Learning the Wrong Lesson from the Trump Victory

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Learning the Wrong Lesson from the Trump Victory

"Unless we understand Trump's angry mobilization of white voters, we will never figure out how to combat the newly empowered hostility that plagues our communities in the Trump era." (Photo: AP)

Amidst all the post-election analysis, a consensus explanation of what propelled Donald Trump to victory is emerging among economically comfortable white liberals.  The short version: Trump effectively spoke to the deep economic uncertainty among white working class voters, who turned out to express their frustration with a global economy that has left them behind. 
 
This is an appealing narrative for liberal-minded people trying to make sense of startling election results. It allows them to express a requisite guilt about their class privilege, emphasizes compassion for their struggling neighbors, and points to economic populism as the way forward for a Democratic Party that has lost its way.
 
The problem, however, is that there is little evidence to support this post-election autopsy. Yes, exit polls showed that white voters without a college degree supported Trump by a huge margin, and turnout among rural and working class whites was key to the surprising Republican victories in rust belt states. But knowing these voting patterns tells us little about what motivated Trump voters.
 
Let's look at some instructive clues. African American working class voters did not channel their economic frustration into support for Trump. With an unemployment rate among black workers almost double that of white workers, economic concerns are even more severe among African American voters, so we should be wary of claims about the economic roots of the Trump vote.
 
Trump's most effective campaign slogans, the ones that whipped up crowds at his rallies and had followers buzzing on social media, did not emphasize economic issues. Instead, they activated the cultural anxieties of white rural and working class voters. The chant of "build the wall" mobilized longstanding nativist sentiments, similar to those animating the far right in Europe. The chorus of "lock her up" rallied authoritarian tendencies that legitimize strong leaders taking vengeance on their political opponents.
 
The "take our country back" talk – a widely repeated mantra among overwhelmingly white Trump supporters who were rarely interrogated about precisely whom they wanted to take the country back from – became an acceptable way to express racial animosity toward a black president. Even the core campaign tagline," Make America Great Again," was an expression of nostalgia for a past when those who chanted such slogans felt more powerful. Given the slogan's demographic appeal it is easy to see this as a coded way of saying, with a wink and a nod, "Make America White Again."  Spend just a few minutes on pro-Trump social media and the racially tinged meaning of this rearview nostalgia is unmistakable. 

"We should talk seriously about economic uncertainty and the persistence of inequality, but we aren't going to understand what drives the Trump train until we face up to the power of racism, nativism, and misogyny in America."Further, candidate Trump adopted the persona of an aggressive old-school tough guy, invoking traditional gender roles where both men and women know their place. His so-called "locker room talk" about women connected with deep-rooted strains of misogyny within US culture.
 
Persistent economic inequality is a serious problem that demands our attention. But emphasizing economic motivations for white working class Trump support oversimplifies a complex cultural dynamic and risks missing the election's most important lessons.

  • By uniting the extreme right, including white supremacists, with loyal Republicans, 90 percent of whom decided they could abide such an alliance, Trump managed to succeed where past demagogues like George Wallace failed. This is a new, and quite disconcerting, development in U.S. politics.
  • The daily drumbeat of sophisticated political propaganda that fueled the flames of fear and resentment was far more influential than professional journalism. You can trace Donald Trump's political rise to his central role in promoting the lie that President Obama was not born in the United States, an idea that roughly half of Republican voters believe is true.
  • Racism and sexism remain powerfully toxic sources of conflict in U.S. society. Women, people of color and the LGBT community have every reason to be concerned about where we are headed.

Many of us are looking for solace at a political moment we find terrifying, but we can't let a bland optimism about the decency of our political adversaries cloud our assessment of the challenges ahead. Our Trump-supporting neighbors and relatives are not all raging, hate-filled extremists, and Trump's victory was not a result of simple bigotry. But unless we understand Trump's angry mobilization of white voters, we will never figure out how to combat the newly empowered hostility that plagues our communities in the Trump era. We should talk seriously about economic uncertainty and the persistence of inequality, but we aren't going to understand what drives the Trump train until we face up to the power of racism, nativism, and misogyny in America.

William Hoynes

William Hoynes is Professor of Sociology at Vassar College.

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