Trump Closes in on Winning GOP Nomination with Racist Rhetoric

Posted March 2, 2016

MP3 Interview with Mark Potok, senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, conducted by Scott Harris


Since he launched his candidacy, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, the leading candidate to win the Republican party nomination for president, consistently made incendiary statements appealing to racist and xenophobic beliefs of a significant number of GOP voters. In the early days of the campaign, Trump made national headlines when he charged that Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug dealers, and called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. In a series of recent controversial remarks in media interviews, Trump declined to repudiate the endorsement of his campaign by the Ku Klux Klan and their former longtime white supremacist leader David Duke.

In a Feb. 28 interview on Meet The Press, Trump defended his retweet of a quote by fascist World War II-era Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Earlier in the campaign before the Iowa caucuses, the editor of a white supremacist magazine lent his voice to a robo-call recording urging registered Iowa voters to support Trump. The battle for the GOP nomination has recently devolved into a wave of junior high school-level insults being hurled at Trump by Marco Rubio, about face make-up, the wetting of pants and spray tan. However, Trump’s apparent doubling down on his racist policy positions and divisive comments has alarmed the Republican party establishment at the same time it has endeared the billionaire to millions of conservative voters. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mark Potok, senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, who discusses his concern about Trump’s success at translating bigotry and hate into votes, which many political observers believe will propel him to winning the Republican presidential nomination.

MARK POTOK: Essentially, (Donald) Trump was given three different opportunities to say "No I don't agree with Klan, they're a bad group," and in effect, what he said was, "Well, I don't really know," he'd have to look into that and in the same breath, said that he didn't know who David Duke was. You know these things are absolutely false. I think what is going on is that Trump is appealing to the very same base, or elements of the very same base that the Klan appeals to. These are angry, white, working class, lower middle class people who feel embattled, who feel that they are losing their country, who see the country as becoming less white and that is somehow isolating them, and Trump speaks to them and speaks to them in a very direct way.

You know, we've seen over the years repeatedly in our work that when public figures, especially ones who are so much in the public eye as Trump has been over the last months, make these kinds of statements. "Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers." "Muslims are so vile they shouldn't be in the country at all." "Black people murder the vast majority of white people" and so on, even though these things are completely false.

That is taken out there by the more thuggish elements as a kind of permission giving. In other words, people who become hate criminals react to these kinds of speech. They see themselves as somehow standing up and defending their own community; after all, "big men" like Donald Trumps are saying Muslims and Mexicans are not to be trusted and all the rest of it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Mark, when interviewed, many supporters of Donald Trump basically take a stand in agreement with Trump's policy prescription to ban all Muslim immigration to the United States, to deport all 11 million Mexican immigrants without papers, to kill the family members of suspected terrorists. All these comments seem to be quite welcomed among a number of Republican voters. I'm wondering, what is it that concerns your organization with the internalization of these very detestable views that the mainstream of America – at any rate – would soundly reject?

MARK POTOK: Well, I mean, the concern is that he is normalizing this kind of talk and this kind of ideology. Donald Trump may or may not be personally a white nationalist; he may or may not be a real fascist. But the fact is, he talks like one. He talks like someone who genuinely despises Muslims and Mexicans and any number of other groups of people. And as I said, the real concern for us is two-fold: one, that does translate directly oftentimes into criminal hate, more importantly, you know, it continues to tear us apart as a society, to polarize us as a society, at a time when we are facing incredibly large and serious problems. Problems that demand that we all sort of pitch in and figure out what the answers are.

What Trump is doing is reducing the political process to a screaming match in which essentially schoolyard taunts are exchanged. I mean, it's quite amazing to me to see, you know, the sort of the Rubio-Trump contest seeing who can be the ruder and more unpleasant of the two of them. It seems that there really are no limits.

BETWEEN THE LINES: CLose observers of the Republican party have basically said that the appeal of Donald Trump to the blatant racist and xenophobic views of many Republican voters is a product of more subtle appeals to racist support, also known as dog-whistle politics over the years by many Republican candidates, especially since Richard Nixon's southern strategy went into effect really trying to exploit a white-backlash to the civil rights movement of the late 1950s, '60s, and early '70s.

MARK POTOK: Well I think that's true. Certainly what we see is that Trump has none of the subtleties of the many earlier practitioners of this nasty art of coded appeals to racism. In the case of Trump, it seems to be totally raw. It is remarkable to look at the world that we cover, the Klan groups and neo-Nazi groups and so on and the way that they have reacted to Trump. I mean, they are beside themselves with joy. Many of them are calling Trump "our glorious leader" quote, unquote. And that is because they have certainly in the past flirted with various politicians, the two in recent years who have most interested the extreme right are Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. But even Buchanan who is a self-described white nationalist, has not really ever talked quite in the terms that Trump has talked. Buchanan just doesn't sound hateful in the same way, although he is absolutely a defender of the idea that the United States should be a fundamentally white nation and so on.

In the case of Trump, he expresses it with such vitriol and anger that it really is something to see, and as I've said a couple times, I just think it affects the whole political process and does tend to push us back into a kind of earlier and more grotesque form of racism. I mean, I suppose, there's of course a huge difference. The person Trump reminds me most of is probably George Wallace in 1968, running for president. But, Trump is actually approaching the level of Wallace's racial vitriol.

So, the difference, of course is that Trump is appealing to a base that is shrinking by the day. The background of all this, is that the United States is changing and changing dramatically. The Census Bureau, for instance, has predicted that white people in the United States will lose their majority in the next 30 years. And this is a country that for almost of all its history from the colonies forward has been about 99 percent white. So there are very, very big changes afoot, racially, culturally, economically and so on. And there is this pretty substantial group of whites who feel under attack and those are the people to whom Trump is appealing, even as that group shrinks as the years pass.

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