Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Donald Trump is as American as white cops beating up Black men because they are Black, and sometimes forgetting to stop.

He talks law and order, the language of yesterday’s TV show now in re-runs. He thinks impulsively in tweets and thrives on his child-like attention deficit disorder. His supporters are overwhelmingly white, defined as excluding not only African Americans but also Latinos (particularly Mexicans) and Muslims. (“White” is a social construct and tends to defines itself: the British definition long excluded the Irish.)

He is, in short, the modern version of the European white man who, on arrival in the New World, began the genocide that reduced the Aboriginal population to almost nothing, and bought African slaves to grow the cotton. If white supremacy conjures up too much baggage from the past, call it the racism of white privilege which just keeps on lingering about and polluting American politics. 

It’s just possible, but it’s much too early to tell, that Trump as America’s Great White Hope is the last of a dying species, who will go out, come November, with a whimper. Or not, for he could otherwise be the snarly face of American authoritarianism on the road to fascism.

A little history is in order. One of the greatest achievements of American politics was the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, yet it was firmly anchored in Washington in an unholy alliance of northern liberals talking the good society and southern segregationists of the Jim Crow persuasion trampling on rights for Black Americans, of whom less than five percent had the vote.

It’s useful to begin our story at those times because that coalition kept the Democrats in power — except for Eisenhower who was a national hero, an outsider to politics, a genuine conservative — up until to 1968 when Republican Richard Nixon successfully broke the Democratic monopoly on national politics from the right, talking 43 percent of the vote, while Alabama Governor George Wallace, running as a an overtly racist populist, to the right of Nixon, took another 13 percent.  

The response to President Johnson’s civil rights legislation on behalf of the Black population in the mid-1960s was a white backlash against the Democrats — not only in the South but also in the cities of the North to which Blacks had migrated — which has now culminated with Trump’s capture of the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — though that does not take away what Johnson did.

Powerful forces have been at work. White people as a percentage of the American population has steadily fallen — though still a clear majority — at the same time as America’s economic power globally has steadily declined.

The combination is toxic. Among white Americans, its working class, having been ill treated by globalization, sees itself as doubly damaged, by immigration from Mexico and jobs lost to China. They see themselves as the victims as well of political correctness — which means they can’t speak plainly what’s on their minds — affirmative action, women’s liberation, same-sex marriage, gun control, all of these being manifestations of the liberal mindset. Having been the core of the Democratic Party and its New Deal, they have voted Republican, and increasingly so, since 1968. Fixated on this fact, the Republicans lost control of their already extremist party to Trump.

Trump’s genius consists of a pitch perfect ear for these voices, and the ability to play back to people what they have said in his own mesmerizing way. Trump’s the bully that promises to restore their Promised Land by making America great again, and by massively deporting non-whites and in stopping any more from coming. He plays the media like an accordion.

American nationalism, long known for its intensity, is the bedrock on which Trump stands. Trump’s nationalism is one where he looks steadily forward into the rear-view mirror. Being inherently unworkable, it promises chaos — and violence endlessly begetting violence, which feed authoritarianism ad nauseam. Detailed analysis of polling data shows that the most common feature of Trump supporters is, in fact, an appreciation for authority.

Despair Trumps hope, but hope trumps despair, and the longer I live the more I believe that. There always has been, and long will be, Lincoln’s better angels of America and this should not be forgotten in the midst of the present madness.

Since the time of de Tocqueville going on two centuries ago, American democracy — which is now facing one of its severest tests – has been written about by outsiders as one of the wonders of the world. In 2008 a Black man with a middle name which sounded Muslim became president and was re-elected in 2012. (This latter fact seems to have pushed the Republicans over the line into a frenzy.) In 2016 there is a good chance that a woman will be elected President. Trump is backlash to all that. 

Bernie Sanders succeeded in putting social democracy, which he brazenly called “socialism” on the agenda of American politics, in his ­­­­­­­appeal to white voters, and particularly youth who hold the future of America. Come November, a growing number of Americans, rejecting both Trump and Clinton, may vote Green and give a desperately needed boost to dealing with climate change.

America wrongly tries to force feed its democracy to the world, but there have always been those, and still are, whose first choice for a new home is America. Immigration as an issue tears America apart but immigrants by coming and staying constantly remake America.

(Read, I implore you, the powerful story, The True America: Murder and Mercy in Texas by Anand Giridharadas, who tells it as it happened post 9/11, when a white Texan proclaiming his patriotism started shooting Muslims. The true story has an unexpected ending, of hope midst the horror.)

Bad leaders like George W. Bush start wars but Americans, to their great credit, quickly lose interest in supporting them. America came late to both World Wars of the twentieth century. It’s hard for a non-American to make any criticism of America that hasn’t been made by an American. America has its wrongs that good Americans work hard to correct.

Is it possible that Americans ask for God’s blessing because they know they are sorely in need of it? The social media that the left sees as offering new hope for democracy was invented in an America known for its creativity in science and technology. I personally love the America of cable TV drama, and of historical scholarship which enriches my understanding of America. (Case in point: Michael A. Cohen’s American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, 2016) 

There’s more, much more, to America than Donald Trump — and Hillary Clinton’s neoliberalism too for that matter. Repeat after me: as American as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Code Pink, Noam Chomsky, Elizabeth Warren, Jimmy Carter (since he left the White House), Jody Williams, Edward Snowden, Wendell Berry, Annie Proulx,­­ Bill McKibben, the Borowitz Report, etc. etc. (Feel free to add to this list as you see fit.)

America’s pursuit of democracy pushes the envelope and risks extremes but stops short. Methinks it will again. For all our sakes, including my four American grandchildren.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is Editor Emeritus of This Magazine and a frequent contributor to Peace magazine. He is a member...