There are few better ways to understand the racial and ideological rift in America than to watch 13th, a documentary about the mass incarceration of black people and the decades of racist policymaking that followed the Civil Rights Act, then log on to Breitbart, a hub of white nationalists, and read a few comments.
In 13th, director Ava Duvernay argues that after African-Americans overcame segregation and won the right to vote, US lawmakers simply hid their discrimination by claiming they were cracking down on crime. Similarly, writer Ta-Nehesi Coates has highlighted 'redlining', where mortgage lenders refuse to lend to people based on their zip code or neighbourhood, as one of many ways that black people have been prevented from building wealth and advancing since their humanity and constitutional rights were recognised.
Donald Trump's claim to be the "law and order" candidate suggests he plans to emulate previous presidents, who broke apart families and wielded the hammer of justice unequally: they introduced hefty penalties such as mandatory sentencing and 'three strike' rules, and punished users of crack cocaine far more harshly than the typically white, wealthy snorters of the pure substance. Trump's pledge to investigate widespread (and non-existent) voter fraud is also likely to herald new voter ID laws, without making it any easier for people to get an ID card, disproportionately harming minorities and depressing voter numbers. And key advisor Steve Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart, is widely seen as an advocate for white nationalism within the White House. In short, the deck has been stacked against black Americans throughout American history, and they won't receive a helping hand anytime soon.
Commenters on Breitbart occupy a different reality. Many describe a creeping assault on the white race, Christianity, white women, jobs and the American way of life by any combination of Jews, Muslims, liberal elites, legal and illegal immigrants, non-whites and refugees. They believe that Muslims are conspiring to to take over America and institute Sharia law, and are stocking up on guns and ammo in preparation for the inevitable war. They express frustration that politicians, millennials and the mainstream media have been duped into inviting these existential threats onto American soil. And they're tired of political correctness and being called racists for resisting demographic change and, in their view, fighting to save America/
Underlying many of their beliefs is a philosophy of white victimhood - that elites are profiting from their hard work, foreigners are stealing their birthrights and jobs, and immigrants and refugees are leeching off the government and eroding American culture. Many deny the existence of discrimination against black people, claiming they're intellectually inferior, thugs who deserve to be in jail, or that they receive preferential treatment.
The America shown in 13th and the land of the Breitbart commenters may seem diametrically opposed. But the former is a direct product of the deeply held beliefs and inertia of the latter along with a significant number of Americans, including past presidents. Their fears and misgivings about the state of the nation have been reinforced and exacerbated by conservative media such as Fox News, and have gained mainstream appeal since the election of President Trump, who has validated their xenophobia and grossly exaggerated the threat of Islamic terrorism.
It's hard to see how the ideological gap between mainstream America and the Breitbart community can ever be bridged, and Trump's cries of 'fake news' and nationalist policies will only widen the divide. The best course of action may be to pressure political representatives to stand up to Trump, debunk his incorrect statements and ensure that facts rule the day. Liberals should also spend more time on Breitbart and other conservative platforms, rebutting the most extreme views and ensuring commenters don't operate in an echo chamber.