The 2016 election cycle was a forsaken orgy of racial anxiety, political violence, spineless complacency, and depravity of a scale that was abnormal even for American politics. The 2020 election cycle will be worse.
America got a taste of what Donald Trump’s reelection bid is going to look like on Wednesday night, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. The president had only hours earlier intervened in a destructive civil conflict among Democrats by insisting that the conflict’s more progressive belligerents, all of whom are of minority descent with only one born abroad, should “go back” to the countries “from which they came.” Aware of the damage these remarks could do both to the GOP’s political prospects and the social fabric, some responsible Republicans dissented. Most did not. Those members of Trump’s phalanx who did not stifle their criticisms flattered the president and applauded his instincts. It was inevitable that his most committed supporters would do the same. So, when the topic turned to “squad” member Ilhan Omar at Wednesday night’s rally, the crowd followed Trump’s lead.
“Send her back,” they chanted. “Send her back.” It is a testament to the undeniable malignancy of that moment that elected Republicans revolted, forcing the president to claim (unconvincingly) that his supporters’ behavior was disturbing. Asked if he considered expressing these reservations when it mattered, Trump replied, “I think I did. I started speaking very quickly.” But he did not. The chants went on for a full 13 seconds as Trump leaned back from the microphone and absorbed them until they died out naturally.
The president’s instincts in this moment were telling. Presidential reelection campaigns are typically base elections. Energizing reliable voters within the incumbent’s existing coalition and depressing the opposition draws the straightest line between points A and B. As Trump’s record in politics demonstrates, he has always seen his most racially toxic supporters as valid members of his base—not necessarily because they are racially toxic, but because he believes they are members of a broader forgotten class of Americans for whom he presumes to speak.
That’s why Trump declined to denounce David Duke when he had the chance, only doing so when his reluctance became a scandal. It’s why he indulged in Birtherism and legitimized Alex Jones and Infowars with campaign trail appearances. It’s why he took on Steve Bannon, the self-described proprietor of a “platform for the alt-right,” as his campaign chairman and chief strategist despite his lack of political experience. It’s why he couldn’t bring himself unequivocally to condemn violent white nationalists, one of whom murdered a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia.
There’s an ugly condescension inherent in the unspoken assumption that repudiating bigotry might fracture the president’s winning coalition of voters who are otherwise underserved by elite opinion-makers on the coasts, but there is no better explanation for Trump’s politically foolish compromises. Trump’s approach to constituency maintenance routinely manifests in the stoking of racial and class tensions, and there’s no reason to expect that to abate when the presidency is on the line.
If it wasn’t already clear that Republicans had an obligation to denounce the president’s comments before his racial antagonism became canon among his fans, it should be now. Equally tragic is the fact that the Republican Party Trump represents is losing, or has already lost, the moral high ground in its efforts to call out Rep. Omar’s unveiled expressions of anti-Semitism for what they are. Democrats certainly aren’t doing so. Absent any check on her instincts, Omar and the “squad” can be expected to renew their commitment to a special brand of ethnic and sectarian antagonism.
For her part, Omar has transitioned from making anti-Semitic comments to crafting anti-Semitic policy. This week, she introduced a House resolution in support of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement—an amalgam of anti-Israel interests whose actions inevitably manifest in naked Jew-hatred—equating Israel to Nazi Germany in the process.
Fresh off her successful effort to intimidate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into silence by insisting that her criticisms of the “squad” amounted to a “disturbing” penchant for “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues took their instigation a step further. “We are women of color,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib said in a joint interview with her three progressive counterparts, “so when you do single us out, be aware of that, and what you’re doing. Especially because some of us are getting death threats.” If AOC wasn’t clear enough in implying that any criticism of her and her fellows carried racial overtones, Tlaib made it explicit.
Not to be outdone, squad member Rep. Ayanna Pressley waded into the depths of naked genetic determinism. “If you’re not prepared to come to that table and represent that voice, don’t come, because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice,” she told a cheering crowd at the left-wing Netroots Nation conference. “We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.” It’s a curious form of anti-racism that rejects individuality in favor of group identity based on immutable traits inherited at birth, but here we are.
These four members of Congress have internalized the lessons of the Tea Party. The locus of power within the Democratic Party is no longer with its elected leaders but grassroots activists and their allies in media. And anyone who expects the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee to cool these passions should look to how the press amplified Kamala Harris’s attacks on Joe Biden and despair. Busing was not then and is not now a live political issue, but you wouldn’t know it from the press coverage—the point of which wasn’t to dispassionately explore a political issue but to tear at the emotional scars around it.
The brakes are off, and the temperature is rising. As the campaign season intensifies, so, too, will the emotions around the consequences of the next presidential cycle. The acts of political violence that we’ve witnessed over the last three years—some of which are attributed to overheated political rhetoric by their perpetrators—are unlikely to abate. As the legislative process grinds to a halt ahead of the upcoming election year, the crises that exacerbate these tensions, like the unanticipated explosion of migrants crossing the Southern border, will go unaddressed. Those crises will be demagogued; they always are. But there are no cooler heads left to prevail.
A responsible political culture can withstand the actions of a few reckless provocateurs, even if one of those provocateurs is the president. But ours is not a responsible political culture, and things are going to get worse before they get better.