congress would ever pass and a reversal of trade deficits that no president could guarantee.
But it seems that reality doesn’t interfere with the ability of Trump’s time machine to blur historical eras in a mashup that made parts of the RNC reminiscent of the post-Reconstruction Democratic Party’s efforts to “redeem” the South by restoring white supremacy in the aftermath of the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and other parts a throwback — an explicit one — to Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” rhetorical strategy.
There are other, even more brutal, historical precedents for presidential candidates pandering to racial fears and winning elections by appealing to our worst racial impulses. In Reconstruction’s aftermath, an era of lynching, Jim Crow and unprecedented racial violence, the presidency became the primary battleground for white Americans to resume control over black bodies. A similar era of political retrenchment followed the modern civil rights struggle, where the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts gave way to Nixon’s Southern strategy that elevated racial division to a political art that would lead to the realignment of both major political parties. Southern Democrats, known as Dixiecrats, temporarily abandoned the party for George Wallace’s segregationist campaign before finding a more permanent home in the Reagan Revolution.
But the genius of the Trump campaign’s racial pandering — on its most dazzling display in his acceptance speech — is also part of its moral decay. To convince economically fragile whites that the road to prosperity can be achieved through the continued political, economic and cultural oppression and scapegoating of people of color at home and abroad, Trump portrays everyone from Black Lives Matter protesters to Syrian refugees and even NATO as existential threats to American citizens.
Having first stoked Americans’ fears of demographic changes, Trump then presents himself as their champion. His promise to build a wall to prevent immigrants from entering American borders illegally is a perfect metaphor for his campaign and the RNC’s full-throated embrace of white nationalism.
“My greatest compassion will be for our own struggling citizens,” Trump said as he joined delegates in cheering “USA! USA!” Any American who is aware of the nation’s long history of racial violence, division and recrimination heard Trump’s message loud and clear.