The scariest thing about Donald Trump isn’t Donald Trump.
The scariest thing is not that he changes his political positions on a daily basis, that he has zero experience, or that he lies unapologetically. The scariest thing is not that his policies are uninformed, untenable and impractical. And it’s not that his impetuous attitude seems like a bad partner for nuclear launch codes.
That he has run on a platform of hate and bigotry certainly is scary, but the problem goes beyond that. Beyond the fact that his campaign strategy seems to consist almost entirely of making ad hominem attacks against his opponents and calling any female who disagrees with him ugly. Beyond the fact that he labeled Mexicans drug dealers, criminals and rapists (though some, he assumes, are good people).
It goes past his proposals for banning all Muslims from entering America, and registering them in a database. And past his suggestion that if we want to stop ISIS, we should go after not just the soldiers, but also their families.
The scariest thing about Donald Trump is that he’s winning, and what that says about us.
Somewhere back at the beginning of all this, Trump made an assessment that denigrating minority groups and blaming our problems on them would win him mass appeal. What’s been truly startling about his campaign was that he was right.
Before this election, if you had asked me to guess what portion of the country shared Trump’s hateful outlook on life, I would have guessed somewhere around 7 or 8%. I would never have imagined anything like this. That his views would find traction with enough people to make him a heavyweight in his campaign for president.
Trump is going to win more delegates than any other republican candidate, and polls have him in the mid-40s in any sort of hypothetical contest against Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.
Meaning that, regardless of who the democratic nominee is, over 40% of people would actually pull the lever for a guy who supports registering Muslims in a database. He is not succeeding because he is appealing to some niche demographic of voters in white hoods. He is resonating with massive swaths of the American population.
I have spent most of my life believing that we are winning in the war against prejudice. That most of the intolerant people are dying out or changing their minds, while the next generation grows up aware of how inhumane and counterproductive discrimination is. But when you see Trump polling in the mid-40s, it makes you wonder if we’ve really made that much progress. Or if the hateful among us have simply been hiding for the last few decades.
Because there does seem to be this awakening of animosity that didn’t just spontaneously generate. It’s as though Trump’s success has finally given the closeted bullies and racists out there permission to be themselves. Assaults against Muslims and Mosques are on the rise. Violence is breaking out at rallies. These events aren’t happening because people are being brainwashed by a charismatic leader into feeling things they never felt before. They’re happening because people are suddenly emboldened to express the hate they have felt all along.
President Obama echoed the sentiment of many last month when he said he felt confident Trump would never be president because, “I have a lot of faith in the American people.” But doesn’t the fact that Trump has achieved so much popularity already mean that faith is misplaced?
If Trump loses, that doesn’t mean some sort of spell is magically broken, and all the angry villagers will go home. That’s not how movements work.
What happens if, four years from now, someone else picks up Trump’s playbook? What if that person actually has a normal haircut and wasn’t a New York liberal up until the day he announced his bid for the republican nomination? That guy might win. After all, over 40% of the nation is ready to stand with him.
Donald Trump has gotten a lot of credit during his campaign for being the guy who “tells it like it is.” Which is scary. Because it means there are a whole lot of people who see the world just like he does.