This is the first of a two-part series.
Next week marks one year since Donald Trump’s surprise triumph in the U.S. presidential election. Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote, but Trump’s angry message persuaded vast numbers of Americans, most of who continue to follow him despite a chaotic and erratic administration. Clinton has come out with her own What Happened book. But what lies behind Trump’s rise goes much deeper than any personal and strategic errors or particular circumstances of the 2016 campaign.
A source of Trump’s “populist” anti-Washington establishment appeal, especially outside big-city cores, is said to result from the alienation and sense of victimization of a white working class that feels ignored and put down by “elites,” a distemper fanned by the echo chambers of “alt-right” (alternative right-wing) media feeding off such resentments. Trump’s supporters stick with him and excuse his flagrant flaws because they see him as speaking to their anxieties and speaking up for them. Evidence for that comes through in a detailed cross-country special report on “Trump’s America” in the July 1 issue of The Economist, which found that 80 per cent of Trump voters see criticism of the president as an attack on “people like me.”
The Trump phenomenon is both a symptom and a provocation of America’s long-standing class and racial divisions that belie the republic’s “equality of opportunity” mythology. As Nancy Isenberg observes in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America: “We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality.” (If it did, surely the white working poor would not admire a New York City billionaire as their champion.) The race factor’s historical evolution, often intersecting with that of class, is examined in depth by Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Still another 2016 book, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, probes the attitudes of “Tea Party” supporters, mainly less well-off whites, she spent time with in Louisiana. While empathizing with them and seeking to understand their frustrations and feelings of marginalization, she puts her finger on the targets of their anger that include not only government bureaucracies, and a liberal mainstream media that doesn’t respect their religion or patriotism, but those perceived as undeserving of favourable treatment — welfare recipients, blacks, immigrants and other minorities. What we see is an accumulation of grievances that can also have an ugly side when exploited by unscrupulous opportunistic politicians.
“As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.”
— H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920
In this and next week’s column, I take the analysis further through reviews of several other notable recent books and documentary films.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy became an acclaimed bestseller in the months leading up to last year’s election. A contributor to the conservative National Review, Vance is an ex-Marine Iraq veteran whose achievements include Yale Law School and a successful Silicon Valley career. Yet calling himself a “hillbilly at heart,” he digs into his personal history to describe the roots of a troubling malaise in the American heartland. Vance grew up poor in the depressed rustbelt region of Middletown, Ohio, was raised by grandparents (affectionately called Mamaw and Papaw), and much of what he describes is a “legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma.” Rampant drug addiction (mainly to opioids and heroin) has been another scourge afflicting this downwardly mobile white working class. “Americans call them white trash,” says Vance, “I call them family.”
Vance exposes a cultural discontent, social decay and pessimism toward government that, while aggravated by a loss of economic security, goes much deeper. His people have a clannish devotion to family, faith, tradition and country coupled with a distrust of outsiders. Believers in the American dream, they fear it is being taken away and finding others to blame is easier than looking in the mirror. Vance cites a sociological study of Appalachian youth the findings of which “suggest that hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist.” That also suggests a population susceptible to “alternative facts” and “post-truth” political manipulation.
As much as Vance holds on to love of family, he is unsparing in revealing the dysfunctional, even violent, behaviours from which he was fortunate to escape. Along with the toll of social maladies, political allegiances have shifted rightward. Vance’s grandparents had been Democrats who hated the coal companies and big interests. But they and others like them were wooed by Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric. Threatened by demographic change, let down by big government, and feeling disadvantaged in their own country, many have become pessimistic Republicans receptive to promises to make their America “great again.” Fundamentalist evangelicals added a veneer of religiosity to the conservative culture wars against liberal temptations.
Vance is such an astute observer of these tendencies and contradictions because they shaped his own life until, while remaining a conservative, he was able to acquire a broader perspective on the reasons behind the growing anger and anxiety of the white underclass, to make sense of persistent patterns of behaviour that are often destructive and self-defeating. Loss of trust in government and other institutions of democracy, combined with suspicion of others, have a corrosive effect. Vance writes that: “With little trust in the press, there’s no check on the Internet conspiracy theories that rule the digital world. Barack Obama is a foreign alien actively trying to destroy our country. Everything the media tells us is a lie. Many in the white working class believe the worst about their society. . . . There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites.”
Small wonder that Trump was keen to delegitimize Obama (the “birther” conspiracy), campaigned on “draining the swamp” in Washington, spoke of “carnage” in his inaugural address, and wages a constant Twitter war with any media outlet that isn’t “loyal” to him. This crass faux-populist demagoguery could never have succeeded if it did not resonate emotionally with large numbers of people unhappy with their situation and the direction of the country.
Moving on to Cornell Belcher’s book A Black Man in the White House, it also matters a great deal that Barack Obama was the nation’s first African-American president whose eight years in office the book’s subtitle links to a “racial-aversion crisis.”
Americans have been trying and failing to have a conversation about race and justice for the whole of American history. . . . what happened in Charlottesville was merely the latest tremor along fault lines that have been present in the American story since its founding, a reopening of wounds that have barely been treated, and never healed.
— Darren Walker, Ford Foundation President, Sept. 6, 2017
We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump.
— David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, Charlottesville, Aug. 12, 2017
It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” The Atlantic, October 2017
Belcher, a pollster for the Democratic Party, provides ample survey evidence that the Obama presidency was not matched by any trend toward a “post-racial” politics. Indeed a case can be made for the contrary, as Democratic strategist Van Jones suggested, by calling Trump’s win a “whitelash.”
In an Aug. 15 London Review of Books blogpost Adam Shatz notes that “Trump’s support among whites ranged across class lines, and was particularly strong among middle and upper-middle-class whites.” Trump’s coded message to them was “to take back the White House from a black president.” Yet the spectre of a black president continues to haunt the White House, not least in Trump’s imagination.
Trump remains perversely fixated on the figure of Obama, aware that without him, and without the anti-Obama backlash he spearheaded, he would not be president.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of a new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, similarly sees race as the trump factor that made the difference, observing in his essay for The Atlantic: “Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18-29 (+4), 30-44 (+17), 45-64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19).” Clinton did win the nation’s overall popular vote but, tellingly, “if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.”
Months before last November’s election the trends were already apparent to Belcher, who drills down into the demographic and polling data. Obama never got a higher percentage of the white vote (43 per cent in 2008) than had John Kerry in his 2004 loss. In fact, in 2012 Obama’s share of the white vote declined to 39 per cent. (Democrats have not won a majority of the white vote since the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 leading to Nixon’s “southern strategy.”) What Obama succeeded in doing was significantly to expand the non-white electorate that Clinton proved unable to motivate to the same extent.
After pointing out that the White House built by slaves did not have an African American invited as a guest (not a servant) until the 20th century, Belcher writes: “For a portion of the American population, the election of Barack Obama was catastrophic, indeed; a Black man was in the White House and the historic order of things were cast into peril.”
Obama’s promise of “hope and change” had to be opposed and his agenda obstructed at every turn. Obama himself had to be delegitimized. On the Republican hard right that included stirring up and playing on the resentments of lower-income whites against minorities and immigrants. In 2012, candidate Romney from the well-heeled Republican establishment had taken the high road and lost. Rather than seeking to broaden the Republicans’ appeal to blacks, Hispanics and other minorities (as a party internal post-mortem had recommended), Trump the politician took the tack of inciting white resentments and fears of the other to a fever pitch.
Trump had already established himself as an Obama nemesis by fanning the “birther” conspiracy that Obama was really a Kenyan-born Muslim. And far from a post-racial consensus, American society was roiled by an increase in racially motivated hate crimes and by violent incidents involving police that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement. Belcher’s surveys show marked increases in racial aversion among Republicans along with a resort to voter suppression tactics. Belcher draws a blunt conclusion: “We are bearing witness to the truth of American politics — nothing trumps tribalism. While not the absolute or only variable, race is by and large the great political organizing line in America. (...) Racial aversion is, in fact, tied to Trump; yes, he is a landing place for aversion and base tribalism.”
Beyond these deep-seated tensions in the American body politic, there were, of course, other factors that affected the course of the 2016 presidential campaign — Bernie Sanders’ left-populist challenge to Clinton; misogyny and the manufactured “scandal” over her emails; Russian interference; perhaps most importantly the arrival of Steve Bannon from the radical right to salvage Trump’s flailing operation.
More on that in next week’s column.