Early pundits pointed to economic anxiety fueling Trump’s supporters, but this was only partially true. The average Trump voter in 2016 earned well above the national median income. What was predictive of Trump support: high levels of anti-Black sentiment, according to the National Election Survey, said Gabriel Lenz, a political psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Those who have said they were Trump voters because they like his tax policy, his judges, his description of himself as pro-life simply have to ask themselves if it was worth it and how they feel about the camp they are in,” said Anderson. “It includes a man who wore a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ T-shirt to take Capitol Hill.”
Black progress followed by rage and terror
In June 2015, when Trump descended Trump Tower’s gilded escalator, he acknowledged what people had speculated for years at that point: He was running for president. Then, Trump issued his notorious assessment of Mexican immigrants intermingled with his sense that America had, under Obama, become the laughingstock of the world. Trump promised he, and he alone, would make America great again.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said that day. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The day after Trump’s announcement, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist and misogynist, shot and killed nine people in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The massacre cannot be linked directly to Trump, but Roof’s manifesto echoed some of the themes in Trump’s campaign announcement. In the document, which deplored America as a multicultural society where white men wrongly rank among the most disrespected and disadvantaged, Roof said he hoped his massacre would set off an active race war.
Some conservatives scrambled to recast the shooting as an attack on Christians instead of a race-based hate crime that took place at a Black church. Other observers who were willing to publicly connect the dots between Trump’s and Roof’s sentiments were dismissed or labeled ill-informed about American politics, said Anderson, a professor of African American Studies at Emory University.
A more accurate understanding of American politics would have to account for the repeated cycles of Black progress followed by broader white backlash, often punctuated and enforced by bloody events, Anderson said. It’s illustrated in the Jim Crow era and the terror of lynchings that followed the Civil War, the staunch segregation that followed Black involvement in World Wars I and II, and the assassinations that disrupted the civil rights movement’s major gains, said Thomas C. Holt, a history professor at the University of Chicago.
Holt said he can understand the collective shock as the nation watched the destructive mob force Congress into lockdown last week. But acts to commandeer the government — not petition or transform it — are not unprecedented.
“For all the sort of rah, rah, rah about American democracy, there have been a number of moments in American history where this same sort of call to violence we saw before the events at the Capitol, with the added element of the blind eye turned by public officials and no real consequences after the fact,” said Holt, author of the forthcoming book, “The Movement: The African American Struggle for Civil Rights.” “That’s also a pattern that colors the pages of the African American experience.”
Bloody, violent coups occurred across the American South during Reconstruction, forcing Black politicians from elected office and replacing them with white officials. In Wilmington, North Carolina, Black elected officials were rounded up in 1898 and given a choice: resign or die. Many of the white men involved in that coup and others like it around the South were or became mayors, governors, lawmakers, newspaper publishers and prominent businessmen.
“The excuses for not understanding that this is how American democracy has functioned relatively recently have worn thin,” Anderson said. “This stuff is within living memory.”
Throughout the 2016 campaign and the early years of the Trump administration, Trump encouraged his supporters to beat hecklers who had the temerity to protest at his rallies, offering to pay their legal fees. About one month before the election, Trump suggested that “Second Amendment people” could contain Hillary Clinton if she were elected.
Weeks after the election, when “hail Trump,” became a rallying cry at a white nationalist gathering held in Washington, Trump did not jump to distance himself.
By July 2017, Trump suggested publicly that police ought to be more aggressive and seek to intentionally beat up those arrested in connection with anti-Trump protests. For Anderson it all brought to mind white supremacist politicians in the Jim Crow era who encouraged or looked the other way at violence of the mob and law enforcement variety.
A month later, white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally opposing a plan to remove or cover that city’s Confederate monuments. One counterprotester was killed when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd. Several others were injured. Soon after, Trump made a comment that has defined his presidency: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
“I think Charlottesville was horrifying,” said Lynda Garcia, the policing campaign director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.“That there was a show of domestic terror and the president sat there and didn’t condemn it, did nothing to stop it and did nothing to try to heal the country after an event like that.”
The unmissable warning sign, though, was that Trump had won over white nationalist support.
“It is deliberate and by design, and it is honestly frightening,” Garcia said.
Trump’s rhetoric had begun to create dangerous realities long before Charlottesville. In conversations with law enforcement across the country in 2015 and 2016, Garcia had been told that hate crime spikes seem to follow Trump rallies. A group of academics reached the same conclusion during the 2016 campaign.
“In many ways, Charlottesville also gets explained away,” Holt said. “‘Did he really mean that?’ The same ultimately has to be said of the abusive treatment at the border in ways that are just beyond the pale. All of these things indicate a moral compass that is just broken, and if you keep getting away with it you go further each time.”
About two months after the events in Charlottesville, a group of psychologists and mental health scholars broke with a long-standing practice among mental health professionals. They typically refuse to comment on the mental health of public officials and candidates. But, the group published a series of essays titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” The words “sociopathy,” “incitements to violence,” and “malignant narcissist,” are not hard to find.
The rage and terror reach a crescendo
In the turmoil of 2020, protesters rallied in cities across the country challenging the repetitive cycle of police exercising extreme and deadly force on Black people and then walking away, often with minimal consequence. Trump insisted that the protests should be squelched with force, tear gas, tanks or other crisis-level tactics. He labeled those who engaged in looting “thugs,” and proclaimed, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” seemingly endorsing vigilante violence.
Yet in the protests, Trump and his campaign saw a rallying cause for his base, painting a picture of more protests and civil unrest if Joe Biden were elected, while Trump’s re-election would restore “law and order.” The concept relied heavily on a familiar refrain: the role of white fear of Black Americans, and any loss of influence and power.
When Trump lost the 2020 election, his focus shifted to questioning then, in more legal challenges and conversations with election officials, the role of voters in major cities. Trump’s ire and attention grew most intense around election results in cities with large Black populations who turned out in large numbers.
Then, Trump issued his final call to action to supporters galvanized by the idea that he had been robbed of the White House. As the rally progressed, one final panic button of sorts was pushed. Election returns from the Senate runoff in Georgia made clear Trump’s party had lost its edge in the Senate. Instead of returning two Republicans to the Senate, Georgia had elected two Democrats; a Black man raised in public housing and the Jewish son of an immigrant.