I wanted to return to what is certainly the stupidest and yet also one of the most important debates of the 2016 cycle: Trumpers, angry racists or economically stressed victims of globalization? By calling it the stupidest debate I don’t mean to insult anyone. I’ve participated in it to some degree and I generally place myself on one side of it. But like any debate which seeks to make a fixed ideological orthodoxy over whether the chicken preceded the egg or vice versa, it can’t help but degenerate into something semantic, embattled and ultimately stupid. In any case, it is still a critical question since Trumpism is a hugely significant development in contemporary US politics. So we need to understand what it is, where it comes from and where it’s going.
I want to start with this massive study of Gallup data by Gallup’s Jonathan Rothwell which attempted and went a long way toward furthering our understand of Trumpism. For many the big takeaway was that the study had debunked the ‘economic anxiety’ theory because after controlling for race, education and other factors, it wasn’t the most economically marginal who supported Trump. Indeed, greater affluence among non-college whites was positively correlated with supporting Trump. Ergo, no more economic anxiety explanation.
That is silly.
I tend to come down on seeing Trumpism more through a racial prism. But seeing the above evidence as ruling out ‘economic anxiety’ is a naive way of thinking about how societies and social groups work.
It actually reminds me of an equally insipid debate about the roots of terrorism. Liberals say that the breeding ground for terrorism is joblessness, economic stagnation, lack of hope about the future, etc. – whether in the suburbs of Paris, Cairo or Riyadh. Conservatives point out that many of the top jihadists actually – many of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance – cAme from affluent or at least middle class families and have good educations. Ergo, sorry liberals, your argument falls apart.
Again, that’s not how it works.
It is almost a cliche of historical and sociological literature that the people with their noses closest to the grind stone tend not to be activists or revolutionary figures. It’s people in social proximity to great penury and suffering but often not experiencing it so directly or sometimes not experiencing at all who turn out to be the big political actors.
In any case, I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole of seeing Trumpers as modern day revolutionaries. My point is that this kind of crude reductionism, on either side of the debate, proves very little. We don’t simply respond to our own personal experiences but the collective experience of communities we identify with.
Two data points from the study seem much more telling to me. First, Trump support is highly correlated with areas experiencing rising mortality rates for whites – a massively important societal development, in addition to a tragedy for the many people affected. When that revelation was hot at the end of last year, some of the follow up debunking showed that a closer analysis of the data showed that the highest mortality spikes were among middle-aged white women. Critics said, well the angry Trumpers are mostly men, not women. So this argument falls apart. Once again, these correlations aren’t that simple or linear.
The second, relatively little discussed, finding is that the people who are responding most to the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee politics are those most isolated from both groups. In other words, the people responding most to anti-immigration politics and xenophobia are ones living in fairly racially homogenous and white communities.
I don’t want to attempt some grand overarching theory of Trumpism. But, broad brush, I continue to believe that it is best understood as a reaction to the erosion of white privilege, supremacy and centrality in American life.
That brings us to the second key point: Trumpism is about loss. And that loss is real. It’s not just about being haters or uneducated or stupid. The fact that what’s being lost is in most respects something that wasn’t legitimate to have in the first place – status, centrality and racial privilege – should not blind us to the fact that the loss is real and that it will have political consequences. As I mentioned when I wrote up that mortality study last December, I think this demographic and actuarial marker – an almost unprecedented reversal of a particular group’s mortality statistics – is hugely significant to understanding our contemporary politics. It almost unquestionably points to some acute socio-cultural stress. It’s just a matter of discovering what it is.
Consider this chart.
I looked this up when I started looking at the polls showing Hillary Clinton competitive or even in some polls ahead of Donald Trump in Georgia. There’s a powerful story here. If you were a 25 year old white man in Georgia in 1980, you lived in a state that was almost literally black and white. And whites were the overwhelming majority of the population. A mere thirty six years later the picture is dramatically different. According to the 2015 US Census estimate, non-Hispanic whites make up only 53.9% of the population. The African-American population makes a up slightly larger percentage of the population – I assume descendants of the early 20th Great Migration returning to the state. The same year Hispanics made up 9.4% of the population, Asian-Americans made up 4% and the remainder is made up of citizens who identified as being of multiple races or ‘other’. If you identify politically and culturally with your whiteness this is a profound and profoundly unsettling change.
If you look at the Georgia Republican primary this year, Trump won the overwhelming number of counties. But if you look at the percentages, he did best in counties with the lowest median incomes and those with relatively low percentages of white voters. (Of course, the GOP electorates were overwhelmingly white basically everywhere.)
One of the best and most frequently cited arguments against those who see Trumpism as driven by economic insecurity and globalization is: if that’s the case, why does he get basically no support outside of the white community since non-whites are at least as economically stressed as whites and in most cases far more so? The best rebuttal is that if you’re pushing a politics about globalization and declining economic opportunity which scapegoats non-whites as the source of the problem, of course you’re not going to get a lot of traction with the people your scapegoating.
All true enough. But if you look at the language of Trumpism we see repeated references to getting stuff back, reclamation, anger. This is a politics of loss and grievance. The appeal of an extreme dominance politics is particularly to those who feel they’ve lost power and who feel increasingly marginal to the direction of the country as a whole. There’s a strong theme of Trumpite rhetoric that is about revenge. Put that all together and I think the driving factor is the erosion of white dominance in American life. African-Americans, Hispanics and other rising racial and ethnic minority groups may have grievances or demands for greater inclusion, dignity and respect in American life. But pretty much by definition they’re not looking to reclaim something that was taken from them or something they’ve lost. It is inherently future oriented in a way that this burgeoning white nationalism is not.
It makes perfect sense that this sense of loss and griavance would be felt most acutely by those lowest on the economic and education scale. But go back to what I said about Trump getting his biggest support with people with the least contact with the country’s new immigrant groups. If you’re more affluent, consider yourself among those succeeding in contemporary America or live in one of the areas that is already defined by the more racially and ethnically diverse America that will define the 21st century, I think you’re less likely to politically identify with your whiteness and the loss one inevitably experiences if that is a primary identification. It’s hardly like economically vital and diverse major metropolitan areas are filled non stop post-racial Kumbayas. But if that’s the world you live in, I suspect you tend to see Trumpism as if not offensive than simply an anachronism. This is almost certainly why Trumpism has virtually no purchase among the young. The numbers are actually quite astounding. A recent McClatchy poll showed Trump running 4th – behind Gary Johnson and Jill Stein – among voter 18 to 29 years of age. Jill Stein was at 16% and Trump was at 9%.
Of course, under 30 voters are considerably more diverse, less white, than the electorate as a whole. But they’re not that diverse. Even among young white men, Trumpism seems to have very little traction. Trumpism is a politics of loss, nostalgia and grievance for a past these young voters have no experience of. It’s driven by attitudes they find offensive or alien.
Over recent years and particularly since the advent of Trumpism I’ve struggled to come up with a language to capture the political identification with whiteness. This is tricky terminological territory since if you’re white, in most of the ways that matter, you’re white no matter what ideas you have in your head. I feel no political identification with my whiteness. I like being part of a genuinely multi-racial political party. The increasing diversity of American political life feels like an unalloyed good which I feel threatened by not in the least. But of course, if I’m stopped by a police officer alone at night, I’m 100% white. If I apply for a bank loan, I’m totally white. The privilege comes with me no matter what ideas I have in my head. So I want to be clear what I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about thinking you can take off your whiteness like a shirt and become some kind of nonsensical post-racial person. But different people identify in very different ways with their skin color or to put a finer point on it the historical dominance of people who are white like them. Some people find it grating to listen to those phone trees that always give you the option of Spanish or English or the bilingual signs that are now pervasive in most of the big box stores. Others don’t at all. If your political identity is strongly tied up with your whiteness, you don’t have to hate non-white people to find it profoundly unsettling to realize that at some point around the middle of this century most of the people in the country won’t be white.
You don’t need to hate non-whites to be attached to the dominant position whites have historically had in American life. But if you identify with your whiteness, simple majorities mean security. Losing that dominance, if you don’t feel able or ready or willing to relinquish it almost inevitably generates hatred and a desire for revenge.
What is that quality, that politics? In any other country, we’d easily know what to call it: ethnic nationalism. In this case, white nationalism. For very good reason, those two words are extremely charged in American political and cultural life. They seem synonymous with ‘white supremacist’, with folks like David Duke, neo-nazis and all the other list of horribles. It’s not quite the same thing. But at its heart, simply as a matter of definitional clarity, that’s what Trumpism is: the politics of white nationalism.