When you look at Trump’s strength among white Americans of all income levels, but his weakness among Americans struggling with poverty, the story of Trump looks less like a story of working-class revolt than a story of white backlash. And the stories of struggling white Trump supporters look less like the whole truth than a convenient narrative—one that obscures the racist nature of that backlash, instead casting it as a rebellion against an unfeeling establishment that somehow includes working-class and poor people who happen not to be white.
The nature of racism in America means that when the rich exploit everyone else, there is always an easier and more vulnerable target to punish. The Irish immigrants who in 1863 ignited a pogrom against black Americans in New York City to protest the draft resented a policy that offered the rich the chance to buy their way out; their response was nevertheless to purge black people from the city for a generation.
In 2006, during a televised fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West said George W. Bush didn’t care about black people. NBC News’s Matt Lauer later asked Bush, “You say you told Laura at the time it was the worst moment of your presidency?”
“Yes,” Bush replied. “My record was strong, I felt, when it came to race relations and giving people a chance. And it was a disgusting moment.”
Bush singling out West’s criticism as the worst moment of his presidency may seem strange. But his visceral reaction to the implication that he was racist reflects a peculiarly white American cognitive dissonance—that most worry far more about being seen as racist than the consequences of racism for their fellow citizens. That dissonance spans the ideological spectrum, resulting in blanket explanations for Trump that ignore the plainly obvious.
The explanation that Trump’s victory wasn’t an expression of support for racism because he got fewer votes than Romney, or because Clinton failed to generate sufficient Democratic enthusiasm, ignores the fact that Trump was a viable—even victorious—candidate while running racist primary- and general-election campaigns. Had his racism been disqualifying, his candidacy would have died in the primary. Equally strange is the notion that because some white voters defected from Obama to Trump, racism could not have been a factor in the election; many of these voters did, in fact, hold racist views. Particularly in the 2008 campaign, Obama emphasized his uniqueness as an African American—his upbringing by his white grandparents, his elite pedigree, his public scoldings of black Americans for their cultural shortcomings. It takes little imagination at all to see how someone could hold racist views about black people in general and still have warm feelings toward Obama.
Perhaps the CNN pundit Chris Cillizza best encapsulated the mainstream-media consensus when he declared shortly after Election Day that there “is nothing more maddening—and counterproductive—to me than saying that Trump’s 59 million votes were all racist. Ridiculous.” Millions of people of color in America live a reality that many white Americans find unfathomable; the unfathomable is not the impossible.
Even before Election Day, that consensus was reflected in the reaction to Clinton’s most-controversial remarks of the campaign. “You know, to just be grossly generalistic,” she said, “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.”
Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson, in a since-deleted tweet, observed, “Clinton is talking about trump supporters the way trump talks about mexicans,” whom Trump derided as rapists and criminals. Bloomberg’s John Heilemann said, “This comment kind of gets very close to the dictionary definition of bigoted.” The leftist writer Barbara Ehrenreich wrote on Facebook that Clinton was “an elitist snob who writes off about a quarter of the American electorate as pond scum.” As New York magazine’s Jesse Singal put it, “Not to be too cute but I have racist relatives. I’d like to think they aren’t ‘deplorable’ humans.”
These reactions mirrored those of Trump supporters. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a Trump supporter who gave his name as George acknowledges that “sometimes he says stuff he’s probably better off not saying, because the media’s gonna take everything he says and run with it.” He added, “Hillary can say the same thing, like deplorable, and they won’t talk about that much.”
Another Trump supporter in Lancaster, Beatrice, feels similarly about the “deplorables” remark. “Let’s face facts, calling half of your voter base ‘deplorables,’ eh, that’s okay,” Beatrice says. “Trump says something and we have to hear about it again and again and again, and it’s complete bias.”
The defenses of Trump voters against Clinton’s charges share in common an aversion to acknowledging an unpleasant truth. They are not so much arguments against a proposition as arguments that the proposition is offensive—or, if you prefer, politically incorrect. The same is true of the rejoinder that Democrats cannot hope to win the votes of people they have condemned as racist. This is not a refutation of the point, but an argument against stating it so plainly.
The argument for the innocence of Trump’s backers finds purchase across ideological lines: white Democrats looking for votes from working-class whites, white Republicans who want to tar Democrats as elitists, white leftists who fear that identity politics stifles working-class solidarity, and white Trumpists seeking to weaponize white grievance. But the impetus here is not just ideological, but personal and commercial: No one wants to think of their family, friends, lovers, or colleagues as racist. And no one wants to alienate potential subscribers, listeners, viewers, or fans either.
Yet nowhere did Clinton vow to use the power of the state to punish the constituencies voting for Trump, whose threats made his own rhetorical gestures toward pluralism risible. Clinton’s arrogance in referring to Trump supporters as “irredeemable” is the truly indefensible part of her statement—in the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton herself ran as the candidate of “hard-working Americans, white Americans” against Obama, earning her the “exceedingly strange new respect” of conservatives who noted that she was running the “classic Republican race against her opponent.” Eight years later, she lost to an opponent whose mastery of those forces was simply greater than hers.
The reason many equated Clinton’s “deplorables” remark with Trump’s agenda of discriminatory state violence seems to be the widespread perception that racism is primarily an interpersonal matter—that is, it’s about name-calling or rudeness, rather than institutional and political power. This is a belief hardly limited to Trump supporters, but crucial to their understanding of Trump as lacking personal prejudice. “One thing I like about Trump is he isn’t afraid to tell people what the problems in this country are,” says Ron Whitekettle from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Everything he says is true, but sometimes he doesn’t say it the way it should be said.”
Political correctness is a vague term, perhaps best defined by the conservative scholar Samuel Goldman. “What Trump and others seem to mean by political correctness is an extremely dramatic and rapidly changing set of discursive and social laws that, virtually overnight, people are expected to understand, to which they are expected to adhere.”
From a different vantage point, what Trump’s supporters refer to as “political correctness” is largely the result of marginalized communities gaining sufficient political power to project their prerogatives onto society at large. What a society finds offensive is not a function of fact, or truth, but of power. It is why unpunished murders of black Americans by agents of the state draw less outrage than black football players’ kneeling for the National Anthem in protest against them. It is no coincidence that Trump himself frequently uses the term to belittle what he sees as unnecessary restrictions on state force.
But even as once-acceptable forms of bigotry have become unacceptable to express overtly, white Americans remain politically dominant enough to shape media coverage in a manner that minimizes obvious manifestations of prejudice, such as backing a racist candidate, as something else entirely. The most transgressive political statement of the 2016 election, the one that violated strict societal norms by stating an inconvenient fact that few wanted to acknowledge, the most politically incorrect, was made by the candidate who lost.
Even before Trump, the Republican Party was moving toward an exclusivist nationalism that defined American identity in racial and religious terms, despite some efforts from its leadership to steer the party in another direction. George W. Bush signed the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, attempted to bring Latino voters into the party, and spoke in defense of American Muslims’ place in the national fabric. These efforts led to caustic backlashes from the Republican rank and file, who defeated his 2006 immigration-reform legislation, which might have shifted the demographics of the Republican Party for a generation or more. In the aftermath of their 2012 loss, Republican leaders tried again, only to meet with the same anti-immigrant backlash—one that would find an avatar in the person of the next Republican president.
In 2015, the political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal published White Backlash, a study of political trends, and found, “Whites who hold more negative views of immigrants have a greater tendency to support Republican candidates at the presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial levels, even after controlling for party identification and other major factors purported to drive the vote.”
While that finding may seem obvious, it wasn’t simply a description of existing Republicans, but of the trends driving some white Democrats into the Republican Party. Using data from the American National Election Survey, Abrajano and Hajnal concluded that “changes in individual attitudes toward immigrants precede shifts in partisanship,” and that “immigration really is driving individual defections from the Democratic to Republican Party.”
Cautioning that there are limits to social science, Abrajano told me that “all other things being equal we see that immigration has a strong and consistent effect in moving whites towards the Republican Party. I think having the first African American president elected into the office … you can’t disentangle immigration without talking about race as well, so that dynamic brought to the forefront immigration and racial politics more broadly, and the kind of fear and anxiety that many voters had about the changing demographics and characteristics of the U.S. population.” The Slate writer Jamelle Bouie made a similar observation in an insightful essay in March 2016.
Half a century after Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona rose to prominence by opposing civil-rights legislation designed to dismantle Jim Crow, the Republican Party’s shift toward nativism would foreclose another path not just to ethnic diversity, but to the moderation and tolerance that sharing power with those unlike you requires.
In the meantime, more than a decade of war nationalism directed at jihadist groups has shaped Republican attitudes toward Muslims—from seeing them as potential Republican voters in the late 1990s to viewing them as internal enemies. War nationalism always turns itself inward, but in the past, wars ended. Anti-Irish violence fell following the service of Irish American soldiers in the Civil War; Germans were integrated back into the body politic after World War II; and the Italians, Jews, and Eastern Europeans who were targeted by the early 20th century’s great immigration scare would find themselves part of a state-sponsored project of assimilation by the war’s end. But the War on Terror is a war without end, and so that national consolidation has never occurred. Again, Trump is a manifestation of this trend rather than its impetus, a manifestation that began to rise not long after Obama’s candidacy.
“Birtherism was the beginning, it was a way of tying together his foreignness and his name, in an effort to delegitimize him, from the get-go,” says James Zogby, a Democrat whose Arab American Institute has spent years tracking public opinion on Muslim and Arab Americans. By 2012, the very idea of Muslims in public service “had become an issue in presidential politics, with five of the Republican candidates saying they wouldn’t hire a Muslim or appoint one, without special loyalty oaths.”
Obama, as the target and inspiration of this resurgent wave of Republican anti-Muslim hostility, was ill-equipped to stem the tide. “The problem was that when situations would occur, and people would say, ‘Why can’t [Obama] speak out more forcefully,’ I would say that the people he needs to speak to see him as the problem,” Zogby argues. “It was the responsibility of Republicans to speak out, and they didn’t. George Bush was forceful on the issue in the White House, even though he supported policies that fed it … There were no compelling voices on the Republican side to stop it and so it just festered.”
That anti-Muslim surge on the right also provided a way for some conservatives to rationalize hostility toward Barack Obama by displacing feelings about his race to the belief that he was secretly Muslim—a group about which conservatives felt much more comfortable expressing frank animus.
“In 2004 there’s very little relationship between how you felt about the parties and how you felt about Muslims,” Michael Tesler, a political scientist, told me. But “Obama really activates anti-Muslim attitudes along party lines.”
In 2012, according to Tesler’s numbers, only 13 percent of voters who believed Obama was Muslim said they would not vote for Obama because of his race. But 60 percent of those voters said they wouldn’t vote for him because of his religion—a frank admission of prejudice inseparable from their perception of Obama’s racial identity.
The scorched-earth Republican politics of the Obama era also helped block the path toward a more diverse, and therefore more tolerant, GOP. In his 2016 book Post-Racial or Most-Racial?, Tesler found that Obama racialized white opinions about everything from health-care policy to Portuguese water dogs to his closest white associates such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Tesler argued, “Barack Obama consistently widened racial divides, despite his best efforts to neutralize the political impact of race,” despite having “discussed race less in his first term than any other Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt” and having “regularly downplayed accusations of race-based opposition to his presidency” during that time.
“Even after controlling for economic conservatism, moral traditionalism, religious beliefs and activity, and military support, racial attitudes became significantly stronger predictors of white partisanship in the Age of Obama,” Tesler wrote. The “spillover of racialization into mass assessments of public figures will probably make racial attitudes a more powerful determinant of Americans’ 2016 vote choices than they were in pre-Obama presidential elections.”
That was not a forgone conclusion. In other instances, whites’ fears that black political figures would give preferential treatment to them had subsided as those black leaders took action in office. Despite Obama being “the least liberal president since World War II and the biggest moderate in the White House since Dwight Eisenhower,” however, the nature of the Republican opposition—attacking health-care reform as a “civil-rights bill,” and Obama as a foreign-born, terrorist-sympathizing interloper and freedom-destroying socialist—substantiated “any race-based anxieties about an Obama presidency destroying the country,” and prevented consciousness of Obama’s moderation from filtering to white voters, Tesler argued.
Instead, white voters became convinced they had elected Huey Newton. There was effectively no opportunity for Obama to escape the racist caricature that had been painted of him, even though his challenge to America’s racial hierarchy was more symbolic than substantive. An agenda that included record deportations and targeted killings in Muslim countries abroad did little to stem the conspiracy theories.
“I think you can draw a straight line between Obama and heightened racialization, and the emergence of Trump,” Tesler told me. “Birtherism, the idea that Obama’s a Muslim, anti-Muslim sentiments—these are very strong components of Trump’s rise, and really what makes him popular with this crew in the first place.”
It’s not that Republicans would have been less opposed to Clinton had she become president, or that conservatives are inherently racist. The nature of the partisan opposition to Obama altered white Republicans’ perceptions of themselves and their country, of their social position, and of the religious and ethnic minorities whose growing political power led to Obama’s election.
Birtherism is rightly remembered as a racist conspiracy theory, born of an inability to accept the legitimacy of the first black president. But it is more than that, and the insistence that it was a fringe belief undersells the fact that it is one of the most important political developments of the past decade.
Birtherism is a synthesis of the prejudice toward blacks, immigrants, and Muslims that swelled on the right during the Obama era: Obama was not merely black but also a foreigner, not just black and foreign but also a secret Muslim. Birtherism was not simply racism, but nationalism—a statement of values and a defining of who belongs in America. By embracing the conspiracy theory of Obama’s faith and foreign birth, Trump was also endorsing a definition of being American that excluded the first black president. Birtherism, and then Trumpism, united all three rising strains of prejudice on the right in opposition to the man who had become the sum of their fears.
In this sense only, the Calamity Thesis is correct. The great cataclysm in white America that led to Donald Trump was the election of Barack Obama.
History has a way of altering villains so that we can no longer see ourselves in them.
As the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, in his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” articulated that the principle on which the Confederate States had been founded was the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” That principle was echoed by the declarations of secession from almost all of the Southern states.
Sitting in his cell at Fort Warren years later, the rebels defeated and the Confederacy vanquished, Stephens had second thoughts. He insisted in his diary, “The reporter’s notes, which were very imperfect, were hastily corrected by me; and were published without further revision and with several glaring errors.” In fact, Stephens wrote, he didn’t like slavery at all.
“My own opinion of slavery, as often expressed, was that if the institution was not the best, or could not be made the best, for both races, looking to the advancement and progress of both, physically and morally, it ought to be abolished,” Stephens wrote. “Great improvements were, however, going on in the condition of blacks in the South … Much greater would have been made, I verily believe, but for outside agitation.”
Stephens had become first in line to the presidency of the Confederacy, an entity founded to defend white people’s right to own black people as chattel. But that didn’t mean he possessed any hostility toward black people, for whom he truly wanted only the best. The real problem was the crooked media, which had taken him out of context.
The same was true of the rest of the South, he wrote, which had no love for the institution of slavery. “They were ready to sacrifice property, life, everything, for the Cause, which was then simply the right of self-government,” Stephens insisted. “The slavery question had but little influence with the masses.” Again, the problem, as he saw it, was a media that deliberately lied about the cause of disunion. He singled out Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, saying that Greeley’s description of the South as seeking to overthrow the Constitution in order to establish a “slave oligarchy” was “utterly unfounded.”
Stephens’s rewriting of his own views on race and slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the founding principles of the Confederacy laid a different cornerstone. They served as a crucial text in the emerging alternate history Lost Cause, the mythology that the South had fought a principled battle for its own liberty and sovereignty and not, in President Ulysses S. Grant’s words, an ideal that was among “the worst for which a people ever fought.” The Lost Cause provided white Southerners—and white Americans in general—with a misunderstanding of the Civil War that allowed them to spare themselves the shame of their own history.
Stephens’s denial of what the Confederacy fought for—a purpose he himself articulated for the eternity of human memory—is a manifestation of a delusion essential to nationalism in almost all of its American permutations: American history as glorious idealism unpolluted by base tribalism. If a man who helped lead a nation founded to preserve the right to own black people as slaves could believe this lie, it is folly to believe that anyone who has done anything short of that would have difficulty doing the same.
James Baldwin wrote about this peculiar American delusion in 1964, arguing that that the Founders of the United States had a “fatal flaw,” that “they could recognize a man when they saw one.” Because “they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. For if he wasn’t a man, then no crime had been committed. That lie is the basis of our present trouble. It is an extremely complex lie.”
Most importantly, the overgrown branches of that complex lie become manifest nearly every surge in American nationalism, enabling its proponents to act with what they believe is a clear conscience. Just as Stephens implausibly denied that his dream of a society with African servitude as its cornerstone held malice toward black people, so too the Lost Cause myth allowed Northerners to look the other way as Southerners scuttled Reconstruction’s brief experiment with multiracial democracy and replaced it with a society rooted in white supremacy.
That society, like the planter aristocracy that preceded it, impoverished most blacks and whites alike, while concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a white elite. It lasted for decades, through both violence and the acquiescence of those who might have been expected to rise up against it.
Americans tend to portray defenders of Jim Crow in cartoonish, Disney-villain terms. This creates a certain amount of distance, obscuring the reality that segregation enjoyed broad support among white people. As Jonathan Sokol recounts in his book There Goes My Everything, white Southerners fighting integration imagined themselves not as adhering to an oppressive ideology, but as resisting one. “A certain notion of freedom crystallized among white southerners—and it had little to do with fascism overseas or equal rights. Many began to picture the American government as the fascist, and the white southerner as the victim,” Sokol writes.
One letter (out of many) cited by Sokol, from a World War II veteran in 1964, provides an illustrative example. “Six brothers in my family including myself fought in World War II for our rights and freedom,” a veteran from Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote to his representative. “Then why … am I being forced to use the same wash-room and restrooms with negro[e]s. I highly resent this … I’d be willing to fight and die for my rights, but can’t say this anymore for this country.”
Nor did many white Southerners accept that Jim Crow segregation was a fundamentally unjust arrangement. Sokol recalls Harris Wofford’s 1952 description of his time in Dallas County, Alabama, which a woman who ran the county’s chamber of commerce described as “a nigger heaven.”
“The niggers know their place and seem to keep in their place. They’re the friendly sort around here,” she explained. “If they are hungry, they will come and tell you, and there is not a person who wouldn’t feed and clothe a nigger.”
The formulation is surely familiar: She attests to her intimate and friendly interpersonal relationships with black people as a defense of a violent, kleptocratic system that denies them the same fundamental rights that she enjoys. In fact, it is the subordinate position of black people that makes peaceful relations possible.
Like Stephens, who later denied the essence of the Confederacy as he himself had articulated it, the most-ardent defenders of Jim Crow later denied that the system had been rooted in any kind of malice or injustice.
Four-time Alabama Democratic Governor George Wallace lost his first gubernatorial race when he ran as an economic populist against a candidate running on a segregationist platform, and famously vowed never to be “outniggered again”—and he never was. He declared, “Segregation now, segregation forever!,” as he took the oath of office in 1963. He stood in a schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa to prevent black students from integrating it. He was responsible for the vicious beating of voting-rights activists in Selma.
By 1984, however, Wallace’s memory of his own actions, like Stephens’s, had changed. “It was not an antagonism towards black people and that’s what some people can’t understand,” Wallace explained to a reporter from PBS for the documentary Eyes on the Prize. “White southerners did not believe it was discrimination. They thought it was in the best interest of both the races.”
“I love black people. I love white people. I love yellow people,” Wallace said. “I’m a Christian and, therefore, I don’t have any ill feeling toward anybody because of the race ’cause our black people are some of our finest citizens.”
In remarkable symmetry with Stephens’s defense of treason in defense of slavery, Wallace recalled his defense of racial apartheid as resistance to tyranny.
“I spoke vehemently against the federal government, not against people. I talked about the, the government of the, the United States and the Supreme Court. I never expressed in any language that would upset anyone about a person’s race. I talked about the Supreme Court usurpation of power. I talked about the big central government,” Wallace said. “Isn’t that what everybody talks about now? Isn’t that what Reagan got elected on? Isn’t that what all the legislators, electors, members of Congress, and the Senate and House both say?”
Trumpism emerged from a haze of delusion, denial, pride and cruelty—not as a historical anomaly, but as a profoundly American phenomenon. This explains both how tens of millions of white Americans could pull the lever for a candidate running on a racist platform and justify doing so, and why a predominantly white political class would search so desperately for an alternative explanation for what it had just seen. To acknowledge the centrality of racial inequality to American democracy is to question its legitimacy—so it must be denied.
I don’t mean to suggest that Trump’s nationalism is impervious to politics. It is not invincible. Its earlier iterations have been defeated before, and can be defeated now. Abraham Lincoln began the Civil War believing that former slaves would have to be transported to West Africa. Lyndon Johnson began his political career as a segregationist. Both came to realize that the question of black rights in America is not mere identity politics—not a peripheral matter, but the central, existential question of the Republic. Nothing is inevitable, people can change. No one is irredeemable. But recognition precedes enlightenment.
Nevertheless, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who assured them that they will never have to share this country with people of color as equals. That is the reality that all Americans will have to deal with, and one that most of the country has yet to confront.
Yet at its core, white nationalism has and always will be a hustle, a con, a fraud that cannot deliver the broad-based prosperity it promises, not even to most white people. Perhaps the most persuasive argument against Trumpist nationalism is not one its opponents can make in a way that his supporters will believe. But the failure of Trump’s promises to white America may yet show that both the fruit and the tree are poison.