Donald Trump’s Identity Politics
In the wake of the presidential election, we’ve all been asking simplistic questions about how Donald Trump won. Was it economics? Was it racism? Was it misogyny? Did it come down to identity? We know that it can’t have been just one thing, and that President Trump’s triumph was a concoction of many things. Nonetheless, several factors came together in a peculiar way, with serious electoral consequences. Millions of white voters began to see themselves more openly not as white supremacists but as white identified.
It is no secret that the president has capitalized on the increasing salience of race and ethnicity in recent years. The furious reaction to many different historical and cultural developments — mass immigration; the success of the civil rights and women’s rights movements; the election and re-election of a black president; and the approaching end of white majority status in the United States — has created a political environment ripe for the growth of white identity politics.
Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke, puts it this way:
When the dominant status of whites relative to racial and ethnic minorities is secure and unchallenged, white identity likely remains dormant. When whites perceive their group’s dominant status is threatened or their group is unfairly disadvantaged, however, their racial identity may become salient and politically relevant.
White voters for whom racial identity is important include a minority faction of white supremacists, but as a whole they constitute a much broader and encompassing group. In an Aug. 16 essay for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, Jardina wrote:
The whites marching on Charlottesville were only a small segment of a much larger population for whom the politics of white identity resonates. The vast majority of white Americans who feel threatened by the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity are not members of the KKK or neo-Nazis. They are much greater in number, and far more mainstream, than the white supremacists who protested in Virginia over the weekend.
A total of 36 percent of whites described their racial identity as either “very important” (16 percent) or “extremely important” (20 percent), according to an American National Election Studies survey in January 2016. Another 25 percent said it was “moderately important.”
Careful examination of Trump’s initial support shows the key role of whiteidentity voters in Trump’s ascendance.
Between Jan. 22 and Jan. 28, 2016, as Trump consolidated his early support on the eve of the Republican caucuses and primaries, ANES conducted a special pre-election survey. To explore the role of white voters for whom racial identity was especially important, three political scientists — John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck — analyze the ANES data in their forthcoming book, “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”
The survey, they write,
asked four questions that captured dimensions of white identity: the importance of white identity, how much whites are being discriminated against, the likelihood that whites are losing jobs to nonwhites, and the importance of whites working together to change laws unfair to whites. We combined those questions into a scale capturing the strength of white identity and found that it was strongly related to Republicans’ support for Donald Trump.
On the basis of that scale, the authors assembled the data illustrated by the accompanying chart, which shows that fewer than five percent of white Republicans who indicated that their racial identity was of little importance supported Trump. Among those who said their identity as whites was extremely important to them, Trump’s support reached 81 percent.
Support for Trump Rose With Embrace of White Identity
A survey found white Republicans’ approval of Donald Trump rose in tandem with the intensity of their racial identification. The survey ranked white identity on a scale of 0 (not important) to 1 (very important).
In a separate essay on the Post’s Monkey Cage site in March 2016, Tesler and Sides explained that
Both white racial identity and beliefs that whites are treated unfairly are powerful predictors of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.
Once Trump secured this “white identifier” base — making him competitive in a multicandidate field — he was positioned to expand his traction among traditional Republicans, including a decisive majority of those who backed Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush.
What are the views of “white identifiers”?
According to Jardina, these voters
are more likely to think that the growth of racial or ethnic groups in the United States that are not white is having a negative effect on American culture.
And they are
much more likely to rank illegal immigration the most important issue facing the U.S. today, relative to the budget deficit, health care, the economy, unemployment, outsourcing of jobs to other countries, abortion, same-sex marriage, education, gun control, the environment or terrorism.
Perhaps most important, Jardina found that white identifiers are
an aggrieved group. They are more likely to agree that American society owes white people a better chance in life than they currently have. And white identifiers would like many of the same benefits of identity politics that they believe other groups enjoy.
In other words, most — though by no means all — white identifiers appear to be driven as much by anger at their sense of lost status as by their animosity toward other groups, although these two feelings are clearly linked.
Tesler argued last November, after the election, that the
Trump effect combined with eight years of racialized politics under President Obama, means that racial attitudes are now more closely aligned with white Americans’ partisan preferences than they have been at any time in the history of polling.
Just over a decade ago, political scientists were discounting the significance of white identity in elections.
David O. Sears, a professor of political science and psychology at U.C.L.A., wrote in 2006 that
whites’ whiteness is usually likely to be no more noteworthy to them than is breathing the air around them. White group consciousness is therefore not likely to be a major force in whites’ political attitudes today.
In a 2005 paper, Cara Wong, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, and Grace E. Cho, who was a graduate student in politial science at the University of Michigan at the time, found that many whites identified with their race, but “white racial identity is not politically salient.”
Wong and Cho went on, however, to make what turned out to be a crucially important point: that since
white identity is indeed unstable but easily triggered, the danger is that a demagogue could influence the salience of these identities to promote negative outgroup attitudes, link racial identification more strongly to policy preferences, and exacerbate group conflict.
John Podhoretz, in an article on the Commentary website, referred to Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacy — and anti-Semitism — on display in Charlottesville:
Our president responded by condemning violence “on many sides” and offering his “best regards” to the casualties. This was not a mistake on Trump’s part. This was a deliberate communications choice. It has a discomfiting parallel with the now-forgotten moment one week after Trump’s swearing in when his administration issued a statement on Holocaust remembrance that did not mention Jews.
Podhoretz recognizes Trump’s adamant refusal to alienate his most dogged backers:
If there’s one thing politicians can feel in their marrow, even a non-pol pol like Trump, it’s who is in their base and what it is that binds the base to them
and, even more important,
the nucleus — the very heart of a base, the root of the root of support.
For years, Podhoretz writes, Trump operated below the radar, cultivating a constituency of “disaffected Americans entirely on the margins of American life, politically and culturally and organizationally.”
He did so, Podhoretz argues, by capitalizing on media and organizational tools disdained by the establishment: Alex Jones’s Infowars; the American Media supermarket tabloids, including The National Enquirer, Star and the Globe; the WWE professional wrestling network where “Trump intermittently served as a kind of Special Guest Villain.”
While Trump’s initial base included many on the margins of society, the larger population of white identifiers has been a growing constituency within the Republican electorate, starting in the white South after the passage under President Lyndon Johnson of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Trump, Vavreck noted in an email, was the first successful presidential candidate willing to explicitly direct his campaign toward this disaffected white electorate.
“This has been happening for a while, which is why Trump was able to leverage white identity in 2016,” she wrote. “Trump went where no other GOP primary candidate would go even though they all knew those voters were there.”
In “Identity Crisis,” Sides, Tesler and Vavreck write that Trump’s primary campaign
became a vehicle for a different kind of identity politics — oriented around white Americans’ feelings of marginalization in an increasingly diverse America.
The three authors describe a rapidly “growing sense of white victimhood.” They cite surveys showing that among Republicans, the perception of discrimination against whites grew from 38 percent in 2011-12 to 47 percent in January 2016.
A February 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute separately asked voters whether “there is a lot of discrimination” against various groups. 43 percent of Republicans said there is a lot of discrimination against whites, compared to 27 percent of Republicans who said that there is a lot of discrimination against blacks.
Trump, according to Sides, Tesler and Vavreck, was
unusual in how he talked about race. Candidates have traditionally used implicit racial appeals to win over voters without appearing overtly prejudiced. And, as much political science research has shown, these appeals have often succeeded in activating support among voters with less favorable views of racial minorities. But Trump talked about issues related to race and ethnicity in explicit terms.
Direct and indirect references to threats to white identity continue to shape Trump’s rhetoric. In his ongoing drive to demonize the media, Trump declared during his rally in Phoenix on Tuesday that “they are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”
Shedding light on Trump’s sustained backing among his supporters, a Public Policy Polling survey conducted from Aug. 18 to Aug. 21 found that Trump’s approval rating did not diminish in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests on Aug. 11 and 12, during which white nationalists marched wearing Nazi insignia and chanting anti-Semitic slogans. The poll reported that support for Trump held firm
probably because his supporters think that whites and Christians are the most oppressed groups of people in the country.
Trump has mobilized the white identity electorate, and in doing so has put the tenuous American commitment to racial and ethnic egalitarianism on the line. And Trump has been captured by the success of his own demagoguery. He surged ahead of his Republican competitors for the nomination when he threw matches on the kindling and now, under siege, his only strategy for survival is to pour gasoline on the flames.
No one doubts that it has been unsettling for many Americans to adapt to an increasingly interconnected world. Still, history has not been kind to those who have unequivocally yielded to racial grievance — to our local agitators, the David Dukes and the Father Coughlins, as well as to the even more poisonous propagators of racial hatred overseas. As Trump abandons his campaign promises to end endless war, to provide “beautiful” health care, to protect Medicaid, to restore American industry, jobs and mines, to make Mexico pay for a border wall, he has kept his partially veiled promise to focus on white racial essentialism, to make race divisive again. He has gone where other politicians dared not venture and he has taken the Republican Party with him.