“We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”
– Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
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Let’s apply Hawking to the phenomenon of Trump and “cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”
The heart of Trump’s appeal to the ebbing and flowing 30-some percent of Republican voters who have kept him on top of the polls is – there is no nice way to say this – racist. Trump’s campaign, not unlike the manifestos of European right-wing nationalist parties in Great Britain, France, Sweden and elsewhere, is based on controlling immigration. The European versions are frequently described as “nationalist” or even “neo-fascist,” but we’re too polite to label our home-grown political hatred with such loaded terms, even if they apply.
From the announcement of his candidacy to his latest rally in Texas, bashing Mexican immigrants is the raison d’etre of Trump’s campaign. In his sweeping indictment of immigration back in June, Trump said Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems” to America including rapists, drug runners, and other criminals. He promised to build his wall to stop this, round up every illegal immigrant in the country and deport them and end the Constitutional requirement that any child born in the U.S., regardless of the status of his parents, is a citizen. So long “anchor babies.”
Not surprisingly, as the latest CNN poll suggests, “Among Trump’s backers, 87% support building a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, and 82% think children born to parents in the U.S. illegally should not be granted citizenship. Republicans who do not support Trump tend to agree with these views, but there’s greater dissent than among Trump’s backers: 65% support a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, 67% ending birthright citizenship.”
When Trump bellows that “Mexico is a threat to the United States” his supporters hear the dog whistle of race. Again the CNN poll: “Among Republicans…56% say they think Mexico is a threat, just 23% of Democrats and 37% of independents agree. Trump supporters are particularly apt to see Mexico as a threat, 64% say so compared with 48% of Republicans who do not back Trump.”
Trump, ignorant about so much of the American experience, may think he is on to something new with his anti-immigrant rants, but in fact he is a late, late comer to the cause of hate for those “different” than the rest of us.
Historian Kenneth H. Davis has written that you “scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself. Born before the nation, this abiding fear of the ‘huddled masses’ emerged in the early republic and gathered steam into the 19th and 20th centuries, when nativist political parties, exclusionary laws and the Ku Klux Klan swept the land.”
Earlier in our history various politicians – this was before reality TV jokers ran for office – scored political points by despising Catholics and, as Davis says, “a wave of ‘wild Irish’ refugees was thought to harbor dangerous radicals. Harsh ‘anti-coolie’ laws later singled out the Chinese. And, of course, the millions of ‘involuntary’ immigrants from Africa and their offspring were regarded merely as persons ‘held to service.’”
Trump’s xenophobia is as old, in other words, as the man’s huckstering manner. His appeal to a third of the GOP electorate masquerades under the cloak of an independent outsider, a non-politician, the guy who “tells it like it is,” but Trump is really just peddling the kind of hate that sadly has always coursed through the political DNA of a certain number of American voters.
Never forget that The Donald’s rise as a political figure was originally built almost exclusively on his demands that Barack Obama produce proof that he wasn’t born a foreigner. Recent opinion polls continue to confirm that significant numbers of Republican primary voters, despite all evidence, continue to believe this nonsense. Trump’s “birther” credentials really imploded long ago, mostly thanks to Obama’s masterful put down of the clown at a famous White House Correspondents dinner in 2011, but his resentment still boils.
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik recently recounted Trump’s reaction – you can watch Obama peal the hide off the bloviator-in-chief here – as he observed from a few tables away at that 2011 dinner.
“Trump’s humiliation was as absolute, and as visible, as any I have ever seen,” Gopnik writes, “his head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him. There was not a trace of feigning good humor about him, not an ounce of the normal politician’s, or American regular guy’s ‘Hey, good one on me!’ attitude—that thick-skinned cheerfulness that almost all American public people learn, however painfully, to cultivate. No head bobbing or hand-clapping or chin-shaking or sheepish grinning—he sat perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage. If he had not just embarked on so ugly an exercise in pure racism, one might almost have felt sorry for him.”
Gopnik speculates, not unreasonably, that Trump’s decision to run for president was cemented the night that the upstart “foreign” Obama made him look like the fool he has long been.
Just for the record: Barack Obama is not a Kenyan, children born in America are citizens and have been since the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1868, Mexico is not a threat to the United States, we are not the “dumping ground for the world,” China isn’t killing us and the United States really is a nation of immigrants.
Occam’s razor advises us to adopt the simplest theory when attempting to explain a phenomenon or, as the great physicist says, cut out all the features that cannot be observed and believe what you can see and hear.
Seeing and hearing Trump leaves us with a contemporary, touched up, blow dried version of an anti-Irish, or anti-Catholic, or anti-Black, or anti-Chinese hater that has always found a place and some following in our politics.
The overwhelmingly white, older, angry Americans who find Donald Trump appealing shouldn’t be immediately cast off as misguided or hateful, but they are of a piece with their earlier American cousins. They have warmed to a man whose rise has depended on a message of hate against a certain class of people, which in turn has stoked fear among another certain class of people. It’s an old and despicable tactic updated to the age of Twitter and YouTube.
The fact that the race baiting engaged in by Trump and others on the GOP debate stage will make it next to impossible for Republicans to compete in a national election is well known to most of the party’s dwindling caucus of reasonableness, but the party remains a victim of its often xenophobia base, which has come to dislike moderate talk of immigration reform almost as much as it dislikes the Kenyan Muslim in the White House.
What Trump has done is neither new, nor even particularly inventive in a nation that is on the cusp of having a majority of residents who are people of color and fewer of those angry white folks like Trump. The one thing that is very American about Trump is that he has tapped into the racial resentment, indeed the hatred that has been part of American politics since the beginning.