Yet no American president has so flagrantly pandered to white grievance as Donald Trump, even as he has praised himself for doing more for Black Americans than anyone ‘except maybe Abraham Lincoln’. The significance of this ugly achievement should not be underestimated. Trump understood that euphemisms are no longer necessary when it comes to attacking and humiliating people of colour – or making common cause with white nationalists, whose company would have scandalised earlier Republican leaders, whatever their convergences of views. In the last four years, Trump has fed his supporters a steady diet of racism and aggression. A small selection from this extensive menu would include his Birtherist questioning of Obama’s citizenship; his attack on the family of a Muslim-American soldier killed in action; his praise of those ‘very fine people’ among the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville; the Muslim travel ban; the fulminations against ‘shit-hole countries’; the gulag archipelago that his adviser Stephen Miller created for undocumented immigrants, in which children were separated from their parents and some women forced to undergo invasive vaginal examinations that reportedly resulted in sterilisation; and, not least, the violent dispersal of a Black Lives Matter protest outside the White House.
Not all of Trump’s supporters have enjoyed this theatre of cruelty. But most were indifferent, and saw no reason not to support him a second time. (An estimated 93 per cent of Republicans voted for him.) They were not dissuaded by his brazen misogyny, his envious embrace of foreign strongmen, his corruption and double-dealing or his continual lies. Even when those lies became literally lethal, Trump’s followers were not dissuaded by his conspiratorial claims that Covid-19 was a hoax contrived by Democrats, scientists or doctors to shut down his wonderful economy and deprive him of victory at the polls (or ‘Poles’, as he tweeted on election night). They were not dissuaded by the revelation, in Bob Woodward’s Rage, published in September, that Trump had recognised the airborne lethality of Covid-19 as early as 7 February. They were not dissuaded when he became infected with the virus and briefly acknowledged its gravity. On the contrary, they continued to go to his rallies, where not wearing a mask was a badge of pride. Epidemiologists have estimated that these gatherings caused 30,000 infections and 700 deaths. If this were the Middle East, the behaviour of Trump’s most ardent supporters might have been described by the mainstream media as an expression of fatalism, fundamentalism or a desire for martyrdom. But they believed that the closure of the economy posed a greater threat to them than Covid-19 – even when it began to ravage red states, whose residents, taking their cue from the president, either denied its reality or took comfort in the fact that it had so far mainly killed people in the infernal blue states of New York and California. They did not protest when Trump openly spoke of refusing to accept the election results, or assailed the postal service, or accused the Biden campaign of cheating. There was no possibility that ‘their’ America – and they left little doubt whose America it was – could vote against Trump; any victory for Biden could only be an illegitimate takeover, a triumph for ‘socialism’, for Black Lives Matter and antifa rioters, foetus killers and other enemies of the nuclear family. Trump, as one of his evangelical supporters told the New York Times, is ‘our bodyguard’.
In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter wrote that the right-wing extremists who rallied behind Barry Goldwater’s 1964 race for president were
concerned more to express resentments and punish ‘traitors’, to justify a set of values and assert grandiose, militant visions, than to solve actual problems of state ... Their true victory lay not in winning the election but in capturing the party – in itself no mean achievement – which gave them an unprecedented platform from which to propagandise for a sound view of the world.
Trump, however, succeeded not only in capturing the Republican Party, but in proving that open resentment, raging against foreigners, denouncing ‘treason’ and essentially avoiding governance could be, for nearly half the population, an acceptable, even admirable, style of presidential leadership. Through his thunderous, nihilistic fury, he established an almost erotic connection with his base, which, unmoved by reason, often heedless of its own economic interests, found emotional compensation in his tributes to the ‘uneducated’ and his insults against members of Eastern seaboard ‘elites’.