Trump, Racism, and the Fear Factor

trump portraitA recent USA TODAY/Rock the Vote poll of 1,541 voters aged 18-34 found that younger voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is overcome in a theoretical Clinton v. Trump general election race. Across all demographic groups specified, young voters only get excited about Clinton as the lesser evil.

The lack of enthusiasm for Clinton in the primary may be the result of her record as one of the most effective champions of neoliberalism from the center-left. And neoliberalism, the politic of privatization, unfettered free trade (NAFTA, TPP, etc.), and small government, is one of the drivers of the conditions, including a crumbling white middle class (originally created with racially exclusive big government programs), that is driving up Trumpism on the right, and, ironically, the remarkable legions of young white voters who #feelthebern on the left. Both candidates appear to be lofted by white rage over their increasing precarity.

So why are young progressive voters willing to put their preferences, and their rage, on the back burner? Fear. And that’s a shame, whoever you’re for in this election. A fear-driven politic is conservative, offering little or nothing in the way of real solutions.

But, in this situation, fear isn’t irrational. Trump is a scary guy. Be afraid. Right wing demagogues like him are always dangerous, and as much for their bark as for their bite.

Bigoted populists like Trump play an age-old and dangerous role in perpetuating racial inequity and promoting a fear-driven, racist, as in irrational, politics. They serve as marketers of bigotry, constantly testing the public consensus, and, when the tests come back positive, moving extreme bigotry out of the margins and into the mainstream of our political debates. This distracts pro-equity activists, forcing us to reposition ourselves in order to respond.

I’ve found it helpful to understand this dynamic by considering the Overton Window, a device that is often used by political leaders and pundits. To followers, the Overton Window frames the publicly acceptable range of ideas in our political discourse. What’s in the Window is the stuff you get to talk about without marginalizing yourself as an extremist either on the right or the left.


The view in the Window isn’t static. It changes according to the political climate, and serves as a warning to check the temperature before jumping into debates.

People like Trump introduce storms into that climate by purposely proposing the unthinkable and, in the right conditions, causing enough commotion to provide the necessary cover for mainstream leaders to move outside the Window into the gap between “unthinkable” and “acceptable,” while capturing more voters or a stronger position of advocacy on their issues.

For an example of this, just review the Republican debates to date. As extreme bigotry caused Trump’s star to rise, every candidate moved further to the right to capture the voters to Trump’s left.

And while this kind of outsider political strategy is not the exclusive purview of the right, I’m going to suggest here that it hasn’t been working so well for those of us on the left for a long time. And, I’ll go even further and suggest there may be a solid reason for this that makes the case that fighting the right wing should be a necessary staple of our activism.

The reason? We on the left have no broadly unifying theory of politics, or at least none that is legible to the broad public. And the reason for that, it seems to me, is that we’ve been too divided by an uncritical brand of identity politics (the last refuge of many radicals in the midst of the right wing Reagan revolution) to achieve a meaningful political consensus that would make agreement on alternatives possible. Instead, again, precisely because of the success of right wing demagogues (Goldwater, Wallace, Schlafly, Reagan, Thatcher, et al), we’ve been too afraid to offer radical solutions (as in, solutions that get to root causes of inequity and injustice), and have focused almost exclusively on the effects of inequity and oppression instead. Focusing on effects is a good base building strategy, but it’s no way to build a substantive, broadly appealing change agenda unless we follow those effects to root causes. We need to get off the defense, but that will require pushing back on the right.

Right wingers have it a lot easier because the theories that guide them tend to go with the grain of the culture, and the racial demography, rather than against it. Their relative advantage suggests a path forward for our side. Perhaps we need to view political change as a process of cultural change and not just as a process of reorganizing power, though a focus on political change as a project of reorganizing power relations would certainly help. But that path is going to be a tough one to blaze. Meanwhile, the threat of Trumpism and more general rise of an increasingly violent white right fearful of demographic change is right in front of us, and happening in the face of multiple possible crises (another economic bubble busting, climate change, etc.) that may create the context in which a strong man like Trump may become the next Mussolini.

The tide may be turning in our direction, and the large numbers of young people who #feelthebern may be indicative of this, but we’ve been on the wrong side of history for the last 50 years. Thus, when we throw unthinkable ideas into the mix, they’re received as incoherent, and they often are, and we too often end up marginalized.

Now Trump is also forcing us to respond to what he’s saying and doing, and that’s moving the public debate even further off the root causes of our problems, and onto questions like whether or not it is acceptable to exclude all Muslims from entering the U.S., even as tourists. And as the conversation ends up revolving around ideas like that, even Democratic political leaders have more running room to their right. They can count on fear to get those of us to their left to the polls, voting for the lesser evil.

Again, we can see this dynamic already in effect in the presidential election. Hillary Clinton is starting to pivot to the general election by treating her Democratic opponent as a presumptive loser, and focusing more and more on simply ginning up fear of Trump. The menu of choices has been reframed by fear. The obvious subtext of Clinton’s attacks on Trump make this clear, boiling down between the lines as a vote against me in the primary is a vote for Trump!

Another example of this political dynamic occurred after white supremacist, Dylann Roof, committed mass murder in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last year. After the murder, Black leaders demanded that the rebel flag, a symbol of racism and an emblem of pride to the shooter, be removed from the South Carolina capitol grounds. The demand was a just one, but then something all too predictable occurred. The staunchly conservative Republican Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, once a proponent of drug testing unemployed people as a condition of receiving benefits, was able to position herself as a champion of anti-racism rebranded in the context of her career as neoliberal multiculturalism.

The move drove the increasingly unpopular Haley’s approval rating and national profile up, while giving her a platform from which to effectively say that when it comes to racism in her government, there’s nothing structural going on here! The horror of the unthinkable made Haley’s record of more garden variety racism pale by comparison.

And, back again to this election, what we have is a situation in which we can have Trump or the brand of politics that created the context for his rise. It’s a damned if we do and damned if we don’t situation. If Trump is nominated, any Democratic opponent must be supported if for no other reason than to show political opportunists on the right that a political system founded upon the protection of individual liberty is still preferred by the overwhelming majority of us. And that, even if some of us, including a growing number of young people in the U.S., happen to also believe that putting individual liberties as far above the communal good as is the American habit is less than ideal.

Getting on the right side of that debate will require us trump the fear factor, and make fighting the right a core strategy of racial justice activism.




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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

5 replies on “Trump, Racism, and the Fear Factor”

Question for you: we can presumably agree that the vast majority of people (I am not one of them) who support the continued public display of the Confederate flag are law-abiding citizens with no propensity to violence? Presumably we can also agree that the majority of people who hold the koran dear as a symbol of their faith are law abiding citizens?

Many people have committed monstrous atrocities in the name of the koran and its associated books (e.g the Hadith). Some mass killers happen to wear the Confederate flag. It is arguable that the association between the flag and violence is weaker than that between the koran and violence, but let’s just assert that the link is merely comparably strong.

You want to ban the Confederate flag for what it symbolizes; why not also the koran?


The main difference between the Koran and the Stars and Bars (which is the Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America, not the actual confederate states of america) is that the Stars and Bars is a flag of treason against the United States. It’s supporters flew said flag in armed insurrection of the United States, its Government, and its Constitution. Those who flew this flag during said insurrection also stated very clearly that it was because of chattel slavery (it is outlined in the Articles of Confederation and the Confederate Constitutions of several states). After said insurrection was defeated, those who believed in its ideals AFTER the war rallied around said flag to terrorize formerly enslaved peoples for the next 100 years, denying said persons the rights that were enshrined to them under the US Constitution. And then, when those terrorized people attempted to exercise their rights under the US Constitution to redress their grievances, they were met with authority figures who assaulted, firebombed, and killed them as means of denying the dignity, existence, and rights of those aggrieved. And, as before, the rallying flag was the Stars and Bars.

But, of course, people like you like to play the game of false equivalence, even when there is really no equivalence.

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