Political correctness was one of Donald Trump’s earliest targets in his presidential campaign. From the onset, his massive crowds cheered whenever he would defiantly declare, “I’m so tired of this politically correct crap.” He often went on “straight talk” discourses spouting his beliefs about “real” America, Mexican immigrants, Muslim terrorists, inner-city crime and even the old war on Christmas.
On the campaign trail, Trump has often assured audiences, “I am the least racist person that you have ever met.” But to feed his need for uncensored talking points, Trump has drawn politically incorrect rhetoric from a bottomless online well of conspiracy theories and unfiltered intolerance. His “dog whistle” comments – their true meaning audible only to those already attuned to them – have given the radical right an amount of publicity, and legitimacy, never achieved in prior elections.
Yet what all this says (or doesn’t) about Trump himself is not as important as what it shows us of modern American bigotry. The more Trump’s words have been examined and associated with racist and xenophobic ideas, the more the public has come to identify similarly objectionable beliefs, comments and actions in society all around them. Trump has given extremists a high-profile stage, but in the process exposed them to the disinfecting sunlight.
Extremism on the edges
As a researcher of online extremism, my investigations have focused on two general tiers of digital hate culture. The first is the well-traveled network of extremist websites that work hard to avoid appearing racist at first glance. Sites like Daily Stormer, American Renaissance and Occidental Observer have been skillfully designed to seem like faux-political blogs, social networks and news sites. And yet they contain fervently prejudiced discussions on issues like black violence, Jewish media, the prospect of deportation forces and the 2016 GOP candidate. Underlying this discourse is the recurring refrain that the white race is under siege.
The second layer of online extremism is that which has infiltrated, and in some cases, been quietly sewn into, some of the internet’s most popular blogs and news hubs. The right-wing Breitbart News website has a discussion tag bringing together visitors wishing to read about and comment on “Black Crime” in America. On Alex Jones’ InfoWars, followers are fed a regular diet of conspiracies about “illegal aliens” among us. And on The Drudge Report, readers can regularly find headlines collected from across the web about the shrinking white majority and the related rise in minority populations.
Digital demagoguery in the mainstream
It is clear that this next possible president draws from this world. One of Trump’s earliest – and most sustained – involvements with the digital fringe was the birther movement, attacking President Obama’s legitimacy to be president. It began with questions about the first black president’s nationality and faith spreading like ivy along the margins of cyberspace in 2008. Then it graduated onto increasingly mainstream blogs and into campaign politics. Trump sustained it in countless tweets and media appearances over many years.
As his campaign ramped up, Trump built on these connections. In November 2015, some of his supporters attacked a black protester at a rally in Alabama. The next day, Trump tweeted a racially charged meme highlighting the number of “Whites killed by Blacks.”
The statistics he cited were patently false, and the source nonexistent. But the fact that he had tweeted it meant the underlying idea became national news.
In January 2016, Trump drew fire for giving a megaphone to the web’s fanatical underbelly, by retweeting the sentiments of a white supremacist Twitter user. Deeper analysis found Trump often retweeting posts from people who used a “white genocide” hashtag.
By August 2016, Trump was rebooting his campaign for a third time, choosing as his campaign manager Stephen Bannon, the head of Breitbart News. That brought mainstream attention to the site, and some of its recent headlines, such as “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy,” “Bill Kristol: Republic Spoiler, Renegade Jew,” and “Hoist it High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.”
Through his connections to these digital demagogues, Trump has empowered narratives that would otherwise have no place in electoral politics.
Exposing the alt-right
But by bringing unprecedented attention to extremist views in 2016, Trump also forced America to see these threats in the light of day. That could be their undoing. Exposed, these guises of bigotry have been recognized, decoded and even classified – as the “alt-right” – by the press and public.
When last we saw the racist fringe in mainstream media, neo-Nazis and KKK members were regulars on “The Jerry Springer Show,” mocked rather than feared by audiences. Today’s vast online interconnected network of hate, with its Trump-aided inroads into mainstream culture, may yet suffer the same fate.
Birtherism, for example, is no longer being debated on the right as a legitimate movement. By 2016’s first presidential debate, it was being cast as a clear pretense for racism, with questions from the moderator shifting to Trump’s role in perpetuating the charade.
Similarly, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was widely compared to David Duke’s brand of white nationalism after the former KKK leader publicly endorsed him.
More recently, civil rights groups quickly identified Trump’s talk of election rigging in the cities of Chicago and Philadelphia as coded racism for “voter fraud” among the black community. And an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll recently concluded nearly 70 percent of Americans “say they have concerns about Donald Trump’s comments and language on women, immigrants and Muslims.”
In Trump’s journey to abolish political correctness, he has led his supporters to an awkward impasse. No doubt, his backers continue to admire in Trump someone who has the courage to “tell it like it is.” But now they often find themselves saying, “He doesn’t really mean that.” These two sentiments cannot logically coexist.
As for Trump himself, whether he truly believes in the extremist positions he has intimated and associated himself with over the past 16 months we may never know. But John Oliver may have phrased it best when he said, “You are either racist or you are pretending to be, and at some point, there is no difference.”