In the annals of congressional testimony, very few people have delivered a performance like the one Donald J. Trump gave more than 20 years ago.
On Oct. 5, 1993, Trump showed up at an obscure subcommittee hearing on Indian gaming regulation. The Mashantucket Pequot, a tribe of about 300, had just opened one of the nation’s largest casinos in the woodlands of southeastern Connecticut, siphoning customers away from Trump’s Atlantic City, N.J., casinos. Trump wanted to warn the nation’s lawmakers about why his competitors threatened them too.
Setting aside what he called his “politically correct” prepared remarks, Trump told the room that the Pequot were not real Native Americans. “They don’t look like Indians to me,” he said. “They don’t look like Indians to Indians.” He also took a contradictory position: Organized crime was rampant on tribal land, and Native Americans like the Pequot weren’t strong enough to stop it. “It will be the biggest scandal ever,” Trump predicted. “An Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to please get off his reservation?”
Up on the dais, congressmen were aghast. Trump had offered no evidence. Federal law-enforcement witnesses flatly dismissed the claims. “Everyone was appalled,” recalls John Lawrence, a longtime Democratic aide present for the spectacle. “In hindsight, it was a dramatic foreshadowing of his willingness to use this kind of sweeping, accusatory rhetoric to indict a whole group of people.”
A generation later, the same tactics have carried Trump to the cusp of the Republican presidential nomination. On the campaign trail, he leans on stereotypes to explain the world, in ways both inflammatory and complimentary. Persians are “great negotiators.” Hispanics are “incredible workers.” Mexicans illegally crossing the Southern border are “criminals” and “rapists.” After the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, he proposed a blanket ban on immigration by Muslims, not just those with radical Islamic ties.
Trump isn’t winning in spite of such statements; he’s winning because of them. Eight years after Barack Obama campaigned to repair the rift between red and blue states, America is more divided than ever, a tangle of tribes split by class, creed, religion and race. On the left, Bernie Sanders blasts greedy billionaires. On the right, Ted Cruz appears in campaign ads slathered with war paint in a backwoods duck blind, as Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, pronounces the Ivy League–educated Senator to be “one of us.” Even Hillary Clinton is sharpening her smooth-edged coalition politics, telling voters they’re “right to be angry.”
But nobody does tribal warfare like Trump. “It’s us-against-them politics,” says Roger Stone, a Republican consultant and former Trump adviser. “You define yourself by who your enemies are.” Trump has been a master of this for much of his life. At various chapters in his business career, he has found the furrows in the cultural landscape and sown discord for personal gain. Now the same knack for divisive rhetoric could tear the Republican Party in two, leaving Trump as the commander of a new tribe, a coalition of the disaffected.
PLAYING THE TRIBES
Trump, 69, was born in Queens, N.Y., a patchwork quilt of ethnic enclaves. For years, both Trump and his real estate developer father Fred masked their German ancestry by claiming to be Swedish. The Trumps lived in a Colonial Revival mansion on a leafy street in Jamaica Estates, an upper-class home in a middle-class neighborhood. Fred Trump instilled thrift in his sons by coaxing them to redeem soda-bottle deposits and forcing them to get summer jobs and paper routes. But the father wasn’t shy about flashing symbols of wealth either: when it rained, Donald delivered newspapers from the backseat of his chauffeured limousine.
Then as now, Donald was a troublemaker. He gave his second-grade music teacher a black eye “because I didn’t think he knew anything about music,” he once wrote. By junior high, inspired by the battles between the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, he was sneaking onto the subway and amassing a small collection of switchblades, according to friends. Donald was whisked away to an upstate military academy. Peers say there were no signs that he treated anyone differently. “There were students from all over the U.S., guys from Central and South America,” recalls Arthur Schoenewaldt, Trump’s senior-year roommate. “He got along with everybody.”
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1968, Donald joined the family real estate business. Four years later, civil rights groups began sending undercover spies to Trump rental properties to investigate allegations of racial bias. According to a suit filed by the Justice Department in 1973, the tests revealed a pattern of discrimination against minorities applying for his family’s apartments. The younger Trump’s response was to counterattack. He called a combative press conference, accused the feds of forcing the company to rent to welfare recipients and announced that he had filed a $100 million defamation suit. Trump settled two years later, in an agreement that prohibited the company from discriminating against prospective tenants but contained no admission of guilt.
As a businessman, Trump sought to capitalize on ethnic allegiances. “If the seller was Italian,” he told the New York Times in 1984, “we sent an Italian.” He relies on the same stereotypes as a candidate. “I’m a negotiator like you folks,” he told a Republican Jewish group in December.
At moments of civic distress, he found opportunities to burnish his populist bona fides. In April 1989, amid a crime wave, New York City was rocked by the rape of a young investment banker while she was jogging in Central Park. Twelve days later, Trump placed a full-page newspaper ad calling for the resurrection of the death penalty. “I want to hate these murderers and I always will,” he wrote. It was a law-and-order cry that channeled the anger of a reeling city. And the attendant publicity helped Trump cultivate an image as a foil to the city’s political leaders. Five black and Hispanic teens were convicted in connection with the rape after making false confessions. All were later exonerated by DNA evidence. Korey Wise, imprisoned more than a decade for a crime he didn’t commit, blames some of the beatings he suffered in jail on Trump. “He put a bounty on my head,” Wise says. But the billionaire developer was unrepentant. When the city announced a $41 million settlement with the wrongly convicted men in 2014, Trump called the deal a “disgrace” in an op-ed. “These young men,” he noted, “do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
His pattern of exploiting cultural suspicions resurfaced during a real estate dispute in Florida. In 1991, the Palm Beach town council nixed Trump’s plan to split his sprawling oceanfront estate, Mar-a-Lago, into smaller mansions. News reports appeared, suggesting that Trump was mulling a sale of the historic property to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church: “How will they feel when a thousand Moonies descend on Palm Beach every weekend?” an anonymous Trump associate was quoted as saying. The church recoiled at the rumor, calling Trump “morally reprehensible” for fanning fears of an unfamiliar sect. The apology church leaders wanted never came.
Almost a decade later, Trump tried to crush another Indian casino project. The St. Regis Mohawks, a Native American tribe in upstate New York, were negotiating to build a casino in the Catskills in 2000 when ominous ads began appearing in local papers. “Are these the new neighbors we want?” asked one message, which bore images of drug paraphernalia such as a hypodermic needle. “The ads were really derogatory and racist,” recalls Rowena General, the tribe’s chief of staff at the time. They appeared under the name of an unknown group called the New York Institute for Law and Society, which Trump bankrolled. The project stalled. Years later, Trump told the New York Times that he had nothing against the tribe. “I wasn’t knocking the Mohawks,” he said. “I was mocking their record.”
THE ELITE TARGET
Now, as the GOP front runner, Trump is casting himself as an agent of Republican realignment. “I am a unifier,” he declared from a glittering ballroom at Mar-a-Lago on March 1 after winning seven more states. “I know people are going to find that a little bit hard to believe, but believe me.” Yet part of the unity candidate’s playbook has been to stoke doubts about his political opponents. Questioning the veracity of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate was just the start. During the 2016 race, he has argued the Canadian-born Cruz is ineligible for the White House, and he retweeted a claim that Florida Senator Marco Rubio may not be either because his parents were born in Cuba.
Last fall Trump retweeted an image of a dark-skinned figure, wearing a bandanna and pointing a handgun, alongside apocryphal statistics about black-on-white crime. He has claimed, without evidence, to have seen televised footage showing thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after the Sept. 11 attacks. In a CNN interview shortly before Super Tuesday, he declined to denounce the support of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. (Later he blamed his answer on a bad earpiece that prevented him from hearing the question.)
“This is an old cocktail,” says Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “He’s playing to people’s prejudices and fears. It’s no deeper than that.”
But there is no tribe Trump condemns more than the political elites, both Democratic and Republican. “The Republican Party, insofar as it is in favor of a lot of immigration and a lot of things that go on with globalization, are feeding the kinds of problems that are creating the anger,” says political scientist Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who argues that the policies of the GOP establishment have hollowed out the party’s white working-class base. Generations of Republican leaders have exalted free trade and entitlement cuts, called for more high-skilled-labor visas and guest workers, sought deep tax reductions for the wealthy and pushed for tougher antiabortion policies and less federal meddling.
In each case, Trump has defied party dogma. He’s pitched protectionism and stronger social programs, a border wall and a wealth tax. He defends the merits of Planned Parenthood and eminent domain. From this vantage, Trump’s groundswell of support isn’t a spasm of a party in chaos. It looks more like a natural course correction. He hasn’t dragooned supporters into believing he’s a conservative; he’s leading a willing rebellion against modern conservatism itself.
The party bosses didn’t spot the torches on the horizon because they live comfortably cushioned from the concerns of Trump’s tribe. “I don’t know a single person that I interact with who’s supporting him. Literally not one,” shrugs one major Republican fundraiser. “We can’t all be wrong.”
Now that same party leadership is waking up to the fact that they no longer have the power to sway voters. “The reason their punches don’t land is they’re being thrown in a world that’s dying,” says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who says Trump may ultimately prove to be “the most effective anti-left candidate of our times.” In Trump’s postideological movement, the litmus tests that have long ruled Republican politics are irrelevant. “It’s a revolution. What it means is you’re going to have a new conservatism,” predicts Gingrich. “He’s demolishing the old order.”
The last few Presidents have each been a reflection of the flaws the public perceived in his predecessor. Obama’s professorial aspect and deliberative decisionmaking style was a response to George W. Bush’s cowboy certitude. Bush’s teetotaling piety represented a break from the moral transgressions of Bill Clinton’s Administration. In this sense, Trump is a fitting foil for Obama–certainly more so than Rubio or Cruz, two Cuban-American freshman Senators with short résumés and silver tongues.
The juxtaposition is striking. Democracy, Obama recently told the author Marilynne Robinson, depends on “a presumption of goodness in other people.” Trump warns of enemies lurking everywhere. During campaign events he occasionally recites the lyrics of “The Snake,” an old Al Wilson tune from the 1960s about a tenderhearted woman who nurses a dying serpent back to health and is rewarded for her pity with a fatal bite. Trump used the parable to illustrate the dangers of bringing Syrian refugees into the U.S. This theme, of the hidden threat lurking in our midst, is part of what makes Trump a fitting prophet for a fearful tribe.
“He’s one of us,” explains Natalie Ventura, a 44-year-old Navy veteran from Summerville, S.C. “I don’t always agree with the message. But we aren’t voting for the message. We’re voting for the messenger.”
–With reporting by PHILIP ELLIOTT/NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C., and ZEKE J. MILLER/GREENVILLE, S.C.
This appears in the March 14, 2016 issue of TIME.