The truly shocking thing, looking back at what has been written and said since the events in Charlottesville, is that anybody is shocked. Donald Trump’s first appearance on the front page of the New York Times was in 1973, when President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department sued his family’s real estate company for discriminating against black would-be tenants. In the 4½ decades since, he has used racial smears and stereotypes — Mexican rapists, sly Jews, lazy blacks — over and over again, in public, including during last year’s election campaign.
During that campaign, he, his sons and his campaign advisers tweeted and passed on anti-Semitic and racist memes, sometimes deleting them later and sometimes defending them. He was signaling constantly to those who held anti-Semitic and racist views, implying that he understood them, that he was on their side. “But his grandchildren are Jewish” has always been a pretty thin defense, right up there with “But some of his best friends are black.” And it doesn’t matter anyway: It makes no difference what this president (or any president) thinks privately about black or brown people, or which churches or synagogues his friends and family attend. What matters is something different: how the president uses racism in politics — and whether it works.
To date, Trump has used bigotry mainly as an electoral tool, to excite a relatively small group of supporters — let’s call them the alt-right because it’s a useful shorthand — and to persuade them to attend his rallies, to donate money, and above all to coordinate and staff (I suspect both as volunteers and professionals) his online campaign. This tactic was successful largely because the rest of his voters, mainstream Republicans, were not bothered by the tactics that Trump used to win the election. Either they didn’t see the online racism — not everyone uses social media, especially Twitter — or they found compelling reasons, such as hatred of Hillary Clinton or desire for a conservative Supreme Court, to overlook it.
The question now is whether Trump will go further, manipulating racism for political ends as others have done in other countries. Open, ongoing presidential support for the alt-right could, for example, radicalize more people on both the right and the left, leading to more violent clashes of the kind that took place in Berkeley, Calif., as well as Charlottesville. Similar language has inspired individuals in other countries to use violence, too. The anti-immigration rhetoric used during the Brexit referendum in Britain led to increased physical attacks on immigrants there; the same thing has happened after victories by anti-immigrant or racist parties elsewhere. Individual acts of violence may increase in the United States. Remember, along with group violence, individual acts are very useful to Trump: He can “crack down” on the violence, he can call for more police, he can present himself as the candidate of law and order. The more chaos, the stronger he will seem.
By encouraging the alt-right, Trump can also change our definition of what it means to be a moderate or a centrist. This tactic has been used successfully in Hungary, where the center-right ruling party, Fidesz, turned a neo-fascist alt-right party, Jobbik, into an electoral asset. Officially, Fidesz always kept its distance from Jobbik, at one point banning its uniformed marches. But Fidesz borrowed some of Jobbik’s ideas and language, moved its own constituency in a racist and anti-Semitic direction and, while repressing center and left-wing parties — contriving to close left-leaning or centrist newspapers, for example — let Jobbik grow. Now that Jobbik is Hungary’s second-largest political party, Fidesz positions itself as the center. Here’s the paradox: “Vote for us or else you get the far-right” is an argument that the farthest-right ruling party in Europe uses to win elections.
In America, tacit approval for the white-supremacist minority will not lead to a new party — our voting system doesn’t allow it. But it isn’t hard to imagine reaching a point at which Trump, or one of his successors, can argue to his Republican Party colleagues that they, like Hungarians, need to support mildly racist “moderates” such as himself in order to avoid violently racist “extremists” on the fringes. The more madness swirls around him, the more sane he will seem.
The lesson? Don’t be shocked. Instead, watch how Trump uses racism in politics — and find a political response. Build up the centrist majorities of both political parties. Argue back against violence. Don’t let Trump’s extremism create more extremism. Look at what’s happened in other places, and don’t let it happen here.