What Donald Trump Tapped Into

As Trump announces that white nationalist Steve Bannon will be his chief strategist and that he will deport 2 to 3 million immigrants, the time for trying to figure out how he got elected president (or why Clinton lost) will soon be coming to an end as the focus turns to what’s coming.

But over the weekend I re-watched a documentary by Alexandra Pelosi in which she traveled with the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008 to interview their supporters. Some have described this film as the first to document the birth of the Tea Party. We often make the mistake of assuming that happened after the election during the legislative battle over health care reform. If you watch this, you’ll see not only the roots of the Tea Party, but what Donald Trump tapped into during this election.

Most of this was filmed prior to the time it was clear that the country was facing a financial collapse and completely before anyone knew how devastating it would be. You’ll hear one person mention the economy towards the end of the film, but there are no villains to point to yet on Wall Street or anywhere else.

In talking to McCain/Palin supporters, Pelosi instead heard fears about cultural issues, that Barack Obama was a Muslim and/or terrorist sympathizer, the he was a socialist and yes…you hear racism. The most poignant and telling moment happens from about 25:40 to 28:35, so if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, I recommend at least viewing that clip.  They are filming at a NASCAR/McCain rally in North Carolina and a discussion begins with a group of white men about what it means to be a “redneck.” But it is the response of the gray-haired man in reflective shades that is the most powerful piece of the entire film.

He says that he won’t vote for a black man for president because he’s “old school.” Then he launches into his frustrations with “political correctness” and how it means that you can’t fly the Confederate flag, own guns, drink beer or go to tittie bars without being called a bad person. Then this self-described redneck actually tears up talking about how “there used to be a time we were top dog, now we’re nothing no more. Illegal immigrants come in here and they get all the rights…we got nothing.” Eventually he says, “Used to be a hell of good country at one time. I just don’t know what the hell happened.” Eight years later, along comes Donald Trump to tell this guy that he’ll “make America great again.”

I can certainly empathize with this man’s pain and actually admire him for allowing that moment of vulnerability to show. That’s what allows us to see the truth about what is behind all of the anger. But it’s that line about men like him being “top dog” that really tells the story about the moment they face. If being better than other groups of people is your claim to fame, you have staked it all on a lie. It’s hard to see how we get beyond that other than let it die.

This whole film reminded me of something Jamelle Bouie recently wrote. He points out that Republican candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney didn’t speak directly to these issues that were boiling up around the country, nor did any of the other Republican candidates in the 2016 primary. You might even remember that time a woman told McCain that Obama was an Arab and he told her it wasn’t true. Instead, those presidential candidates used the old method of “dog whistles” by talking about the free stuff those other people wanted from Democrats. Bouie says:

Donald Trump broke a critical precedent in modern American politics. He abandoned the restraint and decorum that kept explicit racism out of national elections: dog whistles, not loudspeakers. And while race was a part of every conversation and every argument, no one tried to litigate the prevailing racial order of nominal tolerance. We were, on paper, a multiracial democracy, and our elites agreed to keep that issue off the table…

We assume that the relative lack of racial violence over the last generation is because of a change of heart and attitude. And surely that has happened to some extent. But to what degree does it also reflect an erstwhile political consensus wherein leaders refused to litigate the question of multiracial democracy? Absent organized opposition to the idea that nonwhites were equal partners in government, there was no activation in the broad electorate. It wasn’t an issue people voted on, because they couldn’t.

Donald Trump changed that. With his tirades against nonwhites and foreign others, he reopened the argument.

In a world where we could actually talk to one another and Donald Trump wasn’t about to assume the highest office in the land, it might be a good thing to finally litigate the question of multiracial democracy. Under these circumstances, I fear that it will just get ugly.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.