Today, unfathomable as it is, Donald Trump will become President of the United States. How could this happen?
Granted, Trump lost the popular vote overwhelmingly, but despite being manifestly unfit for the office, he mustered enough support from millions of Americans to win the Electoral College. The Chattering Classes have offered a number of explanations, almost all of them centering on Democratic failures: the “liberal elites” were unable to “connect” with middle America; Clinton paid too little attention to Michigan, or to the economic distress of rural voters; Democrats didn’t show enough respect for the values of small-town America. Etc.
Trump’s voters often said that what attracted them was that “he tells it like it is.” At risk of being very politically incorrect, let me tell you what I think they heard. Let me tell it like I think it is.
Post-election analyses showed that most Trump voters were not poor. As Myriam Renaud recently reminded us, however, there’s a difference between “psychic” and fiscal poverty, and she shared a trenchant Eric Hoffer observation.
[Hoffer] found that the intensity of the discontent found among the new poor is not necessarily tied to economic hardship. Indeed, individuals born into misery do not usually revolt against the status quo—their lot is bearable because it is familiar and predictable. Discontent, the emotion Trump tapped into so adeptly, is more likely to afflict people who have experienced prosperity. When their comfortable life is diminished in some way, the result is intolerable. According to Hoffer, it is usually “those whose poverty is relatively recent, the ‘new poor,’ who throb with the ferment of frustration. The memory of better things is as fire in their veins.”
Economic uncertainty, not deprivation, and the loss of white male privilege explain a lot more than fiscal distress. Trump won because he gave people who were experiencing a perceived loss of status or privilege someone to blame for that loss.
It is impossible to argue that a vote for Trump was a vote for his “policy agenda.” He didn’t have one, unless, of course, you think that building a wall to keep Mexicans out, ejecting Muslims (or in the alternative, creating a registry), demeaning women, threatening (brown) immigrants, cozying up to the KKK and the neo-Nazis, and insisting that our first black President was illegitimate are “policies.”
In the wake of the election, Trump has backed off other campaign promises, but his overt racism and misogyny have continued. As an article in the American Prospect put it,
President-elect Donald Trump wasted no time in establishing a hideous double standard of racist privilege in the White House. His appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and his picks of Jeff Sessions for attorney general and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser have been praised without qualification by Klansmen, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and other white supremacist groups.
While “nice” liberals offer economic explanations of the election and counsel “kinder, gentler” attitudes toward Trump voters (who were predominantly, albeit certainly not exclusively, less-educated white rural males), scholars who have analyzed the data have reached different conclusions. There is an emerging consensus among those political scientists that although economic dissatisfaction was part of the story, racism and sexism were much more important.
Donald Trump repeatedly went where prior Republican presidential candidates were unwilling to go: making explicit appeals to racial resentment, religious intolerance, and white identity. ..racial attitudes were stronger predictors of whites’ preferences for Trump or Clinton than they were in hypothetical matchups between Clinton and Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio..
Other research confirms, as FiveThirtyEight reported, that prejudice was one of the “distinguishing attitudes” of Trump voters in the 2016 primaries.
The Economist tested Clinton’s “deplorables” percentage:
At first glance, Mrs Clinton’s 50% estimate looks impressively accurate: 58% of respondents who said they backed Mr Trump resided in the poll’s highest quartile for combined racial-resentment scores. And at a lower threshold of offensiveness—merely distasteful rather than outright deplorable, say—91% of Mr Trump’s voters scored above the national average.
What about the argument that Trump voters “overlooked” Trump’s narcissism, sexism and racism because they thought he would be more effective at job creation? Salon reported on the results of an American National Election (NES) study probing that possibility.
Eighty-four percent of whites who believe it is “extremely likely” that whites can’t find a job because employers are hiring people of color instead support Trump, compared with 23 percent of those who think it is “not at all” likely. Among white Democrats, 58 percent who believe people of color are taking jobs support Trump over Clinton, compared with less than 1 percent of those who believe it is not at all likely. Eighty-one percent of white women who think it is “extremely likely” people of color are taking jobs supported Trump, compared with 26 percent who don’t think that.
I have colleagues who privately admit that the evidence points to the importance of racial resentment and the appeal of White Nationalism in motivating Trump voters, but who shrink from making that claim publicly.
The problem is, if we refuse to face facts–if we refuse to acknowledge the deep wells of tribalism, racism and sexism that persist despite America’s constitutional and legal commitments to equality–we will never eradicate it. We will never have honest conversations about the fears and resentments to which people like Trump so skillfully appeaI. (That actually may be the only real skill Trump has.)
When Trump promised to “make America great again,” his voters heard “I’ll make America White again.”
I understand that it isn’t pretty. I understand that confronting it is uncomfortable. But ignoring the elephant in the room is no longer an option.
There are numerous “resistance” movements springing up in the wake of the election. They are all important, some critically so. But nothing is more important than resisting Trump’s efforts to take politics back to an “us versus them” power struggle, where “us” means white Protestant straight males and “them” is everyone else.