Stephen Newman is associate professor of political science in the faculty of liberal arts and professional studies at York University.
Is Donald Trump bad for American politics? It is arguable that Mr. Trump has carried a vicious trend toward extreme incivility to a new low through his demonization of Latin American immigrants, Muslims and, of course, his political rivals. And yet he leads in the polls long past the point that the pundits and the Republican establishment were certain he would fade away. Does Mr. Trump's success mean that incivility pays? Does it herald the resurgence of nativism, racism and religious intolerance in U.S. politics?
Before concluding that these questions must be answered in the affirmative, it pays to remind ourselves that rude thoughts and crude language have always been a staple of U.S. elections. Even the founders couldn't resist personal invective and harshly depicted their political opponents as enemies of reason, religion and the common good. Henry Adams, descended from two U.S. presidents, was not employing hyperbole when he described politics as the systematic organization of hatreds.
But not all hatreds are alike. Not all hatreds are really hatreds. Consider the rhetorical excess so common in sports. Fans have been known to shout "kill the umpire" after a disputed call, but, safe to say, no one is really contemplating murder.
So it's possible that Mr. Trump is merely playing the game of politics in time-honoured fashion, believing that his venomous statements will be understood as trash talk and not taken as a serious call to arms. But, of course, it is also possible that he means what he says. After all, sometimes the hatreds that politics organizes systematically are genuine hatreds, the kind that fuel discrimination and intolerance.
And this is the problem with trash-talking politicians. They appeal to what is least admirable in us rather than to the better angels of our nature. They appeal to our fears and insecurities, our distrust and suspicions. They seek an electoral advantage by dividing the political community into "us" and "them." This rhetorical strategy is especially dangerous where the divisions encouraged by trash-talking politicians track long-standing fault lines defined by race, ethnicity and religion. The danger is that the political community might remain divided against itself long after the election is over.
Political legitimacy requires that citizens perceive one another as participants in a community of shared values and common interests. There is room for disagreement over both the values and interests in question – at bottom, much of politics is about deciding how to interpret and implement the values we share and how to rank order the interests we hold in common. But however profound our disagreements (and let's not kid ourselves, they can run very deep), the idea that all of us together form a "we" must retain its hold on our imaginations. Dividing "we" into "us" and "them" might win an election, but it undermines the victory by subverting the legitimacy of all that follows.
On this measure, Mr. Trump is bad for American politics. Or rather, his success is bad for American politics because it will encourage other candidates to adopt the same rhetorical strategy. Indeed, this appears to have happened already among the remaining Republican contenders. To be sure, Mr. Trump would not be doing so well if the American electorate, or a significant portion of it, had not already become ideologically polarized. Nor would he be doing so well if significant numbers of Republican voters were unresponsive to his unabashedly nativist and intolerant message. Mr. Trump did not summon the demons that feed his campaign for the nomination – they have long haunted the American political landscape – but he is only too happy to encourage them. That he might honestly intend no harm, or not be perceptive enough to recognize the harm he does, is no excuse.