Originally published in The Boston Globe.
A Donald Trump supporter held up his shirt during a campaign rally for Trump in August in Everett, Wash.
To tax all Donald Trump supporters with bigotry is wrong. It is equally wrong to deny that racial and religious animus fueled his victory; worse to ignore that it animates his policies.
Trump drove the birther movement against our first black president; implied that inner-city blacks were committing voter fraud; used black demonstrators as foils; and depicted African- American neighborhoods as hellholes of pathology. He aroused his base by calling undocumented immigrants rapists and murderers; by falsifying their crime rate; and by promising massive deportation. After all, he informed us, they were stuffing ballot boxes too.
And Muslims? He called for a Muslim registry at home and banning Muslims from abroad. He claimed that a throng of Muslims in New Jersey had celebrated 9/11; that America was flooded with Syrian refugees; and that Muslim communities were protecting terrorists. And millions of Americans believed his lies and feared their fellow citizens.
He did not conjure these toxins from the ether. By tradition, the Republican Party supported racial equity. But the civil rights bills of 1964 provoked a mass migration of Southern whites to the GOP. And racial anxieties transformed the party’s DNA.
To preserve white political dominance, the party gerrymandered congressional districts and pushed photo-ID laws to limit the number of black voters. It opposed affirmative action in hiring or education. Republican judges like John Roberts gutted the Voting Rights Act. Across the country, voters uncomfortable with diversity and demographic change joined the GOP.
There were many honorable exceptions, both among the party’s officeholders and within its voting base. Other loyalists chose to close their eyes — after all, wasn’t Colin Powell a Republican? But for all too many the GOP became the party of white identity.
Countless Americans revere Ronald Reagan. Few remember that he commenced his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., a hamlet in a deep-red state that was noted for but one thing — the murder of three civil rights workers 17 years prior. This was more than a tacit grant of absolution — it was a dog whistle for all who cared to hear.
Nor did anger about illegal immigration originate with Trump. It is hardly bigoted to want our borders secure and our laws obeyed. But the GOP’s rhetoric is too often laced with ethnic spite — witness Tom Tancredo, Joe Arpaio, and Steve King, the last of whom spoke of Mexican drug smugglers with “calves like cantaloupes.”
In wielding such rhetoric, they have obscured the often tragic complexities of illegal immigration. What of the employers, many no doubt Republicans, who welcome an influx of workers without rights? What of children brought here young, who have become Americans in spirit if not in fact? Or others who are US citizens by birth though their parents are not? By reducing them to a faceless mass, the GOP has denied their humanity and diminished our own.
None of this was Trump’s invention. Before his rise, the Republican base punished Marco Rubio for sponsoring immigration reform, a stance from which he retreated too late. Trump’s historic contribution was to make racism, nativism, and xenophobia the essence of his campaign — an “America First” tribalism aimed at anxious and angry whites. Now the bigotry he stoked is a promise he must keep.
The work has begun.
Trump claims that voter fraud by millions of illegal immigrants — and, one infers, African-Americans — mandates a federal investigation. This is far more than mendacious whining about losing the popular vote. Trump means to rally his base, intimidate minority voters, and justify voter suppression laws, which target African-Americans and Hispanics. His aim reflects the GOP at its worst: drawing votes from bigoted whites while disenfranchising minorities, degrading democracy in the bargain. But for an American president this is a new and shameful landmark.
So, too, his further targeting of undocumented immigrants to fuel the politics of nativism. Thus his executive orders to jump-start the wall; accelerate fast-track deportation procedures; and target sanctuary cities. One can debate the merits. What appalls is Trump’s gleeful inhumanity, the showy scapegoating of one group to please another.
But Trump’s seven-country ban on Muslims truly had it all. It was hasty and incompetent. It was callous, targeting traumatized Syrian refugees and Iraqis who served American soldiers. It was irrational, excluding the sources of terrorism past. It was dangerous, metastasizing the hatred which ISIS requires. And it was arguably illegal.
For Trump, none of this matters. He has pleased his followers to please himself, and bigotry, as well he knows, retains the power to bind.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.