Trump, Sadly, is No Sideshow

Donald Trump is America. The real estate mogul/reality TV star/all-around huckster has been spouting some of the most vitriolic comments imaginable in recent years, statements that plug into the nation's long history of racism and xenophobia and that have gained him some traction in what many view as a vanity run for the White House.

President Barack Obama is not American, Trump says, or he hasn't been able to prove it to Trump's liking. Mexicans -- or the bulk of those coming in without legal authorization -- are not just criminals, Trump says, but rapists and murderers, and they are infecting Americans with diseases. Some may be good people, he will add offhandedly, but only as a way of doubling down on his litany of attacks. Most observers do not view Trump as a legitimate candidate, though he is polling near or at the top of the Republican field and is likely to be included in the first Republican debate. He is, observers say, nothing more than a sideshow and will fade from view when the real candidates -- Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker -- become more well known.

These observers are probably correct. Trump will fade and fail to win the nomination. But these analyses also assume that the Trump sideshow has limited appeal and is outside of American mainstream thought. It is not. His rhetoric and its reception by many are sadly familiar.

The history of race and ethnicity in the United States is an ugly one. While we celebrate the "melting pot" concept, the ability of all newcomers to become fully American and seek the American dream, the reality is we only accept these newcomers grudgingly and only when the white majority sees the expansion of whiteness as necessary to its survival. Initially, it was Irish immigrants who were seen as the other -- often depicted as apes and monkeys in the popular media of the time; then it was the Southern and Eastern Europeans. All of these groups were vilified as dangerous outsiders, as un-American, often in the same language used by Trump to describe Mexicans. And we should not forget that the darker races – blacks, Asians, Latinos – continue to find roadblocks placed on the road to acceptance. (See Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People for a more in-depth discussion of this process.)

The politicians often try to explain it away: We remain mired in economic malaise (GDP has grown at a solid pace, but has not trickled down to all segments of the population). People are worried and they express that worry by blaming "the other." When times get better, the argument goes, the vitriol and xenophobia will go away. This is true, to a degree, but also is the equivalent of pleading temporary insanity.

Xenophobia and racism are significant parts of our national DNA. The list of racial, ethnic and religious groups that have been the targets of public opprobrium and government restrictions is long and the impact of this history continues to be visible in segregated cities, widespread poverty among blacks and Latinos, unequal schooling, access to the ballot, race/ethnic-based foreign policy decisions, our expectations that all Muslims answer for the actions of a comparatively small minority of radicalized Muslims, and so on.

My point, ultimately, is that we should not be so dismissive of Trump, of his candidacy or of the people with which his words have connected. His support seems small and polls show only a minority willing to traffic in these racial and ethnic stereotypes, but it is unclear whether the polls can actually capture the full breadth of these sentiments. The argument I keep hearing -- from an admittedly unscientific sample of family members and a surprisingly large number of acquaintances, all white, mostly older -- is that Trump's crime is not his critique of immigrants. It is that he has been impolitic in the way he frames the critique. He is telling it like it is, and it is angering people. This may not show in the polls, due to the "Bradley Effect" (people tend to tell pollsters what they think is socially acceptable, even when they disagree), but it is there even within so-called “polite society.”

Essentially, the Trump problem is bigger than Trump. The Trump problem is bigger than this specific moment in time, bigger than the Republican Party, bigger than politics. Trump, as I said, is America. And the Trump problem -- the racism that inflames the debate over immigration and so many other issues -- will not go away until we grapple with its deep-roots in American culture.

Hank Kalet is a poet in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2015

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