According to the media, the most significant political event of 2015 was the meteoric rise of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primaries. Trump kicked off 2016 with a new campaign ad that ramped up fearmongering to new levels, featuring his demand to halt entry of all Muslims into the US, together with a mash-up of photos of the San Bernardino killers, Islamic State fighters, a US warship firing cruise missiles, exploding buildings and footage of migrants supposedly crossing a desert border.
Stoking up fear is as central to Trump’s strategy as it is to the Republican leadership’s. It enables him to promote himself as a Bonapartist strongman: too rich to be corrupted, able to overcome Congressional deadlock with his no-nonsense “management” skills, and capable of directing arbitrary acts of military retaliation. US News & World Report’s Mort Zuckerman comments: “He swoops in on his helicopter and proudly asserts, ‘Hey, I’m rich.’ Why pretend? His wealth conveys the impression he is incorruptible and thus above our campaign finance system which now allows politicians to garner unlimited funds from unidentified wealthy donors and corporations. … The public likes Trump’s self-description as a strong leader who will take charge, rip up opponents and make the big problems go away.”
The sensationalist media reporting of terror attacks energizes his supporters’ xenophobic resentment at demographic change that reduces their privileged access to resources and opportunities. And this resonates with the Republican base. The Washington Post found that the threat of terrorism was the most important political issue for 39 percent of Republican voters, outranking by far domestic issues like tax policy or healthcare, and half of all Republicans named Trump as the candidate they would most trust to handle it. Commentator Josh Marshall noted that December’s Republican primary debate was marked by “repeated invocations of fear, the celebration of fear, the demand that people feel and react to their fear. This was logically joined to hyperbolic and ridiculous claims about ISIS as a group that might not simply attack America or kill Americans but might actually destroy the United States or even our entire civilization.”
But it’s not only the Republicans. Since so many Americans live precariously from paycheck to paycheck, the disruption of a symbol of civilizational stability – like Paris – creates the fear of a descent into chaos, a breakdown of order, endangering life and property. Muslims are then demonized by the authorities as the unreasoning, nonhuman embodiment of this scenario. Tom Engelhardt notes that in 2015: “Hoax terror threats or terror imbroglios shut down school systems from Los Angeles to New Hampshire, Indiana to a rural county in Virginia. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, citing terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, cancelled a prospective tour of Europe thanks to terror fears, issuing a statement that ‘orchestra management believes there is an elevated risk to the safety of musicians and their families, guest artists, DSO personnel, and travelling patrons’.”
The other side of this heightened fear is the increased political influence of minorities and women, codified by Trump and other Republican candidates as “political correctness.” One of his supporters, a retired college administrator, explained how her frustration with political correctness connected with her hostility to minorities. “When we wrote things [at her college], we couldn’t even say ‘he’ or ‘she,’ because we had transgender. People of color. I mean, we had to watch every word that came out of our mouth, because we were afraid of offending someone,” she said. “And you look at these people who have never worked and they’re having babies and they’re getting free rent and free food stamps and free medical care. … Something has to be done because we’re shrinking, we’re being taken over by people that want to change what America is. You can’t say it nicely,” she added.
Sometimes political correctness campaigns in colleges can be disproportionate and teachers’ speech needs to be protected; however, as well as sometimes showing a lack of judgment, youth are proving they want to tackle deeply-rooted racism and sexism and insist on real changes in what is socially acceptable. Protests at the University of Missouri over the racial insensitivity of the administration forced the resignation of the president and chancellor in November; the dean of students at Claremont McKenna in California also resigned after an email she sent to a Latina student saying she would try to better serve minority students who “don’t fit our CMC mold” surfaced. At Ithaca College in New York State, protesters accused the college president of responding inadequately to an incident where an African-American graduate was repeatedly called a “savage” by two white male alumni.
The heightened militancy of college students over institutional racism is closely connected to the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. According to Al Jazeera, “Jonathan Butler, the Mizzou graduate student who went on a hunger strike to bring about Wolfe’s resignation, has said that the former college president’s demise started with ‘MU for Mike Brown,’ a Black Lives Matter-affiliated student group formed in solidarity with the uprisings in nearby Ferguson over the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. At Boston College, student organizer Sriya Bhattacharyya has also cited the importance of BLM: ‘At the core of all these [campus] movements is the unifying belief that black lives matter’.”
Al Jazeera also pointed out that the media has ignored activism at the high school level. After the white police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not indicted, “high school students across the country organized solidarity protests in Seattle; New York; Denver; Oakland, California; Minneapolis and Boston. In February, about 250 high school students in Santa Fe, New Mexico left school to protest constant testing and the state’s new mandated exam. In June, Milwaukee high school students walked out of class to protest against the county executive takeover of low-performing schools. And this fall, high school students in Allentown, Pennsylvania, organized a district-wide student walkout demanding the resignation of the superintendent, the inclusion of a student representative on the school board and summer youth employment opportunities. There were also student walkouts in Chicago; Berkeley, California and Philadelphia that occurred this fall.”
Whoever the candidates are in this year’s presidential election, 2016 is going to be all about the growing power of these young Americans and their determination to fight unprosecuted police killings of young people of color. To quote David Bowie: “We live for just these twenty years. Do we have to die for the fifty more?”