It’s Not the Economy, Stupid!
The commentariat has largely accepted the faulty premise that Donald Trump’s success reflects economic anxiety in the white working class, and the noxious corollary that Trump’s candidacy represents change while Hillary Clinton’s represents the status quo.
In fact, the American economy under Barack Obama has stacked up a steady sequence of superlatives. Last week’s news included the report that low and middle household incomes showed record growth in 2015 – the highest percentage growth since the Census Bureau began tracking in 1968.
Meanwhile, gun sales have nearly doubled during the Obama administration. Although the percentage of American households with guns continues its long-term decline, from a peak of 51 percent in 1977 to 31 percent today, gun ownership is increasingly concentrated among conservative white Americans. And the average number of guns owned per gun-owning household has soared.
Gun buying by conservative white Americans is not a manifestation of economic anxiety; it’s a manifestation of racial anxiety. If an African-American is in charge of our government, we need to arm ourselves for protection against that government.
Donald Trump began his 2016 presidential campaign in the early years of the Obama presidency, with his whole-hearted embrace of the “birther” cause, and his pretense that his alleged investigators were uncovering evidence of the truth of that cause. Critical to Trump’s appeal is a desire to negate the Obama presidency, as if to deny that it every existed.
But negating the first African-American presidency is only one instance of Trump’s embodiment of much broader hostility to marginalized Americans. The centerpiece of Trump’s campaign platform has been hostility to immigrants – first Mexicans, then Muslims. To be clear: Trump does not condemn immigration from, say, Norway or New Zealand. His condemnations are appeals to fear of the “other,” and to the anxiety that many white Americans feel about losing their position of social and political predominance in this country.
Since winning the Republican nomination, Trump has added “law and order” to his campaign. Although the American homicide rate is at historic lows and dropping – lower than at any time since the 1950s – Trump has created a fantasy world in which our cities are burning and people can’t walk to the corner store without getting shot.
Widespread and occasionally violent protests of questionable police killings of African-American men, mostly unarmed, create the visceral basis for the fantasy. In this fantasy world, police represent the power structure of white male authority and protests against police actions represent usurpation of that authority.
The subtext of Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric is unarguably racial. Trump’s clear intention is to appeal to white racial anxieties. (One of the more laughable “tells” is Trump’s use of the racially coded term “inner cities.” By itself, the word “cities” could mean Billings, or Boise. “Inner cities” refers specifically to the places where brown people live.)
Trump does propose policies: cutting corporate taxes, increasing military spending, leaving NAFTA and the Paris climate control agreement, canceling the nuclear agreement with Iran, building a Mexican border wall, banning Muslim immigrants. Trump also states policy goals without specifying means – he will create 25 million jobs, for instance.
But Trump’s campaign is not primarily about policy, it’s about identity. His fundamental appeal is to a white, male identity that is threatened by cultural pluralism. Trump’s campaign is about re-marginalizing America’s racial and religious minorities, women, people with disabilities, and re-empowering white Christian men. Trump’s campaign is about shifting the burden of accommodation back onto the marginalized groups.
Trump fans like his disinterest in “political correctness,” by which they certainly mean the obligation of white men to behave respectfully, to filter their thoughts before speaking, and to consider other perspectives than their own. Trump would place that obligation elsewhere; he would restore whiteness and maleness to their traditional American position as normative – the objective, neutral perspectives from which non-normative identities, beliefs and cultures are variant, even deviant.
In Trump-world, as in the America of times past, being white or being male did not explain one’s beliefs or behavior, but being black or being female – like being gay, or Muslim, or Mexican, or disabled – explained not just a person’s beliefs, but almost everything else about a person. In Trump-world, a white male believes and behaves as he does because he has taken in information and come to a neutral, objective conclusion, but others believe and behave as they do because they are biased by their race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality. The views of white men are to be taken seriously on their merits, and the views of others are to be trivialized as mere manifestations of their identities.
I saw an MSNBC interview with a white thirty-something working class guy in Youngstown, Ohio, who explained his support for Trump simply: “He’s just like me.” The surprised interviewer responded, “But he’s a billionaire!” Youngstown guy answered, “He’s a billionaire, but he’s just like me.”
The interviewer didn’t ask how Youngstown guy thought that Trump was just like him, but I’m betting the answer had to do with race – Youngstown guy is probably concerned about white men’s increasingly precarious hold on predominance in America.
Cultural pluralism is hard. At a minimum, it requires a willingness to attribute good faith to people who believe different than oneself. It requires an ability to believe that people of other groups are as reasonable and capable as oneself.
White American men are not accustomed to cultural pluralism; we are accustomed to a country where deference to other points of view is work to be done by others, not by us. Trump’s central appeal is to those who are uncomfortable with cultural pluralism and are struggling against the new burdens that cultural pluralism imposes.
If Trump’s core appeal isn’t based on economic anxiety, then economic growth won’t diminish that appeal – even record income growth in middle and lower income households. Job growth won’t diminish Trump’s appeal, and neither will near-record low mortgage interest rates, nor near-record high 401(k) share values.
Obama’s presidency has been pervasively and unavoidably about change. Even had Obama’s policies been seamlessly continuous from those of George W. Bush, the mere fact of his being the first African-American president of a country founded upon African slavery and plagued by the persistent pervasiveness of racial prejudice makes the Obama presidency radical. In that respect alone, it will be a generation until we can even begin to measure the scope of change Obama’s presidency will have made.
A Hillary Clinton presidency would look a lot like a continuation of the Obama Administration, and not just in the substance of policy: our first female president would challenge gender stereotypes as fundamentally as Obama’s presidency challenged racial stereotypes. Simply by being our first female president, Clinton would continue the pluralization of America.
It is odd to characterize the continuation of change as the status quo. And therefore it is baffling that the commentariat accepts the notion that Clinton is a candidate of the status quo. It is even odder to characterize opposition to change as change. And therefore it is baffling that the commentariat accepts the notion that Trump is a candidate of change.
I reject Trump for his policies. But even if I didn’t, I would reject Trump for his appeal to identity. Trump stands for denial of cultural pluralism and reversion to a white predominance that verges on white supremacy. By contrast, Clinton stands for acceptance of our multi-cultural heritage and embrace of our demographic future.