For 18 months a plague has swept through America, spreading xenophobia, hate and resentment. Last night, 70-year-old Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. His campaign should have been routed. But this infection would not die.
The multicultural coastal cities that bookend the nation’s continental mass commiserate. The white nationalism exploited by the tycoon’s presidential bid has been emboldened. It not only now has a grip on the contorted husk of Republican Party politics, but it also has the White House.
“Trump has unleashed forces ― forces much bigger than he is ― that simply can’t be put back into the bottle,” said Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank, earlier this year. He was right.
Chauvinism and bigotry have long been shadowy forces in the politics of the United States. But Trump’s campaign took them a step further, pulling them into the light, and with it, yanking American democracy towards a cliff edge. Last night, Lady Liberty stepped off into the void.
On Wednesday, as America awoke to news of Trump’s victory, the New Yorker’s David Remnick called the election outcome, “a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.”
It is also a tragedy for the old Republican Party, which is now dead. The GOP has proved unwilling to stand up to the president-elect’s vociferous support, even when that meant playing footsie with anti-Semitism, calling to torch the 14th Amendment or undercutting democracy with talk of a “rigged” election.
For some Trump voters, conservative orthodoxies be damned. The motivating force is now immigration and hostility to non-whites. The GOP yielded. It had planned to spend four years subverting Hillary Clinton’s administration rather than have a reckoning of its own. That reckoning has now been permanently abandoned.
The party’s retrograde plank, revealed during Trump’s coronation in July at the Republican National Convention, will now be enacted. During that event, Trump delivered an acceptance speech appealing directly to the white working class. Eyeballing the camera, he bellowed: “I am your voice.”
“I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals,” he said. “These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.”
American manufacturing has certainly suffered in recent decades, and the impact on the working class is real. In his book “Hillbilly Elegy,” author J. D. Vance depicts life in a county in Ohio scarred by welfare dependency, drug abuse and a chronic lack of opportunity. This is the message of economic anxiety ― white workers forgotten in an age of globalism.
But Trump’s response was a masquerade. His economic plan will help Vance’s heroes naught. During the campaign he capitalized on their economic plight as a cover to peddle jingoism and bullying, tapping into the death throes of white Christian hegemony to fear-monger against “the other.”
And his supporters, still suffering from the 2008 financial crash, a collapse in institutional trust, and feeling culturally mocked for their beliefs in in God, guns and the flag, were captivated, drawn to the authoritarianism of a man who promised to cure their ills, to re-establish the group’s religious and cultural dominance ― to “Make America Great Again.”
Nominee Trump puffed: “I alone can fix it,” even at the expense of the U.S. Constitution, now flexible in matters of free speech, religious tolerance, or a woman’s right to choose.
Towards the end of his run Trump regularly recited lyrics to “The Snake,” an Aesop-style fable with “immigrants” as the viper that betrayed its naive host. Some have suggested Trump was the snake, biting the GOP after it took him in.
But the true serpent is the dark populism of the political right, welcomed in decades ago by a party now held hostage by its fangs.
The success of Trump’s campaign was the natural conclusion of the GOP’s long-standing inability to respond to a groundswell of demographic changes. Instead the party surrendered its soul to the mountebanks of talk radio, whose ethnocentric rhetoric energized millions of voters receptive to a message of white grievance.
Trumpism is white nationalism, and the Republican Party must now entertain it, regardless of whatever economic doctrines grandees like Speaker Paul Ryan sermonize in the capital. As journalist Bret Stephens lamented on the eve of the election, conservative and political leaders, “prostrated themselves before Mr. Trump simply because he won.”
Whatever Trump does in office, the fascistic forces that gave rise to his bid are now permanently coiled around a party that once fought for slaves.
There they will remain, even after Trump and his ghastly coterie are consigned to the ghosts of reminisce.