In a widely-circulated essay for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes Donald Trump as America’s “first white President”. He is, of course, the forty-fourth white President, but the essence of Coates’ argument is that Trump has made a special point of succeeding the first President who wasn’t white:
“Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.”
However, Coates doesn’t just condemn the racial politics of Trumpism, he argues that this is what got Trump elected. He specifically rejects the counter-narrative, which is that Trump voters were simply pushing back against an out-of-touch (and mostly white) establishment:
“The scope of Trump’s commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness… In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.”
But how can Coates be so certain that it was white entitlement rather than anti-elitism that delivered the shock result? Writing in the American Conservative, Musa Al-Gharbi argues that the psephological evidence points in the other direction:
“We’ll set aside the fact that many of the white voters who proved most decisive for Trump’s election actually voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. It turns out that Trump did not mobilize or energize whites towards the ballot box either: their participation rate was roughly equivalent to 2012 (and lower than in 2008).”
If Trump was playing the race card, it didn’t work:
“…whites actually made up a smaller share of the electorate than they did in previous cycles, while Hispanics, Asians and racial ‘others’ comprised larger shares than they had in 2012 or 2008.
“This wouldn’t, in itself, be a problem for Coates’ argument had Trump won some kind of unprecedented share of the whites who did turn out to vote. He did not. Trump didn’t even exceed Romney’s 2012 numbers with whites overall. However, he did outperform his predecessor with blacks and Hispanics.”
Note that Al-Gharbi is emphatically not denying the influence of racism on voting patterns:
“Was race a critical factor in the 2016 election? Undoubtedly. But this can be said of virtually every cycle in American history—including the 2008 and 2012 races which resulted in the election and re-election of Barack Obama.”
Whites who previously voted for Obama in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania didn’t need to turn racist to see the appeal of Trump. He was, like Obama before him, the more anti-establishment of the two candidates on offer. Indeed, Hillary Clinton (who is just as white, and much less orange, than the man who beat her) is the epitome of out-of-touch elitism, which is why she lost. Those who swung the election were voting against her and what she most visibly represents, not against (the memory of) Obama and what he most visibly represents.
If the Democrats had had the guts to go with Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Trump would not be President now. Or, if the US constitution had allowed Barrack Obama to run for a third term, Trump would not be President now.
But what explains the thirst for populist or merely reformist candidates? Why are voters so hungry for change?
In many US ‘heartland’ communities the sense of decline is palpable. In all sorts of ways – economic, social and cultural – life is not as good as it used to be. The radical left, to whom everything is a zero-sum game, characterise this unhappiness as resentment at the loss of ‘privilege’ or even ‘supremacy’.
In reality, the decline that drives populism is absolute not relative. The opioid epidemic ravaging flyover country does not depend on there being less addiction elsewhere. Widespread family breakdown among poorer Americans would not be more bearable if it were just as widespread among richer Americans. The loss of community institutions in the heartland was not caused by a surge of social capital in the coastal cities.
When people respond to a message like ‘Make America Great Again’, most of them just want their lives to be great again.