Donald Trump And The American Divide
Has the language of division ever worked in a candidate’s favor so much?
In the fall of 1970, more than a decade after the seminal A Raisin In The Sun premiered on Broadway in New York, playwright Lorraine Hansberry debuted what she considered one of her most important works: Les Blancs. In a pivotal scene during the show, Tshembe, the protagonist, educates a white journalist on the enduring reality of being black. He explains how the device of conquest has been fraudulently but murderously employed in history, hidden under the auspice of religion in one generation, and race in another. “I believe in the recognition of devices as devices, but I also believe in the reality of those devices,” he says. “The fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he will not become a Muslim or a Christian — or who is lynched in Mississippi or Zatembe because he is black — is suffering the utter reality of that device of conquest. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn’t exist — merely because it is a lie.”
Like conquest, division is a device, sometimes dishonestly deployed. Its aim is to fracture, and split, and separate by a particular means. America, one might stipulate, was founded on the principle of division. Our sports, our clothes, our neighborhoods, our very identities are grounded in divisions. In politics, party divisions determine how the country is built and governed. By its nature, democracy excludes. The story of America has, for a long time, been the story of either/or and only sometimes the story of and.
Donald Trump understands and embraces this reality. This, in part, has made him the most polarizing political figure since Obama rose to national prominence in 2007. Often and without apology, he says whatever he wants, whenever he wants. In a September cover story for New York magazine, Frank Rich compared the billionaire egoist to Jay Bulworth, the outspoken politician from the 1998 Warren Beatty-led comedy. “What he does so rudely,” Rich wrote, “is call the GOP’s bluff by saying loudly, unambiguously, and repeatedly the ugly things that other Republican politicians try to camouflage in innuendo, focus-group-tested euphemisms, and consultantspeak.”
Since announcing his bid for president in June 2015, this is what we have come to understand as Trumpology: a growing dogma that synthesizes casual racism, Islamophobia, complete gibberish, and humor, all toward the personal and political advancement of Donald J. Trump.
“Donald Trump’s campaign is part of a tradition of candidates who are trying to play to the xenophobia and the racism that is inherent in conservative American politics,” Michael Fauntroy, author of 2008’s Republicans and the Black Vote, told me. “There’s long been a vein of intolerance that’s made it’s way through the body politic in America. And that vein is large or small depending on what’s going on in the country at the time, and whether or not candidates are willing to exploit it. This is one of the periods in which the country is more willing to accept that kind of rhetoric.”
Trump’s beliefs are the personification of privately held convictions, slanted viewpoints that slither across dinner tables at night as families discuss Why We Need to Build The Wall or How Guns Are Good for America.
To better understand Trump and his conquest of division, it's useful to consider Barack Obama. According to a 2009 U.S. Census report, a record number of African Americans voted for Obama in 2007. There was a “significant increase in voter turnout among young people, blacks and Hispanics,” noted Thom File, a voting analyst for the Census Bureau’s Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division. In the months preceding the historic election, Obama, a biracial senator from Chicago whose political ethos centered on “hope” and “change,” made a convincing case for coalition-based politics along the campaign trail: one where all voices would be heard. By election day, the message had manifest into reality. Obama understood his diverse constituency — the American people — more than his opponent, which helped him secure the Democratic Party nomination and the White House. In the shadow of defeat, the Republican Party promised to never again “concede that sort of overwhelming demographic advantage to Democrats.”
But where Obama preached bipartisan harmony, Trump spews a gospel of antagonism. Has a presidential candidate ever been this vocal in his hatred for non-whites and equally beloved by a considerable voting base? Has the language of division ever endowed a nominee with such bounty? Trump is unlike any politician, Republican or Democrat, we’ve seen before: he’s more hatefully plain-spoken than Sarah Palin, more arrogant than Mitt Romney, slimier than Barry Goldwater, more divisive than John McCain, and dumber than George W. Bush. Trump is pure anomaly.
It was easy to be cavalier about Trump’s hateful rhetoric at the onset of the election, when he was largely perceived as a joke candidate. But now that he’s made himself into a formidable contender, shouldn’t voters who’ve felt his scorn take seriously his remarks about, say, “laziness” being a “trait in blacks,” his anti-Mexican bluster, or his many, and very public, jabs at women over the years? Of course they should. Because this has been the point all along. Racial and gender inclusivity have never been a priority for the modern GOP, which crystallized under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, and now finds itself spiraling without a leader. According to a Fox News poll, more than half of Republicans believe Trump — who routed clown contenders like Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio — is the wrong candidate for the party. Division, like snake venom, contaminates completely.
Just look at Trump’s relationship to the black community. In the 1970s, his family’s real-estate firm, Trump Management Corporation, came under fire for allegedly not renting to black residents in New York City’s outer-boroughs. The Justice Department filed suit against Trump on the grounds of racial discrimination; the case was settled two years later, in 1975, when TMC promised “not to discriminate against blacks, Puerto Ricans and other minorities.” But discrimination in several Trump-owned properties continued for years until the city decided — in an effort to quell what had, essentially, turned into a modern-day version of redlining — to send investigators from the human rights commission to check in on tenants and building management practices.
More recently, Trump has gone on record, saying he loves “the blacks” and has a “great relationship” with African Americans, but has openly called out black youth, admitting, “they’ve never done more poorly” and have “no spirit.” In April 2015, before Trump dominated the election cycle, he referred to protesters in Baltimore — men and women caught in the throes of police injustice and civil unrest — as “thugs.” The tweet was never deleted. In November, at which point Trump had fully joined the campaign trail, he retweeted false data from the Crime Statistics Bureau in San Francisco (no such division exists) that claimed 81 percent of whites were killed by blacks in the past year. Despite a chorus of objection, the tweet, like other flagrant admissions, remains.
His track record with blacks, women, Latinos, members of the LBGTQ community, and basically anybody who doesn’t look and think like him is why his meeting with dozens of black pastors last November reeked of superficiality. The motivations were disgustingly clear: he was pandering for black votes. Even a basic understanding of Trump — and his employment of division as a political device — is why his plan to block Muslims from entering the country (which he proposed in the aftermath of the San Bernardino and Orlando mss shootings) seems less insane when you consider who we’re dealing with and how he came to occupy the podium at which he stands. Trump’s beliefs are the personification of privately held convictions, slanted viewpoints that slither across dinner tables at night as families discuss Why We Need to Build The Wall or How Guns Are Good for America.
It’s ultimately why Trump is allowed to spout colorfully insensitive remarks and be rewarded with the Republican nomination in 2016. This whole dystopian social experiment says a great deal more about Americans, and what the general white public is willing to tolerate — that is, the core of the Trump constituency — than it does about Trump.
Last December, just a day after Trump proposed his ban on Muslims entering the country, a New Hampshire poll was released and found his lead had doubled among primary voters in the battleground state since September. By the time primary day arrived in June, he won the contest without breaking a sweat, outpacing John Kasich by nearly 60,000 votes and snatching 11 of the 23 delegates.
It’s now clear that Trump’s political calculus — inclusivity through the exclusivity — is more studied than we’ve given him credit for, even if that means foregoing the 10 percent of blacks who traditionally vote Republican or the growing Latino constituency. Because just as Trump has pushed non-whites to the fringes of America’s public square, he has gained a core faithful of radical conservatives who believe his campaign can, in fact, make America great again. A recent poll from FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a 20 percent chance of becoming president — which, when you consider for even a second, is an utterly insane thought: a deranged bigot has a modest shot at becoming the next leader of the free world.
Or is it?
“Trump has made the determination that whatever votes he loses, or can’t access, among black and brown voters, he’s going to more than make up for on the other side by energizing racial conservatives to turnout for him when they otherwise might stay home,” Fauntroy said. “What he’s doing makes perfect sense. You go where the votes are. He doesn’t have anything to say that can win over large measures of black and brown voters, so he plays the card he can play.”
As ever, the divide grows.