A Terrible Inevitability?

If the upcoming national presidential election was held today and if only white male citizens were to vote in that contest, Donald Trump would become the nation’s 45th chief executive by a 49-43 percent vote margin, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last week. According to that same Pew poll, Trump would prevail by about 10 percentage points if only white men and women voted in the November election.[1] Since Trump has not changed as the campaign season has moved forward—he remains a demagogue whose policy positions are typically inflammatory, uninformed or worse, and whose speeches are routinely filled with wildly misleading claims and outright lies—this sad fact suggests that a strong percentage of what is expected to be 70 percent of the electorate in November is willing to accept a jingoistic and profoundly anti-democratic figure as their President. The bedeviling question is why. It seems unlikely from available polling data that the major share of these voters actually believe Trump’s outrageous claims that he can force Mexico to pay for a border wall, or “beat” China economically because he has licensed his brand there or that the nation must ban all Islamic immigrants because all Muslims constitute a security threat, among other statements. Instead, something else seems to be occurring, which the New York Times has accurately summarized in this way:  

In countless collisions of color and creed, Donald J. Trump’s name evokes an easily understood message of racial hostility. Defying modern conventions of political civility and language, Mr. Trump has breached the boundaries that have long constrained Americans’ public discussion of race. Mr. Trump has attacked Mexicans as criminals. He has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants. He has wondered aloud why the United States is not ‘letting people in from Europe.’[2]

 

So, one question that arises is, what are the sources of Trump’s racial appeal among whites? For white supremacists and nationalists and anti-Semites as well as the much larger number of whites who are ignorant of other cultures and belief systems, he appears to be a validating figure. As the Times has reported,

 

They hail him as a fellow traveler who has driven millions of white Americans toward an intuitive embrace of their ideals: that race should matter as much to white people as it does to everyone else. He has freed Americans, those activists say, to say what they really believe.[3]

 

Trump has done little to dissuade white nationalists of their view that he “really does” support them by his coyness in public when asked to repudiate their repugnant views. For many other whites apparently, too, Trump’s “birther” stance questioning President Obama’s citizenship and his public skepticism of the chief executive’s faith¾purporting him to be Muslim and not Christian, contrary to Obama’s own long-time personal profession¾has provided them space to “other” the President and all minorities and immigrants, and to do so while declaring themselves both innately “superior” to those people, and “not racists.” Such followers can do so without being overtly discriminatory and while receiving encouragement and support from Trump. In short, Trump’s claims have consciously fed an invidious discriminatory impulse among many whites while exploiting the ignorance and fears of many others.

As noted above, that few of Trump’s frequently bizarre assertions bear any relationship to the facts of the scenarios he addresses has not prevented many white Americans (especially) from supporting the businessman as supposedly, forcefully telling it like it is. In fact, he is doing no such thing. Instead, he appeals to those citizens’ worst instincts and their willingness to heap contempt on others on the basis of their supposed differences. With this turn, “this year, for the first time in decades, overt white nationalism re-entered national politics.” [4] This is a sad indictment of what Trump represents in current American politics, but I fear a fair accounting nonetheless.

One may perhaps understand, if not condone, the behavior of older white working class males displaced by globalization, who embrace a demagogue who promises to set their world right again. After all, their preferred political party, the GOP, has very publicly refused, on ideological grounds, to provide them support to address their situation. But even with this group, and even with sympathy for their plight, one must ask why so many are willing to scapegoat and hate individuals who are not responsible for their situation and who do not, as a matter of fact, pose the threat(s) Trump ascribes to them.

I here offer a number of possible responses to this question. First, it appears that Trump and others have successfully joined a share of white Americans’ awareness of the uneven impacts of globalization and ongoing demographic change with claims that those shifts represent a zero-sum game with “others” different from them, stealing their rightful social roles and employment. However, while our society’s demographics are doubtless changing, there is no evidence either that immigrants are “taking” positions from whites or that they are more inclined to anti-social behavior than whites. What seems clear, instead, is that this shift and the angst concerning it are being exploited politically to mobilize whites around fear of others, identifiably different from themselves, for political gain. In short, this is in considerable measure a perversion of the rightful role of democratic leadership in society. This effort is hardly new. Southern political office-holders practiced it throughout the Jim Crow era, and following the Civil Rights movement, the GOP has employed it since at least Richard Nixon’s infamous southern strategy and perhaps most emblematically with Ronald Reagan’s false welfare queens” narrative.”

Second, this phenomenon of white “othering” is doubtless the consequence of the strong residential segregation of the American population by class and race. It is always easier to exploit fear and anger of the unknown or different, because less difficult to ascribe characteristics, factual or not, to those with whom one does not routinely interact. Trump speaks expansively and ascribes stereotypically ugly and demeaning characteristics to entire populations in his efforts to mobilize the biases of voters who, in truth, often know very little of the populations they are being asked to demonize. Ultimately, their response to Trump’s call can only be described as ugly and uninformed.

Third, one must acknowledge the long history of racism and discrimination in this nation toward African-Americans, immigrants of all stripes and Native Americans. Of these population groups, only African-Americans suffered slavery, but white Americans have treated each of these groups historically with opprobrium, condescension, cruelty and impunity, and many continue to do so. One hopes that today’s unease among whites does not represent an open embrace of the systematic oppression previously practiced against these populations, either informally in terms of widely accepted norms and mores, or more formally, as Trump has advocated, via legal discrimination.

Fourth, I am not sure what “privilege” even displaced whites believe they are losing that could occasion and justify the semi-fascist, to use author and journalist Peter Steinfels’ memorable descriptor, they are welcoming in Donald Trump.[5] Are these supporters railing against globalization? If so, scapegoating minority populations and supporting a demagogue will do nothing to address its consequences. More, it is sure to sow continued social enmity, inequality and injustice that will only foster additional popular unease and more violence in the future.

Overall, Trump has behaved as demagogues have always behaved and it appears more than appropriate to be concerned that his appeals to racism and xenophobia have been so readily accepted by so many. The question is, can other American leaders¾Republican and Democratic alike¾ help to redefine the social conditions that have permitted Trump’s rise? The answer is unclear that they can or will do so as I write, for a complex array of ideological and political reasons, especially among leaders of the GOP. One must hope that ways and means can be found to acculturate all citizens to support all portions of the American citizenry exercising voice in the nation’s political processes, irrespective of their race, creed or national origins. One must hope, too, that both parties can work to find common ground to address the economic consequences of globalization for those left behind by those processes. Either leaders from those parties must take such steps, or citizens must demand them or some combination of these processes must occur to prevent the rise of another Trump figure and/or his election.

Those supporting Trump surely have been unnerved by economic and social change and perceive themselves to be suffering as a result, even if many cannot articulate why precisely that might be so. Friends of freedom and democracy should be quick to recognize these self-perceptions and to find outlets for those who express them in lieu of the demagoguery now beckoning them. The United States is now and will remain a heterogeneous nation. The question this election represents is whether we shall acknowledge that fact and move forward in peace, or continue to engage in polarized hate mongering in ways that threaten the very fabric on which our individual and collective freedom depend. As Steinfels has remarked, this nation is “at a moral crossroads.” [6]

 

Notes

[1] Nate Cohn and Toni Monkovic, “Is Donald Trump Winning? Among Whites and Men for Sure,” New York Times, July 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/upshot/is-donald-trump-winning-among-whites-and-men-for-sure.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_up_20160714&nl=upshot&nl_art=0&nlid=40087534&ref=headline&te=1&_r=0 Accessed July 14, 2016.

[2] Nicholas Confessore, “For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashed Words of Resistance,” New York Times, July 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/us/politics/donald-trump-white-identity.html?login=email&emc=edit_th_20160714&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=4008753 Accessed July 13, 2016.

[3] Nicholas Confessore, “For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance,” New York Times, July 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/us/politics/donald-trump-white-identity.html?login=email&emc=edit_th_20160714&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=4008753 Accessed July 13, 2016.

[4] Nicholas Confessore, “For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance,” New York Times, July 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/us/politics/donald-trump-white-identity.html?login=email&emc=edit_th_20160714&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=4008753 Accessed July 13, 2016.

[5] Peter Steinfels, “The Semi-Fascist Candidate,” Commonweal, 143 (11), May 15, 2016, 10-12.

[6] Peter Steinfels, “The Semi-Fascist Candidate,” Commonweal, 143 (11), May 15, 2016, 10.