Guillermo Herrera, JHU:
Back in July 2015 when Donald Trump announced his candidacy, many assumed it would be a short-lived comic relief from the intensity of a presidential race, particularly because of his outlandish, discriminatory comments and bombastic persona. Today, however, with a firm lead in the Republican primaries, Trump has proved his resilience to the discomfort of many. He packs auditoriums, attracts passionate followers, and, most importantly, can win. This puzzles Trump’s critics, who disproportionately treat his campaign as a joke. If Americans hope to actually defeat Trump, then they have to realize that ignoring, mocking, and laughing at him and his followers is not the right approach.
Donald Trump has insulted so many individuals and groups that the New York Times maintains an extensive database on it. He has labeled Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, called for a temporary ban on Muslims, and referred to women as dogs and pigs, among numerous other offensive statements. His supporters love it, though, and cheer him on. The following statements from two different proponents embody their attitude towards his words: “Unlike most of the other people, he speaks what he thinks and he doesn’t hold back,” and “a lack of respect can be a powerful tool when challenging the status quo.” To his supporters, Trump is their champion who is fighting against an inefficient, disappointing government.
The “silent majority,” as many Trump advocates like to describe themselves, mostly consists of white conservatives who are less wealthy and educated, which paints a powerful picture. Many of these voters have felt neglected by their political leaders and are prone to accepting easy scapegoats for their problems. Rhett Benhoff captures this when he remarks that society has gone “overboard to make sure all these other nationalities nowadays and colors have their fair shake of it, but [are not] looking out for the white guy.”
Foreigners, not just immigrants, are accused of draining the economy, and even though undocumented persons are barred from many privileges, documented migrants contribute heavily through taxes and entrepreneurship, and the U.S. benefits tremendously from its trade relations with countries like China and Mexico. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement comes across to many as a disregard for white lives more so than as a criticism of racial inequality. Worst still is the persistent demonization of Islam and anxiety towards terrorism that prevails despite the greater likelihood of being fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist. Certainly, terrorism is a problem, but it is not a Muslim problem, as many fail to realize.
Trump successfully exaggerates and misreports to stir angry, uninformed voters, largely because he is met with complaisance. His Republican primary opponents rarely expose the damage in Trump’s behavior and plan of action. Some even encourage him. Ted Cruz, for example, echoes the antagonism against immigrants when he suggests building a wall and absolute deportation because they are undeservedly bankrupting the U.S. There is also a nearly universal attempt among the Republican candidates to equate terrorism with Islamic beliefs. Marco Rubio denies the existence of Muslim discrimination while Cruz decries President Obama as an “apologist for radical Islamic terrorism,” for urging Americans to resist dangerous stereotyping. Sexism looms large as well. The Republican candidates do not react when Trump suggests Megyn Kelly moderated poorly because of menstruation or singles out Carly Fiorina’s physical appearance. Never mind the fact that women only really come up in the debates except when a candidate is referring to his wife’s support. In general, Trump is a bully within a crowd of unwilling contestants, as evidenced by Jeb Bush’s shocking withdrawal that resulted in part from his weakness against Trump’s jeers.
The fault is not simply on the Republican candidates, though. The media, like the rest of society, has largely insisted on ignoring or belittling Trump. The Huffington Post initially published its Trump coverage in its Entertainment section on the grounds that his campaign was a mere sideshow. Data-driven political analyst, Nate Silver, similarly wrote an article in November titled, “Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls.” Just recently in January, Ezra Klein, the esteemed editor-in-chief of Vox, also claimed that “Trump could just… not win” suddenly. However, Trump’s high-margin victories in three of four primaries paint a completely different picture.
Americans are not, as was commonly assumed, above a discriminatory bigot like Trump. Further, his supporters are not select outliers that can be shrugged off; they are large in number and can actually impact the election. It is time for the American people to wake up. The dialogue about Trump must transform. The laughter, mockery, and apathy have to transition into a more serious, critical tone that involves honest societal self-reflection.
What is important to realize is that, independent of the electoral result, Trump’s impact has already been made. Americans can assure themselves that he will not thrive in a general election, but they cannot keep ignoring the real issue underlying his popularity. Trump’s following reveals the deep political divides that unknowingly exist within the United States as well as a prevailing anger towards Washington. Americans need to start engaging each other instead of resorting to ridicule when discussing perspectives. They also need to collectively challenge the xenophobia and ignorance that is plaguing the presidential race and society in general. The Republican Party especially bears the responsibility of recognizing what is at stake by remaining quiet and supporting Trump as its candidate. Winning is not “the antidote to a lot of things,” as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus narrow-mindedly asserted when shameless discrimination is not supposed to be tolerated and society is at odds with the basic values for which it stands. Donald Trump has exposed tears in the fabric of American society, but he has not denied the people their opportunity to make amends for and uproot the hate he is spreading under the façade of national pride.