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Standing outside a just-concluded Donald Trump rally in Everett, Washington on August 30, Chuck and Denise, a middle-aged couple from Tacoma, said on the inside, “There was every nationality, every age range, young, old, Black, white.”
Chuck explained why they backed Trump “We’re old-fashioned. We need law and order back. Trump says he’s going to build the wall. The flies come in. The mosquitoes come in.”
I exchanged glances with my companion, Alexander Reid Ross, a journalist who studies the right.
Denise chimed in about Syrian Refugees. It’s a “huge” issue, she said. “It bothers me we are letting in 200,000 refugees. We have no idea what they’re doing. They are probably affiliated with ISIS. They were raised to hate us.” (By September 2016, 12,391 Syrian refugees had been resettled in the United States in the prior year.)
Chuck chimed in, “We’re opposed to Islam.” Alexander asked if they were Christian. They said yes, explaining they were non-denominational. Denise walked back their response, saying, “We’re opposed to radical Islam, the militants.”
Chuck was worried about coming to the rally. “We didn’t know about Black Lives Matter, if they would have guns.”
Denise complained about “Billboards we can’t read.” She said they welcomed Hispanics in their neighborhood, “But don’t try to twist it around and make it look like Mexico.”
Chuck was exasperated because he couldn’t express his opinion. “We’re the furthest thing from racist, but you end up looking like the biggest racist on the block.”
Inside the rally the 10,000-person capacity arena was two-thirds full and well over 99 percent white. Trump said slowly to cheers, “We’re going to take back the White House.” It was a play on “Take back America,” the Tea Party movement’s rallying cry of aggrieved whites.
Trump continued, “We will rebuild our inner cities and provide safety and peace to all of our citizens. American values and culture will be cherished and celebrated once again.”
John, 24, a waiter from Bend, Oregon, which has a Black population of .5 percent, said before the rally he didn’t like Trump because the media “painted him as racist and sexist.” After seeing him, John said, “It’s the opposite. I have a lot more respect for him. He has empathy. He talked about African-American children and inner cities.”
Blake Von Mittman, 21, a proud nationalist and member of the white supremacist Alt-Right, said, “I want prosperity for all the races in this country. We are cradling Blacks and minorities like they are daisies. The media should unify all the races.” He doesn’t mind people celebrating their culture, but, “They should celebrate privately, and not make it a national holiday like Black History Month or quinceañeras. It’s disgusting.”
He said of Nigel Farage, the ethno-nationalist leader of the the U.K. Independence Party, “He represents a more revolutionary-type mindset in the best possible way.” Von Mittman added, “I’ve never been a racist. I love all the races. Illegal immigration is a plague.”
Across the country, Trump fans express similar ideas in their own words. After 18 months of an extraordinarily bitter, divisive, and even traumatic election, it seems there is nothing new to say. But the media have utterly failed to capture the essence of what Trump represents and why he has attracted such an intense following.
Trumpism boils down to one idea: ethnic cleansing. When he says, “Make America Great Again,” his followers understand he is really saying, “Make America White Again.”
While much of Trump’s platform is an ad hoc stream of viciousness, his core ideas involve eliminating entire groups from the public sphere. Millions would be physically removed. “Illegals” and Mexicans will be sent packing (the two are interchangeable in the minds of many supporters). He wants to shut off Muslim immigration through “extreme vetting,” Muslims here should be forced to register with the government and some mosques shut down.
His website is even more radical. He has mentioned reducing immigration to “moderate historical averages,” which could only be accomplished by terminating immigration for decades or booting out 27 million immigrants. Now he says he would “Suspend the issuance of visas to any place where adequate screening cannot occur, until proven and effective vetting mechanisms can be put into place.” This wording is so broad—no country can prove its screening is 100 percent effective—that Trump might be able to impose the type of severe controls under the 1924 National Origins Act that banned nearly all immigration from non-European countries. (Ironically, Mexicans were allowed in because they could be exploited as cheap labor, while bans on Asian immigration began in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act.)
Trump’s followers are clearly motivated by class and racial resentments, just as race and class are inseparable in the American experience. At a Trump rally last spring in Eugene, Oregon, the justifications his supporters gave for deporting 11 million immigrants all involved jobs or taxes―and it was always stated in racial and nationalist terms. To Trump and his supporters, undocumented immigrants are parasites and responsible for major economic and social problems, not the 1%.
“Immigration is the biggest thing—not coming to this country and sucking us dry.”
“You can’t just walk over the border and suck off the system—you get food stamps, health care.”
“I hope he’ll build the job economy back up and I hope he’ll put up the wall, just for the illegals.”
“[I am] working to support other people’s way of life.”
Trump incites nativism and xenophobia simultaneously by claiming every other nation takes advantage of America through the “worst trade deals,” through sending their worst people, and getting a free ride through military alliances. His supporters in Eugene echoed this with comments like:
“America [needs] to stop being taken advantage of like China does.”
“It’s time to take America back, bring our jobs back.”
“Bring back jobs, instead of losing jobs to others.”
“Illegal immigrants are driving down wages for lower-class workers.”
Trump presents trade, jobs, religion, and culture as a zero-sum game, and this attitudes trickles down to his grassroots. At a Trump victory party in Portland, Oregon, Jon Lovell, a construction worker, told me of a rental house he had renovated and how he tried to encourage the owner to “rent to a white family” instead of Hispanics.
Most Trump supporters don’t mention Muslims, but if asked they invariably favor a “temporary ban” and can’t or won’t say when it will be lifted. In Everett, Roger Birgen a retired navy vet, backed a ban, saying of Muslims, “Don’t bring your religion and force it on me.” To cheers from the crowd, Trump recited the “snake poem,” comparing Syrian refugees to poisonous reptiles. (It’s in the vein of the Heathen Chinee Poem that was wildly popular during 19th century anti-Asian hysteria.)
The millions on board the Trump train believe Muslims and Mexicans are mortal threats to the nation’s safety, economic health, and cultural survival. From this perspective, the logical, indeed only sensible, solution is to cleanse the Republic of foreign goods, foreign entanglements, and foreign peoples.
Trump’s sinister tales are well-suited for his audience. A massive Gallup survey of more than 26,000 Trump fans concluded, “The racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the zip code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.” Likewise, a New York Times analysis of census data found the second-strongest indicator of support were among those who listed their ancestry as “American.” Then there is the fact that as the density of a county increases, which correlates with diversity, so does the likelihood that it goes Democratic. His voters skew older with greatest support among those over 65.
Add in weak economies and declining life expectancies among middle-aged whites in many Trump strongholds, and this creates a scenario of whites who romanticize a racially pure past, live in homogeneous communities today, and envision their future slipping away. Trump has convinced many they’ve been robbed of birthright privileges that can only be regained by defeating alien threats. But Trump is not merely a mirror for what exists. Given Bernie Sanders’ considerable support in much of the Midwest now tilting toward the reality TV star, Trump is a lens focusing specific wavelengths of racialized rage.
When Trump supporters are asked, “When was America last great?”, a few point to the 1970s or 1980s, which is bygone enough to have acquired a rose-tinted nostalgia for younger voters. Many say the 1950s, but just as many want to turn the clock back to before FDR, the early 20th century, or even late 19th century. These are all times when legal apartheid and racial terror dominated the lives of Blacks, Chicanos, and Native Americans. And it’s likely no coincidence that those longing to return to the early 1900s idealize a time when life expectancy was 33 years for African-Americans.
Ethnic cleansing sounds extreme because it evokes images of armed bands of grim-faced men from the Balkans to the Congo violently displacing communities. But afflicted by national amnesia, we forget ethnic cleansing defines every era of American history and the most extreme forms, such as the genocide of Native Americans and Jim Crow, have been official policy.
There are many other examples. The 19th century was marked by anti-Chinese and anti-Catholic pogroms. Scholars say in the 1910s the Texas Rangers massacred “hundreds—if not thousands—of Mexican-Americans” in the state. This was also the dawn of the “great migration” of African-Americans leaving the South for booming cities in the North. Racial and labor tensions led to scores of race riots during World War One and after, though many should be labeled pogroms. White vigilantes aided by local law enforcement who murdered hundreds of African-Americans in East St. Louis in 1917, up to 300 in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, 237 people in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919, and an unknown number in Rosewood, Florida in 1923.
Meanwhile, thousands of towns from Maine to California and Texas to Minnesota were convulsed by ethnic cleansing. James Loewen, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, calls these whites-only burgs sundown towns, “because some of them posted signs at their city limits reading, typically, ‘Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In ___.’” Chinese, Jews, and other groups were often excluded as well “by force, law, or custom.” Loewen lists thousands of possible sundown towns. Cleveland, for example, is ringed by many such towns like Brunswick, Cuyahoga Falls, Broadview Heights, Hudson, and Chagrin Falls that are 99 percent white to this day.
In this light, Trump’s schizophrenic language about African-Americans makes sense. He is, of course, not trying to appeal to Black voters. Some polls have recorded zero percent support from African-Americans because of his racist history and his description of their current lives “hellish.” He wants his followers to believe he and by extension they care about Black life and progress, as John, the waiter from Bend, Oregon, expressed. The aim is to inoculate his campaign against charges of racism even though that’s it’s defining appeal. He tells his audiences, “When Democratic policies fail, they are left with only this one tired argument: ‘You’re racist, you’re racist, you’re racist.’ It’s a tired disgusting argument.”
Even as Trump’s followers deny they are racist, he nurtures their racism. His support aligns closely with racist attitudes. Supporters say they like Trump because “He speaks the way I speak,” and “I like the idea he is not P.C. When he says something, I can understand him.” What they mean is like Trump they can now make bigoted statements about entire groups of people, the definition of racism, and pose as fearless truth-tellers instead of being shunned as dimwitted racists.
More significant, Trump’s hucksterism distracts from how he seeks to delegitimize Black political activity. He blames Black Lives Matter for police killings, has said as president he would investigate the movement, and turned his RNC coronation into a minstrel show with Black speakers bellowing, “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.” His “law and order” and “silent majority” slogans are taken from Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign that whipped up white resentment against the Black freedom struggle.
Trump’s falsehoods about voter fraud in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago are loud dog whistles to his white nationalist base. The right’s history of trying to eliminate Black political power has intensified in the last decade. On top off restrictive I.D. laws and barriers to early voting, Trump is encouraging supporters to engage in outright intimidation of minority voters, which is strikingly reminiscent of Reconstruction-era suppression of Black voters.
This is another component of Trump’s ethnic cleansing: banish African-American voices and issues to the margins as much as possible. It has a long historical lineage. Every time there are Black political or social gains, such as with Reconstruction, the Great Migration, or the Civil Rights Era, there is a violent white reaction aided and encouraged by demagogic politicians. This time is no different except Trump has been in the forefront of the backlash. He staked his candidacy on delegitimizing the first Black president, demonized Black Lives Matter, and suggested using stop-and-frisk nationwide, in effect further criminalizing Blacks and Latinos.
If Trump is elected, he would likely have a Republican Congress and could solidify a hard-right Supreme Court majority, leaving few checks. He would have more power than George W. Bush and a far more extreme agenda. More significant, Trumpism isn’t about a static set of policies, it is a dynamic. Because he would rule like he campaigned, Trump would constantly pick fights to draw attention away from his disastrous policies. With a base clamoring for entire groups to be forced out of the country or public life, Trump would likely deliver with mass roundups and deportations of undocumented immigrants, bans on Muslims, and intensified repression of African-Americans. Racist vigilantes would have a White House that would look the other and social approval to carry out more extreme measures.
If Trump loses, ethnic cleansing would be impossible to implement without state power. It will be far less dangerous, but not disappear. States will try to carry out discriminatory policies, such as Arizona and Alabama have. And it will burst out as politicized mass shooters like Dylan Roof.
It’s already happening. A Kansas militia calling itself “The Crusaders” was thwarted in October from allegedly perpetrating an Oklahoma City-style massacre on Somali immigrants. They planned to time the attack to the day after the election so as not to affect it, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations put the blame squarely on Trump for encouraging “domestic terrorist groups to commit acts of terrorism and violence against our community.” The three white militiamen arrested referred to Somalis as “cockroaches” and wanted to kill them because they “represent a threat to American society.” They hoped a bloodbath would “wake up” a lot more people to “decide they want this country back.”
Those words could have come straight out of Donald Trump’s mouth.
Alexander Reid Ross contributed to this report. An earlier version of this article was published by Telesur English.