The 2016 election will go down in history as a white backlash in America. The country is on the cusp of an unprecedented demographic transformation with enormous implications for the country’s politics and society. And large segments of the white population are agitated.
The important question now is whether Trump’s victory represents a desperate – but ultimately futile – attempt to extend race dominance, or the beginning of a long and ugly battle by whites who would rather risk bringing the system down than allow it to change so dramatically without a fight.
White Americans have long been aware that they live in a plural society. But truth be told, they have always viewed the nation as “white plus plus.” Yes, the boundary of who is considered white has expanded over the decades. And the lighter and mestizo parts of the Hispanic population are still hoping they can get in. But there are limits to stretching the category, and indications are that we are probably reaching those limits.
Pundits can parse the election from a hundred different angles. But the most obvious fact staring us in the face is the racial dimension of the Trump vote. Analysts will prattle on about how Trump supporters feel “left behind” by a changing economy, how globalization and trade deals are hurting this or that segment of the population, or which voters have college degrees.
But none of these slices of the American electorate explains the voting patterns we witnessed quite the way race does. The only thing prominently separating Clinton voters from those backing Trump is that hers were racially and ethnically diverse, while his were disproportionately white.
“White Americans have long been aware that they live in a plural society. But truth be told, they have always viewed the nation as “white plus plus.””
Beyond that, the picture is noisy. Lots of Clinton’s supporters are hurting economically and have seen their living standards eroded. And plenty of them lack college degrees. On the other side, far more of Trump’s supporters were educated and women than observers expected. And a large swath of his white backers had household incomes above the national average.
Although the degree of conscious or explicit racial identification among Trump voters varies, their behavior and politics reveal a shared alarm that something essential about “their America” is eroding fast. “Make America White Again,” which is the only honest translation of Trump’s campaign slogan, is a rallying cry to keep this nation Christian, English-speaking, and European-dominated.
Demographic data from the Department of Education provide a glimpse of the transformation that is coming into view for white Americans who voted Trump. In 1998, roughly 63 percent of American kids enrolled in public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, were white. By 2023, before the end of Trump’s second term, whites are projected to drop to 45 percent.
The turning point came in 2014 when public schools became minority white for the first time in the nation’s history. Fast-forward roughly two decades and the same demographic transformation will sweep over the rest of the country. Caucasians will be an absolute minority in America. And not long after that, whites will be an absolute minority of eligible voters.
The group driving this transformation is Hispanics. The same Department of Education data show that the proportion of Asians/Pacific Islanders in U.S. schools will remain constant at just over 5 percent as we approach 2023, while the share of blacks will actually decline slightly to 15 percent. But Hispanics, who made up just 15 percent of all students in 1998, will double to 30 percent by 2023.
These projections are based mainly on birth rates, which are highest among Hispanics, and do not take into account undocumented border crossings.
Is it any surprise that Trump supporters would roar with approval when their candidate vowed to build a wall along the southern border, or promised to round up 11 million Hispanics and deport them (a policy some white-identifying, citizen-Hispanics also embrace as they slam the door behind them)? The point is to buy precious time on the demographic clock.
No European country or European transplant nation has ever undergone a shift from Caucasians being the overwhelming majority to being minority white. It is uncharted territory socially and politically. And it is unclear whether such a profound change can unfold without a democratic country sliding into fascism.
“For many Trump voters, the election of Barack Obama represented the end of civilization as they knew it.”
The 2016 presidential election violated too many norms of polite or acceptable political discourse and engagement to list. But the ethno-nationalist chants of “USA” at Trump rallies and the prominence of extremist groups, racist figures, hate speech, and violence stand out as especially ominous.
For many Trump voters, the election of Barack Obama represented the end of civilization as they knew it. Trump himself, whose instincts and capacities for fascist demagoguery should be taken very seriously, cultivated that sentiment when he championed the birther issue. This man knows what he is doing.
As the demographic changes in the United States unfold, whites are saying with anger and defiance that if they are going to go from being the nation’s absolute majority to its largest minority, it will be on terms they dictate.
The burden rests on progressive, tolerant, pluralist Americans – whatever their race or ethnicity – to wake up to the deep and dangerous challenges that Trumpism represents, and to reject chauvinism, tribalism and othering politics. The battle is uphill because humans form exclusive identities and groups far more easily than they form inclusive ones.
The first step in protecting America from the dangers of a new wave of debilitating race politics is some painful honesty about what just happened and why. This election was about race.