American culture is largely a celebration of white men’s mediocrity—that’s why Ryan Reynolds and Macklemore have any measure of success. It’s also why I haven’t been surprised by Donald Trump’s popularity. He is a self-mythologized success story of unremarkable intelligence who benefited from and subsequently exploited this country’s white supremacist racial hierarchy. He is a beacon of hope to mediocre, aggrieved white men across the nation.
But at the start of this campaign season, my belief was that he was largely a distraction. Trump’s brand of racism, while vile, is not that kind that usually worries me. He says mean, hurtful things that traffic in demeaning stereotypes. It exercises no real power. The everyday maintenance of white supremacy is left in the hands of people who use less volatile language than Trump—instead, it’s in the work of voter ID laws, the extortion of fines collected through racially disproportionate traffic stops, longer prison sentences for crimes associated with racial minorities, and laws allowing police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop. I figured him for a sideshow, a reminder that we can be easily distracted from discussions around institutional racism to focus on personal bigotry. I was planning to write a piece about how Trump’s rhetoric is titillating for those who would like to pretend American racism is reducible to ignorance, while the real work of white supremacy is, and always has been, done by those who fashion themselves intellectuals, who have passed through our most celebrated educational institutions, and don’t look like the caricature we’ve built of what a racist looks like.
Then he started winning. It was easy to dismiss him when his front-runner status was theoretical. But with decisive wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and strong leads in the polls for upcoming primary states, a Donald Trump presidential nomination looks more and more likely.
As much as I think it’s important to divorce ourselves from the symbolism of the presidency, the thought of this frightens me, for one big reason. Trump’s candidacy has made explicit appeals to racism politically viable again. There isn’t a need for the coded language of the Southern Strategy that Lee Atwater masterminded. Trump shows that you can say outright exactly what you mean, no matter how appalling, and win huge support. That he can mount a campaign that advocates building a wall along the US border with Mexico, accuses the Mexican government of sending rapists to the United States, calls for a ban on Muslims coming into the country, and promotes the use of torture—and not be roundly dismissed by the electorate—is reason enough to panic. That he can do all of those things and be a major political party’s likely nominee for president in 2016 signals a regression that those invested in the American narrative of progress would probably rather ignore.