For better or worse, Donald Trump’s words inspire millions of people. With the momentum of three state Republican primary wins under his belt, it’s time to grapple with the reality that we live in an America where many believe the hate speech that Trump spews each day. But Trump is not the first nor even the most successful person to use words of hatred and fear to gain votes. In reality, Trump is pandering to an audience — and it’s that audience that should be concerning to those of us working to move this country forward. Trump’s language of hate, prejudice, fear, and panic over the changing face and identity of the United States is affirming to many people — people who are not worthy of ridicule or dismissal but are instead our neighbors, high school friends, coaches, bosses, siblings, and accountants.
We’re past the point where demonizing Trump’s supporters or calling them out as racist, xenophobic, and sexist will do any good. Instead we — those who believe in an antiracist, progressive, safe and just vision of community — need to challenge the perverted reality that has been manufactured for Trump’s audience. The hatred and racism espoused by Donald Trump is not his creation alone, but the reflection of the fear, extremism and “us versus them” politics that have seeped into our country’s very fabric. The virulence of this rhetoric will have much greater implications than just who will get the 2016 Republican nomination for president.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric — an amplification of the right-wing extremism that’s grown exponentially over the last decade — is not a joke or an anomaly. Because of this, it’s important to acknowledge who bears responsibility for this ideology.
Republicans are the masterminds of this reality — a reality that is rooted in maintaining wealth and institutional power for people who have always had power in this country, meaning white, male, Christian landowners and their families. It’s a false reality — one that depends on a fear of anyone who does not fit into that category, and sees these people as a threat to the very thing that made America “great.” It relies on mistrust, belief in scarcity, and oppression. It’s a great story Republicans tell — and that many people desperately need to believe in. Any notion that challenges that reality is met with vitriolic response from Trump’s audience.
The Democrats aren’t much better. For years now, the Democratic Party has been content to sit back with wagging and sanctimonious fingers, ready to shame Republicans for their extreme, hateful rhetoric. Democratic leaders lack the courage to offer an unapologetic alternative to the dangerous, harmful posturing of conservatives. Content to run on a “not as bad as that guy” platform, Democrats have allowed Republicans to sell a false reality to scared white voters, while doing little to nothing to actually understand, include, and empower voters of color. Instead, Democrats have responded to the drumbeat of extremism by taking increasingly conservative positions on issues like further militarization of our southern border, access to abortion, and police accountability.
As Democrats wring their hands, black children are still being tackled, flipped, and shot in the back because police forces are taught to fear black bodies above all else. As Democrats wag their fingers, transgender women of color face devastating rates of violence because that fear manifests as employment and housing discrimination, profiling, and criminalization. As Democrats try just to not be “as bad as that guy,” health care facilities where people who need abortions are seen as targets in a “by any means necessary” war on abortion.
It's easy to step back in outrage and shake our heads. Yes we’re appalled, disgusted, and sickened. And in some ways we’re also responsible. We can all try to claim “we're better than this” as a country, but it's time we recognize that the United States — historically and today — is not better than this. We need political and cultural leaders to push beyond complacency, have honest conversations, and accept some accountability for the climate that created this political reality. My ask to every candidate, party operative, and campaign staffer — both Republicans and Democrats — is to take responsibility for the hateful, fearful rhetoric of the last 20 years that fuels “Bernie Bros,” the Clinton supporters who booed Ashley Williams, and the violent mobs at Trump’s rallies. Take responsibility and devote campaign resources to challenging those supporters and this false narrative about who’s worthy enough to have access to life, liberty, and justice in the United States of America.