To many observers, Donald Trump’s mid-October appearance at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex Amphitheater on a warm Friday afternoon might have seemed like the desperate ploy of a candidate running out of gas and heading for a defeat of historic proportions.

The crowd was not especially large and the venue was not at full capacity, in contrast to a visit earlier in the week by President Obama to whip up support for Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders drew more people than Trump in another Greensboro Coliseum Complex venue during campaign stops in previous months. North Carolina was considered a must-win state for the Republican nominee, and multiple visits by Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, demonstrated that they understood the stakes.

Trump’s talking points seemed to heighten the emotional charge of every issue important to his disaffected conservative base — gun rights, crime, abortion, immigration and trade, to name a few — while making little attempt to appeal to the moderate and independent voters thought to be the crucial swing votes in the election. Far from any measure of conciliation in response to allegations of sexual assault against multiple women, Trump denied any wrongdoing, mocked the women for their looks and then furiously attacked the press for publishing the stories, characterizing the media as “sick,” “corrupt” and “destroying our country” with “lies” in his Greensboro stop.

“On Nov. 8 the arrogance of Washington DC will come face to face with the righteous verdict of the American voters,” Trump predicted. “I’m asking all Americans — Republicans, independents and Democrats — to join us in our campaign to defeat the corrupt establishment and give our government back to the people.”

Five days later, in his final debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump telegraphed his disdain for democratic institutions by refusing to say whether he would accept the results of the election if he were not declared the winner. “I will tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”

Conventional media analysts and virtually everyone else had assumed that revelations before the election that Trump had bragged about grabbing women’s genitals would decimate support among key constituencies in his electoral coalition, including white women, suburban independents and some Christian fundamentalists. Journalists and political professionals were stunned to see Trump carry not only North Carolina, but the traditional Democratic strongholds of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin on election night.

While attacking and then taking over the Republican Party and broadsiding a Democratic Party whose leadership was confident in their technocratic prowess, Trump built a political base of people who feel ignored by major civic institutions. His supporters feel contempt for both political parties, the mainstream media and academia. On issue after issue, Trump has characterized American society and foreign policy as collapsing, while presenting himself as the only one who is strong enough to turn it around. As Jedediah Purdy, a law professor at Duke University, has observed, Trump is unique among American politicians in that he rarely invokes the Constitution.

“Whether you’re left or right, whether you’re Barack Obama or you’re Ted Cruz, an image of the country’s national community being based on Constitutional text and principles has been a very standard refrain for American politicians,” Purdy told host Frank Stasio on North Carolina Public Radio’s “The State of Things” on Feb. 1.

The only part of the Constitution Trump really talks about is the Second Amendment, Purdy said, and even then he mainly uses it as an opportunity to talk about fear of criminals.

“He talks about the country instead in terms that are ethno-national and religious in a variety of ways,” Purdy said. “It’s us versus the Mexicans, it’s us versus the Muslims, it’s us versus the criminals, it’s us versus the terrorists. He said more than once in the campaign that Christians need to band together the way that Muslims do, implying that this is a Christian nation.”

Trump acknowledges the crowd at a rally in Greensboro three weeks before Election Day. (photo by Jordan Green)

Trump’s appeals to a kind of nationalism that privileges whiteness and Christianity, his lack of respect for democratic institutions, and his posture as a tough negotiator with the singular ability to deal with a cataclysmic crisis have prompted many scholars, journalists and citizens to question whether the United States is drifting towards authoritarianism, if not fascism, totalitarianism or some other form of autocracy. Whether or not death camps are the logical conclusion of Trumpism, we might consider the fragility of democracy and how easily civilized societies of the past have slipped into barbarity.

“I think for 30 years, part of the reason Democrats as well as Republicans thought so little about inequality, thought so little about insecurity, thought so little about the things in their own lives that gave people the sense… that stuff was falling apart and things were bad, was that they believed they were living at the end of history and there were going to be no more ideological challenges to the order of things, no more crises like this one,” Purdy said on “The State of Things.” “And so what did they not do? They didn’t correct the role of money in politics. They didn’t correct the ideologically distorting effects of gerrymandering. They allowed inequality and insecurity to become the everyday experience of an enormous number of people with no sense that there was anything wrong with this, or that there was any alternative.”

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