Of all the blows dealt to our political culture by Donald Trump, the most damaging has been his corruption of what it means to be president. I’m talking about representation.
It used to be that a president, whatever his party or ideology, understood that he represented all Americans, and it was assumed he spoke for us all in his public remarks. When Trump speaks, or tweets, we know he’s addressing his core supporters — white, resentful and disproportionately powerful: the base.
For the moment, and possibly the future, these voters — and not the forward-looking, neo-rainbow coalition that first elected President Obama — define the American electorate. Trump can brazenly play to a fraction of the population, in the crudest language possible, with no fallout. Despite his historic wins, Obama had to appeal to as many constituencies as possible, and he was still vilified by the white right as the other, an outsider.
Trump’s base is being legitimized, normalized. In saner times, “base” was just a term for those who embraced a party’s bread-and-butter values and ambitions, a supply of reliable votes. Increasingly, however, Trump’s devotees are driving — and running over — the Republican Party. They cultivate the very worst American impulses, from xenophobia to know-nothingism to disdain for social necessities such as public education and clean water. Nothing in the best of the democratic imagination — call it our better angels — is sacred to this base. And its signature quality is racism.
A year in, and still the media, on both right and left, remain reluctant to judge these voters for what they are. Though plenty has been said and written about Trump’s victory, about all that went wrong for Hillary Clinton, very few mainstream pundits have truly called these voters to account. Instead of seeing the base as a white movement that cuts across economic lines, the media individualizes and sympathizes with poor heartland folks who’ve been “left behind.”
Why? Because white America, including its journalists and commentators, is loath to see itself as racist, even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Racism may make the list of contributing factors for this or that analysis, but it only tops the list when there is no other choice — think white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va.
This ingrained restraint is not noble, it’s harmful. The irony is that even this worst of all possible bases isn’t actually represented by Trump. He flaunts their support; he exploits them and he has injected their primal fears into our political consciousness. But he is pathologically self-centered. A year ago this week, we elected a president who represents nobody but himself, a party of one.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion.