Your least surprising statistic of the week
Gosh it sure does seem like Trump's supporters are all drawn to him for a specific reason. I wonder what it is?
Jamelle Bouie has an important insight into this issue in this excellent piece at Slate:
For some on the left, Trump is the result of decades of divisive politics—the inevitable outcome of a Republican political strategy that stoked white racial resentment to win elections. “Trump’s campaign can best be understood not as an outlier but as the latest manifestation of the Southern Strategy, which the Republican Party has deployed for a half-century to shore up its support in the old Confederate states by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity,” writes Jeet Heer in the New Republic.
For some on the right, Trump is the grassroots response to Republican elites who have abandoned their working-class voters to the whims of laissez-faire capitalism. “[T]he Republican Party, and the conservative movement, offer next to nothing to working-class Trump supporters,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty in the Week. “There are no obvious conservative policies that will generate the sort of growth needed to raise the standard of living for these working-class voters.”
He goes on to point out that both of these issues have been present for decades and asks a more salient question: why now?
What caused this fire to burn out of control? The answer, I think, is Barack Obama.
There have been some conservative writers who have tried to hang Trump’s success on the current president, pointing to his putatively extreme positions. But in most respects, Obama is a conventional politician—well within the center-left of the Democratic Party. Or at least, he’s governed in that mode, with an agenda that sits safely in the mainstream. Laws like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act weren’t impositions from the far left; they were built out of proposals from the right and left, passed by a majority of Congress that was elected to pursue solutions on health care and the economy. Barack Obama is many things, but conservative rhetoric aside, he’s no radical.
We can’t say the same for Obama as a political symbol, however. In a nation shaped and defined by a rigid racial hierarchy, his election was very much a radical event, in which a man from one of the nation’s lowest castes ascended to the summit of its political landscape. And he did so with heavy support from minorities: Asian Americans and Latinos were an important part of Obama’s coalition, and black Americans turned out at their highest numbers ever in 2008.
For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism, however, Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. And with talk of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he presaged a time when their votes—which had elected George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan—would no longer matter. More than simply “change,” Obama’s election felt like an inversion. When coupled with the broad decline in incomes and living standards caused by the Great Recession, it seemed to signal the end of a hierarchy that had always placed white Americans at the top, delivering status even when it couldn’t give material benefits.
In a 2011 paper, Robin DiAngelo—a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University—described a phenomenon she called “white fragility.” “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” she writes. “These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
DiAngelo was describing private behavior in the context of workplace diversity training, but her diagnosis holds insight for politics. You can read the rise of Obama and the projected future of a majority nonwhite America as a racial stress that produced a reaction from a number of white Americans—and forced them into a defensive crouch. You can see the maneuvering DiAngelo describes in the persistent belief that Obama is a Muslim—as recently as last fall, 29 percent of Americans held this view, against all evidence. It is a way to mark Obama as “other” in a society where explicit anti-black prejudice is publicly unacceptable. Consistent with this racialized fear and anxiety is the degree to which white Americans now see “reverse discrimination” as a serious problem in national life. For its American Values Survey, the Public Religion Research Institute asks respondents whether “discrimination against whites is a significant problem.” In last year’s survey, 43 percent of Americans—including 60 percent of working-class whites—said discrimination against whites had become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.
The one-two punch of the great recession combined with the first black president was just too much for these fragile folks. It's the combination that knocked them for a loop. But I'm snot convinced that simply "helping" them economically will ever calm them.
I think Bouie is on to something important here. We know that the hostility to Obama is visceral and somewhat overwhelming for these folks. The dystopian America these people inhabit isn't just a place where they have lost jobs and lost their grip on the middle class. They have, but it's been going on for a long time and they had no problem voting for orthodox conservatives who dogwhistled to their prejudices while feeding them nonsense about corporate tax rates and "tort reform" as if that had any meaning to their lives. No, the straw that broke the camel's back was that as the shit hit the fan in 2007, this country voted in a black president as if to spite them.
The signature achievement they despise is even named after him. And here comes Trump, timed perfectly, the birther in chief who speaks to their fear and loathing in vivid, primal terms.
Bouie goes to great lengths to acknowledge the legitimacy of these voters' economic grievances. In some places they are quite severe. And with all that comes many of the "pathologies" that many white used to believe were only present in minority communities. (They were always present in white communities as well, but the belief that racial superiority prevented such things from becoming widespread is no longer operative. The heroin epidemic is a good example of how such things are inescapable these days in poor white communities.
And he also acknowledges the argument some have made that Obama was too liberal in his policies, creating a backlash that wouldn't have happened if he'd have been more moderate. (I would argue that the inability of them to take Obama up on his offer to cut spending in exchange for taxes on the rich rebuts that contention.)
But this analysis ignores the extent to which Trump reflects specific choices by Republican and conservative elites. From indulging anti-Obama conspiracy theories to attacking him as an enemy of the United States, conservatives chose to nurture resentment and anxiety and distill it into something potent. You can draw a direct line to the rise of Trump from the racial hysteria of talk radio—where figures like Rush Limbaugh, a Trump booster, warned that Obama would turn the world upside down. “The days of [minorities] not having any power are over and they are angry,” said Limbaugh to his audience. “They want to use their power as a means of retribution.”
It also ignores the degree to which these voters likely would have found this hypothetical partnership inimical to their conception of their interests. Even if Obama had reached out, they would be mere partners in a larger coalition, when what they want is to be its driving force. Trump speaks to that desire, signaling—in ways subtle and otherwise—that he plans to “Make America Great Again” by making the white American worker the center of his universe.
He's promised to deport millions of Hispanics and some number of Syrian refugees who are already here, ban Muslims from entering the country and return to some old-fashioned notion of "law and order" which is very evident in his defense of violence against Black lives Matter protesters and others.
I have said it more directly than Bouie does
: He promises to make America white again.
Bouie doesn't think Trumpism, if not Trump himself, is going away any time soon. I think he's right.Read the whole essay here.
I only touched the surface.