Won't somebody think of the social contract?

9:33 pm on 18 October 2016

Opinion - As Donald Trump's chances have declined, so has his rhetoric. Are his tantrums, including pre-emptively blaming a loss on a global conspiracy, damaging the social contract in the US?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends the Republican Hindu Coalition's Humanity United Against Terror Charity event on October 15, 2016

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends an event for Indian Americans, hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition, earlier this week. Photo: AFP

Civilisation is a thin veneer over the roiling anarchy of our human frailties. When it breaks down, the results are ugly. Society holds together because we all agree that it does; pretending together that we are all rational, responsible grown-ups.

This is the social contract.

In a fit of 'If I can't have this society, no one can', US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is chipping away at America's fragile veneer, as if to remake American life in Hobbes' uncivilised image: solitary, nasty, brutish and short … with small hands.

This is serious though. America has a tumultuous history, and a long memory for rancour. There are places where people are still emotionally re-litigating the civil war. It is important for America's internal peace, security and stability that the social contract is protected by its leaders and role models.

In functioning democracies, election losers concede, winners don't exact revenge on their opponents and people do not take up arms against their elected representatives.

Mr Trump is ignoring all of that.

He predicts a stolen election, claiming ballot stuffing, registration fraud, trucked-in Mexicans and co-ordinated multiple voting.

He has encouraged pre-emptive vigilantism at the polling booth, to ensure minorities and foreigners don't vote illegally (or indeed vote). In some states this is legal.

He has walked back an assurance that he will respect the election outcome. Mike Pence, his running mate, is trying to assure everyone on Mr Trump's behalf.

Supporters wait for the start of a campaign rally with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the KI Convention Center on October 17, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Supporters of the Republican nominee turn out at a rally in Wisconsin. Photo: AFP

But the Donald is having none of it.

He has repeatedly ignored the rule of law, promising to imprison his opponent.

He has suggested the disarming of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's Secret Service detail "and see what happens to her", and suggested "Second Amendment people" (gun owners) might find other methods (wink, wink) to stop Mrs Clinton.

He has blamed his woes on his own party leadership, shadowy elites, the media and foreigners, all in collusion with international bankers (common anti-Semitic code for Jewish people).

It's classic New World Order conspiracy theory stuff.

Any one of these actions marks a dangerous step away from a stable democratic society. Together they are deeply troubling, and represent at least four layers of societal threat:

The threat of violence

The explicit danger is violence because of the incitement of unhinged people with guns. There are plenty to choose from. The Southern Poverty Law Centre's map of American hate groups shows a hornet's nest of threats.

This is no idle conjecture. This week three Kansas men - apparently members of a militia group called the Crusaders - were arrested and accused of plotting to explode four car bombs at a Somali-majority housing complex.

The criminal complaint quotes one of them allegedly saying, "The only f**king way this country's ever going to get turned around is it will be a bloodbath."

The FBI said it found a metric tonne of ammunition along with bomb-making chemicals. The group at the centre of the investigation isn't even among the 892 groups on the Southern Poverty Law Centre's hate map.

This week, meanwhile, a Trump supporter told the Boston Globe: "If she's in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot ... There's going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that's what it's going to take ... I would do whatever I can for my country."

So, this week when Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke declared on Twitter that it was "pitchforks and torches time" it wasn't hyperbole, it was borderline sedition.

Delegitimising governance

The second danger is further undermining confidence in democratic outcomes. Fifty-two percent of Republicans already believed voter fraud was a major problem before Mr Trump declared the election was rigged.

Governance is necessarily by consent but that consent is hard-won and easily undermined.

Belonging

This election will make American immigrants and minorities feel less accepted and less safe, pushed to the fringes of society.

The Boston Globe quoted an Ohio Trumpian as planning to follow Mr Trump's call and personally police a polling precinct.

"I'll look for … well, it's called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can't speak American. I'm going to go right up behind them ... I'm going to make them a little bit nervous."

Thousands of American therapists have declared they fear for the nation's mental health under the assault of "an American form of fascism".

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump greets supporters during a rally at the KI Convention Center on October 17, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Mr Trump greets supporters during the recent rally in Wisconsin. Photo: AFP

For people on the right-wing fringes, however, this election is enhancing a sense of belonging.

The Washington Post recently spent time with a Trump fan with significant mental health issues who believed Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim, Michelle Obama was a man and their two daughters were hostages. She said, about Donald Trump, "Finally, someone who thinks like me."

The normalisation of hate

The final danger is that Mr Trump is normalising dangerous fringe beliefs.

When society enables a leader to espouse all manner of hateful prejudices from the highest public pulpit, those opinions gain legitimacy in the national debate. The locus of appropriate debate has moved down the spectrum towards hate.

Given Mr Trump's behaviour in the first two presidential debates, the very existence of a third debate will help legitimise his views as appropriate to the mainstream.

As David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has said: "The fact that Donald Trump's doing so well, it proves that I'm winning. I am winning."

That sentiment is just plain scary.

*Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.