Trump’s Embrace of Racial Bigotry Has Shifted What Is Acceptable in America

Racial violence exists on a continuum. Trump’s use of racially violent language enables racially violent acts.

Supporters shout and hold signs saying things like, "Finish the wall."
Supporters of President Donald Trump shout at the media while waiting for the president’s arrival before a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Friday. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

“Trumpism” is a politics of racial demagoguery. America in the age of Donald Trump is more permissive of explicit racism than it’s been at any point since the civil rights era. And because bigotries rarely dance alone, the president’s nativism is accompanied by anti-black racism—first seen in his “birther” crusade against Barack Obama—anti-Muslim prejudice, and anti-Semitism.

These ideologies exist on a continuum, with casual prejudice on one end and virulent hatred on the other. But common to every expression is a desire to ostracize, remove, and even eliminate the racialized group. The difference between segregation to isolate black Americans and race riots to remove them is one of degree, not kind. Individual efforts to keep black people out of public space are a soft expression of the same impulse that drives radical calls for a white “ethno-state.”

Seen as part of a continuum, the relationship between bigoted rhetoric and bigoted action becomes clearer. The former can facilitate the latter. A society permissive of rhetorical dehumanization is necessarily more vulnerable to actual dehumanization. Allow racial contempt to spread unchallenged, and racist violence will eventually follow.

This was the driving dynamic of black American life in the last decades of the 19th century and the first ones of the 20th. “In every possible way it was impressed and advertised that the white was superior and the Negro an inferior race,” wrote sociologist and historian W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction in America. Anti-black demagoguery and disrespect were pervasive, sanctioned by politicians, public officials, and prominent private citizens. In that environment, racist violence flourished, with thousands killed in lynchings, riots, and anti-black pogroms.

That era of virulent, violent racism is behind us. But explicit prejudice has returned to public life, ushered in by a wave of racial backlash that gathered increasing strength in the final years of the Obama administration. Donald Trump is a product of this backlash—a manifestation of its unleashed rage—but he also acts on it, stoking its flames and shaping its manifestation. And the violence that inevitably accompanies that prejudice—the extreme form of the ideology at hand—has returned as well, from the attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year to the events of the past weekend.

Over the past month, in order to generate support for his political party, the president has tried to generate racial hysteria out of a small “caravan” of migrants headed for the American border, where they will attempt to claim amnesty. “The United States has strongly informed the President of Honduras that if the large Caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!,” said Trump on Twitter.

Right-wing media followed suit, taking the president’s claim, amplifying it, and connecting it to a conspiracy theory accusing liberal philanthropist George Soros of orchestrating the “caravan.” “They are pushing for … the destruction of American society and culture, the reordering of it, in an oligarchy where the elites are on top and the rest are under their control,” said one guest on conservative pundit Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show in a typical segment.

This message of dangerous hordes and anti-American conspiracies was meant to inspire fear and hatred. And those inclined to fear and hate picked up the message. One of them, who blamed a Jewish refugee organization for bringing “invaders that kill our people,” decided to act, killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the worst anti-Semitic terror attack in American history, part of a surge of anti-Semitic hate crimes since 2016.

It was the capstone of a week of far-right violence. In Jeffersontown, Kentucky, a shooter attempted to attack a black church. When he couldn’t force himself into the building, he went to a nearby Kroger grocery store, where he killed two black people. And that incident followed an attempted mass assassination of the president’s most prominent critics.

After perfunctory (and scripted) remarks calling for national unity, Trump returned to his usual stance of grievance and reaction, blaming news media for the heated political atmosphere and continuing his attacks on migrants and other perceived racial threats. In doubling down, Trump sends a signal to his supporters and allies: These attitudes have a privileged place in mainstream political life, and you should express them. Most of this will be rhetorical, but Americans who hold the more virulent form of Trump’s racial ideology could continue to take his rhetoric and free expression of bigotry as a call to action. In turn, his refusal to fully condemn or distance himself from the resulting acts of far-right violence—“some very fine people on both sides”—sets the stage for future acts of terror, which he will almost certainly address in the same equivocating terms.

American presidents are moral leaders and role models as much as they’re political leaders and heads of state—they are meant to model good citizenship and republican virtue. Trump doesn’t just reject this expectation, he subverts it. He embraces sectarianism, models racial chauvinism, and above all, embodies the narrow intolerance of his blood-and-soil nationalism. If each president leaves a particular mark on the country, then Trump has brought a culture of hate and demagoguery from the fringes and into the mainstream.

President Trump will eventually leave office, but there’s no easy return from this new status quo, no obvious way to erase his mark on our political life. With Trump as an example of partial success—he is, after all, the president—future reactionary politicians will likely adopt his methods, and many Americans will move further along the continuum of racist expression.

Racial egalitarianism may still be on the horizon, but it will get worse before it gets better.