Tag Archives: Trump supporters

Facing Up To The Evidence

There is a robust argument among pundits and scholars over the comparative contributions of economic insecurity and racial anxiety to Donald Trump’s election. It is an argument that rests on an ahistorical “either-or” approach to voter motivation (anyone who has studied German attitudes in the period after the first World War understands that economic fears fed the not-so-latent anti-Semitism.)

That said, we make a mistake–as I have argued previously–if we minimize the role racism played and continues to play in America’s electoral politics. One aspect of the uncomfortable discussion we need to have focuses on the history and persistence of racism in Evangelical Christianity.

It is a discussion that self-aware Evangelicals are now having. As Nancy Wadsworth recently wrote in Vox,

I spent the first 15 years of my career as a scholar studying American evangelicals and race, and in my view, the failure to consider motivations rooted in anxieties about race and gender as an explanation of evangelical Trump support represents a striking omission. The history of American evangelicalism is intensely racially charged. The persistent approval for Trump among white evangelicals ought to prompt far more critical self-reflection within the evangelical community than we’ve seen so far.

Evangelicals’ tenacious affection for Donald Trump is not a bug driven by expediency. Instead, it reflects defining features of American evangelicalism that become clearer when we examine the historical record. Doing so reveals that when white conservative evangelicals feel threatened by cultural change, the old demons of racism and misogyny, which lurk at the heart of the American evangelical tradition, return with a vengeance.

Wadsworth recounts–and dismisses–analyses by Evangelicals who find the support for Trump to be “transactional.” She also takes issue with aspects of Michael Gerson’s more nuanced and widely-read critique of Evangelical Trump supporters.

Michael Gerson lays out a particularly condemnatory, yet nuanced, version of the Christian anti-Trump lament in a lengthy, elegant essay in the April issue of the Atlantic. He frames Trump loyalty as “the last temptation” that could forfeit evangelicalism’s future and despoil a long legacy of positive contributions to American culture.

Cheerleading by second-generation Christian right figures like Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham, Gerson writes, is “not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption.” Allowing hatred of their political enemies to “blind” them to Trump’s attacks on people of color and women is a tragic mistake, he suggests.

Gerson offers a 150-year summary of evangelicals’ positive work in the public sphere to make the case that, despite some missteps along the way, white evangelicals have mostly been on the right side of moral and social issues, historically. But his history is strikingly lopsided, reflecting a characteristic amnesia among evangelicalism’s boosters.

Wadsworth reminds readers that Europeans considered the indigenous people they encountered when they came to America to be uncivilized “heathens”–a belief anchored in a white Christian worldview employed to justify various forms of missionary conquest.

On the question of chattel slavery, evangelicals do not just appear as the abolitionists Gerson cites approvingly. The institution had millions of champions among conservative Christians who drew on Scripture and Curse of Ham theology to defend white supremacy and black subordination. Gerson fails to mention that every major evangelical denomination split along regional lines based on divisions over the slavery question. In fact, the vast bulk of Southern white evangelicals defended slavery, clung to the Lost Cause, fought Reconstruction, and designed and defended Jim Crow.

As the Kentucky General Baptist Association put it in 1860:

Among the white race in the Southern States there is no difference of opinion upon this subject: all are united in the opinion in reference to the political, intellectual, and social inequality between the colored people and the white races. And the people of our Commonwealth generally feel that the present condition of the colored race in this country accords both with the Word and the providence of God.

The entire article is eye-opening for those of us previously unaware of this history. Racism truly is America’s original sin. We will not eradicate it–from Evangelical Christianity or from any of the other constituencies in which it holds sway–until we confront the major role it has occupied, and continues to occupy, in our common life.

 

We’ve Heard This Song Before

Trump’s bigoted diatribes against Latinos, Muslims and (nonwhite) immigrants received a considerable amount of attention during the campaign, as did his reprehensible attitudes  about and behavior toward women.

The torrents of anti-Semitism he unleashed received less coverage by mainstream media sources, but not because that anti-Semitism was less pronounced. Anti-Semitic posts surged on Twitter; and as the Atlantic reported,

This was the year that anti-Semitism went mainstream again. On Tuesday, American Jews will have a chance to register their vote about a presidential candidate whose campaign has trafficked in anti-Semitic rhetoric, symbols, and organizations unlike any other seen in recent years.

Reporters who are Jewish–or who just have Jewish-sounding names–were subjected to vile diatribes employing words that weren’t part of public conversations back in “political correctness” days.

Those of us who are Jewish tend to be sensitive to eruptions of this sort, and the extent of ancient “Jew hatred” tropes and the emergence of old anti-Semitic stereotypes was chilling.

This ugly reality is one reason I get so annoyed when naive and disappointed progressives insist that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump. They point to polls taken during the primaries, which any pollster will concede are so early as to be meaningless. (Actually, polls taken during the campaign weren’t so meaningful either–just ask Hillary Clinton.) Had Bernie emerged as the nominee, he would have been subjected to the full ferocity of Republican campaign attacks, and as a commenter on this blog previously noted, there was plenty to work with. (That’s not a slam on Bernie; most people who have been in public positions a long time, and actually done things, have baggage or a history that can be twisted and made to look like baggage.) Given his attacks on the 1%, and his economic positions, there would have been enormous amounts of money pouring in from the Koch brothers and their ilk to fuel those attacks.

But that’s not the only reason Bernie couldn’t have won, no matter how much his message might have resonated with voters who actually wanted change. And let’s be honest. The ugly truth is that the majority of Trump voters weren’t voting for change–at least, not in the sense most people mean.

They were voting to repudiate social change and (especially) a black President.

They were voting to take America back to the way things were when no one spoke Spanish, gays were in the closet, Muslim-Americans were rare or non-existent, Jews and blacks were just barely second-class citizens, and women knew their place. And in the pantheon of their hatreds, Jews rank high.

Bernie Sanders is Jewish. The voters who thrilled to Trump’s nativism and White nationalism were never, ever going to vote for Bernie.

There’s a lot of debate over whether Donald Trump is anti-Semitic himself, or whether he was simply willing to pander to David Duke and the rest of the KKK and Nazis who endorsed him, but it really doesn’t matter. He did pander to them, he did encourage their virulent anti-Semitism, and if he ever effectively disavowed the Klan’s support, they (and I) didn’t notice.

Instead of wasting time with fantasies of what might have been, all of us who oppose Trump need to resist his agenda as forcefully as we can; we also need to begin looking now for progressive candidates who can run for the House and Senate in 2018, and for a transformative candidate who is electable in 2020. (Assuming the country is still here and in one piece in 2020. But that’s a blog for another day…)

What Do We Do?

Early in my lawyering career, the partner I was assigned to said something I still remember: “There is only one legal question, and that’s ‘what do we do.'”

That is also the basic question at issue in all policy debates. We citizens can only hope that what policymakers will decide to do will be informed by fact, rather than by emotion, partisanship, disinformation from those with a stake in the outcome, or fixed ideologies that make reasoned decision-making impossible. In less hot-button matters,at least, that goal still seems achievable.

But what do we do when we are faced with distasteful realities about the electorate–realities that determine the behaviors of elected officials chosen by those voters? Dylan Matthews at Vox recently addressed one such unpleasant reality.

Noting the efforts of essayists and pundits to “take the concerns of Trump voters seriously,” he pointed out that, in fact, these would-be sympathetic observers are actually tiptoeing around the real concerns of Trump supporters, which are not rooted in economics:

There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America.

It is very hard to disagree with what Dylan pinpoints as the actual motivation of a troubling number of Trump supporters:

So what is driving Trump supporters? In the general election, the story is pretty simple: What’s driving support for Trump is that he is the Republican nominee, a little fewer than half of voters always vote for Republicans, and Trump is getting most of those voters.

In the primary, though, the story was, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has explained at length, almost entirely about racial resentment. There’s a wide array of data to back this up.

UCLA’s Michael Tesler has found that support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents’ racial resentment, as measured by survey data. Similarly, Republican voters with the lowest opinions of Muslims were the most likely to vote for Trump, and voters who strongly support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants were likelier to support him in the primaries too.

In April, when the Pew Research Center asked Republicans for their views on Trump, and their opinions on the US becoming majority nonwhite by 2050, they found that Republicans who thought a majority nonwhite population would be “bad for the country” had overwhelmingly favorable views of Trump. Those who thought it was a positive or neutral development were evenly split on Trump.

Matthews notes–with examples–why policies providing more substantial economic security (which he supports) are unlikely to ameliorate racial animus, and then he addresses the “what should we do?” question:

One thing this analysis decidedly does not imply is “Hey, Trump supporters are just racists, let’s give up on them.” Trump’s nomination is a threat to America that must be addressed and never allowed to happen again. Giving up is not an option. We have to figure out some way to respond….

Any solution has to begin with a correct diagnosis of the problem. If Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, motivated by economic marginalization, then even full Bernie Sanders–style social democracy is not going to prevent a Trump recurrence. Nor are GOP-style tax cuts, and liberal pundits aggressively signaling virtue to each other by writing ad nauseam about the need to empathize with the Trump Voter aren’t doing anyone any good.

What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country. Maybe the GOP will find a way to control and contain this part of its base. Maybe the racist faction of the party will dissipate over time, especially as Obama’s presidency recedes into memory. Maybe it took Trump’s celebrity to mobilize them at all, and future attempts will fail.

But Donald Trump’s supporters’ concerns are heavily about race. Taking them seriously means, first and foremost, acknowledging that, and dealing with it honestly.

Agreed. But how?