Maybe it was the photo of the guy—attending a Trump rally with his wife and small children—who opted to wear a “She’s a Cunt. Vote Trump” T-shirt. Or the Donald’s empty debate promise to bring back energy industry jobs and pay off the national debt with their profits. Or his urging Pennsylvania supporters to keep an eye on “other communities” (barely code for “all those black folks in Philly”) “to make sure this election is not stolen from us.”
It’s hard to say when exactly, but at some point I began to wonder: What is going to happen to Trump die-hards after November 8?
Short answer: nothing good.
Now, I’m not talking about what his supporters will do to the GOP if their hero flames out—which seems increasingly likely. I leave it to party leaders to angst over that looming horror show.
Rather, I’m thinking of the sad state in which Trump will leave his followers. Because, make no mistake, no matter how badly he behaves, Trump will end this race with his world more or less intact. Sure, he may lose some money and some friends and some invitations to Upper East Side dinner parties. But he will remain rich and privileged and more famous than ever, and, as a result, he will be largely insulated from the fallout of his latest exercise in self-promotion.
The same cannot be said for the millions of Americans who have looked to Trump to save them. These folks, at least the ones frequently reported on—the angry, white, blue-collar workers who are outraged or terrified that America has become some topsy-turvy multi-cultural nightmare where a hard-working man cannot make a decent living anymore—will emerge from this circus worse off than before.
They will likely be angrier—and more certain—that they are being dismissed, if not outright screwed, by a self-serving establishment. Some will be all the more convinced that their economic woes can be blamed on cheap immigrant labor and reassured about their general feelings of insecurity about Muslims.
This is what Trump has done over the last year: He’s whipped up the darkest, angriest demons in the electorate. He has not simply given people permission to indulge any racist, sexist, xenophobic, or religiously intolerant tendencies they may harbor. He has insisted—loudly—that such bigotry is only common sense and mocked anyone who refuses to see the danger presented by “the other” as a blind idiot. Those not sharing Trump’s grim vision are, by definition, suckers being taken for a ride.
Now, some might argue that Trump supporters could not be led in this direction if they weren’t already closet bigots. Maybe. Some of them. To some degree. Then again, it is human nature to want to blame someone else for what is going wrong in one’s life. Trump is, not coincidentally, the master of this.
And so the United States has reached the point where a chunk of Trump voters feel moved to let their freshly stoked inner bigot off the leash, be it on social media or at public events. This summer, The New York Times compiled a video montage titled, “Unfiltered Voices From Donald Trump’s Crowds,” which spotlighted the vulgar language used among Trump supporters at rallies. Then, toward the end of the clip, Trump fan Mike Wallace, a pale, skinny older guy who looked more worn-down than mad as he explained his voting choice, lamented: “I feel he’s the last chance we have to establish law and order and preserve the culture I grew up in.” Such is the core anxiety Trump has exploited in his followers.
There is little value in trying to figure out what portion of Trump fans are, say, hard-core xenophobes vs. casual bigots (now there’s a term) vs. voters merely disgusted with the system. Hillary Clinton, for her part, may have apologized for her “deplorables” crack, but some in the electorate share her frustration. And with every day that goes by, animus toward this group grows: How can you support this charlatan? Don’t you know what he said about X? Didn’t you hear what his supporters did to that protester in Y? And, my God, what about that kid in Virginia who yelled “Take the bitch down”?
Once the election is over (again, assuming Trump loses), there will be a mass sigh of relief as the nation begins laboring to pretend none of this ever happened. (If he wins, there will be a different kind of reckoning as followers realize he cannot bring back the 1950s America of their dreams. But that is a problem for another day.)
If anything, Trumpism has, in part, made the rest of the nation all the more eager to ignore the millions of white voters living on the edges of the economy. Many may now be written off without guilt, because they have shown themselves to be not just unfortunates but undesirables—irredeemable hate-mongers itching to reassert their cultural dominance. Of course, the political establishment will first need to spend a couple of months piously lecturing Trump fans. But once the finger wagging is done, non-Trump America will return to their regular lives, leaving disappointed Trump devotees to stew in the resentments and anxieties he, among others, has nurtured.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this is a tragic outcome. It leaves Americans that much more segregated and alienated from one another. It’s exactly this kind of cross-cultural suspicion and mistrust that has enabled Trump to come within spitting distance of the presidency. And it’s what threatens to keep his supporters isolated and fuming on the sidelines, long after their champion has forgotten them.