Tuesday’s election was a plebiscite on nativist racism, which emerged looking rather strong, and we delude ourselves by imagining anything else. The election was a plebiscite because Donald Trump’s personality was primary in everyone’s thinking, regardless of what people may have told their exit-pollsters. And nativist racism was the question at issue because the president chose to make it so.
His advisers and common sense and the American political tradition pleaded with him to boast of the national economy. He preferred to conjure his specter of a criminal caravan from Central America threatening to invade the United States, and he hinted at violence by not only ordering a military response on the border but by saying that soldiers would respond to rock-throwing with rifle fire—which, even if he walked it back, made for one more presidential invocation of gun fire, on top of his remark that Tree of Life in Pittsburgh ought to have armed itself. And his decision to do all of this turned out to be shrewder than his advisers appear to have imagined. Doubtless he understood that nativist racism was not going to advance the Republican cause in the wealthy suburban House districts. But he figured that it was going to help in the Senate races, and perhaps in some of the gubernatorial races, too, and he was right.
He is shrewd. And he gave a vivid display of his manly indifference to the complaints of civilized people, which is a main source of his popularity. The 40 percent who like him, love him, and the manly indifference is the reason.
It is revolting. It is barbarous. And the spectacle is still more disgraceful because, in the nature of things, an election like this one, which produces a mixed result, produces, as well, an almost irresistible temptation to regard the political situation as fundamentally normal: a clash of parties, to be analyzed the way partisan clashes are normally analyzed. And so, the commentators go on about rural zones versus urban zones, the validity of health care as a slogan, the craftiness of one or another politician, and the appeal of local concerns, and they speak like that because, being schooled in normal politics, they do not know how to do anything else. The only thing they can imagine is a pitched battle between the zealots of Sen. Mitch McConnell and the zealots of Sen. Chuck Schumer. And, to be sure, the zealots of McConnell and Schumer did fight it out. But mostly the election was not a normal event. It was a contest to see how much of the country could be mobilized on a basis of hysteria and mass loathing. And this has been the case throughout the political career of Donald Trump.
It should be remembered that hysteria and loathing were Trump’s original instinct, at the very start of his primary campaign for the Republican nomination, back in 2015. He slandered the Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, and, in that manner, he brought himself to national political attention. After a while he slandered the Muslim immigrants, too. Slander was his distinctive issue, more than any other issue—ethnic slander, together with an air of violence.
Slander was not his only issue, to be sure. Over the months of his campaign, however, he figured out how to introduce a hint of ethnic slander into his tirades against economic globalization, and, in that fashion, he merged his several issues into one. The final television ad in the 2016 campaign was a nationalist rant against financiers and globalism, whose frontman was shown to be a very sinister-looking Hillary Clinton, but whose true masters were shown to be George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein, which is to say, the Jews, all of which was presented in a tone of madness and hysteria.
I will sound over-the-top if I explain that Trump’s final television ad of 2016 conformed to a Nazi style. Donald Trump is not, after all, a Nazi. Still, his ad conformed to a Nazi style. You can see this for yourself by looking at a study of Nazi propaganda and ideology by Jeffrey Herf, the historian, called The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust, an invaluable book, which contains some reproductions of Nazi posters.
Trump concluded his midterm campaign just now on a similar note, this time with a TV ad returning to his original anti-Mexican theme, adapted to respond to a caravan of migrants from Honduras and perhaps other places in Central America that is wending into Mexico on its way to the faraway United States border. Here, in the convoy ad, is the same tone of hysteria. The caravan, it is implied, is filled with the most violent of criminals. A Mexican drug dealer named Luis Bracamontes, who murdered policemen in Sacramento, appears on screen. The ad shows a mob of people like Bracamontes scaling a wall, as if showing us the invasion.
A woman appears on-screen with an anxious look, a brunette, for some reason—a blonde would have been more traditional, I would think—and she appears on screen a second time, just to drive home the point that, but for Donald Trump, women like her will be raped by the caravan of men who resemble Bracamontes, the criminal. Trump’s oratory at his campaign rallies vibrated to the same pitch of hysteria and hatred.
This sort of thing is monstrous, coming from the White House. But Trump has had success with it. You can judge this by turning away for a moment from the election results, with their scattering of Republican successes and failures, in order to glance at the coordinated response of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic strategists have concluded that it would be a big mistake for Democrats to campaign principally as the anti-Trump party. The Democrats should present themselves, instead, as the party that cares about the kitchen-table issues of ordinary voters, which right now means health care, above all. And the Democrats have accepted this advice. Health care has been their issue. Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has appeared on TV relentlessly and woodenly repeating the seven syllables of “pre-existing conditions,” as if summing up the party program.
Are the Democrats right to hammer away at this sort of thing, and to be disciplined about it, and to refuse to allow themselves to get drawn into attacks on Trump himself and his character and his ideas, apart perhaps from an occasional remark deploring something called “divisiveness”? I concede their logic. Their victory in the House races was a solid victory, and the Democrats enjoyed many other victories, too, which will have great significance in the next years. It is a triumph, mixed with failures in the Senate and in the South.
Only, why didn’t the Democrats present a disciplined argument against racism, too, and against grotesque slanders? They refrained from doing so because their goal is to win, and not to convert. They have realized that raising those other issues will please and excite their own political base, but will do nothing to persuade people who might vote for Trump; and it is the Trump voters they need to attract.
Perhaps the Democrats also believe that, in America, most people are not, after all, racists or conspiracy maniacs, and it is not really necessary to argue against Trump and his speeches and ads, and therefore no harm is done by focusing their own propaganda on the kitchen-table issues. But is this true?
I think it is not true, and the consequences of their error ought to be obvious. By now there have been three years of racist slander by America’s leader against Mexicans (meaning, more broadly, Central Americans, too, and anyone from Latin America). Frequently the slanders spread to Muslim immigrants, as well. Part of Trump’s rants about the faraway migrant caravan is a continued insistence that it must contain people from the Middle East, as well. Occasionally the slanders insinuate something about Jewish financiers. But mostly the objects of Trump’s rants have been Mexicans, the illegal immigrants who are said to be rapists and murderers.
The rants convey an emotion of rage. They incite. And there has been no systematic refutation, not on the national scale. Why not? It is because Trump has won, on this issue. He has intimidated the Democrats. The Democrats are not necessarily timid by nature. Many a Democrat is anything but timid. But Trump has intimidated the Democrats because he does, in truth, command a vast ability to mesmerize his public. He stands at the front of his rallies exuding hatred, contempt, violence, and savagery. And his crowds are enchanted. And the crowds are enormous—as we have seen just now in the election. And the Democrats conclude that it might be wise to choose their battles, which leads to health care, a winning issue.
In this fashion, a supremely ugly shadow has fallen over American life—in three layers, I think, the first two of which are visible. There is a dark shadow of public rhetoric, comprising the president’s speeches and ads and his tweets, which goes largely unanswered at the national level—year after year of relentless anger and loathing, directed at various individuals but also at entire populations. This must now be reckoned a principal element of American culture, given its provenance in the White House. There is another layer. This is a layer of actual violence, and not just rhetorical violence—the violence that we have seen repeatedly, a random violence combined with a racist violence, most recently meaning an anti-Semitic violence.
And there is a third layer, which is invisible. This is the shadow that has descended over a vast number of Mexicans and other immigrants in America, and especially over the numberless people who are, in reality, illegal immigrants. These are the people who are laboring in workplaces where they can be victimized at will because they have no rights and cannot appeal to the law. They are people who live in daily fear of being attacked or robbed by their neighbors or bosses, or jailed by the police and deported by the immigration authorities—people whose sufferings are invisible because they cannot allow themselves to be seen or heard.
Who defends these people? No one defends them, or almost no one. The entire program of Donald Trump’s campaign of hatred is directed at them, and along with him, the hatred of the 40 percent that adore Donald Trump. And why do 40 percent of the American population hate those people? It is not because, with an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent (and lower still for whites), the illegal Mexicans and other immigrants are stealing jobs. It is for no reason at all. It is because hatred is satisfying, and it is because the leaders of the Republican Party urge them on to a kind of alcoholism of loathing.
The story of the immigrants and especially the people without papers, the ultimate objects of Trump’s hatred, has not yet been told. Everyone who loves America can only tremble at the realization that one day we will learn their story, and we will learn that America is what it is, and we will think back on ourselves in the age of Trump, and we will howl with shame.
To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.