Is support for Donald Trump a function of economic anxiety or bigotry? It could, of course, be both, but there are nonetheless good reasons to think through the explanations for the Republican nominee’s surprising emergence as a force in American politics.
In fact, there has been a spirited recent exchange between Matthew Yglesias at Vox and Brian Beutler at The New Republic about the economics-versus-race question. The argument is not over whether Trump draws much of his support from racial hostility among his supporters, because he so obviously does. The question is whether that is all we need to know to understand Trump.
Yglesias points out that there are plenty of people who have as much reason as any Trump supporter to worry about their economic situations, yet they do not support Trump. Obviously, this includes a large number of minority voters. And there are also many people who are quite comfortable economically but are drawn to Trump for reasons that boil down to various types of bigotry.
Beutler concedes all of that, but he notes that it very much matters whether any among Trump’s supporters would be drawn to an economic populist who was not an unashamed bigot. Indeed, Trump made some failed attempts in July to attract Senator Bernie Sanders’s supporters, trying to see if any of them would hold their noses and support Trump for economic reasons.
Still, it seems obvious that there must be people already supporting Trump who are not motivated by racism, but who put a higher weight on their economic concerns. And given that congressional Republicans are committed to blocking anything that Hillary Clinton proposes after she takes the oath of office, those concerns are only going to get worse as the economy will continue to stumble along (at best) at its current frustratingly slow pace.
If the foreseeable future will involve continued economic frustration, with Republicans looking to score wins in 2018 and 2020 by blaming President Clinton for economic stagnation, then it is very important to know whether Trump’s voters could be attracted to a socially liberal candidate who offered a populist economic message.
Of course, we know from the Democratic primaries this year that Bernie Sanders discovered a wellspring of support for liberal populism, so maybe next time it is merely a matter of finding someone without the label of “Democratic Socialist” who can carry the Sanders banner.
In any case, we are still stuck with the question of how many of Trump’s supporters are not really racists.
Another way to puzzle through Trump’s surprising support is not to try to read the minds of his supporters, but to watch what he does and says. Even though each of his supporters brings a complicated mixture of anxieties to this election, Trump himself is making it more and more clear that, as far as he is concerned, his candidacy is ultimately about bigotry and not economics.
The most obvious evidence supporting that conclusion is that Trump’s economic proposals are not going to change any of his supporters’ fortunes for the better. Most prominently, he has now adopted the establishment Republican playbook of tax cuts for the rich and trickle-down for everyone else.
And although it must surely be pleasant for displaced American workers to hear Trump say that they could get back their jobs in factories and mines if only we closed our borders, that is a promise based on nostalgia rather than reality. Steel, autos, and everything else that formed the basis of the industrial economy are not coming back, and that has nothing to do with trade policies.
Trump himself is not showing much enthusiasm for his economic platform. Even if Trump’s supporters began the campaign by basking in his purported sympathy for their economic distress, what they are mostly hearing now is an increasingly blatant acknowledgement that he only truly cares about discriminating against people who are not white Christians.
Note that I did not say “white Christian Americans,” because it turns out that Trump is willing to stand with white Christians in other countries even when their bigotry conflicts with the economic interests of Americans (even, strangely, those of his white Christian American supporters).
Most importantly, Trump favored “Brexit,” the June referendum through which a majority of English and Welsh voters outnumbered Scottish and Northern Irish voters (as well as most of the voters in the London area) to set in motion the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Trump said at the time that this was a good thing, because the British people were taking their country back from foreigners, which sounded very much like the nativist message that Trump was pushing here. Many pundits similarly said that the surprise win for the “leave” campaign was a good omen for Trump’s anti-immigrant uprising in the U.S.
I argued after the Brexit vote that Trump’s support for Brexit brought with it a surprising moment of clarity. He understood immediately that Brexit would lower the value of the British pound, which is why he joked that his Scottish golf course would receive more visitors from abroad.
But what he did not say is that what is good for Scottish golf courses is bad for American blue-collar workers. The pound’s weakness is the dollar’s strength, and the effect of Brexit is the same to American companies as the currency manipulations by China that Trump decries. A candidate who wanted to support American workers—who claims to be for America First—would not be in favor of a policy that makes American goods less competitive.
In short, Trump favored the racism of white Christians elsewhere even though their actions harmed American workers, including the white Christian workers who fill his rallies. At least as far as Trump was concerned, even on trade he could safely betray his working class supporters so long as he continued to trowel out the hatred.
As I noted above, there is now further evidence that Trump is ever more committed to the white supremacist narrative. One obvious example is his clumsy public pronouncements of his insincere concern for African Americans, pronouncements that are so cartoonish and offensive to living-and-breathing black people that he must obviously be trying to pick up the votes of some white people who are uncomfortable with his unvarnished bigotry. He will talk a non-bigoted game if it brings some gullible white people into his camp.
But for my money, the most interesting story of the week is that Trump invited Brexit provocateur Nigel Farage to speak at a rally in Mississippi. (That Trump needs to campaign in Mississippi is itself an indication of how badly things are going for him.)
Why is the Farage story so important? A bit of background should be helpful here. The “leave” campaign in the UK was led by Boris Johnson, a Trump-ish agitator in the British Conservative Party, and Farage, who had led the fringe U.K. Independence Party to prominence on an openly anti-immigrant, whites-first platform.
Farage was never subtle. As a member of the European Parliament, he was infamous for delivering speeches in which he doled out adolescent insults to his parliamentary colleagues. His entire brand has always been unadulterated bigotry.
Trump had the gall to claim during the Mississippi rally that Hillary Clinton is a bigot, which must have had the members of the American Psychological Association updating their lists of jaw-dropping examples of the concept of “projection.”
Even so, the point was that Farage was standing with Trump, spouting the same nonsense about how “little people” can “stand up to the establishment.” And what does that establishment want those little people to do? Why, it wants to allow nonwhite, non-Christian people to live in the U.K. and the U.S., of course. Farage has even less deniability about his core racism than Trump does.
What is especially depressing about all of this is that Farage led a campaign that was obviously dishonest from the beginning, making easily debunked claims about the costs of EU membership without the slightest hint of shame.
Yet when the surprise vote came in, and many pro-leave voters expressed shock and regret, Farage started to say that he never meant the things that he had said repeatedly during the campaign. In short order, he resigned his position as party leader.
In other words, Farage acts like Trump and has already done what many people suspect that Trump is going to do. He repeated bald-faced lies, inciting racial and ethnic strife in his country. To his own surprise, he won, which created a huge mess. He then walked away to allow other people to try to clean it up.
Yet there was Farage in the U.S., telling Trump’s supporters that they can achieve what their white Christian counterparts in England and Wales achieved. He did not tell them that the U.K.’s economy will almost certainly be harmed by leaving the EU (notwithstanding the boost from a weakened pound). Trump clearly believes that his supporters want to hear that some people who look like them stuck it to the elites and the nonwhite, non-Christian people who want to move into their neighborhoods—and not incidentally, also stuck it to the unwelcome people who are already in their midst, and who are feeling increasingly uncomfortable in a post-Brexit environment.
Trump did not have to invite Farage to speak at his rally. There are plenty of people who could have said, “You know what, the polls can be wrong, and what you view as a little guys’ movement (led by a billionaire, but who cares) can win.” But out of all of the possible guest speakers that he could have chosen, Trump welcomed Farage.
What Farage brings to the table is not any discernible expertise. He has no idea how to manage what amounts to ethnic purification of his country, and he quit his job rather than having to try to figure it out. For Trump to turn to Farage is the ultimate acknowledgement by Trump that his campaign is really about white Christian identity.
Again, there is good reason to believe that some Trump supporters are not comfortable with the Trump/Farage approach to race. It is worrisome that anyone could prioritize their own concerns and overlook the ugliness of the Trump campaign, but if there is going to be any hope for political progress in the years ahead, people of good faith will have to learn how to peel off those voters from the ugly core of Trump’s support.
But at least we now know where Trump himself really stands.