When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.
With these inflammatory (and flatly untrue) words, Donald Trump sealed the deal with the people who have made him the Republican frontrunner. “The Donald” tapped into the rage that some percentage of disenchanted, white, working class folks feel toward people of Hispanic origin living in the United States.
When Trump spoke in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona last month, his campaign had to move the rally to a larger venue. As you probably know, in 2010 Arizona politics produced the most controversial immigration law in the country, SB1070. Although it was supposed to protect Arizonans from the supposed cost of illegal immigration, SB1070 cost Arizona millions of dollars in lost business revenue in the law’s first year alone. Prejudice comes with a price tag.
In the continual media coverage of Trump, we must guard against becoming desensitized to the historical precedent of this brand of politics. A 71-year-old man named Lou at the Phoenix Trump rally inadvertently spilled the beans: “This country today is sad, sad, sad,” he said. “You can’t say anything or they call you ‘a racist.’ It’s like we’re back in Nazi Germany. But look around, man. It’s people here reading and listening to his message.”
Lou hit the nail on the head with the historical allusion, but fails to realize how those racial politics played out and what side that puts him on. Trump supporters openly blame ethnic minorities for their economic problems and long for the days of a purer, paler race in America. Let me be clear — Trump is no führer, but ethnic politics are dangerous, and the world has seen this script before.
Another reason that Trump’s supporters have made him the current GOP frontrunner is that they believe Donald is being honest with them, unlike “all the faked, plasticky, canned politicians,” as one supporter put it. Because Trump avoids any talk that could be construed as “politically correct” (i.e. by making bombastic, demeaning comments about Hispanics and women), they deduce that he is speaking the truth.
A 150-year-old admonition from Robert Ingersoll cautions us that simply being honest about one’s bigotry is no virtue — “They knew no better, but I do not propose to follow the example of a barbarian because he was honestly a barbarian.”
Of course, racial politics is nothing new in the United States. Pitting working class whites against ethnic minorities has been an effective political strategy since before the Civil War. At first glance, it defies logic that Southern slave owners were able to win the loyalty of poor, working class whites who never came close to having enough wealth to own slaves.
Upon closer inspection, however, the psychology of racial politics makes stomach-turning sense. In antebellum North Carolina, there were six classes of people. A University of North Carolina sponsored Learning NC site states that lower class whites were impoverished, illiterate day laborers:
. . . who not only verbally supported the slave system, they also served on slave patrols and county militias that guarded against slave revolts and tracked down runaways. When the time came for war, this class filled the Confederate ranks and fought to defend the very system that kept them at the bottom of the white social order.
Why? Apparently, the poor whites surmised, “At least we’re not black slaves.” Their perch only one rung above the lowest group on the socio-economic totem poll was good enough reason to take up arms. This is perhaps one of the reasons the Civil War has been described as “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.”
Having grown up in the rustbelt of Ohio, I have witnessed firsthand the reason some working class whites are disenchanted with politics and are now placing their bets on the wild card.
They are correct about one thing — they have been lied to by politicians who promised them prosperity. They continue, however, to blame the wrong people for its failure to materialize. While they scapegoat people who are even more impoverished, the rest of the country knows the truth — they were sold a bill of goods by politicians and their wealthy donors who shipped Middle America’s manufacturing jobs off to China and Mexico.
Blaming ethnic minorities instead of the actual people who are actually to blame is the repeated mistake that has perpetuated economic inequality in America.
So what is Trump teaching Christians?
In the early twentieth century, following the stark inequality of the Gilded Age, American Christianity split into two distinct camps: fundamentalism and the Social Gospel. Historian Mark Noll writes that the fundamentalists tended to favor piety and the salvation of individual souls, while proponents of the Social Gospel, like Walter Rauschenbusch, believed that Scripture challenged the “industrial exploitation and governmental indifference to workers. . . . ”