No political impulse could be more contrary to the founding American spirit than anti-pluralism. At its core, the American democratic experiment has been about the free contest of ideas, interests, and groups, along with tolerance for opponents and respect for their legitimacy. But throughout American history, that core principle has been challenged under social and political stress by a succession of extremist movements and politicians—the Know-Nothings, the American Protective Association, the Ku Klux Klan, Father Charles Coughlin, George Wallace, the John Birch Society.* A striking common thread in these eruptions has been the interplay of ethnic, racial, and religious bigotry with jingoistic nationalism, nativist fear of foreign subversion—hence fanatical opposition to immigration—and populist animus toward educated elites, portrayed through wild conspiracy theories as plotting to betray “the people.” Periodically, these have given vent to anti-Semitism by putting Jews and alleged Jewish control of banks at the heart of these imagined diabolical plots.
In his desperate bid to win the presidency, Donald Trump has increasingly embraced the rhetoric and logic of the extremist far right in American history. The elements were there for all to see from the beginning of Trump’s campaign—the fanning of fears about illegal immigration, about Mexicans bringing drugs and crime, about Muslims bringing terrorism; fears of outsiders, of globalization, of difference. Trumpism is modern-day McCarthyism—stoking hysteria about treason and betrayal, fomenting ever-more outlandish theories of an establishment out to get the ordinary people that he “alone” can save, and denying the legitimacy or even decent intentions of opposing politicians. But prior to Trump no extremist movement or politician ever captured the nomination of a major political party. And none ever had the masterful command of communication media that Trump has had of television and the internet.
As a result, we now enter the final three weeks of this distressing presidential election campaign with Trump relentlessly warning that the election will be rigged, with his most vociferous surrogate, Rudy Giuliani, asserting that this will mainly happen in the “inner cities” (meaning by racial minorities), and with 41 percent of all voters (and nearly three-quarters of Republicans) agreeing that the election could be stolen from Trump. All of this is planting the seeds for a potentially traumatic and unprecedented challenge to the legitimacy of the election outcome and the new president if Trump does not win. And that is not to mention his promise to, if elected, prosecute Hillary Clinton and “lock her up,” and his repeated allusions to (gun) violence as the only way that the people—betrayed by the elites—might have left to deal with Clinton as president. As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted in August, it was this kind of inflammatory incitement and denial of legitimacy that fed the extremist atmosphere in which Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995.