Love didn’t trump hate: intolerance in the campaign and beyond

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential Election defied more than the polls; it also challenged feel-good assumptions about the inevitable triumph of progressive democratic ideals. In his campaign for the White House in 2008, Barack Obama invoked the saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In 2016, Hillary Clinton asserted, “Love trumps hate.”

We now know such lines are more prayer than prediction. In spite of a steady stream of hateful rhetoric and policy positions against weaker sections of society—or, more chillingly, because of it—Trump scored major upsets in key states. How large a role hate played in Trump’s ascent is disputed. His detractors say it defined his campaign; his defenders claim that it’s not really what he is about. 

The truth may lie in between. On the one hand, the new leader of the free world is not wedded to his positions. He is a lower order chauvinist than, say, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is committed to a Hindu nationalist agenda bent on dismantling India’s post-independence multicultural order.

On the other hand, Trump’s attacks on Mexicans and Muslims did amount to key election promises. They were not throwaway remarks like those of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Lee never let political correctness curb his indulgence for cultural and gender stereotypes, but he was also a defender of racial and religious equality—and would have eliminated without hesitation any would-be Modis and Trumps dabbling in incendiary communal politics in Singapore.

Immediate post-election analyses suggest that Trump bore into an underground cavern of seething hostility against the governing class. Post-election commentators say voters’ animosity toward the establishment is understandable, considering how many Americans justifiably feel let down and left behind by policymakers. What this does not explain, though, is why minority-bashing had to be incorporated into an agenda for change. 

This is probably because more rational responses were ideologically unpalatable. A social democratic revolution, as championed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the left, was anathema to the powerful 1 per cent that it aimed to dethrone, and even too unsettling for many among the 99 per cent that it was meant to help. It proved simpler to scapegoat minorities.

It is a tactic that has been used by demagogues around the world for generations: construct stark divides between ‘us’ and ‘them’; blame them for our problems; and present oneself as the only leader clear-sighted enough to recognise them for what they are, and strong enough to deal with them. In the United States, such messages found a receptive audience among the many white Americans who are uneasy about the shift in their country’s cultural centre of gravity toward greater diversity. 

If you are seeking glimmers of hope, you might argue that Trump’s bigotry did not run deep; that it was just a performance for short-term electoral gain. Even if this is true of Trump the man, it overlooks the fact that his campaign—contrary to some media portrayals—was not run solo. The movement included long-running, organised hate groups, none of which are going to change their spots now that they are on the winning side. 

Most of the alarm has focused on the endorsements he received from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. There are lesser-known, but more influential, merchants of hate that have systematically and successfully inserted paranoid intolerance into US political discourse over the years. Anti-Muslim sentiment, for example, was cultivated by a fringe group of misinformation experts who claimed that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that American Muslims want to introduce Islamic law or sharia, and that their mosques preach violent jihad.

One of these think tanks was behind a debunked study that Trump cited to justify his proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. Anti-Muslim ideologues were named as Trump advisors. Even if Trump the candidate was merely putting on a show purely for campaign purposes, there is every risk that the bigotry espoused by his aides and advisors will be institutionalised within the Trump Presidency.

But if the 2016 campaign was full of warning sirens, it also contained signs of hope. The pushback against hateful rhetoric was not insignificant, and the fact that Trump won the White House does not mean he won the argument or silenced counterviews. 

The mainstream news media, for all their failures, regularly factchecked his wild claims and called him out on his invective. Civil rights organisations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union did their part. The military and national security establishment hinted at potential resistance against rabid Trumpism engaging in all-out war against Muslims.

Less noticed, but possibly more impactful in the long run, is opposition from within the Religious Right. Younger Christian Evangelicals who will inherit the movement appear comfortable with America’s growing diversity and ready to resist against Trump’s amoral demagoguery.

Perhaps it is still the case that the arc of history will bend toward justice. 

Just not yet.