Okay, Trump is not Hitler: that is a less than perfect comparison. And the racists making robocalls are not the Brown Shirts or Storm Troopers of Kristallnacht. Those calls, however, are increasing in frequency, going beyond dog whistling to outright race-baiting, whether it is against African American candidates for Florida’s governor or to undermine others who express sympathy for nonwhites more generally. Nonetheless, it is time to face facts that have been staring us in the face at least since the Charlottesville riot last year: Trump’s presidency has emboldened extreme white nationalists to insist on their moment in the political sun. The haters might be a minority but they are critical to Trump’s base and he and the rest of the Republican Party dare not denigrate them too much for fear they will lose their support. And so now they unduly influence the parameters of policy positions and the political posturing of the dominant political party in this country. We are past the tipping point — Trumpism is our new reality, one firmly embedded in our politics, and likely to outlive Trump’s presidency (which seems destined to not last one full term).
Like Billy Joel, Trump did not start the fire, but he sure as hell has poured gasoline on it. I suspect most Americans never thought we would be here, but here we indeed are. Contrary to what we might have thought when Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, racial progress is not an inevitability. Even if we agree with Martin Luther King that the arc of moral universe ultimately bends toward justice, it does not do so automatically. Instead, the history of the country shows that each advance toward justice for African Americans has provoked an opposing reaction and regression. The lessons of race relations in the U.S. teach us that history is not linear; things do to not necessarily progress. And if they do it is only within a dynamic of reform followed by reaction that must, in Sisyphean fashion, be fought back against all over again. Race politics is cyclical, with one political movement reacting to another. Backlash is a permanent feature of race relations in the U.S., and now we are witnessing the culmination of the backlash to the racial progress that was hoped for by political movements from Civil Rights through the Obama presidency. Today we live with the frightening reality of violent, white nationalist, reactions to the efforts of nonwhites to simply live ordinary lives as ordinary citizens. The most haunting part of the normalization of Trumpism is the way these violent reactions are minimized instead of taken for the horrors they are. When will white Americans take notice, call it out, resist the backsliding; repudiate Trumpism at the ballot box? That’s the question. Will the 2018 midterm elections be the answer? As Trump says: you tell me.
Timothy Snyder and others who know how Adolf Hitler came to power try to remind us that it did not happen all at once. Instead it happened by small, incremental steps, each of which tested what the public would tolerate or choose to ignore. This was the process that led to Hitler’s demolition of the Weimar democracy and the ultimate ascendency of the Aryan supremacist policies that led to the Holocaust. Today, too, political analysts talk about “norm erosion,” wherein Trump tests, in small, incremental steps, the extent to which he can publicly flaunt normative political practices. He constantly seeks to underscore his status as the great disruptor, overturning failed political conventions and accepted ways of behaving within the existing liberal constitutional order. In the process, he continues to undermine our ability to hold him accountable. Like Hitler, if not exactly Hitler, Trump keeps looking for ways to undermine the norms as well as the laws that restrain him and hold him accountable. Families are torn asunder at the border, citizens are losing their passports, nonwhites are increasingly surveilled on the basis of their color — all of these are illegal policies, but all have been enacted by Trump in ways that suggest he does not care about the law at all. This not just not normal; it is like the Holocaust even if it never materializes in systematic attempts to do away with African Americans, Latino immigrants, and Muslims, the three key targeted groups of Trump’s hate speech. Like those who stood by as Hitler came to power, we keep reminding ourselves it is not yet that bad, that we can contain it, that it will be all right; that Trump may never ever be Hitler. Okay, sure. But in the process, we are desensitizing ourselves to the incremental processes that undermine the norms of our democracy, thereby making the horrors Trump’s fervent minority of white nationalists are promoting all the more possible.
Yet it is more than Trump. His insistence on being explicit about what he hates — Latino immigrants, Muslims, African Americans; women who challenge him — embolden the white nationalists who support him. Their agenda is narrower than Trump’s, but it is just as mean-spirited. I remember when Oliver North testified to the perfidy that pervaded the Reagan Administration when it came to the surreptitious attempts to trade arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra scandal. A journalist reporting on the story commented that the Reagan Administration was like a hammer on deadwood: sometimes when you bang a hammer on deadwood, he noted, all these creepy, crawling, repugnant things come out. Trump is the hammer to the white nationalist deadwood of America. And Stephen Miller is our Oliver North. Today Oliver North is the head of National Rifle Association and leads its increasingly white nationalist campaign to protect the right to bear assault weapons. Yet, inside the White House is once again someone who enacts the extreme agenda the base supports. Then again, the whole Trump Administration seems to be comprised of creeps who are attracted to enacting or exploiting Trump’s delusions. The morally bankrupt Trump has attracted people like himself to serve in his Administration. Grifters join with white supremacists to make the Trumpian nightmare our reality. And they did not take long to start behaving consistently. Some of the worst of what we fear is already happening. This is our reality now.
Still we caution against hyperbole and warn of the backlash that comes from overreach. Politics is not linear as much a cyclical, so we worry about the reaction. Yet new research is showing that countering racism works in part because the racists are a minority. The larger point made in such research is less empirical than normative: stay silent and be complicit, or speak to save your soul. The racists are here, with others who seek to benefit from Trump’s presidency, and as the resistance pushes back they are stirring up fear among whites in order to maintain power. They will robocall with racist catcalls. They will suppress votes with election law restrictions. They will demonize federal employees, teachers, unions, and ordinary workers — all to the protect their power and the privileges that come with it.
Trump himself continues to find ways to put himself above the law, threatening to end the investigation into whether he conspired with Russian agents to win the Presidency. He now invokes executive privilege as no other president has ever done in the spirit of his ongoing norm erosion, and now will prevent even the U.S. Senate from receiving the documents normally used to evaluate nominees for the Supreme Court. We are beyond what is normal.
It is happening now, in real time. Norm erosion is undermining our ability to hold the President accountable and allowing him to act on behalf of a minority that includes emboldened racists. The Republican Party is now in the full-time business of protecting a white supremacist presidency that constantly seeks to find ways to put itself beyond the law and beyond political accountability. This is our reality now: a presidency emboldened to override laws put in place to enforce democratic accountability so he can enact his agenda that derives support from a hateful minority. Trumpism is our new reality. We need to resist it. This is what the midterm elections are most crucially about.
Sanford F. Schram is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College.