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Donald Trump’s RNC speech turned his white supporters’ fear into a weapon

Trump’s message to white Americans: Your worst instincts can save your lives.

Donald Trump (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It could have been more racist.

I’m not being flip. Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention avoided some of the crudest themes he hit during his long campaign to the Republican nomination.

He didn’t say that Muslim Americans aren’t really American because they haven’t "assimilated." (Instead: "I only want to admit individuals into our country who will support our values and love our people.") He didn’t say that Latino Americans aren’t really American because they’re "biased." He didn’t say Mexico was sending its worst people; he didn’t even mention Mexico at all (though he did mention the wall).

He didn’t need to.

What Trump did instead was encourage his followers to be afraid. He told them the nation was in "crisis"; that there is "violence in our streets [and] chaos in our communities."

He sketched a scene of chaos and darkness, and left it to his followers to color in that chaos and darkness.

Trump traded in George Wallace for Richard Nixon

In the days leading up to this speech, Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort said the candidate had been watching previous convention speeches — "the one he focused on, though, was Nixon in 1968."

Manafort didn’t need to point it out. The influence would have been unmistakable.

Trump, like Nixon, appealed to the idea that the stable America people knew and loved is coming apart at the seams, and that only he can restore "law and order" — a phrase he’s only recently adopted but that he pronounced Thursday with all the growling vigor of his biggest fan favorites.

Donald Trump and Richard Nixon both gives thumbs-up. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images and Gene Forte/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

"Law and order" was, in practice, a euphemism for restoring white supremacy, then as now. But by focusing on the covert racism of Nixon’s "silent majority" talk, it’s easy to mistake its purpose.

Nixon was trying to win voters away from Dixiecrat George Wallace, who was running on an overt racism that embraced white supremacy by name. His emphasis on "law and order" was designed to provoke the fears (and thus the loyalty) of Wallace voters, while maintaining far stricter plausible deniability — of course this isn’t about race! he doesn’t even mention race! — than Wallace ever could.

The distinction is important. Nixon wasn’t just speaking a code that his followers understood to be about race — he found a different way of pressing the same buttons.

Trump is telling his followers their racist gut instincts are right — and are the only thing that can save them

Donald Trump went to great lengths Thursday to tie together "mass immigration, mass lawlessness," and crime.

He warned his audience that the 180,000 immigrants living in the US with deportation orders and criminal records "are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens." That unauthorized immigrants "are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety" — and that Americans die as a result.

He said this to a supporter base that often, cognitively, conflates "illegal immigrants" with "immigrants," and "immigrants" with "Latinos." "In the minds of many white Americans," write political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal, "these different categories simply blur together."

He said this to supporters who sometimes feel they "just know" when someone else waiting in line at the employment office is "illegal." He told them they were right to feel overwhelmed and they were right to be afraid, and that if they weren’t careful they could be killed.

By the same token, he told his audience of mostly white Americans — mainly living in racially segregated, low-crime suburban neighborhoods — that they should be extremely worried about being victimized by crime.

He told them they were hostages to "the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities." He ad-libbed that America is more dangerous "than I have ever seen and, frankly, than anybody in this room has ever seen."

He said it in an era when even scientists are only beginning to unlock just how much, when people feel under threat, the split-second decisions they make are subconsciously driven by race.

At his worst, Donald Trump has explicitly encouraged his followers to violence — charging them with the responsibility to restore order at his rallies by getting rough and implying that they’d need to do the same in their communities at large.

Trump didn’t do that this time. He merely told people that they were under attack and their government had abandoned them. And that the only people they could rely on were themselves, and Trump.

Trump doesn’t understand that the fears he’s tapping into are too powerful for him to control

A Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.


The danger posed by Trump supporters going about their business armed with weaponized white fear is more Renisha McBrides and more Tamir Rices. It has a cost in nonwhite bodies and lives.

That danger is probably not comparable to the danger Trump’s policies would do for them (particularly for unauthorized immigrants and Muslim Americans) if he is elected. But it’s much more durable.

Twice during his nomination speech, Trump promised his supporters, "Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored." That sets them up to feel that if he loses in November, they’ve been robbed of a glorious future — and doomed to four more years of civil unrest.

But it also sets Trump up for trouble if he wins.

"We can solve this problem so quickly," he ad-libbed at one point. But he can’t. Because the problem he’s talking about isn’t illegal border crossings (very low) or crime (still half of what it was in the early 1990s). It’s fear of those things.

And Trump can’t simply magically erase that fear by stepping up to a podium and saying it’s all better. This is the lesson that Britain’s politicians learned after the Brexit vote: Fear is more powerful than the politicians who stoke it.

Donald Trump claimed this week he didn’t know the history of the slogan "America First." I believe it. I think he doesn’t understand that he’s tapped into anxieties that existed long before he stirred them up and that will persist long after this election is over. I don’t think he realizes that the fear he’s using as a winning campaign strategy is actually using him.