A conservative acquaintance told me shortly after President Obama’s election in 2008 that after eight exhausting years spent defending President Bush, he was looking forward, finally, to being the one saying “I told you so” when Obama failed to deliver on his promises of hope and change.
In the days after Trump’s surprising victory, similar sentiment has surfaced in some liberal circles. However, if there’s one thing that the more-than-year-long slog of an election revealed, it’s that nearly everything about Trump is different. In his administration, we likely won’t see an opportunity for typical partisan schadenfreude, at least not at the expense of Trump’s scariest and most dangerous supporters—those who peddle racism and xenophobia and cling to dreams of a white nationalist uprising against immigrants and people of color.
For example, while many progressives were chastened by President Obama’s failure to reign in government surveillance and his embrace of inhumane military techniques such as drone strikes in the Middle East, for the likes of David Duke and the hordes of (formerly) closeted racists and xenophobes, policy outcomes are less important than symbolism. No matter how a Trump administration ultimately governs, the racist cause has triumphed. A candidate who explicitly endorsed racist policies (e.g., Muslim ban) on the one hand and, at the very least, cozied up to white nationalist sentiment by adopting its coded language on the other, has won the greatest prize: The White House.
Above all else, Trump has proven to be little more than a coloring book page: a drawing with a clear outline, but one that can be filled in any number of ways. His campaign was unprecedented in recent history both in its failure to outline many clear policy positions and a willingness to contradict itself from day to day. Trump routinely took both sides of issues current and past. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the public’s past animosity toward slippery politicians and “flip-flopping” (e.g., a central tenet of Bush’s re-election campaign against John Kerry was that he changed his mind about issues including the Iraq War), Trump’s ever-shifting and vague policy statements and outright lies were systematically ignored by his supporters. Hence, there is strong reason to believe that many among them, the alt-right included, will not bat an eye if their pet policies do not come to pass, or if he fails to live up to their abhorrent expectations.
One need look no further than the steady stream of reports of racially-motivated or anti-Muslim incidents in the days following Trump’s electoral victory to see that significant damage has already been done. In addition to news reports, Shaun King of the New York Daily News has been reporting about such incidents on his twitter feed.
Anecdotally, the early evidence suggests that racists and bigots have been emboldened and mobilized. Whether a Muslim ban is instituted (unlikely) or a wall is built along the Mexican border (equally unlikely), the white nationalist cause has been validated by the electorate. There is hope that many Trump voters motivated by simple partisan loyalty or yearning for some type of systemic change, who were not attracted by his hateful rhetoric (but were willing to overlook it), will be horrified by the detestable actions taken by people in Trump’s name. If so, it is incumbent upon them to speak out and reject racism and hate when it comes to their communities, because we cannot expect any reckoning within the alt-right if Trump’s policies fail to live up to his rhetoric. Rather, the worst among them may very well take it upon themselves to finish the job.
This mobilization of hate is perhaps the most immediate danger associated with Trump’s rise. His aforementioned lack of clear policies means it is virtually impossible to predict how he will govern. His dangerous campaign rhetoric, coupled with Republican control of the legislative branch, is certainly cause for grave concern, but whether his presidency will be any more damaging from a legislative perspective than a typical Republican regime remains to be seen. The level of existential danger he poses for the country and the world at large likely depends upon the extent to which his advisors are willing and able to curtail his reckless tendencies. Regardless, the negative impact on people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, and members of the LGBTQ community has already arrived. While the specter of a revamped Supreme Court and legislature that could erode minority rights, reproductive rights, religious freedoms, and LGBTQ rights looms, an energized collection of hate-filled individuals has found its voice and its symbol of power.
There is little reason to believe that a Trump pivot away from the politics of hate and division, as unlikely as it may be—especially considering the news that Steve Bannon has been made chief strategist—will do anything to dampen this hateful spirit. Trump will never fail his most vile supporters because he is, in part, a projection of their own image. His victory is their victory.
Thus, for those of us looking for silver linings in a very dark cloud, the search continues.