Talk about bad timing. Even as white supremacists and neo-Nazis massed in Charlottesville, complete with torches, shields, MAGA hats, sticks, and guns, even as one participant allegedly ran his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, and injuring some 19 others, The New York Times was publishing an op-ed warning against taking the whole Trump thing too seriously. “Trump Isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is,” write the historians Samuel Moyn and David Priestland. “Since Donald Trump’s election, the United States has been gripped by tyrannophobia. Conspiracies against democracy are everywhere; truth is under siege; totalitarianism is making a comeback; ‘resistance’ is the last refuge of citizens.”
Hysteria? Tyrannophobia? Those are fighting words. You’d think the Times would have learned its lesson with Michael Kinsley’s much-mocked and quickly ended op-ed series, “Say something nice about Donald Trump.” Still, I see what Moyn and Priestland are getting at. It’s easy to find posturing progressives and even a few Republicans, waving the Constitution as if the only problem was the mysterious takeover of government by a nuclear-wielding madman, and if we can just get rid of him we can go back to normal. We do need to think hard about how Trump happened and what it means for our nation and our future. It’s unfortunate, though, that the authors mention economic inequality as the only underlying issue that must be addressed and not the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and good old-fashioned anti-Semitism that were so vividly on display in Charlottesville. “Economic inequality” conceals as much as it explains. After all, the worst victims of economic inequality are people of color, but Trump got few of their votes. You didn’t see black and brown faces in the crowd chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” If you spent time on the Daily Stormer website, you wouldn’t have found a lot of complaining about low wages and disappearing factory jobs. Mostly it was men complaining that white women are shirking their racial duty to lose weight and have babies.
It’s true that a lot of people are extremely upset about the possibility that the Kremlin meddled in our election on behalf of Donald Trump. I am one of them. Maybe some of us are getting carried away, although actually the craziest claims are on the other side; cf. Seth Rich Truthers. I’m always wary when people start trumpeting their patriotism—as Moyn and Priestland point out, that has an unfortunate history. But hyper-emotional venting about Trump is hardly the main problem we face right now. Granted, Trump can’t go full fascist: cancel elections, murder his rivals, round up opponents, and put them in concentration camps. But democracy, such as it is, really is under threat.
It is not hysterical to note that Trump is a racist of long standing: Even before he spent years promoting the ridiculous notion that President Obama was not born in the United States, he was calling for the death penalty for the five young black men accused of the rape of the Central Park Jogger—nor did he apologize when, years later, those men were exonerated by another man’s confession. He ran as a racist, he was elected as a racist, and his White House features racists and nativists in high positions: Steve Bannon, Steven Miller, Sebastian Gorka.