Understanding the Trump Phenomenon

Henry Smyth, American Renaissance, September 2, 2016

Why “racism” is The Donald’s most salient feature.

Many on the Alt-Right have wondered how much we can trust Donald Trump. During the primaries, Ted Cruz and other opponents argued that the man had no core and would turn on his supporters the moment it was to his advantage to do so. Some of his followers, however, have seen a consistent pro-American message in his public pronouncements going back decades.

As a social scientist, I’ve watched the campaign and been a Trump supporter since the day he gave his announcement speech in June of last year. During this time, I’ve thought about the relationship that Mr. Trump has to the ideas of our movement, and to what extent he shares them. I’ve come to believe that the reaction to the Trump campaign tells us more about the society we live in than the man himself. Donald Trump is not a white advocate, nor does he have any special interest in racial issues. He’s simply a careless speaker who does not like to back down in the face of controversy. By the time our race-obsessed media discovered these traits, Mr. Trump had bumbled into his role as a symbol of the Alt-Right.

A thought experiment can help us understand how this happened. Imagine that we lived in a society that took religion seriously. The government prosecutes blasphemers, and those who appear to have an insufficiently close relationship with Christ can have no political future. Into this world steps Donald Trump as a nominee for president. What would end up being the defining feature of his campaign? It would probably be Trump’s indifference to the divine, as demonstrated in his answer to the question of whether he’s ever asked God for forgiveness.

I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.

During the primary he would often say no book is better than the Bible, “not even” The Art of the Deal. This mocking attitude towards scripture would be a much bigger story if we lived in a pious society. Quotes like the one above would have caused massive protests, calls on stores to stop selling Trump merchandise, and the media would say he was an unusually dangerous candidate. Mr. Trump would claim to be a Christian, just as he claims not to be a racist, but would be opposed by religious groups and cheered by atheists and other skeptics who in this imaginary world have no place in public life.

Better than the Bible?

Better than the Bible?

Of course, we live in a society in which Christ is regularly mocked on television, but no one questions the sanctity of Martin Luther King. Unquestionably, Mr. Trump has been careless when speaking about race, but no more so than when speaking about religion, foreign affairs, or health-care policy. Almost any of his comments that caused so much controversy could have been said in a more politically correct manner. For example, instead of saying “they’re rapists,” he could have just as easily said that “many illegal immigrants commit crime” and been within the Republican mainstream.

In all cultures, people are supposed to choose their words carefully when speaking to people with higher status. French, like many languages, has the informal tu and the more respectful vous as second person pronouns. Even in languages with only one second-person pronoun, a sense of formality towards one’s betters is usually expected. In previous eras, phrases such “Your Majesty,” “Your Highness,” and “Your Grace” served this purpose. A relic of this kind of address is found in courtrooms when we address the judge as “Your Honor.”

How whites speak to and about minorities shares many similarities with how formality in language works. Just as cultural rules determine when to use tu and vous, you need some cultural awareness to understand that “people of color” is acceptable, but ”colored people” is not. While “you people” and “your community” mean exactly the same thing, only the latter is socially acceptable when talking to minorities. There are even some words that blacks can use but whites aren’t supposed to even in the privacy of their own homes, such as “nigger” and “coon.”

Hence the controversy over Trump talking about “the blacks” and “the Hispanics.” Critics argue that this shows he doesn’t see these groups as part of the American family, but Mr. Trump has also been known to say “the whites.” Being respectful towards whites as a group, however, is optional or even detrimental in politics, as we saw in 2008 when Mrs. Clinton was roundly denounced for saying that she can appeal to white voters.

With "the blacks" in better times.

With “the blacks” in better times.

Whether it is laziness or a conscious decision, Mr. Trump refuses to speak the language of the elites. On most issues, such as health care and trade, they forgive his sloppy language, and even occasionally praise him for talking like a real American. But on race, and to a lesser extent on issues relating to sex roles, using the correct words and phrases is a necessary sign that one is sufficiently deferential to the honored victims of our society.

While the media lost its mind over Mr. Trump’s lack of sensitivity, the Alt-Right saw his candidacy as a breath of fresh air. On immigration policy, Ted Cruz was actually to the right of Mr. Trump. And unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz never would have expressed support for affirmative action. Yet the Alt-Right didn’t care; Trump was our candidate because we liked the way he talked about these issues. While a candidate may flip flop on a specific position, the Trump candidacy was about changing the culture.

Liberals want to control our schools, tell us what the racial mix of our neighborhoods and workplaces should be, and even police the membership rules of private clubs lest there be “discrimination” in any aspect of our lives, no matter how private. The first step in doing this is to control our language and the rules of how we speak, which robs us of any ability to resist. If norms change and people feel freer to say what they think about race, at least a few people are going to start pointing out that diversity is not a strength, the races are biologically different, and whites are not responsible for the failures of blacks and Hispanics. Perhaps this is what Mitt Romney means when he worries about “trickle-down racism.”

Before Mr. Trump, the only public voices talking about race followed a few unspoken rules. Whites as a collective can be presented only in a negative light, while blacks and Hispanic must be respected and never criticized. You must care about all Americans, but especially minorities, and that means if an otherwise reasonable policy disproportionately harms blacks or Hispanics that is enough reason to rethink it. If we stop using the language of our censors and set the terms of the debate ourselves, we can begin to liberate others from the prison of politically correct thinking.

That’s not to say that Mr. Trump’s policies have nothing to do with his appeal. But even when a policy was outside the mainstream, it was the way he presented and justified it rather than the policy itself that most worried liberals. Take the Muslim ban. Only a million or so legal immigrants come to the United States every year, meaning that we effectively already ban hundreds of millions of people who would like to come. But wanting to ban an entire religion–despite the fact that most Muslims can’t come here anyway–sent the message that it is legitimate for Americans to make some distinctions between themselves and others, and to exclude people who harm the national interest. Once that precedent is set, the entire conversation changes.

As the Alt-Right flocked to the Trump campaign, the media tried to demonize him by holding him responsible for the opinions of his new supporters and arguing–illogically–that if “racists” like Donald Trump he must be a “racist.” Mr. Trump did not immediately and forcefully disavow the “racists.” This was not because he agreed with us or cared about our support, but because he is a combative guy who doesn’t like to be told what to do, especially by a hostile press. The media inevitably interpreted Mr. Trump’s reluctant and lukewarm repudiations of David Duke and “white supremacists” as an endorsement, and charged him with leading “racists” out of the shadows. Those sympathetic to white identity are used to being denounced in the most forceful language possible by politicians, so they believed the propaganda themselves, and saw the Trump campaign as their vehicle towards respectability. The Alt-Right read stories about how they were now controlling the Republican Party and even began to believe them.

It was a process that was set in motion by Mr. Trump refusing to show proper deference to media sensitivities on the issue of race. Last week, we reached the height of absurdity when Hillary Clinton gave a speech to, in part, denounce Twitter trolls.

Recently, Mr. Trump replied to a questioner, saying explicitly that he did not want the support of white supremacists. This may have been smart politics, as the media would not have accepted any other answer. But to see how absurd this is, note that Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe recently restored voting rights for felons and defended his policy by telling Republicans to “quit complaining and go out and earn these folks’ right to vote for you.” Mr. Trump was certainly not going to take a position like that with regard to “racists.” Unlike Democrats and cucked Republicans, Mr. Trump tends to save his harshest rhetoric for criminals and terrorists instead of “racists,” and for the Left that is more than enough to imply sympathy with the latter group.

None of this happened because Mr. Trump particularly cared about racial issues or because his policies were very different from those of his primary opponents. It was the language he used and his flouting of pieties that threatened the intellectual hegemony of the Left and triggered a cycle through which Mr. Trump became the spokesman for a generation of whites and others frustrated with what the country has become and where it’s going.

This has two implications for the extent to which we can trust Mr. Trump. First, the bad news: He is addicted to praise and without an intellectual core, and that’s been fine so far, because he has been appealing to his Twitter followers and the people at his rallies. As President, however, it’s reasonable to worry that his new reference group would be the Washington elites, as it has been for a few Supreme Court justices who were appointed by Republicans and ended up ruling as liberals. Imagine someone floats the rumor that President Trump will appoint a far-Left judge to fill Scalia’s seat. Mr. Trump would suddenly find himself praised as a statesman, and there’s some possibility that he would be so intoxicated by the coverage that he’d be tempted to do what the media wants.

Luckily, however, the way the press has covered this election may prevent that. Because he has become enemy number one of political correctness, Mr. Trump has attracted people such as Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon while repelling more mainstream Republicans. Therefore, when he makes decisions, there is a good chance he will be surrounded by people who have both healthy instincts and a sound intellectual grounding. As they say, personnel is policy. The danger, on the other hand, is that if he wins, many of those who were previously hostile to Mr. Trump will be looking for jobs in his administration, and that he may in turn crave the legitimacy that respected establishment figures can bring.

When trying to change the culture, the first step is to be noticed. Most movements outside the mainstream are forever ignored. We live in a world that is chaotic and unpredictable, and no one knows what will happen once people actually know you exist and see your views on the menu of plausible ideologies. Mr. Bannon has clearly been trying to link the Trump movement to European nationalism, and last week, Hillary Clinton helped us along that path. From this point forward, right-wing anti-globalists from San Diego to Vladivostok will know that they are not alone in fighting a common enemy. Regardless of what happens in November, or what the candidate himself believes, that will be among the most important legacies of the Trump campaign.

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Henry Smyth
Henry Smyth is the pen name of an academic.
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