The Race War Significance of Donald Trump Adding New Campaign Leadership From the Far Right Fever Swamp
To understand the full significance of Donald Trump adding Breitbart.com executive chairman (and former Goldman Sachs banker) Stephen Bannon and right wing GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway to his leadership – promoting Dictator Whisperer Paul Manafort to campaign chairman, installing Conway to replace Manafort as campaign manager, and creating the position of “Campaign Chief Executive” for Bannon – requires some modern media history.
Before the Internet, and before celebrity-watching became the billion-dollar industry that made Donald Trump a reality TV star – there was the National Enquirer. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Enquirer made a fortune by peddling celebrity gossip and stories about sensational but often wholly fictitious “scandals” to the credulous segment of supermarket checkout lines. People Magazine was launched as a way for a mainstream publisher to cash in on this lucrative niche, ET followed, and the rest is history.
Until the Internet killed it in 2007, the Enquirer had a sister publication, the Weekly World News, into which the Enquirer staff dumped story ideas deemed even too preposterous or silly for the flagship publication: Bigfoot Impregnated by Space Alien Elvis Clone, and the like. (WWN’s dirty little secret was that much of its sales were fueled by college frat types who bought it for the camp value.) And one of WWN‘s regular features was a weekly column written by “Ed Anger” that was a parody of hyperventilating New York Post tabloid columnists – short, unhinged, and often ludicrous rants against, essentially, all the modern bugaboos that aggrieved Archie Bunker.
Breitbart.com is best understood as catering to the people who thought Ed Anger was real, and spoke for them. After 30 years of self-referential right-wing media myth-making, that’s a much larger audience than it was a generation ago. It’s a large enough segment, for example, that a majority of self-identified Republicans still believe that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya – the initial hobby horse Donald Trump rode to political relevance, and why, even this month, Trump referred to the two-tern US President as the “founder of ISIS.”
Initially, Breitbart.com was the personal site of Andrew Breitbart, who in his 30’s rose in conservative media circles to become an editor at the right-wing gossip site The Drudge Report. He made himself a right-wing media star with a 2007 “undercover” video, almost immediately revealed to be heavily doctored, in which he decked himself out as a white frat boy’s conception of what a pimp looks like, and, with a young woman dressed as his prostitute in tow, showed up to volunteer at a local office of frequent right-wing target ACORN, a community group that worked to register primarily inner-city voters.
In real life, Breitbart and his protege were, essentially, politely laughed out of the office. But that’s not what Breitbart’s video showed, and after it went viral in right wing circles, the resulting fake controversy drove ACORN out of business. This was the beginning of Breitbart’s career of producing fake videos – federal worker Shirley Sherrod was another famous victim – and it was Breitbart’s central insight that a certain segment of the Republican base will believe almost anything so long as it conforms to their existing beliefs, especially their racism.
Breitbart himself dropped dead of a heart attack in 2012 at age 43, a death most of the world regarded as addition by subtraction. But the audience for this sort of fiction is alive and well, which is why a Goldman Sachs banker named Stephen Conway – made personally wealthy by the luck of having invested early in the production of a new sitcom called Seinfeld – moved in to continue and build upon Breitbart’s “legacy.”
Politically, The Hill has an interesting quote from an anonymous (for reasons of self-preservation) Republican congressperson – a member of the same caucus so radical that it shut down the federal government, costing the US economy billions, over a wholly invented debt ceiling crisis. Here’s what that person had to say about Trump’s new hires:
“Breitbart has no credibility outside of the most extreme conservative wing of our party…Breitbart takes a flamethrower to Washington and plays very loose with the facts. I would anticipate an even more bellicose, even less-connected-to-the-facts approach from the Trump campaign moving forward.”
Bannon’s skillset has involved expanding an already-existing brand built on using bullshit to exploit the bigotries, especially racial bigotries, of the credulous: the original Ed Anger model applied to motivating voters. It’s little wonder, then, that Trump saw these hires as useful, and little wonder that they have been met with such universal consternation in political circles.
The hires signal that Trump’s much-ballyhooed “pivot” to appearing “more presidential” was just another lie. Just like every other Tea Party-style politician, he is responding to adversity by doubling down on his least reality-based claims. That Trump, Bannon, and much of the rest of his team originally come from the world of high finance suggests just how cynical this whole enterprise is. These are not stupid or gullible people. Their audience is stupid or gullible people.
One of Trump’s legitimate insights for his campaign is that Republicans can no longer win a presidential election with the coalition that backed George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Demographic change alone has now made that nearly impossible, and the visceral disgust of much of the Republican base with being played for fools by a generation of establishment Republicans has cemented it.
Trump cannot win the general election with the old, nearly static red/blue map of the last four elections, in which a small handful of states, especially Ohio and Florida, determine the outcome. That map is already obsolete this year, and Trump has made it worse, not better, for Republicans. Old swing states like Colorado, Nevada, and even Florida and Pennsylvania are no longer competitive – they’re polling as solidly backing Clinton. Formerly solidly red states like Arizona and Georgia are up for grabs, with Clinton leading in many of the polls there, too.
Demographic change and Trump’s uniquely ill-suited temperament have even made Hillary Clinton competitive in Deep South states that the Democrats haven’t even tried to win since her husband, Bill, ran for re-election 20 years ago. Nate Silver’s state-by-state projections, considered state-of-the-art by many, now give Clinton twice as much of a chance to win Mississippi (20 percent) as Trump has of winning Virginia (10 percent), a state that voted for George W. Bush twice.
To win, Trump has to change the map, and it’s not enough to bring it back to where it was in 2012; Romney’s overall vote doesn’t sound like it was that far behind Obama’s, but in terms of the Electoral College tally, the only one that matters, it was not a close election. And Clinton needs only to retain Obama’s voters to do better than he did – because she’s not black. Democratic and independent voters who reflexively voted against the black guy in 2008 and 2012 have a choice again this year, and after over a generation of women governors and senators in red and blue states alike, the misogynist vote is likely to be smaller than the racist vote.
That’s Trump’s gamble as well. In hiring Bannon and Conway, Trump is choosing to try to change that map on the basis of low education and, especially, race rather than gender. Andrew Breitbart’s original targets, the ones that propelled him to fame and influence, were African-American: ACORN and Shirley Sherrod. That’s no coincidence. Nor is the racial animosity that underscores Trump’s best-known and earliest political obsessions: Obama’s parentage, Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists. Trump is certainly personally an unapologetic misogynist, but that’s not what he’s emphasizing as what he hopes will be a winning stategy.
Republicans don’t have a monopoly on racism, and that’s where Trump is looking to redraw the map. He’s unlikely to be successful. In doubling down on race, he also guarantees the near-unanimous opposition of non-white voters, and there simply aren’t enough white voters in the US these days for even a supermajority of them to be able to win a national election by themselves. But by running a White Power campaign, Trump also creates the rationale for questioning the legitimacy of an election should he lose – playing into right-wing obsessions about (minority) vote fraud and dismay over the 14th Amendment, the abolition of Jim Crow, and all that has followed. It’s a morally monstrous strategy. But to a moral monster like Trump, who has built his entire career on using his wealth to get away with bilking the credulous, morality and even legality are minor nuisances, not serious objections.
Trump wants power going forward, and the ego-stroking adulation that comes with it, whether or not he wins on Election Day. These hires signal clearly not only that the next ten weeks of campaigning will be indescribably ugly, but that even if he loses the Electoral College vote, Trump intends to lead a movement, if not an insurrection, afterwards. His hires of fraud, dirty tricks, and anti-democratic specialists like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and their ilk show his determination to maximize his influence whether or not he wins at the ballot box. He’s courting the less educated and those inclined to follow authoritative leaders – hence his odd alliance with a white evangelical Christian jihadist like Mike Pence.
Trump’s a big picture guy. His campaign is not an end in itself; it’s in service of a larger movement that win or lose is designed to go beyond Election Day. That movement will employ whatever tactics Trump deems necessary in order to survive and succeed. And it will be based, more than anything else, on race.
It’s not easy, in the United States, to get people to think of themselves as white. Whites have held power and been culturally dominant in the US for so long that most of us, regardless of our politics, think of ourselves as “normal,” not “white.” In fact, the defining feature of whiteness in America is its invisibility, because being white is the default setting for almost everything. Unlike people of color, most whites don’t need to think about race as part of our daily lives. It’s been that way for centuries.
This is the cultural change that Donald Trump is attempting to catalyze in order to win power: to encourage the cultural and political spread of white identity. As such, Trump emerges as not just a national but a global leader of embattled and embittered white people. Even if he loses is bid for the White House – even if he loses it badly – he is legitimizing the worst of our society. He’s empowering and inspiring the people who credulously believe that they, too, should be able to get away with walking down Fifth Avenue, or some other street, randomly (or not randomly) shooting people. For example.
What does Trump recruiting his newest campaign executives from the right wing racist fever swamp mean? In combination with all of his other tactics and positioning, it means that Donald Trump is willing and hoping to use his visibility as a major party nominee for President of the United States to incite racial animus in order to further elevate himself. The damage he is creating as a result will plague this country and the world for generations to come.