Der Spiegel, one of Europe’s most influential news magazines, called Donald Trump “the leader of a new, hate-filled authoritarian movement.” At The Week, Ryan Cooper wrote that “the increasingly unsettling success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign [raises the question]: Does America have a fascism problem?” And University of Michigan historian Juan Cole says Trump’s rise in the GOP primary contest “is an indictment of, and a profound danger to the American republic.”
Trump’s ascension to the top of the GOP field has certainly revealed a dark current in American politics. His campaign has been endorsed by far-right figures like David Duke and Jean-Marie Le Pen, and a white supremacist Super PAC is sending out robocalls urging Republicans to vote for Trump over “a Cuban” in order to halt the “gradual genocide against the white race.” Polls show that Trump’s voters tend to hold demonstrably more racial resentment than other Republicans do. Last week, Sasha Abramsky interviewed several Trump supporters for The Nation, and concluded that his campaign represents “the reductio ad absurdum end-point of the [Republican] party’s endless pandering to Tea Party bigots, to birthers, to gun-toting militias, and other zealots.”
But it’s important to keep the Trump phenomenon in perspective. While he enters Super Tuesday with a commanding lead in the delegate count—with 82 pledged delegates, he has more than twice the total of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio combined—only 5.9 percent of registered voters in the first four states have cast their ballots for the reality-TV star.
That’s the nature of low-turnout primary campaigns. If you follow the horse-race coverage, it’s easy to think a candidate enjoys broad popular support, when in fact he or she is only backed by a tiny slice of the public. Trump’s win in the Nevada Caucuses may have dominated the news for a couple of days, but he did it with the support of just 2.3 percent of eligible voters in the Silver State.
More people watched the season one finale of The Apprentice than participated in the 2012 Republican primaries, when Mitt Romney won the nomination with the backing of 4.6 percent of eligible voters. Republican turnout appears to be higher this year, but Romney won the support of 53 percent of his party in 2012, and so far Trump has only won 33 percent of primary voters in the early states. If the field remains fractured over the next two months, The Donald could end up winning the nomination with around 4 percent of all eligible voters.
And, of course, not all of Trump’s supporters are attracted to his bigotry. He’s a charismatic showman and entertainer who’s long branded himself as a take-charge guy who can get things done. Some of those voters cast their ballots for Trump in spite of his offensive rhetoric, not because of it.
Meanwhile, in mid-January, Gallup found that 60 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Republican front-runner. According to Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport, that’s “a higher unfavorable rating than any nominated candidate from either of the two major parties going back to the 1992 election when we began to track favorability using the current format.” To put that in perspective, Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2013.
In that light, Trump’s success is neither a sign that America has a major “fascism problem,” nor an “indictment of the American Republic.” Even if he wins the nomination and goes on to get tens of millions of votes in the general election, that would speak as much to the power of negative partisanship as to Trump’s own appeal. In a society as polarized as ours, any major-party candidate will have a floor of support of somewhere around 40 percent.
And Trump is certainly not “the leader of a new, hate-filled authoritarian movement.” Anyone familiar with American history knows that there’s always been an ugly rump of the electorate that’s attracted to the kind of misogyny and xenophobia Trump is peddling. “It’s not new, none of this is new,” says Chip Berlet, coauthor of the 2000 book Right-Wing Populism in America. “Right-wing populist movements have been around in one form or another for over 100 years. They tend to grow when people either are losing, or fear they are about to lose power. It’s the perception that matters.”
Berlet says changing racial demographics have created anxiety among white working people at a time when decades of wage stagnation have left them behind. “They’re angry, and they have the right to be angry,” he says. “And the left has failed to reach out to them and explain that it’s greed—not Obama or the Jews or the Muslims or the Federal Reserve—that’s causing their economic stress. So they reach out for conspiracy theories. Because their failures can’t be a failure of capitalism. And it can’t be because they’re not competent, so there has to be a conspiracy.”
The movement Trump leads is small relative to many of its predecessors. At its peak, the Ku Klux Klan had as many as 6 million members. During the 1920s and 1930s, there were dozens of American fascist organizations, and tens of thousands of people rushed to join groups like the German-American Bund, the Silver Legion of America—the “Silver Shirts”—and the Fascist League of North America.
It’s true that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, membership in extreme right-wing groups has been on the rise. But that dynamic predated Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump has just given white supremacists a sense that their ideology is now mainstream. His constant, often incoherent assaults on “political correctness” reinforces their belief that they speak for many, if not most, white people, and that this silent majority would join them if not for fear of being marginalized by a repressive government and a manipulative media establishment (run by Jews, of course). He’s given bigots permission to be more vocal.
And they’re fighting a rearguard action. Racism and xenophobia continue to be profoundly serious problems in our society, but it’s also true that among all whites, racial resentment has been in a long period of decline. According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been measuring public opinion since 1972, the share of whites who said it should be legal for landlords to discriminate against blacks fell by around 70 percent between 1973 and 2014. In 1977, the GSS began asking respondents what they thought accounted for African Americans lagging behind whites in terms of income and employment. By 2014, the share of whites who said “African Americans have less in-born ability to learn” had fallen by 79 percent, and the share who offered that blacks “just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty” dropped by more than half. Between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of whites who said white people work harder than black people dropped by a third, and the number who said whites are inherently smarter fell by around 60 percent.
And while America doesn’t exactly welcome unauthorized immigrants, last summer Gallup found that three times as many respondents said that immigration was a “good thing” for the country than said it was a “bad thing.” Only around one in six agree with Trump (and Ted Cruz) that unauthorized immigrants should be rounded up and deported, according to a more recent Gallup poll.
This isn’t evidence that we live in a “post-racial society,” nor does it suggest that the ugliness Trump has tapped into should be taken lightly. But it does imply that fears that Trump’s success heralds the emergence of a mainstream neo-fascist movement are overblown. In reality, white supremacists have always been part of the fabric of our society, but white America as a whole is becoming less receptive to their ideology.