All across America, in little towns like this one, Donald Trump is mainstreaming hate.
Forest Grove, near the farm where I grew up in western Oregon, has historically been a charming, friendly and welcoming community. But in the middle of a physics class at the high school one day this spring, a group of white students suddenly began jeering at their Latino classmates and chanting: “Build a wall! Build a wall!”
The same white students had earlier chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Soon afterward, a student hung a homemade banner in the school reading, “Build a Wall,” prompting Latinos at area schools to stage a walkout.
“They openly express their dislike of my race,” Briana Larios, a 15-year-old Mexican-American honor roll student who hopes to go to Harvard, said of some of her white classmates. Wounded by accusations that she doesn’t belong in the country in which she was born, Briana is thinking of being home-schooled rather than returning to the high school when classes resume.
“People now feel that it is OK to say things that they might not have said a year ago,” she said. “Trump played a big role.”
Among any nation’s most precious possessions is its social fabric, and that is what Donald Trump is rending with incendiary talk about roughing up protesters and about gun owners solving the problem of Hillary Clinton making judicial nominations.
Trump only mildly distanced himself when an adviser suggested that Clinton should be executed by firing squad for treason, and his rallies have become toxic brews of hatred with shouts like “Hang the bitch!” The Times made a video of Trump fans at his rallies directing crude slurs not just at Hillary Clinton, but also at blacks, Latinos, Muslims and gay people.
We need not be apocalyptic about it. This is not Kristallnacht. But Trump’s harsh rhetoric tears away the veneer of civility and betrays our national motto of “e pluribus unum.” He has unleashed a beast and fed its hunger, and long after this campaign is over we will be struggling to corral it again.
“We’ve spent the last 15 years fighting bullying in schools, and the example set by the Trump campaign has broken down the doors, and a tidal wave of bullying has come through,” said Maureen Costello of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The center issued a report documenting how Trump’s venom has poisoned schools across the country. It quoted a North Carolina teacher as saying she has “Latino students who carry their birth certificates and Social Security cards to school because they are afraid they will be deported.”
In the Forest Grove area, west of Portland, students of Mexican heritage at four high schools — most of them born in the United States — described to me how some local whites take cues from Trump.
“They say, ‘We’re going to deport your ass,’ ” said Melina McGlothen, 17, whose mother is Mexican. “I don’t want to say I hate them, but I hate their stupidity.”
Ana Sally Gonzalez, 17, said a school club had put up posters criticizing racism, and they were then marred by graffiti such as “Go back where you came from” and “Trump 2016.”
The tension reflects deep resentment among some white working-class families. They are angry at immigrants who have taken over some jobs, at the way communities they cherish are changing demographically and linguistically, and at what they perceive as a stifling political correctness that leaves whites accused of racism when they speak up.
Many of my old Oregon farm-town friends are strong Trump supporters, and they will completely disagree with this column. Their headline would be, “Big Media Suffocates Real Americans With Political Correctness.”
The upshot is that this election year, we’re divided not only by political party and ideology, but also by identity. So the weave of our national fabric unravels. And while our eyes have mostly been on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the nation’s history is being written not just in the capital and grand cities but also in small towns and etched in the lives of ordinary people.
I wrote a column recently exploring whether Trump is a racist, and a result was anti-Semitic vitriol from Trump followers, one of whom suggested I should be sent to the ovens for writing “a typical Jewish hit piece.” In fact, I’m Armenian and Christian, not Jewish, but the responses underscored that the Trump campaign is enveloped by a cloud of racial, ethnic and religious animosity — much of it poorly informed.
The Trump-inspired malice seems ubiquitous. A Georgetown University study found a surge of anti-Muslim violence, from murders to attacks on mosques, coinciding with Trump’s hostility toward Muslims. In March, a man attacked Muslim and Latino students in Kansas, shouting “brown trash” and “Trump will take our country from you guys.”
I hope Trump and his aides will soon come to recognize that words have consequences that go far beyond politics, consequences that cannot be undone. It’s perhaps inevitable that some overzealous supporters will periodically go too far, but Trump need not incite them, and he certainly shouldn’t joke about harming protesters or tolerate advisers who propose a firing squad for his rival.
So far, Trump has arguably benefited from his fondness for over-the-top rhetoric. He gets attention and TV time and is always at the center of his own hurricane. But in November, after the ballots have been counted and the crowds have gone home, we will still have a country to share, and I fear it may be a harsher and more fragile society because of Trump’s campaigning today.
Inflammatory talk isn’t entertaining, but dangerous. It’s past time for Trump to grow up.
Yet if bigotry has been amplified by his candidacy, let’s remember that there are still deep reservoirs of social capital — including in conservative neighborhoods — that have proved impervious to Trump’s insinuations.
In Georgia, an India-born Muslim named Malik Waliyani bought a gas station and convenience store a few months ago and was horrified when it was recently burglarized and damaged. He struggled to keep it going. But then the nearby Smoke Rise Baptist Church heard what had happened.
“Let’s shower our neighbor with love,” Chris George, the pastor, told his congregation at the end of his sermon, and more than 200 members drove over to assist, mostly by making purchases.
“Our faith inspires us to build bridges, not to label people as us and them, but to recognize that we’re all part of the same family,” the pastor told me. “Our world is a stronger place when we choose to look past labels and embrace others with love.”
This is a wrenching, divisive, polarizing time in America, and we have a major party nominee who is sowing hatred and perhaps violence. Let’s not succumb. Good people, like the members of Smoke Rise Baptist, are reweaving our nation’s social fabric even as it is being torn.
Follow Nicholas Kristof on Twitter @NickKristof.