When Donald Trump descended his golden escalator in June 2015 to announce his candidacy for president, he made immigration a key plank of his campaign. And by calling undocumented Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers – though some, he clarified, were “good people” – he made racism the other plank.
During the campaign, Trump’s mostly policy-vague, racist- (and sexist-) specific messages came through dog whistles and foghorns. It was a campaign that allowed his supporters – white supporters – to hear what they wanted to hear. And what many wanted to hear was that there would be a retrograde America, that America of old where whites had more power.
Throughout the campaign, and even in the week he’s been president-elect, Trump has wavered on some issues, even on his signature issue, immigration – now he says three million undocumented immigrants who are criminals will be deported. But one campaign fixture has remained, the appeal to white America, whose anger he reputedly shares.
And what are they angry about? We know from exit polls that voters most concerned about immigration and/or terrorism went for Trump. We can assume they thought Trump would keep them safer from terrorists and would severely restrict immigration and increase deportations (he said as much, repeatedly).
The most common response of Trump voters was the desire for “change.” What that change might look like is not entirely clear.
Despite overtly race-baiting messages from Trump and his surrogates, I think it’s fair to say that most Trump voters didn’t gravitate to him solely because of the overt racial overtures. They had other wants, like a ground war against ISIS, or lower taxes, or a conservative Supreme Court. But regardless, they were okay with the racism.
I don’t think it could be said that the general election was really about issues. Can you think of any national issues that were thoroughly explored? I can’t. This election was tribal. The electorate voted, whether they knew it or not, tribally. And the change most Trump voters wanted – what they heard from Trump, whether he said it or not – was the restoration of white power.
The vast majority of Trump voters are white. Not surprising, because the Republican electorate is now almost entirely white. Their whiteness is not a problem per se. But it’s worrisome that many white voters say they feel oppressed as white people. It’s naïve to say that white racial anxiety had little to do with the election results. This was, as CNN commentator Van Jones said, a “whitelash election against a changing country.” Conservative commentators agreed. Fox’s Brit Hume said that in 2016 whites voted like a minority group.
Five years ago CNN published an article that offered several examples of racial anxiety, including:
A poll showing nearly half of Americans identifying discrimination against whites being just as big as bigotry against blacks and other minorities
A survey showing white people considering themselves a “dispossessed majority group”
White people fearing that whiteness no longer represents the norm
Results from the election showed that Clinton did best in areas that are highly racially diverse, like coastal California. Trump won the whitest counties in the nation overwhelmingly, with a much higher percentage than Romney did in 2012.
It appears quite possible that whether or not Trump voters get the kind of change they want, they will be getting the most overtly racist (and anti-Semitic and homophobic) cabinet in recent history, with proponents of an ugly kind of white power, the kind most voters probably don’t want.
On Sunday President-Elect Trump appointed Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, a website – I’m sorry, let me correct that, a sewer – of anti-Semitic, racist garbage and the go-to publication for the alt-right, the new, sanitized term for white nationalists or white supremacists. The chief strategist for the president-elect, who ran in the Republican Party, the party started in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln, is a hero for white supremacists.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted: “There must be no sugarcoating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, on the Senate floor, ripped into Bannon, warning that we must not normalize having such a person as one of the most powerful people in the country. Top GOP leaders appear to be fine with Bannon, however.
The KKK and the American Nazi Party are gushing with praise over the choice of Bannon. The former wizard of the KKK, David Duke, loudly proclaimed his admiration for Trump during the campaign and now says that Bannon is “basically creating the ideological aspects of where we’re going.”
Is that where we’re going? Did Trump voters want what David Duke thinks is in store for the U.S.? I am convinced that the majority of Trump voters do not share the opinion of David Duke or the American Nazi Party. We should take them at their word that many are concerned about national security, their economic situation, and taxes. And many surely had genuine policy differences with Ms. Clinton.
I think in most cases Trump voters think a great America might look like 1955, a time before many of us were even born. It didn’t look like Bannon or David Duke. But Bannon is what we’re getting.
It’s safe to say that there are many unknowns about a Trump presidency. But one week into the transition and it doesn’t look good for race relations. If somehow Trump ushers in an era of great prosperity and a lessening of income inequality – even those who didn’t vote for him can hope for this – it might be just enough to assuage white America’s anger at its diminishing status.
If greater prosperity does not happen, Trump’s followers are likely to turn on him – we hope they won’t turn on people of color, though that situation already is looking dire – and short of an inexplicable and sudden reversal in the demographic decline of white America, or a greater acceptance of white Americans’ place in a plurality society, this nation is likely to be, for some time to come, a powder keg.