Looking for my daily news fix, I caught the Trump rally in Dallas on the tube last night. It wasn’t hard to find, in fact it was hard to avoid, as all the cable news channels seem to be in All-Trump-All-the-Time mode.
What I saw started out as boilerplate Trump — he’s the greatest winner and the smartest guy with the highest ratings and everyone else are chumps and losers, yadda, yadda, yadda — but when he swung into the immigration policy section of the uncensored stream of consciousness that passes for his stump speech, the mood changed from ugly and stupid to ugly and frightening.
It’s not that there’s anything new in the Donald’s appeal to paranoid nativism. He memorably opened his candidacy with a crude attack on Mexican immigrants and so far immigration is the only policy area where he’s made specific proposals — build the classiest wall in the world along the southern border with a beautiful door where the good ones will be allowed in, mount a legal attack on the Constitution to eliminate citizenship as a birthright, deport every undocumented immigrant and every American citizen unlucky enough to be born to the wrong kind of parents. What struck me watching and listening last night was the full-throated roars of approval from the audience, and the way consummate showman Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric to match the wave, to catch it and ride it as far as it could take him.
The lies and distortions, the coded and uncoded racism, the callouts to ignorance and fear, these normally raise in me feelings of anger and sorrow. But last night I felt like a witness to one of those Nuremberg rallies we see in the old newsreels from the 1930s — the flamboyant speaker with studied skill at emotional manipulation through rhetorical flourish, the worshipful crowd responding enthusiastically to each confirmation of their darkest prejudices. Substitute “Juden” for “Mexicans”, the message is the same — the Other is stealing your country, the solution is to just get rid of them all.
It’s not just the tribalist appeal, though that’s already creating dangerous consequences — attacks on harmless Latino-looking people in Trump’s name, violent responses to peaceful protestors at Trump rallies, at least one physical assault, caught on video, by a Trump bodyguard on a non-violent opponent. More worrisome is Trump’s whole shtick of the strong man who answers to no one, the omnipotent fearless leader whose every word and whim will automatically have the force of law. He acknowledges no constraint of law or custom on his will. We’ve seen this movie before, we already know how badly it ends.
America is not Weimar, Trump isn’t Hitler, or even Mussolini. It isn’t Trump that scares me, it’s the crowds that believe his message, that scream approval, that find ratification of their paranoia, their malice, their hunger for an iron fist to smite their enemies. I saw them and heard them in Dallas last night, and they frighten me.
The racists, the Confederate deadenders, the religious fanatics, the know-nothings, these people believe America belongs to them, and they’ve found a leader, however feckless, to give political respectability to their hateful and violent fantasies. Men with semi-automatic weapons are showing up in Ferguson, in Kentucky’s Rowan County, on the Bundy ranch, parading their armed strength to support their claim to be exclusive inheritors and guardians of their version of Americans’ rights and freedoms. Camo is their brown shirt, and if Trump isn’t the guy who can make America theirs again, there are others waiting to pick up his mantle.
It’s huge and beautiful and it’ll happen so fast it’ll make your head spin.