This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic. Find out more.
“Trumpism,” writes Adam Serwer, “is a profoundly American phenomenon.” In his Atlantic feature story “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” Serwer plumbs the depths of that phenomenon. He explains, “Supporters and opponents alike understand that the president’s policies and rhetoric target religious and ethnic minorities, and behave accordingly. But both supporters and opponents usually stop short of calling these policies racist. It is as if there were a pothole in the middle of the street that every driver studiously avoided, but that most insisted did not exist even as they swerved around it.” Here, Serwer walks us through his thought process. —Matt Peterson, editor, The Masthead
The Genesis of the Piece
During the final few weeks of the campaign, I asked dozens of Trump supporters about their candidate’s remarks regarding Muslims and people of color. I wanted to understand how these average Republicans—those who would never read the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer or go to a Klan rally at a Confederate statue—had nevertheless embraced someone who demonized religious and ethnic minorities. What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked.
It was not just Trump’s supporters who were in denial about what they were voting for, but Americans across the political spectrum, who, as had been the case with those who had backed [Louisiana politician and former Klan leader David] Duke, searched desperately for any alternative explanation—outsourcing, anti-Washington anger, economic anxiety—to the one staring them in the face. The frequent postelection media expeditions to Trump country to see whether the fever has broken, or whether Trump’s most ardent supporters have changed their minds, are a direct outgrowth of this mistake. These supporters will not change their minds, because this is what they always wanted: a president who embodies the rage they feel toward those they hate and fear, while reassuring them that that rage is nothing to be ashamed of.
I jotted down the first lines of what would eventually become “The Nationalist’s Delusion” in 2016, shortly after seeing the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s remarks about half of Trump supporters being racist. This set of paragraphs, which more or less sums up my argument, wasn’t written until months later. But after attending rallies and speaking to dozens of Trump supporters, I texted my editor Yoni Appelbaum with what would become the core argument of the essay, that Trump supporters didn’t think of themselves as racist but were enthusiastic supporters of the discriminatory policies that Trump was running on. The text, from October 1, 2016, is still on my phone. “Getting a lot of good stuff, it’s fascinating. What I really hadn’t understood is that Trump supporters are engaged in the exact ritual of denial about Trump that the press is.” It took me the better part of a year to excavate another crucial revelation, that the denial isn’t something recent, but rather a phenomenon that runs through all of American history.
How I Stumbled On Trump’s Comments About David Duke
Duke’s strong showing [in his 1990 Senate campaign against Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston] … wasn’t powered merely by poor or working-class whites—and the poorest demographic in the state, black voters, backed Johnston. Duke “clobbered Johnston in white working-class districts, ran even with him in predominantly white middle-class suburbs, and lost only because black Louisianans, representing one-quarter of the electorate, voted against him in overwhelming numbers,” The Washington Post reported in 1990. Duke picked up nearly 60 percent of the white vote. Faced with Duke’s popularity among whites of all income levels, the press framed his strong showing largely as the result of the economic suffering of the white working classes. Louisiana had “one of the least-educated electorates in the nation; and a large working class that has suffered through a long recession,” The Post stated.
Months into working on the story, I happened to read a passage from the historian David Roediger that changed my frame of reference. In The Wages of Whiteness, a book about racism and the construction of the white working class in America, Roediger mentions that pundits in 1989 had blamed Duke’s ability to win a seat in the Louisiana legislature on, essentially, economic anxiety. “In a quite meaningless way, the ‘race problem’ is consistently reduced to one of class,” Roediger wrote. “One expert commenter after another came on the morning news shows to announce that unemployment was high in Duke’s nearly all white district and therefore the election turned on economic grievances rather than racism.” That piqued my interest, and when I started looking more closely at the Duke Senate race, which happened a year later, the parallels became clear—even to the point where I found Trump commenting on the race itself in an insightful way that foreshadowed his own campaign. It ended up becoming the intro section to my article, in part because my editors and I felt the parallels were strong enough to hook the reader into what was going to be a long ride.
Immigration and Partisanship
Using data from the American National Election Survey, [political scientists Marisa] Abrajano and [Zoltan] Hajnal conclude 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.”
I think many political observers underestimated the salience of the immigration issue in the 2016 campaign, which is ironic because the media bears a significant amount of responsibility for its importance. Abrajano and Hajnal, whose 2015 book White Backlash I drew on for this piece, write that “At the aggregate level, we show that when media coverage of immigration uses the Latino threat narrative, the likelihood of whites identifying with the Democratic Party decreases and the probability of favoring Republicans increases. Whites who are fearful of immigration tend to respond to that anxiety with a measurable shift to the political right.” Using data drawn from immigration coverage in the New York Times, they write that “news coverage is largely negative, largely focused on Latinos, and largely attentive to the negative policy issues associated with immigration.” That’s just the New York Times, to say nothing of the steady diet of immigration horror stories one sees on Fox News and other conservative outlets. This incredible political realignment was happening because of the media, but the media largely (but not completely) missed it.
Clinton’s 2008 Primary Campaign
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.
I wanted to invoke the largely forgotten racial tensions of Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign rivalry with Barack Obama, with Clinton taking the role of the tribune of the white working class and caricaturing Obama as a wine-sipping elitist. A Clinton adviser at the time dismissed the Obama coalition as “eggheads and African-Americans.” There was the infamous picture of Obama in Somali garb (a Clinton adviser said Obama shouldn’t be ashamed of being seen in “his native clothing, in the clothing of his country,” even though Obama’s native country is the United States). In hindsight it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that Clinton had trouble trying to win with Obama’s coalition years later. Even though her point about Trump voters’ tendencies toward racism and sexism was defensible, she had never really publicly accounted for the way her earlier primary against Obama played out. “The Nationalist’s Delusion” helps explain the Trump phenomenon, but it was never just a Trump phenomenon.
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.
In addition to White Backlash, I used Post-Racial or Most-Racial by Michael Tesler to explaining how the Republican base had been radicalized over the Obama years. The first book was about how immigration was driving defections of white voters from the Democratic Party, and the second was about how public policy issues became “racialized” in the Obama years, despite Obama’s best efforts. It was important to me that both books had been published prior to Trump’s victory—that is, they weren’t attempting to retroactively explain what happened. Instead, they predicted the salience both of the immigration issue and Trump’s overtly racial appeals, and used social science to explain both phenomena. In other words they pointed to the rise of a Trump-like figure, though not Trump himself. Both books provided ample evidence of the social trends that explained Trumpism, prior to the need to do so, and so I found them more persuasive than any post-hoc explanation.
How did Trump voters react when I asked them about Trump’s racism?
“I don’t feel like he’s racist. I don’t personally feel like anybody would have been able to do what he’s been able to do with his personal business if he were a horrible person,” Michelle, a stay-at-home mom in Virginia, told me.
Most Trump voters I spoke to were quite friendly (the ones who weren’t didn’t want to talk at all). They were also eager to defend Trump’s controversial remarks, and blamed the mainstream media for taking him out of context. The irony I kept running into was that even though some people felt that Trump wasn’t being given a fair shake, or that he had made a mistake due to lack of polish as a politician, those people would still generally repeat or endorse the underlying sentiment. That is, they recognized that Trump’s remarks could be interpreted as racist, and they thought that was unfair, but they also agreed with what he was saying. That contradiction, and ways it has manifested historically, was really the heart of the piece.