Watching the Republican presidential campaign in the dying days of August was like watching a twister spin across a barren landscape: You could see it throwing up piles of dirt, but could only imagine the greater chaos churning inside.
Belligerent promises to begin deporting illegal immigrants “on day one” of his presidency had been the cornerstone of Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, and yet with only weeks left until election day, he seemed uncertain as to whether that was still his policy.
On one extraordinary day, Trump flew to Mexico to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto. They talked about drugs, jobs, immigration and cooperation. Everything pointed to a shift, a softening, what some would call a flip-flop.
Then Trump flew back to Phoenix and gave a speech that night in which he drew as hard a line against illegal immigrants as he ever had.
He’d finally landed where he started: no compromise, no softening. He’d doubled down.
Some members of his Hispanic Advisory Council quit soon after, feeling Trump had used them as props. One, a Texas pastor named Ramiro Pena, called the council a “scam.”
Why would a candidate for president associate himself with the alt-right fringe?
I’d had to listen to the Phoenix speech on the car radio, which has a way of tuning the ear more keenly than television can to the sound of the crowd. Radio heightened the drama of how wildly thrilled supporters were when Trump hammered home his promises of zero tolerance for immigrant crime, building “the wall” and America first.
The temper of the crowd was the reason Trump couldn’t soften on immigration; his supporters would accept no compromise, simply would not stand for it.
He had switched them on more than a year ago with vague promises of fixing everything that was wrong with America. He’d posed as the tough guy who ordered hecklers tossed from his rallies (“get ‘em out of here”) and would be just as tough on illegal immigrants from Mexico, refugees from Syria and Muslims from anywhere (“get ‘em out of here”).
He’d even flirted with the white nationalist movement and brought in Stephen Bannon, CEO of the alt-right Breitbart News site, to head his campaign.
Why on earth would a candidate for president associate himself with that fringe — a loose collection of right-wing populists, white supremacists, anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, some of whom crack jokes about the Holocaust?
I’d first caught a glimpse of what Trump was stirring up near the beginning of his campaign, when I started looking at racial politics and his far-right supporters and I met a man named Ed Hunter, who has been a constant source of insight into the Trump phenomenon.
I. ‘The American people are being replaced’
I met Ed in Maryland when I interviewed him for a TV segment about how Trump was severing the politeness and tolerance from political conversation in America.
Ed was a typical Trump supporter — a late-middle-aged white construction worker with an enthusiasm for Tea Party politics. At the time, he seemed smart and wry and thoughtful and I liked him.
He was the one who explained to me the full sweep of Trumpism in just six words: “The American people are being replaced.”
It was that simple — every social, economic and political complaint of Trump’s followers stuffed into a single short sentence.
The Third World was replacing American workers; immigration was replacing American culture; the super-rich were replacing “We the People.”
Ed figured that even if Trump wasn’t the solution — even if he might never become president and “Make America Great Again!” — at least he wasn’t sleepwalking past the problems.
And so every week, Ed was on a highway overpass outside Washington, D.C., hanging huge Trump banners bearing messages for rush-hour commuters. On the day my team filmed him, he was putting up three massive ones that read, “Millions Unemployed,” “Stop Immigration,” “Trump.”
A reporter from France 2 saw our piece a while later and asked me how to get in touch with Ed. I gave her what she needed, and soon Ed was on the Maryland overpass with a French TV crew arguing about Muslims.
Were it not for that, I wouldn’t have such a vivid image now of what put Donald Trump’s name at the top of the Republican ticket for 2016.
Ed and I have remained in contact since last September, and he later told me that the French reporter had baited him during their interview, trying “to get racist stuff out of me.”
They’d argued about European immigration.
“These Muslims are French, they came to France to help rebuild France,” Ed said she told him.
“I told (her) that Muslim immigration would be the end of France and Europe,” he said.
What Ed remembers most clearly, though, is the moment in their interview when the reporter’s voice suddenly became strained and trailed off as the toot-tooting horns from the I-95 below unexpectedly swelled into a chorus — a long, cacophonous wail that drowned her out.
They didn’t know it then, but a tragedy was unfolding as they spoke: ISIS was massacring people in cafés and a concert hall in Paris.
Later, Ed wrote me an I-told-you-so email, and also published some of it on a blog.
They didn't know it then, but a tragedy was unfolding as they spoke.
“The very moment that the French media elites were repeating the PC leftist party line… ‘We don’t have an immigration problem we are multicultural’ etc. the news of the Paris attacks is hitting the car radios of the people below and they are going nuts in support of Trump and his defiance of the political media and academic elites.
“I called Valerie, the French reporter, and she had just heard the news.
“All she could say is ‘I am so shocked…so shocked!!’ I said ‘Why? You had to know this was coming, you were told a million times—.’ At which point she hung up.”
Ed wrote of the electrifying effect the news of the attack and the sight of his Trump banners had on the traffic passing north and south on the highway below.
“I saw it happen. I watched an almost physical wave of noise and cheering and honking roll up I-95 from as far as I could see south towards DC, to where it disappeared over the horizon to the north, up towards Baltimore, New York and points beyond.”
To Ed, it seemed as though they were celebrating the ISIS attack as fresh evidence for their ideas about race and immigration.
That was the image that stuck with me, and it made me wonder how much of what Trump was exploiting was the economic insecurity of his followers — as many smartypants political pundits were arguing at the time — and how much of it was just plain racial animus.
II. ‘That’s not the America we grew up in’
A recent survey from the Gallup research company offers an answer.
Gallup’s goal was to create a profile of Trump supporters, describe their social and economic circumstances and locate them on the map of America. It collected more than 87,000 responses over a year ending this past July.
The resulting analysis is a dry read, some of which confirms what we already knew: Trump supporters are more likely to be white, older males; less likely to have a higher education; more likely to be Christian and to say their faith is important to them.
But the thing that is new and important is how the data upends what many thought was the economic and social experience of Trump supporters — namely, the belief that they are the people most deeply affected by a failing economy and rising immigration rates.
According to the Gallup results, those who support Trump are slightly better off economically and employment-wise than people who don’t support him. While they are likely to live in areas that have suffered economically, they are also likely to be better off than their neighbours, and to have been spared the worst effects of the 2008 recession.
They are also significantly less likely to live in communities where there is a substantial immigrant population. In other words, Trump supporters are less likely than other Americans — and less likely even than other Republicans — to have regular personal experiences with immigrants.
Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at Gallup, says that Trump has been misleading his flock.
“He says they are suffering because of globalization. He says they’re suffering because of immigration and a diversifying country, but I can’t find any evidence of that,” Rothwell told the Washington Post.
That doesn’t mean that globalization and a stubbornly weak economy haven’t had an impact — just that those things aren’t indicators of likely Trump support. But it’s the figures on the Trumpists’ experience with immigrants — or rather, lack thereof — that got data journalists talking.
Nate Silver, widely respected for his polling website FiveThirtyEight.com, pored over the Gallup numbers and pronounced on his weekly podcast that “the numbers on racial anxiety jump off the page.”
Should we be surprised? We’ve watched for a long time as Trump has played with “othering.” He has whipped up suspicion about Barack Obama’s birthplace and faith. He has spread phony data on black crime rates while citing a statistics bureau that doesn’t even exist. And of course there is his Muslim ban.
Trump has the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the support of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, and he attracts people from the white nationalist fascist group Traditionalist Worker Party to his rallies.
There is a reason for that.
They hear what he is saying and recognize that he traffics in the same racial division they do.
Many months ago, I sat down with Matt Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party. He seemed calm, articulate and determined to sound reasonable — although that was before a YouTube video popped up showing him violently shoving a black woman out of a Trump rally in Kentucky.
I asked Heimbach what Trump meant to his movement.
“I’m not throwing in and saying I want Donald Trump to even be the president necessarily. What I do want is for him to keep saying these things, because it offers us a kind of political cover to be able to say, ‘Well, Donald Trump says it, we’re not that radical.’ It’s moving the discussion toward the right, towards nationalism,” he told me.
“He’s made immigration a topic here in America. He’s making the very question of what’s an American a question.”
That seems true. Trump has given broader license to the kind of political conversation that not long ago was relegated to the alt-right.
In my first chat with Ed Hunter, I asked him whether the people who supported Trump were mostly white people who resented having lost the power they once had in America.
“Well, they should be,” he jumped in, adding that they are struggling for “self-preservation.”
“You know what they want more than anything? They want to be left alone. They don’t want to be fighting off hordes and hordes of people from foreign cultures that are utterly changing their country to the core.
“You go into any airport, any public building, any public school and you look at what it is now compared to what it was 30 years ago, the level of security needed, the constant surveillance, the constant police presence.
“That’s not the America we grew up in. We didn’t need that. What changed? Who did they bring in that makes everybody so afraid?”
Immigration to America, both legal and illegal, has increased over the last generation. But crime has not. In fact, violent crime, including rape, has decreased steadily, and in some cases dramatically.
So what is it, really, that “makes everybody so afraid?”
Trump knew from the start.
U.S. immigration vs. violent crime rate, 1993–2014
* Violent crime includes murder, rape, armed robbery and assault
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III. ‘He won my heart with the Mexican rapists speech’
On June 15, 2015, a small crowd gathered in the golden atrium of New York’s Trump Tower and gazed upwards as Melania Trump, brown hair flowing over bare shoulders and a tight-fitting, strapless cream dress, stepped onto the down escalator ahead of her husband, the Donald, apricot hair cresting over a blue suit, white shirt and too-long red tie.
Standing on the escalator, they looked like they were floating, as though on the foredeck of a yacht gliding into harbour, Trump waving one hand, showing a thumbs-up with the other — enjoying, as he always does, the grand entrance.
He was there to announce he was running for president.
To Ed back in Maryland, Trump seemed to be descending from Heaven.
“Here comes this guy, Donald Trump, who is by a miracle coming from the top down,” Ed recalled. “Here’s a guy with no need for money, right? No motive for money or anything to do what he’s saying. He’s actually thought out how the whole political process has been subverted for such a long time.
“So in my mind, it was a miracle.”
Trump’s wealth is his sizzle and he is forever flaunting it. He claims to be worth $10 billion US — although according to his testimony in court documents, his own estimation of his fortune can vary depending on his mood.
To Ed, Trump seemed to be descending from Heaven.
When he launched his campaign, Trump said it would be self-funded — a claim that was never really true — implying that he would be his own man, neither beholden to nor directed by anyone.
That was important to Ed and other supporters.
But what grabbed the headlines was the thing Trump said about Mexicans: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
The reaction inside the polite circles of politics and punditry was predictable — people went berserk. Meanwhile, businesses dropped Trump like a hot rock. Macy’s department store phased out its line of Trump clothing. The media company NBCUniversal, Trump’s partner for his show The Apprentice, ended their relationship. The Spanish-language television network Univision cancelled its participation in Trump’s Miss America beauty pageant.
But over at Breitbart.com, acid-tongued conservative shock columnist Ann Coulter was swooning.
“He won my heart with the Mexican rapists speech,” she told me this summer.
Some colleagues, friends and a number of strangers with Twitter accounts were aghast that I interviewed Coulter. The feeling was that she incites racial hatred, so why give her a platform?
One comment in particular summed it up: “Are you serious? Ann Coulter? Has it really come to that?”
The answer is yes, it has really come to that.
Reporters and pundits at CNN, the New York Times, Politico and just about everywhere else underestimated Trump’s appeal in part because they thought the likes of Coulter had been safely marginalized at Breitbart and were unplugged from the national conversation.
It was the same type of thinking that seems to have led the Huffington Post to make a big show last summer of refusing to put Trump in its news pages and confining him to their entertainment section instead — so sure were they that there was no serious audience for what he was spouting.
But it was they who were out of touch with what was happening in a significant part of America.
Changing demographics in the U.S.
Population growth of Hispanics vs. non-Hispanic whites, 1940-2014
Note: 2014 data based on population projections.
Coulter, apparently, was not. Since I wanted to know what she knew, I dared to ask her.
Coulter has written a dozen books with sales estimated at more than three million. She is read because she’s a clever writer with a scathing wit, and because she offers piles of anecdotes for people to believe what they want to believe about immigrants.
Alone and in person, she is funny and seems fun-loving, if at times impatient. She can be obsessive about how she looks on the cover of her books.
The particular book we talked about, Adios, America!, reads like a blueprint for Trump’s campaign. Coulter says Trump asked her to send him a copy on the eve of its release last year, just before he launched himself toward the White House.
Adios, America! is a polemic about how traditional Americans —“free white men of good character,” they were once called — are losing their country. There are pages and pages of news clippings about free-loading immigrants flooding into the U.S. committing crimes and indulging in so-called “rape culture” — entire chapters of it, in fact.
When Trump said what he did about Mexican rapists, he was channeling Coulter. She takes credit for it.
“Look, his instincts were the right way, my book gives him the footnotes, the back-up, the details, anchor babies, the Mexican rapist. Nobody talks about the different types of culture we’re bringing in and the child rape thing in particular,” she says.
“The drug problem, all of that’s in my book — the Somalis, the Muslims, the immigration moratorium.”
Trump has certainly encouraged xenophobia. At his campaign rallies, he gets a kick out of winding up the crowds with his promise of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and his call for a ban on Muslims entering the country “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
His first TV ad for the general campaign stokes old fears in Breitbart style:
“Syrian refugees flood in, illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay, collecting social security benefits, skipping the line, our border open. It’s more of the same but worse,” says a narrator as grainy pictures of huddled refugees and handcuffed young men splash across the screen.
Trump's first general election ad
IV. Through the ‘golden door’
What has long animated Coulter and her followers is the belief that immigration was liberalized and foisted on Americans as a conspiracy to build a new voting base for Democrats.
The theory of how Democrats could do such a thing might not be familiar to you, but Coulter would trace it back to 1965, to the small island of Liberty in New York harbour, just off Manhattan, and the day Lyndon Johnson landed there in the presidential helicopter.
The site was chosen because the Statue of Liberty had, for many decades, symbolized the gateway into America for millions of immigrants. That day in October, Johnson sat down before news photographers and signed into law a new immigration act.
Critics would later say Johnson deliberately downplayed the impact of the new law when he said, “This is not a revolutionary bill, it does not affect the lives of millions.”
In fact, it would change the face of America.
Johnson seemed more on the mark when, looking up at the great torch-bearing beacon of Liberty, he came to his florid finish: “The lamp of this grand old lady is brighter today and the golden door that she guards gleams more brilliantly in the light of an increased liberty for the people from all countries of the globe.”
Translation: America’s “golden door” was opening to all people in the world. And through it they would come.
The aim of the new Immigration Act was within the spirit of the times. The 1960s was an era for throwing off the bonds of racial prejudice through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Immigration Act put an end to the historic discrimination of a “national origin” policy that for decades effectively favoured white immigration to America.
Today’s Republicans are likely to see it differently, and to put the Immigration Act into the less noble context of Democrats adjusting to changing political realties.
The 1965 Immigration Act ended a policy that had favoured white immigration to America.
When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in ‘64, he purportedly told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, that Democrats had “just lost the South for a generation.”
The quote is probably apocryphal. But whether or not anyone actually said it, there was truth to it. Moving forward on civil rights cost the Democrats support among white voters not just in the south, but wherever there was racial insecurity.
And that brings us to the conspiracy theory: To replace the white votes they’d lost, Democrats rewrote immigration laws to import new voters who weren’t white.
Some Republicans today say even if that wasn’t Johnson’s intent, it was the result. In 1960, the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the United States came from Canada and western European countries. By 2010, 90 per cent came from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
The majority of them have voted Democrat.
In Adios, America!, Coulter makes a case for how long the arc of the conspiracy might be by citing a Washington Post article about the unusual behaviour of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, published after Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996.
The headline: “INS Accused of Giving In to Politics; White House Pressure Tied to Citizen Push.”
“A year before the 1996 Presidential election,” Coulter writes, “the Clinton administration undertook a major initiative to make 1 million immigrants citizens in time to vote. The White House demanded that applications be processed twelve hours a day seven days a week.”
Her smoking gun quote is from a memo to Clinton from vice-president Al Gore’s office that said the INS feared it “might be publicly criticized for running a pro-Democrat voter mill.”
V. ‘Open defiance and rebellion’
Ultimately, nothing is more important in shaping a community than the decisions about who is allowed to cast a ballot and choose the government.
Consider California: When Hispanics began to overtake whites as the largest demographic group, the state began to move from reliably Republican to solidly Democrat.
The same demographic shift is happening in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Nevada as their non-white populations grow. Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Boston, New York, Chicago, Baltimore and others are already “majority-minority cities” — meaning the majority of people there are ethnically different from the majority of the country as a whole.
In other words, not white.
That’s why it was dispiriting to Trump’s followers when he recently hinted he might not follow through on his promise of a “deportation force” to round up the millions of illegal immigrants in America and move them out of the country. He said he was open to letting some illegal immigrants stay in the country legally if they just paid their back taxes.
Ed Hunter, sensing Trump was wavering and that someone had to pull him back on course, sent me an email in August with the exact words the candidate should say to reassure his flock.
“1. We cannot allow illegals to become citizen [sic] because they will vote 8 to 2 Democratic.
“2. This is why they were imported and defended by the Left in the first place.
“3. I will not allow the replacement of American people by another electorate, which has been created to empower a tyrannical Political Elite.”
By “political elite,” Ed meant what he calls “the UniParty”— Democrats and Republicans, which, without Trump, Ed sees as indistinguishable.
Ed complained about what he called “the consultant class” influence of Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. He feared she would try to lead Trump to say things that would alienate his core support — alienate people like Ed.
Around the same time, Trump began to talk openly about the possibility of losing in November, and hinted he’d enjoy a nice long vacation if that was how it turned out. More ominous were his repeated warnings that the election would be rigged against him. He told Pennsylvania voters the only way he could lose their state would be if the vote were fixed — even though he was trailing Clinton by a huge margin in opinion polls there.
Ed has been thinking for many months about what would happen if Trump fails. In fact, he wrote to me about it at Christmas, when I asked him how he thought 2016 would unfold.
He was remarkably prescient.
Ed foresaw the quick collapse of the Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush primary campaigns, and Trump’s final showdown with Ted Cruz. Democrats would choose Hillary Clinton, Ed said, and in November, a fractured right might hand the election to her.
Then Ed wrote, “upon Hillary win a large segment of American population embolden [sic] by Trump and sense of GOP treachery move to open defiance and rebellion.”
Ed has been thinking for months about what would happen if Trump fails.
How far-fetched is that?
Most of us have heard Trump’s incitements to violence. In front of thousands of supporters, he has said of protesters: “I’d like to punch him in the face,” and “If somebody’s getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of him, will ya?”
I was in the crowd when the cheering masses turned into a mob, pushing and shoving women protesters along the floor and out the door at a rally in Richmond, Va.
I heard a grinning young woman cry, “White power! Always has been, always will be!”
It’s true that protesters have deliberately tried to provoke a rough reaction at these rallies. But what’s remarkable is how easy it is to set the Trumpists off — like pushing a button on a vending machine, out pops the rage.
If you want to, you can brush aside Trump’s incitements and complaints about vote-rigging as nothing more than his rascally side bursting out again, or tell yourself he’s just test-marketing the excuse he’ll use to try to explain the drubbing he seems headed for in November.
But are there those who hear it all as a summons to “open defiance and rebellion”?
If the side that loses believes the side that won is betraying America, is led by a crook who should be locked up and has rigged the election to steal it, is there any limit to its reaction?
VI. The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning
I had hoped Ed would continue to be as insightful as he was when we first met a year ago and he summed up what was driving people to Trump: “The American people are being replaced.”
Instead, Ed has only felt freer to parade his racial resentment — which turns out to be considerable.
It’s not just illegal immigration from Mexico and perceived threats from Muslim countries that bother Ed. He has no sympathy for Black Lives Matter — in fact, no patience for African-American grievances at all.
I heard from him the day after NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick stayed seated during the national anthem at a pre-season game to protest racial injustice in America. Ed said that Kaepernick “lives in a child like fantasy world of imagined persecution.”
Ed’s hero, Trump, said Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.”
There is room to critique what Kaepernick did without stooping to ridicule his complaint or suggest he get out of the country. But those reactions led me to think that pushing the envelope on race is exactly what this election has been about.
Republicans have deliberately made identity politics and racial resentment their issue because that’s what appeals to older, poorly educated white male Americans, and that’s their base now.
But by not even trying to expand that base, they may have found a sure way to take an election that was theirs to lose — and lose it.
It’s a big reason why Democrats, seeking a third consecutive term in the White House with a historically unpopular nominee, Hillary Clinton, have consistently polled better than Trump.
There will be a temptation to blame a defeat on Trump personally and to foresee a day when his message might be delivered by a more polished, less vulgar candidate who could, in fact, become president.
But that misses the point.
In a brilliant essay for Vox, political scientist Lee Drutman writes that Trump’s personal weaknesses are not the real problem for Republicans — it’s their reliance on an old formula that doesn’t work anymore.
Trump's personal weaknesses may not be the real problem for Republicans.
Trump has ensnared Republicans in a trap they laid for themselves decades ago when they began appealing to white anxiety. Drutman plots out how identity politics has gone from being a winner for Republicans since Richard Nixon and his “southern strategy” of exploiting racial resentment, and evolved into a winner for Democrats in today’s more diverse America.
Identity politics now works better for Democrats, says Drutman, because it allows voters to ignore the flaws in the party and unite instead against what they reject about the Republicans.
When Trump launched his campaign with his speech about “Mexican rapists” he thrilled the Ed Hunters, Ann Coulters and Breitbarts of the world and began sealing the presidential nomination.
Whether Trump has put Republicans on a losing track for November or will somehow beat the odds and eke out a win is what the campaign will decide over the next several weeks.
But his lasting impact will be that he has done what Ed Hunter hoped he would do and destroyed all that was left of what we once knew as the Republican Party — The Party of Lincoln.