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Racism or Economic Anxiety: Which Trumps the Other?

“We have tremendous African-American support,” he says sporting a camouflage cap with bright orange “Make America Great Again” stitching, “The reason is because I’m going to bring jobs back to our country.” With a hand waving relentlessly and an American flag pinned to his lapel, Donald Trump made these remarks at a rally in California.

Trump does not have tremendous African-American support. In fact, some would say his rise was predicated on blatant racism, whereas others might argue economic anxiety among working class whites drove this victory. It is unfair to place blame entirely on either one–racial resentment and economic anxiety have become inseparable in the ardent Trump supporter ideology.

Fundamental to both of these issues is a lack of voice and political agency among longtime Trump supporters who feel ignored by the establishment. This “tough,” “outsider” juggernaut has given formerly impotent voters a vocal leader. This is not the reluctant Republican Trump voter. This is the loud supporter from the primaries who averaged the lowest education level among Republican voters, yet not necessarily the lowest income status. In fact, Clinton won the popular vote among working-class Americans, and Cruz was favored by the lowest income Republican primary voters. The idea that his nomination was swayed by the white working-class voter is a myth.

During the primaries, the most common determinant of Republican support for Trump were voters who “somewhat” or “strongly agree” that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” This belief was more telling than gender, age, race, employment status, educational level, income, or attitudes toward various minorities.

Arlie Hochschild’s ethnographic study of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana reveals a collective narrative in which her subjects feel as though they are stuck in a metaphorical line for the American dream, but “a black man whose middle name is Hussein” keeps allowing minorities, immigrants, women, and gays to skip them in line. She argues that Trump appealed to the envy, anxiety, and anger of these white voters who feel marginalized by those who automatically deem them “bigots” or “ignorant rednecks.” This narrative is not the anthem of all Trump voters, yet it hints at the resentments that influenced his victory. Not acknowledging their concerns because we assume they are innately ignorant or prejudiced exhilarated a populist campaign.

In a similar vein, John White argues Trump used Latino immigrants, Muslim Americans, and the ineffective political establishment as scapegoats who are responsible for any national discontent. Trump effectively capitalizes on any feelings of powerlessness by blaming them on “illegal aliens,” “radical islamic terrorists,” and the swamp he has to drain. His populist appeal relies on the assertion that only he–the outsider–is capable of making significant changes. Therefore, even though Trump voters are not the poorest demographics; they feel threatened by “limited resources” that poor people of color can take advantage of through welfare and affirmative action. They are tired of being unheard. It’s their time to get ahead.

In a sense, Nixon’s southern strategy was recreated in this election. Trump framed Clinton as a weak candidate who wanted completely unsafe open borders for Syrian refugees and Latino immigrants, and she was touted as unable to assert “law and order” against criminal minorities. Discourses surrounding racial tensions have reached record highs in the past five years, and this election mirrored the white backlash that occurred with the election of Nixon after the Civil Rights Era.

While it is important to have nuanced, empathetic perspectives on our fellow citizens, it is also important to fight against movements that foster outright bigoted ideologies. Not all Trump voters are bigots, but this campaign has already emboldened unacceptable violence against Muslim Americans, a Black Lives Matter activist, and a homeless Latino man.

Whether or not Donald Trump is actually a racist or a white nationalist is irrelevant. At the end of the day, he merely exploited the resentment that was already deeply rooted in many Americans. The normalization of white nationalism is incredibly problematic, but who is really to blame? Perhaps, we should blame Washington for failing to listen to constituents and to one another in actual attempts at improving the lives of Americans through social and economic security efforts. Trump’s most ardent supports truly believed he would put his voters on top–economically, culturally, and internationally. In their perspective, only some can attain the American Dream, and they want to be first in line.

Callie • December 13, 2016

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