The change first came in the weeks after September 11th. Whereas my family had kept their slurs and fascist ideologies largely confined to the safety of our homes, now they were openly having these conversations with other likeminded people in public. At lunch I’d overhear neighbors refer to “towelheads,” “sandn*ggers,” and it was nothing for a quick chat at the Wal-Mart to be punctuated by a call to bomb every man, woman, and child in the Middle East until there was nothing left.
“Turn the desert into glass,” they said. “Let God sort ’em out.”
My family had a history of making those comments, only they’d always sequestered them behind closed doors and kept them among family and neighbors. The tragedy of 9/11 knocked those doors down, though, and brought their bigotry and fascist impulses into the open, gave them comfort and ample opportunity to voice their prejudices in open air, at least when they pertained to Muslims.
In the years following, there were less of these open displays as polite society frowned upon them, but they didn’t stop altogether. They were adamantly in favor of the Iraq War, an unjust invasion, and openly supported waterboarding and torture and, like their eventual hero Donald Trump, they thought there should be even more violent methods of getting information.
Like many, I celebrated the night Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America. Coming from my background, I wasn’t sure if an African American could overcome the deep-seated prejudice in this country, but I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong. My partner at the time had just opened a bottle of champagne when my phone buzzed on the table. Expecting it to be one of my friends in similar merriment, I saw a text from a relative reading “Attention All Whites: Report To The Cotton Fields Tomorrow Morning.”
Online, I saw that that relative, along with a few others, were posting racist memes that, with very little work, could be traced back to Facebook sites that served as fronts for white supremacist groups. Obama’s eight years in office yielded more and more of these posts as my relatives openly expressed offensive sentiments and, at times, wished death upon the president. Supported by others like them, and falling more and more in line with those white supremacists, I realized the conversations that’d began in our living room were leaking out into the world proper.
Recently, at a speaking engagement, an audience member stopped me as I walked out of an event. He was well dressed in a houndstooth blazer, a white pin stuck to his lapel with the name TRUMP struck through with a red line.
“What’d you mean back there,” he asked, “when you said Trump was just a symptom of something larger?”
I tried to explain to him that Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, and his eventual election to the White House, was the result of something that had been brewing in America long before the billionaire mogul had ever thrown his hat into the ring. I explained that he’d become a symbol for people like my family, who had long behaved in racist, misogynistic ways and held deeply troubling beliefs.
The man in the houndstooth coat seemed bewildered. “Those people exist?” he asked, scratching his chin. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like that. How many are there?”
“I don’t want to alarm you,” I told him, “but we’re surrounded by them.”
I didn’t know that some people didn’t grow up like I did. Reality is funny like that. When you’re young and unaware the rest of the world outside your door looks exactly like the one behind it. Not until I got older did I realize my family was poor, that other people weren’t surrounded by dysfunction, half-baked conspiracy theories, and ignorance.
When I was younger, it was nothing to hear the people around me use racist slurs. They came all hours of the day, some of them reactions to the news or whatever TV show happened be on, other times they were just casual declarations, as if somebody was remarking on the weather or tossing out suggestions for dinner. There wasn’t an ethnicity spared, save, of course, for our own.
I heard relatives wonder aloud if African Americans were better off under slavery.
If all the other races would be happier if they left America and formed their own countries.
If maybe the wrong side had won the Civil War.
It was nothing for them to admire Adolf Hitler, the most common refrain being that “he had some good ideas, he just went too far.”
There were some, however, who didn’t think he’d gone far enough.
Of course, racism wasn’t their only vice. They were misogynistic as they maintained that a woman’s place was the kitchen. They sneered at “faggots” and “queers,” sometimes laughing about how they were doomed to eternities in Hell or joking about wanting to murder them. That impulse, to murder, was omnipresent. They longed for the days when lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan kept African-American men in line. They regularly talked about wanting to shoot people with their guns as they cleaned their weapons on the kitchen table.
I always felt like an outsider with my family. The things they said, I’d argue, ran counter to the ideals of America, which they called “The Greatest Country on God’s Green Earth” and honored by flying flags or hanging star-spangled decorations on the Fourth of July. I was the only one who read the Constitution, who studied the history of our founding and the principles of the Enlightenment it was based upon.
Eventually I left for college and found my own people who didn’t express such fascist and ignorant beliefs. I visited for the occasional holiday, kept in decent enough touch, but I felt confident knowing that people like my family would never be in charge of the country they understood so poorly.
My experiences on the 2016 campaign trail were pretty standard before I went to my first Donald Trump rally. Like others, I’d considered Trump to be a sideshow that would run its course before the field narrowed to more serious competitors. And, like others, I’d heard his speeches that ran around the clock on cable news and was certain someone expressing such vulgar and offensive ideas didn’t stand a chance of winning the office.
I was wrong.
Trump maintained his momentum in the polls largely because of his offensive statements. People like my family loved that he called Mexicans rapists, that he said African Americans are “living in hell,” that, at my first Trump rally, he rolled out his plan to ban Muslim immigrants. Here was a man who spoke their language. Here was a man who lived in their world.
For too long they’d been manipulated by a Republican Party that played on their worst fears but never intended to give them power. They’d voted out of fear for decades. Fear of African Americans. Fear of immigrants. Fear of the world changing. They supported Republicans even though, in their guts, they never trusted them. The GOP was the party of wealth, and many of them, like my family, had been raised to be suspicious of Republicans altogether.
Now, Donald Trump wasn’t just placating them, he was one of them. He said the things they said, believed the things they believed. His “tough talk” and “straight shooter” delivery sounded a lot like the racist and misogynistic conversations taking place at my family’s dinner table.
As a result, Trump dominated the Republican primary while his rallies turned into mobile safe spaces for people to be as ugly and offensive as they wanted. Inside those rallies, Trump’s faithful were free to spout racial slurs, demean anyone they disagreed with, and call for political opponents to be locked up or hung. I heard them shout “hang Hillary,” or talk about Clinton being stood in front of a firing squad, some of them saying they’d like to fire the last shot or miming the pulling of a trigger. In other rallies, as the media ran stories detailing Trump’s scandals, they discussed how good it would feel to torture and ultimately murder journalists they believed to be traitors.
Meanwhile, the alt right, a group of white supremacists hiding behind the new, cleaned-up moniker of “white nationalists,” were gaining power and influence. In Cleveland, at the Republican National Convention, I saw rising stars of the alt-right flaunt their newfound stardom among the Republican faithful. They held packed events, partied until dawn, and toasted the death of the old guard.
My family bought in big. In addition to Trump signs and hats, they were on social media posting more racist memes, articles from Breitbart, the home of the alt-right, that regurgitated racist ideology. When Steve Bannon came on the campaign and leashed Donald Trump to teleprompters and his speeches, my family was absolutely hooked. The rhetoric he pushed, the soft appeal of white nationalism, was what they had been looking for, what they had been spouting, their entire lives.
After Trump’s election, YouGov released a poll that shocked the country. In it, 35% of people voting for Donald Trump admitted to having a favorable opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin, nearly four times as many as those who held a favorable opinion of outgoing President Barack Obama. How was it, people asked, that anyone could possibly prefer a foreign authoritarian who had murdered his opponents and cracked down on dissenters?
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t as new as it seems. The base that supports Trump, and, by extension, approves of thugs like Putin, have been here for as long as there’s been a country. The ideological ancestors of people like my family, and Trump’s continued base, are those who defended the scourge of slavery in the writing of the Constitution and in blood during the Civil War. Their roots can be traced back to those same Confederates who, despite claiming to be patriots, seceded from the Union when their practice of owning slaves was endangered.
Simply put, people like this have never been interested in the principles the United States of America were founded upon. The framers of the Constitution, against the backdrop of the Enlightenment, meant for America to be a free republic that progressed and realized that age’s potential. In a sense, the Founding Fathers gave us an aspirational document that would establish the idea of freedom and challenge us to continue to hold it and improve as we did.
My relatives, and others like them, have clung to that Constitution when it has served their interests, primarily the 2nd Amendment, which protects their guns, and occasionally the 1st Amendment, when they feel pressured by shared society. But they are quick to abandon the Constitution when it suits their interests. I’ve heard them regularly disrespect due process and the banning against cruel unusual punishment when the defendant is somebody they disagree with or dislike. The media they consume, both in the form of Fox News and their movies and television shows, showcase a country where the Constitution has been corrupted and vigilantes and strong men are needed to bring order back to bear. They hoard weapons, supplies, and daydream about the day the government will fall and they’ll be free to remake the country as they see fit.
I cannot say they are fascists, but I can definitely say they hold fascist ideas. This is why they hardly blink when Donald Trump quickly erodes the normal order of the government, why they’re not concerned when he undermines the Freedom of the Press or cozies up to authoritarian leaders. They love it when he tells policemen to be rough on suspects. They want someone who plays nuclear chicken with a despot while the lives of hundreds of million innocent people lie in the balance.
In this first year of the Trump presidency, it is now obvious that his base is not only loyal, but perfectly fine with and accepting of authoritarianism and fascist ideology. They’ve stood by their avatar as he called white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia with fascist paraphernalia and chanting Nazi slogans “good people,” even after that rally caused the murder of Heather Hyer. They’ve cheered him on as he’s tried to manipulate the Department of Justice into prosecuting his political rival Hillary Clinton. And now, in recent weeks, they’ve shown a willingness to support a serial child predator in Roy Moore if it means maintaining power.
While Trump’s behavior and Moore’s shameful bid to win Alabama’s senate seat should give us pause, we need to be careful in not just focusing on our current predicament. Trump is an existential threat on our democracy and Moore is a sign of just how badly we’ve backslid, but they are not the totality of this problem. They’re symptoms of a much larger disease that has always threatened this country and has now grown and rested power over the government. Long after Trump is out of office, and after history has forgotten Roy Moore, we’ll still be dealing with fellow citizens who have fascistic sympathies and ideals, and heaven help us if anyone more competent than Donald Trump figures out how to play to their worst instincts.
We can’t forget, after all, that we’re surrounded.