When certainties crumble, it’s often on the streets that the most coherent narratives emerge. One crumbling certainty is that Americans don’t elect fascists. That’s a 1930s European thing, we have long thought. This certainty seems to have prevented Trump’s GOP rivals from calling him out with the “F-word” while they still had a chance to block his rise, even as he asked supporters to swear a personal loyalty oath to him at rallies, retweeted Mussolini quotes, curried favor with white-nationalist groups, showed profound contempt for the separation of powers that defines the American democratic process, and repeatedly injected the language of violence into his speeches.
That same certainty also stopped Republicans, until it was far too late to be effective, from explicitly denouncing Trump’s racism and demagoguery—even as he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and decried Muslim immigrants as a fifth column. That same certainty has allowed television journalists to cover Trump either as entertainment—very profitable entertainment—or as just another suit in the crowd, rather than as an existential threat to the country’s democratic heritage. That same certainty led Hillary Clinton, during most of the primary season, to go no further than labeling the billionaire rabble-rouser “dangerous” and “risky.” Only in the days leading up to the California primary, after Trump declared that she should be imprisoned and that, as president, he would instruct his attorney general to begin investigating her, did Clinton finally denounce his dictatorial ambitions.
Throughout most of the primary season, there was a kind of quiescence to the mainstream, inside-the- Beltway approach to Trump, a crippling rhetorical caution in the face of a full-frontal assault on the culture of tolerance and pluralism. Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel and his outrageous response to the Orlando massacre have, at long last, galvanized mainstream political voices, from the president on down, to call him out more forcefully. In recent weeks, Trump’s abysmal fund-raising numbers, falling approval ratings, and weak campaign organization, along with the swirling allegations that his family may be personally profiting from his campaign, have added a new vigor to the stop-Trump effort within the GOP.
And yet, despite rumors of a delegate coup at the Republican National Convention, it still seems unlikely that a critical mass of GOP leaders will break with their presumptive nominee. And the Clinton campaign alone—reliant as the Clintons have historically been on focus groups and polling to craft their messaging—may not be able to marshal the political and cultural energies necessary to defeat Trump’s movement. If there is to be a true critical mass against Trumpism—a countervailing force that takes on not just the candidate, who could implode in the coming months, but the toxic forces he has unleashed—it will spring from the national protest movement that has been coalescing for months now.
“I see the emergence of a popular front,” predicts Nicole Carty of Momentum Training, a group that schools activists on strategy around the country. “What I think has happened: Trump and the Trump movement have unified these existing fronts. All of these movements were operating on their own before Trump. [But] he’s given them a focal point. They’re moving as one. They’re thinking systemically. It allows them to understand how their front line is part of a shared front line.”