The 2016 Republican National Convention began in the immediate shadow of a highly publicized death spiral involving police and black civilians in Dallas, Falcon Heights, and Baton Rouge. Against this backdrop, the Trump campaign seemed to choose the legacy of Richard Nixon rather than Ronald Reagan as the party’s patron saint. Indeed, 1968 has functioned as myth and symbol throughout the Trump campaign, as they have leaned on racially-charged Nixonian phrases like ‘law and order’, ‘Silent Majority’ and ‘forgotten Americans.’ It might be more accurate to say that Trump has bundled Nixon together with George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor whose independent campaign for president that year was more openly racist and confrontational, but who with Nixon defined the Republican Party’s white populist turn.
Going into the convention, top Trump campaign aide Paul Manafort shocked reporters by suggesting that the violent atmosphere of “lawlessness” surrounding the convention was welcome. Indeed, even Wallace had been more tactful in his approach. When asked by reporters about the riots that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Wallace told a reporter, “Of course, any breakdown in law and order is going to support the position of anybody like me who is against a break-down in law and order. Now I don’t want to be helped that way. All I say is they seem to be getting worse and nobody wants to try to stop it.”
It is hard to say whether the ghost of Nixon has returned as tragedy or farce. At the “America First Unity Rally” outside the convention on Day One, elements of the far right were connected to the new standard bearer of the Republican Party through Nixon dirty trickster Roger Stone. The all-day rally, which also featured such figures as professional conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Breitbart editor and internet racist Milo Yiannapoulos, gave voice to a variety of far right perspectives. When Stone excitedly told the crowd that he had just come from a meeting with Trump’s campaign advisors, the Infowars enthusiasts, and white nationalists in the crowd cheered excitedly. These people, once relegated to the margins of the American right had become suddenly relevant over the past few months.
Yet the “America First Unity Rally” was also interesting for the odd mix it brought together. Yiannopoulos told the crowd that he was “a dangerous faggot”, chiding them that while many would rather live on their feet than die on their knees, he is quite happy to live on his knees. He contrasted his right to felatio with the repressive nature of Islam – “not Islamic terrorism, but Islam itself.” Yiannopoulos’ most crowd-pleasing move is to make his audience uncomfortable before pulling them back in with shared bigotry. “I’m a dick-sucking faggot . . . and I fucking hate the left!” he shouted. “Remember, we are your gays, not their gays” he said to the delighted crowd while someone waved a giant rainbow flag in the back. He ended by telling the rally that he was off to Sweden to lead a gay rights rally… right through a Muslim neighborhood.
Similarly, Diamond and Silk, an African American internet radio duo, began their speech with a rant about radical Islam and the need to “throw ISIS under the bus,” but spent much of their time on “illegals.” Their favorite theme is the unfair criminalization of blacks versus the real criminality of the undocumented. “If we go to someone’s house uninvited, and we go right up in their house, they call that breaking and entering! It’s just wrong to go into someone’s house and take their things!” “If Bill Clinton can do mass incarceration,” as they say on one of their Youtube videos. “we can do mass deportation!” “Educate your black friends!” they exhorted the mostly white crowd.
In some way it seems strange that the far right, traditionally anti-gay and deeply racist, would thrill to Yiannopoulos or feature numerous black speakers on stage (the others were Pastor Darryl Scott and radio host Wayne Dupree). Yet the embrace of traditionally excluded identities into the Trump campaign is a powerful way to underscore the main lines of opposition it draws: anti-Islam, and anti-immigration.
In his extraordinary 1936 essay “On the Psychological Structure of Fascism,” Georges Bataille argued that new political formations result the incorporation of formerly excluded elements into the unifying core of a movement “with a kind of rage (sadism) manifest in each command.” Trumpism can incorporate LGBT or black politics only to the degree that those identities are mobilized in brutality and toward the common end of nativism and Islamophobia. Yiannapoulos, with his platinum shock of hair and Kevlar vest exemplifies this perfectly even as his racist rage spills over every boundary. At the rally Yiannapoulos gestured to a black man in the audience and said, “You’re our black base. Yes you are the one we’re always talking about. You sir, are a meme.” Two days after that rally Yiannapoulos was permanently banned from Twitter for a racist social media attack the actor Leslie Jones which inspired thousands of his followers to do the same.
In the Quickens Loans Arena that evening it was “Law and Order Night” which featured plenty of speakers, and many of them black, lashed out against immigrants and protesters while defending the police in a show of authoritarianism far harsher than the usual fare at Republican conventions. Three people to take the stage spoke of the painful deaths of their children caused by illegal immigrants, others spoke of the need to quell domestic protest and “anarchy,” and still others, like Rudy Giuliani screamed about black protest at home and Islamic threats from abroad. This was to be the night that would define for the nation what the country could expect from a Trump presidency. It was not the confident assertion of a Silent Majority that would rule in the name of safety and order, but rather the shrill cry of a people under siege.
In 1865 Abraham Lincoln’s corpse was briefly placed in Cleveland’s Public Square under an elaborate canopy with no walls. This unique arrangement enabled tens of thousands an unobstructed view of the remains of the first Republican president as it stopped along its route. A century and a half later Public Square became a place where the entire country could view, through hundreds of media outlets, what looked increasingly like the corpse of Lincoln’s party. Public Square became the main outdoor gathering space for conventioneers and others. Across the days of the Republican National Convention, party loyalists tried to put on a brave face as they mixed uncomfortably with newly emboldened Islamophobes and anti-immigrant zealots. There were also anti-Trump protesters to be sure, but the overwhelming presence of law enforcement all but ensured there would be no real disruption by the left.
Among the Republican delegates and other party members I spoke with there was a kind of melancholy about their candidate. Many frankly admitted that he had not been their choice. Indeed hesitancy about Trump was expressed by those who described themselves as “mainstream” Republicans, social conservatives, and free market libertarians.
Jan and Tina, two local Republican volunteers in their seventies told me that the most important thing to them was party unity. When I asked them on what ground they thought the party should unify they each demurred, turning the question back to me. I met two Tea Partiers from Westchester – Howard, an office chair manufacturer and a Steven, a real estate lawyer. They told me that the Tea Partiers in Congress had sold out and that this is why Republican grassroots chose Trump. When I asked if Trump shared their economic views, they said that they hoped that he would in time. Nick and Tim, two members of the campus-based “limited government” organization Turning Point USA admitted that they weren’t sure they would support Trump, but thought it important to stick with the party for the time being. Most Republicans I spoke to were able to tell a story in which Trump was not as racially extreme as he acted, or that he was much more of an economic conservative than he let on.
Then there were the Trump supporters, who mostly seemed, unsurprisingly to be focused on immigration and Islamic terror, and the greatness of Donald Trump. I spoke with two men holding Teamsters for Trump signs who began by talking about “the issues of the working man” but veered quickly into race and culture. One told me about immigrants driving down wages, the other described “stinky mosque” down the street from his apartment in New York City who “never once flew an American flag,” the other about the union’s support of immigrants who drive down wages.
In the middle of Public Square on Wednesday someone had laid out a series of panels of “Stolen Lives.” These were photos and accompanying stories of people who had been killed either intentionally or on accident by undocumented immigrants. I asked the person in charge of this display, Timothy Lynge, what was important to understand about these deaths. He said if these people had been deported, or never let in, the deceased would still be alive. Were there more people killed proportionally by undocumented immigrants than by legal immigrants, or plumbers, or some other category of identification? He told me that was an excellent question and one that Trump, unlike Obama or Clinton, would be willing to investigate. When I asked him if his organization had contact with the Trump campaign he produced photographs of his wife, Maria Espinoza introducing Trump at a number of events on the campaign trail on behalf of the “Remembrance Project: A Voice for Victims Killed by Illegal Aliens.” This connection with Trump since the claim linking undocumented immigrants to outsized murder rates has been made since the day Trump announced his candidacy, and was given full voice on the convention stage, but it is a reminder that these political links are organizational, not merely rhetorical.
The populist politics that originally emerged in the GOP in 1968 was forged in opposition to the black freedom movement and related anti-racist struggles, feminism, gay rights, and the counterculture. This politically conservative identity was steeped in resentment, and indeed drew strength, focus and direction from its determination to maintain whiteness, masculinity, the hetero-patriarchal family, and global might as the governing terms of US political culture. Today, this formation is still marked by resentment, but it can no longer sustain the dream of white majoritarianism in a demographically changing electorate, the comfort of economic security after decades of growing precarity, nor the perceived masculine virtue of producerism – or “making things” – in an increasingly financialized economy.
For many Trump supporters, continued attachment to a populism that demonizes other groups sustains a fantasy that economic inequality and the vulnerability it produces can be defeated through attacks on immigrants, poor people of color, and Muslims. The Silent Majority may no longer be an electoral majority in US politics, but it is an increasingly unstable and dangerous political identity, of which the Trump campaign has already given ample evidence. National GOP elites will likely continue to pursue economic policies that widen the gap between the very rich and everyone else. If so, opportunities for the growth of powerfully racist, authoritarian politics will abound, seeking new enemies and new allies. As we already see in the Trump movement, regardless of what happens to the Republicans, dangerous forms of white populism will likely develop both inside and outside the party system.