Donald Trump’s meteoric rise has become as baffling to the whiny, political chattering class as it has to occasionally tuned-in observers who appear stupefied in his wake.
But what’s missing is a deeper nip-tuck look into the rabid whiteness driving his ambitions. The answer to the mystery of his popularity has stared us in the face for quite some time.
It’s none other than “angry white men.”
It’s not enough that white people still—for the most part—control every political, economic and social facet of American life. Now we have angry white men billy-clubbing their way into modern political discourse, from Trump on the right to, in some respects, Bernie Sanders on the left (although that represents a different kind of white male grumpiness). We haven’t heard that term thrown around as much since Newt Gingrich-led Republicans blew the congressional House down with their 1994 Contract With America. Today’s angry white men (most pronounced on the right) are making an Alamo-like last stand after the election of the first black president confirmed their worst fears: a world taken over and controlled by black and/or brown people.
Conventional musings claim it’s simply the “year of the nonpolitician,” as Brookings Institution senior fellow William Galston supposes “these polarized times … [where] there is no evidence that these voters regard being a current or former elected official as a positive credential.” Others, shaken by the multitude of dropped-marble variables, like the Washington Post’s Phillip Rucker, point to a gas station “fueled by people’s anger with the status quo and desire for authenticity in political leaders.” And all of the above might be spot on as far as solid prognostication goes.
But there’s a hazardous, wall-building convergence of three things upending this election cycle: anti-immigrant “send them back to Mexico” demagoguery, anti-Muslim geopolitical paranoia of a world on fire and unglued anti-black exasperation with the plight of justifiably aggrieved folks grown tired of having systemic racism’s boot on their necks. It’s so maddeningly bad on the Republican side that even the clearly brown and clearly first-generation East Indian son of immigrants sells his soul to white Republican primary voters looking for which candidate can out-xenophobe the rest.
As a result, race—not so much economic populism—is decisively pushing 2016 into interesting plot twists and unknowns. Of course, the broader electorate is angry (Like, where have ya’ll been?). Yet, volatile racial dynamics are playing a greater role than many want to admit. As Northwestern University researchers Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson point out (pdf), “[C]hanging national racial demographics [lead] white Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly.
“Moreover,” they add, “the results implicate group-status threat as the mechanism underlying these effects.”
“Group-status threat.” Hmmm. Out of all the unknowns that continually perplex us about 2016, angry whiteness gives us essential pieces of intelligence. Just as there’s a movement of justifiably terrified black people unnerved by even the most casual encounters with police, there is a parallel movement of fist-pounding whites led by angry-white-men icons drawing large crowds of, well, lots of white people.
It’s all accelerated by the sense of loss felt during the recession, but it has always been there in the irascible, Tea Party-seasoned times of fiscal cliffs and government shutdowns we live in. Sit down with your kid and play a game of “Where’s Waldo?” on a photo of Trump supporters in an Alabama football stadium, and you’d pass out from an early onset of glaucoma before you’d find any brothers or sisters taking up seats.
Sanders (always quick to big-up his civil rights bona fides) commands massive crowds of millennials in places like Portland, Ore., where fewer black faces are found than those in the first Republican debate, rolling out a racial-justice plan in a city barely 6 percent black. Less talked about is what exactly makes Sanders qualified for a diverse Democratic Party nomination when he has represented a state for decades that has fewer than 8,000 black people in it.
But in that sense, it’s not so much angry as it is downright frustrated white people led by the downright frustrated white man. Not necessarily bigotry in our wake, yet, also, another form of loud, white populism; whereby at the end of a recessionary day, there are huge pockets of once safely privileged white folks (especially young ones) who now know what it feels like to lose everything.
Trump, of course, is unapologetic-and-rugged white nationalism. Yet he has rebranded it into anti-immigrant rants as clever coding for people of color as a whole; “Make America great again” snuggled up close to a whispered, “Make it more white again” (translated: Let’s get this back under control).
Notice, though, Trump’s very laser-targeted aim regarding whom he publicly shoves around, a calculus that assumes that to bully politically unrepresented “illegals” is much easier than thrashing quick-to-organize blacks. But his crowds get it, and play along. Trump gives no apologies when called on the suspiciously bigoted static of his rhetoric and followers, tapping into xenophobia as a core belief system, talking proudly of the violent “passion” of hate-criming white guys in Boston who “follow” him, while his representative creatively avoids criticizing folks who yell “White power” at said Alabama event.
A key question: Where did that sudden spurt of xenophobia come from in the first place? A 2014 Brookings/PRRI study (pdf) unveiled the reticence of many whites faced with overblown feelings of electoral insignificance. When asked about whether “the idea of an America where most people are not white bothers me,” roughly 20 percent of whites said it did, along with 33 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Americans overall. Interestingly enough, a solid 15 percent of Democrats said they were, too, shattering myths of the left as being completely comfortable in its feel-good-on-race skin.
Republicans are acutely aware of this change as they see the writing on the wall, smelling a pronounced existential threat in 2020, when the combined “minority” electorate will be 30 percent or more. The white vote will be down even more, to 69 percent, a dramatic drop from 88 percent in 1976 and 72 percent in 2012. A majority of American children under the age of 18 will be “nonwhite,” and by 2060, the total population will be 60 percent of color.
In essence, it’s a sweaty, red-faced paranoia and fear of the rapidly changing complexion of the nation, an inability to grasp demographic realities perceived as impending doom. White politicos like Trump feverishly work against that clock; fear of the nation’s rapidly changing complexion his Oz-like trick. Darkly comical is the collective reaction of a media-industrial complex feigning shock at what went amiss and why the nation seems so willing to go off script and crash in brush fire glory. But paraphrasing the immortal words of old-school strategist James Carville: “It’s the white people, stupid.”
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.