Being a liberal is a tricky game because some of our worst impulses is smug self-satisfaction. We feel that our points of view are airtight, and therefore when someone like Donald Trump comes along, we allow ourselves to get smug and snarky and smirk.
But the one thing I’m learning from this primary is that we cannot be smug or snarky. Donald Trump’s popularity remains static, despite his many racist and sexist proclamations. He’s regularly beating his opponents in the GOP debates by alarmingly high numbers and as the primary rumbles along, a Trump nomination looks possible.
For many on the Left, that’s great news. After all, we’ve got Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – either one of these supremely-qualified candidates could wipe the floor with Trump during a debate – it would be a bloodbath. And folks are predicting that Clinton or Sanders would annihilate Trump in the general election. Some liberals are going so far as hoping Trump would prevail over the less-popular candidates – even declaring the last GOP debate a victory for the Democrats.
But is it?
I’m not so sure anymore. Like a lot of my fellow liberals, I initially looked at Trump with bemusement. I thought he was a joke. Not a particularly funny joke, but a joke nonetheless. I even thought that he was running simply to get some mileage and publicity (the man seems to need media attention like oxygen). Some may remember that he did this once before – he ran for president in 2000. And that campaign didn’t really muster much attention.
But something’s different this time. The terrorist attacks in San Bernadino and Paris, and the Syrian refugee crisis, along with the growing presence of ISIS, has made Americans predictably more reactionary and more susceptible to fear and scaremongering tactics. And Trump is on hand to exploit these fears. Instead of assuaging them, he is essentially presenting a blackmail of sorts: vote for me or the terrorists will get you.
It’s telling that his statements about Mexican immigrants or Muslim immigrants have been embraced by his supporters, despite their unvarnished racism. I’m not saying Trump is the most racist candidate. What I am saying is Trump’s rhetoric has allowed for any veneer of civility and tolerance to be stripped away: in its place is a defiant bigotry that is recast and resold as “telling it like it is” or “not taking crap from anyone” or “politically incorrect.”
What is so savvy about Trump and his people is that he knows how to cherry pick his bigotry in such a way that his appeal becomes broader than the garden variety RWNJ who enters the race. With the issue of gay marriage largely settled, Trump gets to court both gay and anti-gay voters by insisting that he’s for “traditional marriage” (says the guy who has two ex-wives), but that gay marriage is here to stay. Saying this, allows for some gay voters to embrace Trump because he’s able to differentiate himself from the other aggressively homophobic candidates. And because of some pro-gay statements he made back in 2000, he’s able to position himself as a moderate in terms of social issues, while exploiting white privilege among LGBT voters.
And he knows that targeting Muslims at this moment reeks of political expedience, even if he privately feels his stance is too harsh. He looks tough on terrorism and he appears to be doing something about our “broken borders.” For too long, Democrats appeared wishy-washy when it came to national security – never mind that the Obama Administration held up much of the Bush Administration’s acts on the War on Terror – and in some cases went even further.
But the news continues to pump images of brown people spilling over, jumping over barbed wire and teetering in crowded rafts, ready to invade our countries. And we see these images and link them to mass shootings without any regard for context. And Trump knows this. And he exploits this. So while most Americans would say Trump is wrong in his Muslim ban, many Americans in private agree with him, and his blustery delivery embolden many of those folks to “come out of the closet,” so to speak, and publicly declare their support for the ban.
So while it’s easy to dismiss Trump as a blowhard and stupid, we cannot underestimate him. Not anymore. He’s no longer a joke – no longer a fringe candidate that would make for a great SNL recurring character. And if we hope to win – either with Sanders or Clinton – then we cannot afford to be smug anymore. Yes, Clinton and Sanders could run circles around Trump when it comes to policy, when it comes to firing up a crowd, Trump may have them beat.