Back in 2015, I wrote that the one thing that was different about Donald Trump was that he was prepared to make America's racist political subtexts text.
He didn't just imply there was something threatening about the undocumented crossing our southern border, he explicitly called them rapists and murderers.
He didn't suggest Muslim Americans could not be good citizens, he banned all travel into the United States for 90 days from seven predominantly Muslim countries - Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – and he also suspended the resettlement of fleeing Syrian refugees.
This sent a loud message to every racist in America that said I hear you, and I agree with you.
It didn't matter that it wasn't true about the undocumented who were crossing the border, or that his 90-day Muslim ban was ineffective, he prefers symbolism to facts – if it felt like a solution, even though it was not a solution, that was usually enough for him.
Meanwhile, on our TV night after night, the right wing was simultaneously waging the so-called “woke wars,” whatever that's supposed to mean.
Progressive politics was suddenly being condemned for being “woke,” as though being considerate of other people's views and lived experiences was just empty political pandering. It was completely insincere, we were told, it was all just a big liberal pantomime.
"There are some people that will see this and say that it's a woke version of a Welsh family" Extraordinarily phrased question to Rakie Ayola re new show The Pact by @BBCBreakfast pic.twitter.com/7R5pzcqdUN— le Monstrous Carbunc (@lowerformofwit) October 24, 2022
But it turned out that Trump's war on common decency, his relentless anti-woke focus, offered the permission structure that conservatives had been waiting for, for decades. For the first time since the late 1960s, they felt free to start saying whatever hateful they wanted to again.
That's how, with breakneck speed, everything from the full-throated antisemitism of Kanye West to the reactionary “white and blue lives matter” protests, to the new push to re-criminalize LGBT people again nationwide, has been broadly and swiftly normalized in our media and on our streets.
Turning longstanding social and religious taboos on their head – can it be long now before Trump starts openly using nakedly racist slurs against these groups – it's important to remember that ten years ago things were much more civil nationally.
What has changed is that in the interim, the far right has found their preferred candidate, and he and they have been busy infecting our media and institutions with far-right political positions that then spread out to the wider nation.
Trump may be gone now, but the coarseness of his four years in the White House has removed many of our political guard rails, and so much that was once unspeakable is now being broadcast nightly into our homes.
When America's president indulges in open bigotry, time after time, the national immune system collapses as quickly as Trump's misguided handling of the Covid crisis did. And so what would have been unthinkable to say or hear on TV a year or two earlier is now suddenly received opinion everywhere.
We are looking in the wrong direction, though. The public isn't directing this new reactionary and hateful era. It's not BLM protests or trans people asking for equality or religious groups agitating who are at fault. It's coming from the top.
People haven't suddenly become more racist or homophobic or anti-semitic, instead, high-profile mouthpieces like Tucker Carlson have been busy attempting to normalize far-right positions on their nightly shows, with evident success.
So what the term “woke” has now come to mean, thanks to them, is the word to describe all the people in the nation who are not being sufficiently deferential to white, straight Christian nationalist supremacy. Which is most of us now. We are nightly being scolded by the far right for letting our own side down.
Recall that Trump began his political career by overreacting to the reality of a Black president. That overreaction turned out to be widespread and Trump is really a symptom and a symbol of a great, unexpressed fear – he represents the anxiety of many white voters about the increasing racial and political diversity of the nation (and their loss of control of it).
But Trump is also their fear disguised as strength – the red ties, the shoulder pads, and high heels, the endless rallies - it's all a giant pantomime. He's really the past, an anachronistic 1980's throwback, pretending he has a place in our future.
Those who still support him believe that he will soon restore the social order with themselves back on top. But in Ireland Ulster unionism once thought the same, and look how that worked out for them.