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Trump’s people: The Donald and white nationalism

18 September 2016

4:11 PM

18 September 2016

4:11 PM

The fit, or fugue, that Hillary Clinton suffered during a 9/11 memorial service in Manhattan on Sunday left mysteries in its wake. One concerns Mrs Clinton’s apparently serious medical problem. Another concerns her opponent Donald Trump, who appears eager to run her campaign for her while she convalesces.

When felled, Mrs Clinton was two weeks into a public-relations blitz designed to tar Trump as a bigot. In August, she accused him of making the Republican party a vehicle for racism and the ‘hardline right-wing nationalism’ of Vladimir Putin and Nigel Farage. At an open-to-the-press dinner for gay donors two days before her incident, she used vivid and memorable language. ‘To just be grossly generalistic,’ she said, ‘you could put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it. Unfortunately, there are people like that and he has lifted them up.’

This message had been designed to inflict maximum damage on Trump. And yet the moment Mrs Clinton was silenced, Trump’s campaign released a television advert playing her speech in the swing states of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Has Hillary made a mistake by ‘viciously demonising hard-working people’, as Trump alleges? Or does Trump actually think, as Hillary claims, that there are enough racists in the country to win an election with?


Christopher Caldwell, Freddy Gray and Lara Prendergast discuss Trump’s white voters:


He couldn’t possibly. There may still be a few picturesque white racists in the backwoods, the sorts of people who once wore the robes of the Ku Klux Klan and today sport do-rags and SS-rune tattoos. One Klansman, the perennial senatorial candidate David Duke, has sung Trump’s praises. These people number only in the thousands. They have as much chance of electing a president in a country of 300 million as America’s Zoroastrians.

But white people still make up about three quarters of the citizenry and 80 per cent of the electorate. And there is indeed something going on that is drawing them to Trump— not just the skinheads but the little old ladies in mock-pearl necklaces and cardigan sweaters. Hillbilly Elegy, a San Francisco investment banker’s saccharine chronicle of his Appalachian grandparents, spent much of the summer atop the New York Times bestseller list. In April the federal Centers for Disease Control revealed that life expectancy was falling for all whites, from 78.9 to 78.8 years, even as it was rising sharply for other races. You’d think this would have been big news. The only people who predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union were demographers (like Emmanuel Todd in France in 1976) who examined similar demographic failures. Yet authorities show no alarm, or even curiosity, about why this is happening. They chalk it up to an epidemic of heroin, opiates and crystal meth that is ravaging white teenagers.

Sensitive Americans used to assume that if a racial group was struggling, this was because resources were being denied. Perhaps that is the simplest explanation for what has befallen white people. Over two generations, the logic of 1960s civil-rights legislation has worked its way into the political system. State and federal government has established affirmative action and much bureaucratic machinery to move trillions of dollars’ worth of assets, opportunities and protections to minorities. When ‘minorities’ was just another way of saying ‘blacks’, the white majority felt badly done by. Ronald Reagan was, in part, a result.

But in the intervening decades, Democrats have successfully enrolled minority after minority in this model — not just other ethnic and language groups but also women, the disabled, gays and transgender people. It was not white racists who reintroduced the term ‘people of colour’ into general parlance. It was Democratic politicians, who benefited from solidarity among affirmative action’s beneficiaries. In California in the 1970s, such programmes served weak and disadvantaged minorities. But today minorities, if we can use that word, make up 62 per cent of the Golden State’s population. Once again, mainstream whites feel resentment — but now they may lack the clout, and elected Republicans certainly lack the inclination, to do anything about it.

For most whites, Obama has not been a confidence-builder. The idea that white Americans carried in their minds when they passed the civil rights laws in the 1960s was that black people would both join white society and forgive it. Obama’s election was therefore seen by many as the final act of the civil rights movement. That it should instead institutionalise and even bring a new élan to government programmes that most citizens had thought temporary was a shock. At the same time, white demographic decline has been accompanied in many quarters with official exultation. The promise is not to enrich white America with new ethnicities but to replace it. A Black Lives Matter-affiliated group to whose protests the Yale University faculty capitulated last year calls itself ‘Next Yale’.

Any system of race-based transfers and rights will eventually polarise voters along racial lines, even with the best will in the world. Ron Christie, an aide to the racially sensitive George W. Bush, recently praised his former boss for having pursued ‘a strategy that awarded him the double-digit support of blacks’. Yes! After losing black voters to Al Gore in the 2000 election by 90 per cent to 9 per cent, Bush worked tirelessly to clear the air with black leaders, focused on race issues, and managed to lose to Kerry four years later by only 88 to 11. Woohoo! In the last election, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney among blacks 93 to six, and lost to Romney among whites by 59 per cent to 39. One can applaud any of these people morally if one wants, but politicians are in the business of winning votes. Would this year’s Republican nominee be better advised to try to quintuple the vote among a small group that hates him? Or use persuasion to shift by a few per cent the large group that is loyal to him?

The answer for Donald Trump is obvious. But he has a problem. Over the past generation Democrats have become the party of the new-economy ruling class. In both the 2008 and 2012 elections, according to the Washington Post, Obama won the rich counties of America but lost the poor ones. He split the college-educated vote, but he won double-digit margins among those with graduate training. Trump is actually polling worse among whites than Romney did. The successful part of the white electorate is either not buying Trump or will not admit to doing so. This might break up the electoral map in odd ways. If Trump did poorly, he could lose old Republican states that are becoming too rich (Virginia), too Hispanic (Texas) or too black (Georgia) to vote Republican. If he did well, he could take industrial states with downwardly mobile white populations that generally vote Democratic (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania).

Trump’s voters sense the system is rigged against them. This does not mean they blame blacks for their problems. Nor do they have any language for describing themselves as victims of racism. They may be deeply hurt or embarrassed by accusations of bigotry. Perhaps that is Hillary’s thinking in calling them a ‘basket of deplorables’. In an aspirational country where much of the middle class is downwardly mobile and taking its signals from television, people are terrified of exhibiting attitudes thought of as low-class. If Trump himself has recently been pitching for black support, starting in a church in Detroit in September, it may be less to win over black voters than to put his own white voters at ease.

This election has revolutionised the mainstream newspapers. The newest generation of journalists brags more about being engagé than about being objective. On the morning of Hillary’s health episode, the Washington Post headline ran: ‘Clinton holds lead over Trump in new poll, but warning signs emerge’, as if an advance for Trump could not be reported as anything but a negative event. In the wake of Hillary’s ‘deplorables’ comment, journalists have sent clear signals that the wages of Trump support is ostracism. ‘It doesn’t matter how lovely your family, how honourable your work or service, how devout your faith,’ writes Charles Blow of the New York Times, addressing Trump voters rather than Trump. ‘If you place ideological adherence or economic self-interest above the moral imperative to condemn and denounce a demagogue, then you are deplorable.’ The blogger Josh Marshall urges Hillary to press on with her attacks, since ‘Trump is in the midst of a making one of the country’s two major parties into a white nationalist hate group’.

Any American under 50 reading such arguments being made on behalf of the candidate of the elite will be reminded of a central lesson from African-American History month: whether or not a society’s unfortunates are morally contemptible, it is certainly handy for a ruling class that is treading them down to think of them that way.

Trump is correct when he speaks of a ‘rigged system’. He has turned out to be a skilled representative of those who feel themselves its victims. He has a genius for finding reasonable ways to talk about it. Thus when he speaks of affirmative action, he does not criticise its minority beneficiaries. He singles out Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a white woman from Oklahoma who reportedly invented American Indian ancestry when applying for her position at Harvard Law School. ‘Pocahontas,’ he calls her. He manages to attack affirmative action for its bad faith (an argument he can win), and not for the way it rectifies a historic injustice (an argument he cannot). He knows what he is doing.

So does Hillary. ‘I won’t stop calling out bigotry and racist rhetoric in this campaign,’ she tweeted the day before her collapse. ‘Calling out’ bigotry, which touches people at the level of their insecurity over status, is likely to work better than arguing it, which risks bringing the illogic of the present racial regime to the surface. One of the great advantages for Hillary of racialising her campaign was that it gave her a potential alibi for ducking the three debates scheduled with Trump. In the course of their political careers, Hillary has tended to lose ground in debates, and Trump to gain it. While one would not wish to be the aide who suggested she withdraw from a battle of wits with a man whose intellect she has ridiculed, it would have been the wiser course.

Her episode in New York makes that impossible. After her campaign’s alarming lack of transparency in the wake of it, people might decide they prefer Trump’s Putin to Clinton’s Brezhnev. They might use Hillary’s illness as a face-saving reason to vote for him. So Hillary now must travel the dangerous road to the debates, if only to show she is up to it.


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