America is deeply divided right now and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump rests at the center of this schism.
When he first announced he was running for president, many laughed it off. In July, for example, the Huffington Post announced it would only report on his candidacy as "entertainment":
Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.
But this was clearly a premature move. Trump's campaign is hardly a "sideshow."
He's the Republican frontrunner, with an evident mass appeal. And he doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
It actually seems like the more absurd his rhetoric becomes, the more appealing Trump becomes to a certain segment of society.
Trump might be a ludicrous individual, but his campaign is already having serious consequences.
This man habitually tells blatant lies, but his support remains unabated.
He lied and said "thousands and thousands of people were cheering" in Jersey City, New Jersey when the World Trade Center fell on 9/11. There's no evidence to support this assertion. PolitFact also rated this claim as "Pants on Fire."
He also mocked a New York Times reporter with a physical disability, but he denies doing so and refuses to apologize. When the New York Times called him out on his disgusting actions, Trump actually had the audacity to contend the newspaper should apologize to him instead, stating,
I think they should give me an apology before they go out of business.
Trump's disposition is so profoundly offensive and paradoxical it often feels satirical or as if we are all living in an episode of "South Park." But alas, this is real life.
This man refuses to admit he's wrong under any circumstances, and many seem to love it.
They also seem to enjoy his incendiary policy proposals, even though they've been labeled "fascist" (quite rightly) by a number of political pundits and even some conservatives.
I'll say it again: "Fascist" increasingly describes the style and approach of Trump. https://t.co/5R7fvYW1ao — Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) November 25, 2015
Now media saying Trump is "fascist" not just a clown. Some conservatives agreeing. Duh. We could have told you months ago.... Oh, we were. — Mike Signorile (@MSignorile) November 25, 2015
It's hard to disagree when you review Trump's rhetoric.
Over the summer, two men in Boston maliciously attacked and beat a homeless Mexican immigrant, citing Trump as their inspiration. This was a hate crime.
Trump recently said he'd support closing mosques and the registration of all Muslims in addition to requiring they carry special identification. The Nazis instituted essentially identical policies against Jews in the late 1930s before attempting to wipe them from the face of the earth.
While it's typically frowned upon to make references to the Nazis in contemporary political discussions, it's hard to avoid it in this regard. What Trump proposed is not only unethical, it's unconstitutional and fundamentally at odds with American ideals.
Trump also recently condoned violence against a Black Lives Matter activist at one of his rallies. After his supporters attacked the man for disrupting Trump's speech, Trump said,
Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.
Words have palpable consequences, and Trump is proof. But in spite of all this, he continues to have support.
It's hard to tell if he actually believes what he's saying and one might say he's simply an opportunist and demagogue, but it doesn't make it any less dangerous.
With that said, why are so many people supporting such an antagonistic, fallacious and seemingly bigoted individual?
Because they're afraid.
Trump is feeding on this fear, he's stoking people's paranoia. And he's making them feel proud of it.
He's convinced them their fear and wariness of refugees and undocumented immigrants (among others) is the highest form of patriotism. After all, what's wrong with wanting to protect one's nation? And what better way of doing it then by completely insulating the country?
Trump has convinced his supporters he will save America, he will protect it from all of these ostensible "threats" by adopting a policy of fierce isolationism.
Of course, if people took five minutes to examine the facts surrounding refugees and undocumented immigrants, they'd realize they don't present any real danger to the US. In fact, it's in our overall economic and security interests to find ways to help both.
But when people are afraid, they don't want to listen to reason. They want to be justified in their fear. They want to feel as though they're rational individuals, fully capable of understanding the nature of the world and its inhabitants.
Most of all, they don't want to feel like cowards, and Trump has given them the opportunity to feel brave in their fear. As the Atlantic put it:
This is the thing Trump knows: You can stand around fretting about truth and propriety and the danger of pandering to baser instincts. Or you can give the people what they want.
Trump is giving the people exactly what they want: vindication.
It's OK to be afraid. Fear is a natural human instinct that helps us survive. It reminds us we aren't invincible and must take caution in certain circumstances.
But when fear becomes overbearing and crosses the line into paranoia, it causes us to act completely irrationally. It causes people to dismiss their own values. It causes them to view anything unfamiliar as a threat and blinds them from what's actually dangerous.
Undocumented immigrants, refugees and Muslims do not pose a substantial threat to the United States.
In actuality, Trump's rhetoric is far more dangerous. Allowing fear to dictate our political perspectives is far more dangerous.
Perhaps the problem is we've given Trump too much attention. The more you feed a troll, the larger it becomes. But we can't yet ignore him either.
One thing is for certain, Trump will not be defeated if people continue to play his game. It's time to stop concentrating overwhelmingly on the nature of what he's saying, but more so on why he's saying it.
As the Washington Post contends,
The more Trump is pressed for specifics on policy, the less he will have to say. He tends to go mute when the conversation hues to substance.
Indeed, it's time to start hammering Trump on the issues in a meaningful way. The more he speaks, the more he encourages the irrational paranoia of his supporters. We can put an end to this fear-mongering by refusing to allow him to dictate the terms of the conversation.