The resilience of Donald Trump’s base of support is an enduring mystery to liberals and establishment conservatives alike. For many, race relations seem to be the key to understanding Trump’s base: Virulent racism—always latent in the body politic—has triggered a fever of resentment and anger that has overwhelmed the electorate’s capacity for reasoned and civil political discourse.
But Trumpism is not a simple retread of the white supremacy of the past. Many Trump voters supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 over white candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney. Maybe eight years of a black President was more than they could take, inspiring a racist backlash in these formerly open-minded voters. But it’s more likely that those Obama-to-Trump supporters cast a ballot for Trump despite his racism, not because of it. Racial politics can tell us something about Trump’s popularity, but, ironically, the history of American race relations suggests that Trump’s mystifyingly loyal supporters are less like the recalcitrant white supremacists of the past and more like the beleaguered and desperate African-Americans who—against their better natures and better judgment—followed demagogues such as the Nation of Islam’s overtly anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, who rose to prominence by organizing the Million Man March in 1995, and supported charlatans such as Washington DC’s “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry, who was reelected even after serving time for smoking crack cocaine.
In their embrace of the crass, bigoted, impulsive Trump, white working-class voters resemble no group more than the poor and working-class African-Americans who flocked to support Farrakhan in the 1990s. Like Trump, Farrakhan was a vulgar embarrassment to the mainstream: His rise to a leading role in black politics baffled and dismayed responsible political leaders, who initially shunned him for his sexism, corruption, and anti-Semitism. Farrakhan was, like Trump, a skillful demagogue who exploited the frustration of people who had been treated with contempt by the powerful and privileged. Like Trump, Farrakhan spoke in the unrefined cadence and style of the people and, like Trump, he traded in slanders and conspiracy theories that were alloyed with just enough truth to make them plausible to an uneducated and deeply suspicious audience. Farrakhan and Trump both spoke of a return to traditional values and old hierarchies—a message that resonated in communities plagued by joblessness, nihilism, addiction, and crime. Although many mainstream black politicians and opinion leaders shunned the Million Man March because of its defining sexism and the outspoken anti-Semitism of its organizer (#NeverFarrakhan!), many others joined in, gambling that they could harness the momentum of a reckless and self-serving bigot and turn it to their own purposes. Predictably the egotistical Farrakhan insisted that he himself was larger than the movement he had galvanized: “Today, whether you like it or not, God brought the idea . . . through me.” Similarly, after his list of exaggerated crises facing the nation, Trump declared at the Republican National Convention: “I am your voice. . . . I alone can fix it.”
Of course, unlike Farrakhan’s admirers, Trump’s hard-core supporters are white—members of a privileged class who have no need of the petty politics of ressentiment. Or are they? It’s now conventional wisdom in academia to insist that race is a “social construction.” A prominent account of race and racism describes a process of “racial formation” in which racial groups are constantly recreated through a host of social interactions and political decisions. Racial groups change over time—old races gradually atrophy and die and new ones slowly emerge to take their place: In the 18th century, Pennsylvania’s Germans (the Pennsylvania Dutch or Deutsche) were considered a “swarthy” distinct race; according to historian Noel Ignatiev, the Irish “became white” only in the late 19th century; fair-skinned Pakistanis are “black” in the United Kingdom; it’s not clear whether recent immigrants to the United States from Ethiopia or Ghana count as “African-American.” Like the 19th-century Irish, today some dark-skinned people are becoming more and more “white” in terms of privilege and socialization (think of South Asians in Silicon Valley). At the same time—and this is key to understanding Trump’s base—some whites are being pushed out of the privileged caste to which their parents belonged. The social and cultural divisions that separate gilded Wall Street from rust-belt Main Street and the Ivy League from the Appalachians are as great as those that separate Park Avenue from Harlem or Chevy Chase from inner city Baltimore.
The current pathologies of predominantly white rural and rust-belt communities resemble those of the predominantly black inner city communities that embraced Farrakhan: Job opportunities for whites without a college education are only slightly rosier than for similarly uneducated blacks, drug addiction in poor white communities is now endemic, the family structure is in collapse, out of wedlock births are on the rise (even as they are in decline among poor blacks), and aimless young people have turned to gangs and senseless violence. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Report on the Negro Family, which—controversially but by and large accurately—described the cultural decay of black inner-city communities in 1965 could be applied, almost word for word, to rural and rust-belt white communities in 2016.
As a consequence, whites left behind by the new high-tech economy and globalization are now treated by white elites with the kind of contempt once reserved for African-Americans. Mainstream conservatives, appalled at Trump’s success, derided his supporters as ignorant, belittling their complaints and attributing their marginalization and poverty to laziness, moral failure and lack of initiative. For instance, in the National Review, Kevin Williamson describes rust-belt and rural whites in terms historically reserved for inner-city blacks:
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or . . . West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy . . . the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that . . . [t]he white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.
For their part, liberal elites attacked them as bigots and sexists—Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” These moralistic condemnations of troubled communities, while callous, contain some truth: Economic decline and lack of hope breed moral decay, nihilism, and social dysfunction. Struggling white rust-belt and rural communities are now trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty long associated with black ghettoes.
Viewed in this light, the reassertion of white racism that characterized Trump’s campaign looks like a pathetic act of desperation, a final, frantic bid to retain superordinate racial status in the face of cultural and economic forces that are making skin color and ancestry less and less relevant, just as black anti-Semitism seeks easy advantage by exploiting the vulnerability of other victims of prejudice. The real difference, of course, between Trump and Farrakhan is simply the size of their constituencies. Farrakhan’s faux populism got him on stage in front of the largest crowd up to then to march on Washington DC. Trump’s got him inside the Oval Office.
These cross-racial similarities suggest one hopeful observation and one worrisome one. There is reason to hope that some of the ugly bigotry on display since Trump’s election may be less than skin deep. Most members of Farrakhan’s audience during the Million Man March were not anti-Semites: They were desperate people who, neglected by mainstream institutions, went looking for salvation in the wrong place. Similarly, underlying the self-destructive ressentiment of many Trump voters is a valid anxiety: The American economy is leaving millions of them behind, and as they sink into poverty and desperation, they face an indifference and contempt remarkably similar to that long endured by poor racial minorities. This leads to the worry. The response of Trump’s base to its disfavored status also looks familiar to those who have observed poor black communities since the late 1960s: a belligerent and defensive assertion of racial and cultural pride which, almost inevitably, takes the form of an exaggeration of their most dysfunctional cultural traits. As in the case of inner city African-Americans, Trump’s supporters now see crude language, loud and obnoxious behavior, vulgar attire, blatant sexism, and bigotry as central to their identity. This makes their chances for success in the cosmopolitan mainstream slim and threatens to reinforce the destructive tribalism that increasingly defines our politics.