Trump’s supporters backed a time-honored American political tradition, disavowing racism while promising to enact a broad agenda of discrimination.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, nearly half of Louisiana voted for a Klansman, and the media struggled to explain why.
It was 1990 and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, astonished political observers when he came within striking distance of defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, earning 43 percent of the vote. If Johnston’s Republican rival hadn’t dropped out of the race and endorsed him at the last minute, the outcome might have been different.
Was it economic anxiety? The Washington Post reported that the state had “a large working class that has suffered through a long recession.” Was it a blow against the state’s hated political establishment? An editorial from United Press International explained, “Louisianans showed the nation by voting for Duke that they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Was it anti-Washington rage? A Loyola University pollster argued, “There were the voters who liked Duke, those who hated J. Bennett Johnston, and those who just wanted to send a message to Washington.”
What message would those voters have been trying to send by putting a Klansman into office?
“There’s definitely a message bigger than Louisiana here,” Susan Howell, then the director of the Survey Research Center at the University of New Orleans, told the Los Angeles Times. “There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration among working-class whites, particularly where there is an economic downturn. These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them.”
Duke’s strong showing, however, wasn’t powered merely by poor or working-class whites—and the poorest demographic in the state, black voters, backed Johnston. Duke “clobbered Johnston in white working-class districts, ran even with him in predominantly white middle-class suburbs, and lost only because black Louisianans, representing one-quarter of the electorate, voted against him in overwhelming numbers,” The Washington Post reported in 1990. Duke picked up nearly 60 percent of the white vote. Faced with Duke’s popularity among whites of all income levels, the press framed his strong showing largely as the result of the economic suffering of the white working classes. Louisiana had “one of the least-educated electorates in the nation; and a large working class that has suffered through a long recession,” The Post reported.
By accepting the economic theory of Duke’s success, the media were buying into the candidate’s own vision of himself as a savior of the working class. He had appealed to voters in economic terms: He tore into welfare and foreign aid, affirmative action and outsourcing, and attacked political action committees for subverting the interests of the common man. He even tried to appeal to black voters, buying a 30-minute ad in which he declared, “I’m not your enemy.”
Duke’s candidacy had initially seemed like a joke. He was a former Klan leader who had showed up to public events in a Nazi uniform and lied about having served during the Vietnam War, a cartoonishly vain supervillain whose belief in his own status as a genetic Übermensch was belied by his plastic surgeries. The joke soon soured, as many white Louisiana voters made clear that Duke’s past didn’t bother them.
Many of Duke’s voters steadfastly denied that the former Klan leader was a racist. The St. Petersburg Times reported in 1990 that Duke supporters “are likely to blame the media for making him look like a racist.” The paper quoted G. D. Miller, a “59-year-old oil-and-gas lease buyer,” who said, “The way I understood the Klan, it’s not anti-this or anti-that.”
Duke’s rejoinder to the ads framing him as a racist resonated with his supporters. “Remember,” he told them at rallies, “when they smear me, they are really smearing you.”
The economic explanation carried the day: Duke was a freak creature of the bayou who had managed to tap into the frustrations of a struggling sector of the Louisiana electorate with an abnormally high tolerance for racist messaging.
While the rest of the country gawked at Louisiana and the Duke fiasco, Walker Percy, a Louisiana author, gave a prophetic warning to The New York Times.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking David Duke is a unique phenomenon confined to Louisiana rednecks and yahoos. He’s not,” Percy said. “He’s not just appealing to the old Klan constituency, he’s appealing to the white middle class. And don’t think that he or somebody like him won’t appeal to the white middle class of Chicago or Queens.”
A few days after Duke’s strong showing, the Queens-born businessman Donald Trump appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live.
“It’s anger. I mean, that’s an anger vote. People are angry about what’s happened. People are angry about the jobs. If you look at Louisiana, they’re really in deep trouble,” Trump told King.
Trump later predicted that Duke, if he ran for president, would siphon most of his votes away from the incumbent, George H. W. Bush—in the process revealing his own understanding of the effectiveness of white-nationalist appeals to the GOP base.
“Whether that be good or bad, David Duke is going to get a lot of votes. Pat Buchanan—who really has many of the same theories, except it’s in a better package—Pat Buchanan is going to take a lot of votes away from George Bush,” Trump said. “So if you have these two guys running, or even one of them running, I think George Bush could be in big trouble.” Little more than a year later, Buchanan embarrassed Bush by drawing 37 percent of the vote in New Hampshire’s Republican primary.
In February 2016, Trump was asked by a different CNN host about the former Klan leader’s endorsement of his Republican presidential bid.
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. Okay?,” Trump said. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know.”
Less than three weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump declared himself “the least racist person you have ever met.”
Even before he won, the United States was consumed by a debate over the nature of his appeal. Was racism the driving force behind Trump’s candidacy? If so, how could Americans, the vast majority of whom say they oppose racism, back a racist candidate?
During the final few weeks of the campaign, I asked dozens of Trump supporters about their candidate’s remarks regarding Muslims and people of color. I wanted to understand how these average Republicans—those who would never read the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer or go to a Klan rally at a Confederate statue—had nevertheless embraced someone who demonized religious and ethnic minorities. What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked.
It was not just Trump’s supporters who were in denial about what they were voting for, but Americans across the political spectrum, who, as had been the case with those who had backed Duke, searched desperately for any alternative explanation—outsourcing, anti-Washington anger, economic anxiety—to the one staring them in the face. The frequent postelection media expeditions to Trump country to see whether the fever has broken, or whether Trump’s most ardent supporters have changed their minds, are a direct outgrowth of this mistake. These supporters will not change their minds because this is what they always wanted: a president who embodies the rage they feel toward those they hate and fear, while reassuring them that that rage is nothing to be ashamed of.
“I believe that everybody has a right to be in the United States no matter what your color, no matter what your race, your religion, what sex you prefer to be with, so I’m not against that at all, but I think that some of us just say racial statements without even thinking about it,” a customer-care worker named Pam—who like several people I spoke to, declined to give her last name—told me at a rally in Pennsylvania. However, she also defended Trump’s remarks on race and religion explicitly when I asked about them. “I think the other party likes to blow it out of proportion and kind of twist his words, but what he says is what he means, and it’s what a lot of us are thinking.”
Most Trump supporters I spoke to were not people who thought of themselves as racist. Rather, they saw themselves as antiracist, as people who held no hostility toward religious and ethnic minorities whatsoever—a sentiment they projected onto their candidate.
“I don’t feel like he’s racist. I don’t personally feel like anybody would have been able to do what he’s been able to do with his personal business if he were a horrible person,” Michelle, a stay-at-home mom in Virginia, told me.
Far more numerous and powerful than the extremists in Berkeley and Charlottesville who have drawn headlines since Trump’s election, these Americans, who would never think of themselves as possessing racial animus, voted for a candidate whose ideal vision of America excludes millions of fellow citizens because of their race or religion.
The specific dissonance of Trumpism—advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated—provides the emotional core of its appeal. It is the most recent manifestation of a contradiction as old as the United States, a society founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal.
While other factors also led to Trump’s victory—the last-minute letter from former FBI Director James Comey, the sexism that rationalized supporting Trump despite his confession of sexual assault, Hillary Clinton’s neglect of the Midwest—had racism been toxic to the American electorate, Trump’s candidacy would not have been viable.
Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump has reneged or faltered on many of his biggest campaign promises—on renegotiating NAFTA, punishing China, and replacing the Affordable Care Act with something that preserves all of its popular provisions but with none of its drawbacks. But his commitment to endorsing state violence to remake the country into something resembling an idealized past has not wavered.
He made a farce of his populist campaign by putting bankers in charge of the economy and industry insiders at the head of the federal agencies established to regulate their businesses. But other campaign promises have been more faithfully enacted: his ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries; the unleashing of immigration-enforcement agencies against anyone in the country illegally regardless of whether he poses a danger; an attempt to cut legal immigration in half; and an abdication of the Justice Department’s constitutional responsibility to protect black Americans from corrupt or abusive police, discriminatory financial practices, and voter suppression. In his own stumbling manner, Trump has pursued the race-based agenda promoted during his campaign. As the president continues to pursue a program that places the social and political hegemony of white Christians at its core, his supporters have shown few signs of abandoning him.
One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.
One of the first mentions of Trump in The New York Times was in 1973, as a result of a federal discrimination lawsuit against his buildings over his company’s refusal to rent to black tenants. In 1989, he took out a full-page newspaper ad suggesting that the Central Park Five, black and Latino youths accused of the assault and rape of a white jogger, should be put to death. They were later exonerated. His rise to prominence in Republican politics was first fueled by his embrace of the conspiracy theory that the first black president of the United States was not an American citizen. “I have people that have been studying [Obama’s birth certificate] and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he said in 2011. “If he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility … then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.”
Trump began his candidacy with a speech announcing that undocumented immigrants from Mexico were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And “some,” he said, were “good people.” To keep them out, he proposed building a wall and humiliating Mexico for its citizens’ transgressions by forcing their government to pay for it. He vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Amid heightened attention to fatal police shootings of unarmed black people and a subsequent cry for accountability, Trump decried a “war on police” while telling black Americans they lived in “war zones,” in communities that were in “the worst shape they’ve ever been in”—a remarkable claim to make in a country that once subjected black people to chattel slavery and Jim Crow. He promised to institute a national “stop and frisk” policy, a police tactic that turns black and Latino Americans into criminal suspects in their own neighborhoods, and which had recently been struck down in his native New York as unconstitutional.
Trump expanded on this vision in his 2016 Republican National Convention speech, which gestured toward the suffering of nonwhites and painted a dark portrait of an America under assault by people of color through crime, immigration, and competition for jobs. Trump promised, “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” citing “the president’s hometown of Chicago.” He warned that “180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” and said that Clinton was “calling for a radical 550-percent increase in Syrian refugees on top of existing massive refugee flows coming into our country under President Obama.”
A bleak vision, but one that any regular Fox News viewer would recognize.
The white-supremacist journal American Renaissance applauded Trump’s message. “Each political party proposes an implicit racial vision,” wrote one contributor. “A Trump Administration is a return to the America that won the West, landed on the moon, and built an economy and military that stunned the world. Non-whites can participate in this, but only if they accept the traditional (which is to say, white) norms of American culture.”
Most Trump supporters I spoke with denied that they endorsed this racial vision—even as they defended Trump’s rhetoric.
“Anytime that you disagree with someone’s point of view—if you say, ‘I don’t like Islam’—people say you’re an Islamophobe, or if you don’t like gay marriage, you’re a homophobe, and you’re hateful against the gays and Islam, or different things like that, where people are entitled to their opinion. But it doesn’t mean that you’re hateful or discriminatory,” Scott Colvin, who identified himself as a Navy veteran, told me at a Trump rally in Virginia. “Seeing how women are treated in the Islamic religion, it’s not very good, and he’s bringing a lot of light to it—that there is a lot of drugs and crime coming across the border, and that Islam does not respect women, does not respect homosexuals—and so calling it out and raising awareness to that is pretty important.”
“There’s very little evidence of Trump being openly racist or sexist,” Colvin insisted. “It wasn’t until he started running for president that all these stories started coming out. I don’t believe it, I’ve done the research.”
The plain meaning of Trumpism exists in tandem with denials of its implications; supporters and opponents alike understand that the president’s policies and rhetoric target religious and ethnic minorities, and behave accordingly. But both supporters and opponents usually stop short of calling these policies racist. It is as if there were a pothole in the middle of the street that every driver studiously avoided, but that most insisted did not exist even as they swerved around it.
That this shared understanding is seldom spoken aloud does not prevent people from acting according to its logic. It is the reason why, when Trump’s Muslim ban was first implemented, immigration officials stopped American citizens with Arabic names; why agencies such Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol have pursued fathers and mothers outside of schools and churches and deported them, as the administration has insisted that it is prioritizing the deportation of criminals; why Attorney General Jeff Sessions targets drug scofflaws with abandon and has dismantled even cooperative efforts at police accountability; why the president’s voting commission has committed itself to policies that will disenfranchise voters of color; why both schoolchildren and adults know to invoke the president’s name as a taunt against blacks, Latinos, and Muslims; why white supremacists wear hats that say “Make America Great Again.”
One measure of the allure of Trump’s white identity politics is the extent to which it has overridden other concerns as his administration has faltered.The president’s supporters have stood by him even as he has evinced every quality they described as a deal breaker under Obama. Conservatives attacked Obama’s lack of faith; Trump is a thrice-married libertine who has never asked God for forgiveness. They accused Obama of being under malign foreign influence; Trump eagerly accepted the aid of a foreign adversary during the election. They accused Obama of genuflecting before Russian President Vladimir Putin; Trump has refused to even criticize Putin publicly. They attacked Obama for his ties to Tony Rezko, the crooked realtor; Trump’s ties to organized crime are too numerous to name. Conservatives said Obama was lazy; Trump “gets bored and likes to watch TV.” They said Obama’s golfing was excessive; as of August Trump had spent nearly a fifth of his presidency golfing. They attributed Obama’s intellectual prowess to his teleprompter; Trump seems unable to describe the basics of any of his own policies. They said Obama was a self-obsessed egomaniac; Trump is unable to broach topics of public concern without boasting. Conservatives said Obama quietly used the power of the state to attack his enemies; Trump has publicly attempted to use the power of the state to attack his enemies. Republicans said Obama was racially divisive; Trump has called Nazis “very fine people.” Conservatives portrayed Obama as a vapid celebrity; Trump is a vapid celebrity.
There is virtually no personality defect that conservatives accused Obama of possessing that Trump himself does not actually possess. This, not some uncanny oracular talent, is the reason that Trump’s years-old tweets channeling conservative anger at Obama apply so perfectly to his own present conduct.
Trump’s great political insight was that Obama’s time in office inflicted a profound psychological wound on many white Americans, one that he could remedy by adopting the false narrative that placed the first black president outside the bounds of American citizenship. He intuited that Obama’s presence in the White House decreased the value of what W. E. B. Du Bois described as the “psychological wage” of whiteness across all classes of white Americans, and that the path to their hearts lay in invoking a bygone past when this affront had not, and could not, take place.
That the legacy of the first black president could be erased by a birther, that the woman who could have been the first female president was foiled by a man who confessed to sexual assault on tape—these were not drawbacks to Trump’s candidacy, but central to understanding how he would wield power, and on whose behalf.
Americans act with the understanding that Trump’s nationalism promises to restore traditional boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. The nature of that same nationalism is to deny its essence, the better to salve the conscience and spare the soul.
Among the most popular explanations for Trump’s victory and the Trump phenomenon writ large is the Calamity Thesis: the belief that Trump’s election is the direct result of some great, unacknowledged social catastrophe—the opioid crisis, free trade, declining life expectancy among white Americans—heretofore ignored by cloistered elites in their coastal bubbles. The irony is that the Calamity Thesis is by far the preferred white-elite explanation for Trumpism, and frequently invoked in arguments among elites as a way of accusing other elites of being out of touch.
Perhaps the most prominent data point for the Calamity Thesis is a pair of recent Brookings studies by the professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton, which showed that life expectancy has declined among less-educated white Americans due to what they call “deaths of despair” from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. While the studies themselves make no mention of Trump or the election, they are frequently invoked as explanations for Trump’s appeal: White people without college degrees are living in deprivation, and in their despair, they turned to a racist demagogue who promised to solve their problems.
This explanation appeals to whites across the political spectrum. On the right, it serves as an indictment of elitist liberals who used their power to aid religious and ethnic minorities rather than all Americans; on the left, it offers a glimmer of hope that these voters can be won over by a more left-wing or redistributionist economic policy. It also has the distinct advantage of conferring innocence upon what is often referred to as the “white working class.” After all, it wasn’t white, working-class voters’ fault. They were suffering; they had to do something.
The studies’ methodology is sound, as is the researchers’ recognition that many poor and working-class white Americans are struggling. But they do not support the conclusions others have drawn—that economic or social desperation by itself drove white Americans into the arms of Donald Trump.
It’s true that most Trump voters framed his appeal in economic terms. Kelly, a health-care worker in North Carolina, echoed other Trump supporters when she told me that to her, “Make America Great Again” meant “people being able to get jobs, people being able to come off food stamps, welfare and that sort of thing.” But a closer look at the demographics of the 2016 electorate shows something more complex than a working-class revolt sparked by prolonged suffering.
Clinton defeated Trump handily among Americans making less than $50,000. Among voters making more than that, the two candidates ran roughly even. The electorate, however, skews wealthier than the general population. Voters making less than $50,000, whom Clinton won by a proportion of 53 to 41, accounted for only 36 percent of the votes cast, while those making more than $50,000—whom Trump won by a single point—made up 64 percent. The most economically vulnerable Americans voted for Clinton overwhelmingly; the usual presumption is exactly the opposite.
If you look at white voters alone, a different picture emerges. Trump defeated Clinton among white voters in every income category, winning by a margin of 57 to 34 among whites making less than $30,000; 56 to 37 among those making less than $50,000; 61 to 33 for those making $50,000–$100,000; 56 to 39 among those making $100,000–200,000; 50 to 45 among those making $200,000–250,000; and 48 to 43 among those making more than $250,000. In other words, Trump won white voters at every level of class and income. He won workers, he won managers, he won owners, he won robber barons. This is not a working-class coalition; it is a nationalist one.
But Trump’s greater appeal among low-income white voters doesn’t vindicate the Calamity Thesis. Working-class white Americans dealing directly with factors that lead to deaths of despair were actually less likely to support Trump, and those struggling economically were not any more likely to support him. As a 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found, “White working-class voters who reported that someone in their household was dealing with a health issue—such as drug addiction, alcohol abuse, or depression—were actually less likely to express support for Trump’s candidacy,” while white working-class voters who “experienced a loss of social and economic standing were not any more likely to favor Trump than those whose status remained the same or improved.”
Trump’s support among whites decreases the higher you go up on the scales of income and education. But the controlling factor seems to be less economic distress than an inclination to see nonwhites as the cause of economic problems. The poorest voters were somewhat less likely to vote for Trump than those a rung or two above them on the economic ladder. The highest-income voters actually gave less support to Trump than they did to Mitt Romney, who in 2012 won 54 percent of voters making more than $100,000—several points more than Trump secured, although he still fared better than Clinton. It was among voters in the middle, those whose economic circumstances were precarious but not bleak, where the benefits of Du Bois’s psychic wage appeared most in danger of being devalued, and where Trump’s message resonated most strongly. They surged toward the Republican column.
Yet when social scientists control for white voters’ racial attitudes—whether those voters hold “racially resentful” views about blacks and immigrants—even the educational divide disappears. That is, the relevant factor in support for Trump among white voters was not education, or even income, but the ideological frame with which they understood their challenges and misfortunes. It is also why voters of color—who suffered a genuine economic calamity in the decade before Trump’s election—were almost entirely immune to those same appeals.
During the aftermath of the Great Recession, the meager wealth of black and Latino families declined significantly compared with the wealth of white families. According to the Federal Reserve, “Median net worth fell about 30 percent for all groups during the Great Recession. However, for black and Hispanic families, net worth continued to fall an additional 20 percent in the 2010-13 period, while white families’ net worth was essentially unchanged.” The predatory financial practices that fueled the housing bubble also targeted at people of color, modernized versions of the very same racist plunder that caused the wealth gaps to begin with. Yet there was no corresponding radicalization of the black and Latino population, no mass election of ethno-nationalist demagogues to Congress promising vengeance on the perpetrators.
Those numbers also reveal a much more complicated story than a Trump base made up of struggling working-class Americans turning to Trump as a result of their personal financial difficulties, not their ideological convictions. An avalanche of stories poured forth from mainstream media outlets, all putting forth the same basic thesis: Trump’s appeal was less about racism than it was about hardship—or in the euphemism turned running joke, “economic anxiety.” Worse still, euphemisms such as “regular Americans,” typically employed by politicians to refer to white people, were now adopted by political reporters and writers wholesale: To be a regular or working-class American was to be white.
One early use of economic anxiety as an explanation for the Trump phenomenon came from NBC News’s Chuck Todd, in July 2015. “Trump and Sanders supporters are disenchanted with what they see as a broken system. Fed up with political correctness and Washington dysfunction,” Todd said. “Economic anxiety is fueling both campaigns but that’s where the similarities end.”
The idea that economic suffering could lead people to support either Trump or Sanders, two candidates sharing little in common, illustrates the salience of an ideological frame. Suffering alone doesn’t impel such choices; what does is how the causes of such hardships are understood.
Some Trump voters I spoke with were convinced, for example, that undocumented immigrants had access to a generous welfare state that was denied to everyone else. “You look at all these illegal immigrants coming in who are getting services that most Americans aren’t getting as far as insurance, welfare, Medicaid, all that jazz,” Richard Jenkins, a landscaper in North Carolina, told me. Steve, a Trump supporter who runs a floor-covering business in the Tidewater area of Virginia, told me that it “seems like people coming to this country, whether it’s illegally or through a legal system of immigration, are being treated better than American veterans.” If you believe other people are getting assistance you deserve, you are likely to oppose that assistance. But first you have to believe it.
The economic-anxiety argument retains a great deal of currency. As the Columbia professor Mark Lilla put it while defending the thesis of his book in an interview with Slate, “Marxists are much more on-point here. Their argument has always been that people become racist—and there are lots of reasons why they do, but the people who might be on the edge are drawn to racist rhetoric and anti-immigrant rhetoric because they’ve been economically disenfranchised, and so they look for a scapegoat, and so the real problems are economic. I think they’re closer to the truth right now than to think that somehow just some racist demon is directing everything in this country. It’s just not where the country is.”
Lilla’s argument falls apart at the slightest scrutiny: Wealth does not insulate one from racism, or the entire slaveholding planter class of the South could not have existed. Rather, racism and nationalism form an ideological lens through which to view suffering and misfortune. It is perhaps too much to expect that people who hope to use Marxist theory to absolve voters of racism cite those Marxist historians whose body of work engages precisely this question.
In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois examined not only the acquiescence of Northern capital to Southern racial hegemony after the Civil War, but also white labor’s decision that preserving a privileged spot in the racial hierarchy was more attractive than standing in solidarity with black workers.
“North and South agreed that laborers must produce profit; the poor white and the Negro wanted to get the profit arising from the laborers’ toil and not to divide it with the employers and landowners,” Du Bois wrote. “When Northern and Southern employers agreed that profit was most important and the method of getting it second, the path to understanding was clear. When white laborers were convinced that the degradation of Negro labor was more fundamental than the uplift of white labor, the end was in sight.” In exchange, white laborers, “while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.” For centuries, capital’s most potent wedge against labor in America has been the belief that it is better to be poor than to be equal to niggers.
Overall, poor and working-class Americans did not support Trump; it was white Americans on all levels of the income spectrum who secured his victory. Clinton was only competitive with Trump among white people making more than $100,000, but the fact that their share of the vote was near-identical drives the point home: Economic suffering alone does not explain the rise of Trump. Nor does the Calamity Thesis explain why comparably situated black Americans, who are considerably more vulnerable than their white counterparts, remained so immune to Trump’s appeal. The answer cannot be that black Americans were suffering less than the white working class or poor, but that Trump’s solutions did not appeal to people of color, because they were premised on a national vision that excluded them as full citizens.
When you look at Trump’s strength among white Americans of all income levels, but his weakness among Americans struggling with poverty, the story of Trump looks less like a story of working-class revolt than a story of white backlash. And the stories of struggling white Trump supporters look less like the whole truth than a convenient narrative—one that obscures the racist nature of that backlash, instead casting it as a rebellion against an unfeeling establishment that somehow includes working-class and poor people who happen not to be white.
The nature of racism in America means that when the rich exploit everyone else, there is always an easier and more vulnerable target to punish. The Irish immigrants who in 1863 ignited a pogrom against black Americans in New York City to protest the draft resented a policy that offered the rich the chance to buy their way out; their response was nevertheless to purge black people from the city for a generation.
In 2006, during a televised fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West said George W. Bush didn’t care about black people. NBC News’s Matt Lauer later asked Bush, “You say you told Laura at the time it was the worst moment of your presidency?”
“Yes,” Bush replied. “My record was strong, I felt, when it came to race relations and giving people a chance. And it was a disgusting moment.”
Bush singling out West’s criticism as the worst moment of his presidency may seem strange. But his visceral reaction to the implication that he was racist reflects a peculiarly white American cognitive dissonance—that most worry far more about being seen as racist than the consequences of racism for their fellow citizens. That dissonance spans the ideological spectrum, resulting in blanket explanations for Trump that ignore the plainly obvious.
The explanation that Trump’s victory wasn’t an expression of support for racism because he got fewer votes than Romney, or because Clinton failed to generate sufficient Democratic enthusiasm, ignores the fact that Trump was a viable—even victorious—candidate while running racist primary- and general-election campaigns. Had his racism been disqualifying, his candidacy would have died in the primary. Equally strange is the notion that because some white voters defected from Obama to Trump, racism could not have been a factor in the election; many of these voters did, in fact, hold racist views. Particularly in the 2008 campaign, Obama emphasized his uniqueness as an African American—his upbringing by his white grandparents, his elite pedigree, his public scoldings of black Americans for their cultural shortcomings. It takes little imagination at all to see how someone could hold racist views about black people in general and still have warm feelings toward Obama.
Perhaps the CNN pundit Chris Cillizza best encapsulated the mainstream-media consensus when he declared shortly after Election Day that there “is nothing more maddening—and counterproductive—to me than saying that Trump’s 59 million votes were all racist. Ridiculous.” Millions of people of color in America live a reality that many white Americans find unfathomable; the unfathomable is not the impossible.
Even before Election Day, that consensus was reflected in the reaction to Clinton’s most-controversial remarks of the campaign. “You know, to just be grossly generalistic,” she said, “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.”
Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson, in a since-deleted tweet, observed, “Clinton is talking about trump supporters the way trump talks about mexicans,” whom Trump derided as rapists and criminals. Bloomberg’s John Heilemann said, “This comment kind of gets very close to the dictionary definition of bigoted.” The leftist writer Barbara Ehrenreich wrote on Facebook that Clinton was “an elitist snob who writes off about a quarter of the American electorate as pond scum.” As New York magazine’s Jesse Singal put it, “Not to be too cute but I have racist relatives. I’d like to think they aren’t ‘deplorable’ humans.”
These reactions mirrored those of Trump supporters. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a Trump supporter who gave his name as George acknowledges that “sometimes he says stuff he’s probably better off not saying, because the media’s gonna take everything he says and run with it.” He added, “Hillary can say the same thing, like deplorable, and they won’t talk about that much.”
Another Trump supporter in Lancaster, Beatrice, feels similarly about the “deplorables” remark. “Let’s face facts, calling half of your voter base ‘deplorables,’ eh, that’s okay,” Beatrice says. “Trump says something and we have to hear about it again and again and again, and it’s complete bias.”
The defenses of Trump voters against Clinton’s charges share in common an aversion to acknowledging an unpleasant truth. They are not so much arguments against a proposition as arguments that the proposition is offensive—or, if you prefer, politically incorrect. The same is true of the rejoinder that Democrats cannot hope to win the votes of people they have condemned as racist. This is not a refutation of the point, but an argument against stating it so plainly.
The argument for the innocence of Trump’s backers finds purchase across ideological lines: white Democrats looking for votes from working-class whites, white Republicans who want to tar Democrats as elitists, white leftists who fear that identity politics stifles working-class solidarity, and white Trumpists seeking to weaponize white grievance. But the impetus here is not just ideological, but personal and commercial: No one wants to think of their family, friends, lovers, or colleagues as racist. And no one wants to alienate potential subscribers, listeners, viewers, or fans either.
Yet nowhere did Clinton vow to use the power of the state to punish the constituencies voting for Trump, whose threats made his own rhetorical gestures toward pluralism risible. Clinton’s arrogance in referring to Trump supporters as “irredeemable” is the truly indefensible part of her statement—in the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton herself ran as the candidate of “hard-working Americans, white Americans” against Obama, earning her the “exceedingly strange new respect” of conservatives who noted that she was running the “classic Republican race against her opponent.” Eight years later, she lost to an opponent whose mastery of those forces was simply greater than hers.
The reason many equated Clinton’s “deplorables” remark with Trump’s agenda of discriminatory state violence seems to be the widespread perception that racism is primarily an interpersonal matter—that is, it’s about name-calling or rudeness, rather than institutional and political power. This is a belief hardly limited to Trump supporters, but crucial to their understanding of Trump as lacking personal prejudice. “One thing I like about Trump is he isn’t afraid to tell people what the problems in this country are,” says Ron Whitekettle from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Everything he says is true, but sometimes he doesn’t say it the way it should be said.”
Political correctness is a vague term, perhaps best defined by the conservative scholar Samuel Goldman. “What Trump and others seem to mean by political correctness is an extremely dramatic and rapidly changing set of discursive and social laws that, virtually overnight, people are expected to understand, to which they are expected to adhere.”
From a different vantage point, what Trump’s supporters refer to as “political correctness” is largely the result of marginalized communities gaining sufficient political power to project their prerogatives onto society at large. What a society finds offensive is not a function of fact, or truth, but of power. It is why unpunished murders of black Americans by agents of the state draw less outrage than black football players’ kneeling for the National Anthem in protest against them. It is no coincidence that Trump himself frequently uses the term to belittle what he sees as unnecessary restrictions on state force.
But even as once-acceptable forms of bigotry have become unacceptable to express overtly, white Americans remain politically dominant enough to shape media coverage in a manner that minimizes obvious manifestations of prejudice, such as backing a racist candidate, as something else entirely. The most transgressive political statement of the 2016 election, the one that violated strict societal norms by stating an inconvenient fact that few wanted to acknowledge, the most politically incorrect, was made by the candidate who lost.
Even before Trump, the Republican Party was moving toward an exclusivist nationalism that defined American identity in racial and religious terms, despite some efforts from its leadership to steer the party in another direction. George W. Bush signed the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, attempted to bring Latino voters into the party, and spoke in defense of American Muslims’ place in the national fabric. These efforts led to caustic backlashes from the Republican rank and file, who defeated his 2006 immigration-reform legislation, which might have shifted the demographics of the Republican Party for a generation or more. In the aftermath of their 2012 loss, Republican leaders tried again, only to meet with the same anti-immigrant backlash—one that would find an avatar in the person of the next Republican president.
In 2015, the political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal published White Backlash, a study of political trends, and found, “Whites who hold more negative views of immigrants have a greater tendency to support Republican candidates at the presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial levels, even after controlling for party identification and other major factors purported to drive the vote.”
While that finding may seem obvious, it wasn’t simply a description of existing Republicans, but of the trends driving some white Democrats into the Republican Party. Using data from the American National Election Survey, Abrajano and Hajnal concluded that “changes in individual attitudes toward immigrants precede shifts in partisanship,” and that “immigration really is driving individual defections from the Democratic to Republican Party.”
Cautioning that there are limits to social science, Abrajano told me that “all other things being equal we see that immigration has a strong and consistent effect in moving whites towards the Republican Party. I think having the first African American president elected into the office … you can’t disentangle immigration without talking about race as well, so that dynamic brought to the forefront immigration and racial politics more broadly, and the kind of fear and anxiety that many voters had about the changing demographics and characteristics of the U.S. population.” The Slate writer Jamelle Bouie made a similar observation in an insightful essay in March 2016.
Half a century after Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona rose to prominence by opposing civil-rights legislation designed to dismantle Jim Crow, the Republican Party’s shift toward nativism would foreclose another path not just to ethnic diversity, but to the moderation and tolerance that sharing power with those unlike you requires.
In the meantime, more than a decade of war nationalism directed at jihadist groups has shaped Republican attitudes toward Muslims—from seeing them as potential Republican voters in the late 1990s to viewing them as internal enemies. War nationalism always turns itself inward, but in the past, wars ended. Anti-Irish violence fell following the service of Irish American soldiers in the Civil War; Germans were integrated back into the body politic after World War II; and the Italians, Jews, and Eastern Europeans who were targeted by the early 20th century’s great immigration scare would find themselves part of a state-sponsored project of assimilation by the war’s end. But the War on Terror is a war without end, and so that national consolidation has never occurred. Again, Trump is a manifestation of this trend rather than its impetus, a manifestation that began to rise not long after Obama’s candidacy.
“Birtherism was the beginning, it was a way of tying together his foreignness and his name, in an effort to delegitimize him, from the get-go,” says James Zogby, a Democrat whose Arab American Institute has spent years tracking public opinion on Muslim and Arab Americans. By 2012, the very idea of Muslims in public service “had become an issue in presidential politics, with five of the Republican candidates saying they wouldn’t hire a Muslim or appoint one, without special loyalty oaths.”
Obama, as the target and inspiration of this resurgent wave of Republican anti-Muslim hostility, was ill-equipped to stem the tide. “The problem was that when situations would occur, and people would say, ‘Why can’t [Obama] speak out more forcefully,’ I would say that the people he needs to speak to see him as the problem,” Zogby argues. “It was the responsibility of Republicans to speak out, and they didn’t. George Bush was forceful on the issue in the White House, even though he supported policies that fed it … There were no compelling voices on the Republican side to stop it and so it just festered.”
That anti-Muslim surge on the right also provided a way for some conservatives to rationalize hostility toward Barack Obama by displacing feelings about his race to the belief that he was secretly Muslim—a group about which conservatives felt much more comfortable expressing frank animus.
“In 2004 there’s very little relationship between how you felt about the parties and how you felt about Muslims,” Michael Tesler, a political scientist, told me. But “Obama really activates anti-Muslim attitudes along party lines.”
In 2012, according to Tesler’s numbers, only 13 percent of voters who believed Obama was Muslim said they would not vote for Obama because of his race. But 60 percent of those voters said they wouldn’t vote for him because of his religion—a frank admission of prejudice inseparable from their perception of Obama’s racial identity.
The scorched-earth Republican politics of the Obama era also helped block the path toward a more diverse, and therefore more tolerant, GOP. In his 2016 book Post-Racial or Most-Racial?, Tesler found that Obama racialized white opinions about everything from health-care policy to Portuguese water dogs to his closest white associates such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Tesler argued, “Barack Obama consistently widened racial divides, despite his best efforts to neutralize the political impact of race,” despite having “discussed race less in his first term than any other Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt” and having “regularly downplayed accusations of race-based opposition to his presidency” during that time.
“Even after controlling for economic conservatism, moral traditionalism, religious beliefs and activity, and military support, racial attitudes became significantly stronger predictors of white partisanship in the Age of Obama,” Tesler wrote. The “spillover of racialization into mass assessments of public figures will probably make racial attitudes a more powerful determinant of Americans’ 2016 vote choices than they were in pre-Obama presidential elections.”
That was not a forgone conclusion. In other instances, whites’ fears that black political figures would give preferential treatment to them had subsided as those black leaders took action in office. Despite Obama being “the least liberal president since World War II and the biggest moderate in the White House since Dwight Eisenhower,” however, the nature of the Republican opposition—attacking health-care reform as a “civil-rights bill,” and Obama as a foreign-born, terrorist-sympathizing interloper and freedom-destroying socialist—substantiated “any race-based anxieties about an Obama presidency destroying the country,” and prevented consciousness of Obama’s moderation from filtering to white voters, Tesler argued.
Instead, white voters became convinced they had elected Huey Newton. There was effectively no opportunity for Obama to escape the racist caricature that had been painted of him, even though his challenge to America’s racial hierarchy was more symbolic than substantive. An agenda that included record deportations and targeted killings in Muslim countries abroad did little to stem the conspiracy theories.
“I think you can draw a straight line between Obama and heightened racialization, and the emergence of Trump,” Tesler told me. “Birtherism, the idea that Obama’s a Muslim, anti-Muslim sentiments—these are very strong components of Trump’s rise, and really what makes him popular with this crew in the first place.”
It’s not that Republicans would have been less opposed to Clinton had she become president, or that conservatives are inherently racist. The nature of the partisan opposition to Obama altered white Republicans’ perceptions of themselves and their country, of their social position, and of the religious and ethnic minorities whose growing political power led to Obama’s election.
Birtherism is rightly remembered as a racist conspiracy theory, born of an inability to accept the legitimacy of the first black president. But it is more than that, and the insistence that it was a fringe belief undersells the fact that it is one of the most important political developments of the past decade.
Birtherism is a synthesis of the prejudice toward blacks, immigrants, and Muslims that swelled on the right during the Obama era: Obama was not merely black but also a foreigner, not just black and foreign but also a secret Muslim. Birtherism was not simply racism, but nationalism—a statement of values and a defining of who belongs in America. By embracing the conspiracy theory of Obama’s faith and foreign birth, Trump was also endorsing a definition of being American that excluded the first black president. Birtherism, and then Trumpism, united all three rising strains of prejudice on the right in opposition to the man who had become the sum of their fears.
In this sense only, the Calamity Thesis is correct. The great cataclysm in white America that led to Donald Trump was the election of Barack Obama.
History has a way of altering villains so that we can no longer see ourselves in them.
As the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, in his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” articulated that the principle on which the Confederate States had been founded was the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” That principle was echoed by the declarations of secession from almost all of the Southern states.
Sitting in his cell at Fort Warren years later, the rebels defeated and the Confederacy vanquished, Stephens had second thoughts. He insisted in his diary, “The reporter’s notes, which were very imperfect, were hastily corrected by me; and were published without further revision and with several glaring errors.” In fact, Stephens wrote, he didn’t like slavery at all.
“My own opinion of slavery, as often expressed, was that if the institution was not the best, or could not be made the best, for both races, looking to the advancement and progress of both, physically and morally, it ought to be abolished,” Stephens wrote. “Great improvements were, however, going on in the condition of blacks in the South … Much greater would have been made, I verily believe, but for outside agitation.”
Stephens had become first in line to the presidency of the Confederacy, an entity founded to defend white people’s right to own black people as chattel. But that didn’t mean he possessed any hostility toward black people, for whom he truly wanted only the best. The real problem was the crooked media, which had taken him out of context.
The same was true of the rest of the South, he wrote, which had no love for the institution of slavery. “They were ready to sacrifice property, life, everything, for the Cause, which was then simply the right of self-government,” Stephens insisted. “The slavery question had but little influence with the masses.” Again, the problem, as he saw it, was a media that deliberately lied about the cause of disunion. He singled out Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, saying that Greeley’s description of the South as seeking to overthrow the Constitution in order to establish a “slave oligarchy” was “utterly unfounded.”
Stephens’s rewriting of his own views on race and slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the founding principles of the Confederacy laid a different cornerstone. They served as a crucial text in the emerging alternate history Lost Cause, the mythology that the South had fought a principled battle for its own liberty and sovereignty and not, in President Ulysses S. Grant’s words, an ideal that was among “the worst for which a people ever fought.” The Lost Cause provided white Southerners—and white Americans in general—with a misunderstanding of the Civil War that allowed them to spare themselves the shame of their own history.
Stephens’s denial of what the Confederacy fought for—a purpose he himself articulated for the eternity of human memory—is a manifestation of a delusion essential to nationalism in almost all of its American permutations: American history as glorious idealism unpolluted by base tribalism. If a man who helped lead a nation founded to preserve the right to own black people as slaves could believe this lie, it is folly to believe that anyone who has done anything short of that would have difficulty doing the same.
James Baldwin wrote about this peculiar American delusion in 1964, arguing that that the Founders of the United States had a “fatal flaw,” that “they could recognize a man when they saw one.” Because “they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. For if he wasn’t a man, then no crime had been committed. That lie is the basis of our present trouble. It is an extremely complex lie.”
Most importantly, the overgrown branches of that complex lie become manifest nearly every surge in American nationalism, enabling its proponents to act with what they believe is a clear conscience. Just as Stephens implausibly denied that his dream of a society with African servitude as its cornerstone held malice toward black people, so too the Lost Cause myth allowed Northerners to look the other way as Southerners scuttled Reconstruction’s brief experiment with multiracial democracy and replaced it with a society rooted in white supremacy.
That society, like the planter aristocracy that preceded it, impoverished most blacks and whites alike, while concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a white elite. It lasted for decades, through both violence and the acquiescence of those who might have been expected to rise up against it.
Americans tend to portray defenders of Jim Crow in cartoonish, Disney-villain terms. This creates a certain amount of distance, obscuring the reality that segregation enjoyed broad support among white people. As Jonathan Sokol recounts in his book There Goes My Everything, white Southerners fighting integration imagined themselves not as adhering to an oppressive ideology, but as resisting one. “A certain notion of freedom crystallized among white southerners—and it had little to do with fascism overseas or equal rights. Many began to picture the American government as the fascist, and the white southerner as the victim,” Sokol writes.
One letter (out of many) cited by Sokol, from a World War II veteran in 1964, provides an illustrative example. “Six brothers in my family including myself fought in World War II for our rights and freedom,” a veteran from Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote to his representative. “Then why … am I being forced to use the same wash-room and restrooms with negro[e]s. I highly resent this … I’d be willing to fight and die for my rights, but can’t say this anymore for this country.”
Nor did many white Southerners accept that Jim Crow segregation was a fundamentally unjust arrangement. Sokol recalls Harris Wofford’s 1952 description of his time in Dallas County, Alabama, which a woman who ran the county’s chamber of commerce described as “a nigger heaven.”
“The niggers know their place and seem to keep in their place. They’re the friendly sort around here,” she explained. “If they are hungry, they will come and tell you, and there is not a person who wouldn’t feed and clothe a nigger.”
The formulation is surely familiar: She attests to her intimate and friendly interpersonal relationships with black people as a defense of a violent, kleptocratic system that denies them the same fundamental rights that she enjoys. In fact, it is the subordinate position of black people that makes peaceful relations possible.
Like Stephens, who later denied the essence of the Confederacy as he himself had articulated it, the most-ardent defenders of Jim Crow later denied that the system had been rooted in any kind of malice or injustice.
Four-time Alabama Democratic Governor George Wallace lost his first gubernatorial race when he ran as an economic populist against a candidate running on a segregationist platform, and famously vowed never to be “outniggered again”—and he never was. He declared, “Segregation now, segregation forever!,” as he took the oath of office in 1963. He stood in a schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa to prevent black students from integrating it. He was responsible for the vicious beating of voting-rights activists in Selma.
By 1984, however, Wallace’s memory of his own actions, like Stephens’s, had changed. “It was not an antagonism towards black people and that’s what some people can’t understand,” Wallace explained to a reporter from PBS for the documentary Eyes on the Prize. “White southerners did not believe it was discrimination. They thought it was in the best interest of both the races.”
“I love black people. I love white people. I love yellow people,” Wallace said. “I’m a Christian and, therefore, I don’t have any ill feeling toward anybody because of the race ’cause our black people are some of our finest citizens.”
In remarkable symmetry with Stephens’s defense of treason in defense of slavery, Wallace recalled his defense of racial apartheid as resistance to tyranny.
“I spoke vehemently against the federal government, not against people. I talked about the, the government of the, the United States and the Supreme Court. I never expressed in any language that would upset anyone about a person’s race. I talked about the Supreme Court usurpation of power. I talked about the big central government,” Wallace said. “Isn’t that what everybody talks about now? Isn’t that what Reagan got elected on? Isn’t that what all the legislators, electors, members of Congress, and the Senate and House both say?”
Trumpism emerged from a haze of delusion, denial, pride and cruelty—not as a historical anomaly, but as a profoundly American phenomenon. This explains both how tens of millions of white Americans could pull the lever for a candidate running on a racist platform and justify doing so, and why a predominantly white political class would search so desperately for an alternative explanation for what it had just seen. To acknowledge the centrality of racial inequality to American democracy is to question its legitimacy—so it must be denied.
I don’t mean to suggest that Trump’s nationalism is impervious to politics. It is not invincible. Its earlier iterations have been defeated before, and can be defeated now. Abraham Lincoln began the Civil War believing that former slaves would have to be transported to West Africa. Lyndon Johnson began his political career as a segregationist. Both came to realize that the question of black rights in America is not mere identity politics—not a peripheral matter, but the central, existential question of the Republic. Nothing is inevitable, people can change. No one is irredeemable. But recognition precedes enlightenment.
Nevertheless, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who assured them that they will never have to share this country with people of color as equals. That is the reality that all Americans will have to deal with, and one that most of the country has yet to confront.
Yet at its core, white nationalism has and always will be a hustle, a con, a fraud that cannot deliver the broad-based prosperity it promises, not even to most white people. Perhaps the most persuasive argument against Trumpist nationalism is not one its opponents can make in a way that his supporters will believe. But the failure of Trump’s promises to white America may yet show that both the fruit and the tree are poison.