Donald Trump's campaign is sputtering, but those who watch extremists say he's emboldened some of the ugliest forces in America.
Barring the act of a mischief god, Donald Trump isn't going to be president. Even when he has drawn even with Hillary Clinton in the polls, he appeared to have a ceiling of well under 50 percent. And that was before a seemingly never-ending series of scandals climaxed last Friday with the now infamous "grab them by the pussy" tape, followed by this week's fresh batch of allegations that Trump pushed himself on women without their consent.
During Sunday's debate, Trump showed little contrition, instead doubling down on conspiracy-riddled innuendo, indicating that the Republican candidate is no longer trying to court new voters. Instead, he's going to soak up the adoration of his diehard supporters until he switches into his post-loss strategy of blaming the media, the Republican Party, and the "rigged" voting system—anyone but himself.
But even after Trump's race is run, the damage he's wrought will remain. Some of the aftermath is already underway: Scores of Republicans are bailing on Trump in a race to wash their hands of him; Breitbart, the far-right news site helmed by Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, is more prominent and influential than ever. But the most damaging effect of the Trump campaign is more nebulous and less visible—what are race relations going to look like when Trump leaves the stage?
"Donald Trump has mainstreamed ideas that were in the dark before," said Heidi Beirich, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors the activities of extremist groups like white supremacists and neo-Confederates. "His opinions about women, Muslims, Mexicans... those ideas used to be improper for political discourse. Now he's unleashed a wave of rhetoric that is demeaning and degrading to people of color."
Christopher Metzler, a diversity consultant who has worked with the NYPD and FDNY and who advises conservative political candidates, was less circumspect in his assessment, calling US race relations, a "hot mess," adding that "the mess is economic, political, and historical."
Beirich and Metzler both believe Trump may have attracted new deplorables (to borrow Clinton's phrase) to the mainstream. "He has energized the white supremacist movement in a way we've never seen before," Beirich said. "Previously, they hated both Democrats and Republicans. That has now changed. Anti-Semites and other extremists have been brought into the political system in a big way by Trump."
The chief fear is that all this energy on the fringes of the far right could lead to terrorism. "If he doesn't win, we will have a lot of emboldened people feeling very upset," Beirich said. "There are a lot of quotes about this being 'the last election.' This is seen as the last chance. That's the kind of cause that people who pick up a gun embrace. Without a doubt, everyone who monitors extremists [is] terrified that these newly emboldened fringe people will turn to terrorism when they don't get what they want. Everyone is holding their breath."
Metzler underscored this analysis. "To win the primary election, Trump appealed in large part to the white economically depressed communities and used racially charged language against a federal judge," he said, pointing out that Hillary Clinton also used racially divisive tactics during her '08 primary campaign against Barack Obama. Metzler regards the current racial climate in the US as a tinderbox. "The fact is that the racial scars have worsened as a result of this campaign and must be addressed as an issue of national security lest we risk a race war," he cautioned.
Even if a Trump loss doesn't spark violence, reawakening outright racism can still have plenty of undesirable effects. Another branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Teaching Tolerance Project, works to help schools provide a diverse and equitable education. Maureen Costello, director of the program, says the "Trump Effect" is having a profoundly negative impact on schools nationwide. Costello explained that in the current climate students feel less constrained when it comes to acting on their worst impulses. Numerous racially inflammatory incidents among children are being chalked up to behavior first modeled during stump speeches and debates.
"Our mission is to fight intolerance," Costello said. "We began to notice news stories popping up in March about incidents at sporting events." Costello described a basketball game between a predominantly white school and a predominantly Latino school during which the white students began to chant about Trump's fanciful southern border wall. Costello said that if such behavior was on display in the gym, then it was happening in cafeterias and classrooms too. (Two such incidents occurred during basketball games in Indiana and Iowa, and another took place at a girl's soccer match in Wisconsin.)
This campaign season has seen an uncommon increase in the use of stereotyping—most of it by Trump, said Costello, adding that "this is something we, and most teachers, literally tell kids not to do. Any kid who reaches high school will have had several lessons explaining not to use a broad brush to paint minority groups."
Seeking to take the racial temperature of America's classrooms, Costello and her co-workers put a survey on the Teaching Tolerance website. The questions, the director said, were open-ended, and she stressed that her group's website heavily selects for people interested in nurturing diversity. Still, Costello was overwhelmed by the reaction to the survey. More than 2,000 teachers posted more than 5,000 comments, almost all of them decrying the impact the election was having. Many teachers reported increased hate speech, the taunting of minority students and discrimination against Muslims. A North Carolina teacher reported that her Latino students were carrying their birth certificates and Social Security cards because they were afraid of deportation. Other teachers reported even their African American students were fearful of being "deported back to Africa."
"I think there are rational reasons to be dissatisfied with government," Costello said. "We're in a period of enormous change. Look at technology, demographics. American schools will be 51 percent non-white for the first time in 2015/16. That transition is rough. There's always a reactionary movement away from that, and Trump has given that feeling a name: immigrants, Muslims. We're seeing a real disagreement about what American reality is. When you have people disagreeing on the fundamental nature of reality, those disagreements don't go away."
All of the experts consulted said race relations were strained as a result of the campaign. When asked there was any silver lining in such a vicious election cycle, Costello pointed to two upsides: "One thing is that young people are really engaged," she said. "Another is that teachers are going out of their way to teach positive identity lessons." However, Costello said that in the near term, American race relations were likely to see an increase in friction before there are any improvements. "To quote Bette Davis in All About Eve," Costello said, "'Buckle your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.'"
Beirich's view was even less rosy. "It could be the case that these people just go away," she said. "If you're just an everyday bigot, maybe you get the message that you need to change." She also mentioned that it's possible that there could be a helpful reaction to all this open hatred. "I focus on the darkest corners of the United States and I'm very worried about terrorism," Beirich said. "If the effect of all this was to awaken progressives and make them more vigilant, I would love that."
Chris Connolly is a journalist and novelist living near the beach in New York. In addition to VICE, he writes for the New York Times, Outside, CN Traveler, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter.