March 10, 2016
When I first started writing about the Trump candidacy last summer it was because his hateful rhetoric reminded of what I had heard in my many years of studying racist groups like the Nazi skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan. I feared for the brown members of my family but hoped that, like so many Trump products, the marketplace of ideas would send the Orange Aristocrat to the dustbin of history; that this “Ivy League” braggart with his horribly misspelled tweets and his potty mouth would be given a permanent time-out by sane political voices.
Well, we were all wrong. Somehow the Trump shell game has only gained followers. So the question is now, who the hell are these people voting for Trump? It’s easy enough to blanket characterize them of as idiotic racists flocking to the game show host’s cult of personality like good little Germans, but that angle is horribly problematic. It denies the fact that these are real people responding to problems that they believe to be real. Their numbers include some of my own friends and family members whom I’d never describe as knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers.
So pollsters and pundsters are wringing their hands trying to figure out who this mob is that might be driving the United States towards fascism while the rest of the world watches in horror and humor. “Donald Trump? Really? Sacré bleu!” YouTube is full of videos of Trumpists saying stupid, racist, and completely wrong things giving credence to the popular belief that they’re an army sub-moronic cretins who have fallen for Trump’s fact-free medicine show. But those folks giving the Donald their stiff-armed pledge don’t tell the whole story.
While ranking Republicans are freaking out, trying to unmask the Trump con (even Glenn Beck has compared him to Hitler) there’s something happening in the country. And that something is same phenomenon that is also driving people to support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.
It’s no longer a blue collar world
My master’s research was a thirteen-month study of a group of white supremacist skinheads in Orlando, Florida in 1989 and 1990. I was trying to figure where these little Nazis came from. Were they crazy? Did they have abusive parents? Did black guys steal their girlfriends? What I found was they were responding to the very real phenomenon of deindustrialization. The economic policies of Ronald Reagan opened the door for manufacturing industries to close up shop and head across the border and overseas in search of cheap labor.
If I work in a factory, I probably belong to a union and that union has used collective bargaining to secure a decent wage, paths to promotion, health care benefits, and maybe even a pension. I can work in an auto plant or a textile mill and still buy a (small) house and send my kid to (state) college. That’s the American Dream right there and it evaporated under Reagan. Of the people to move out of the middle class in the 1980s, two-thirds moved downward, not up. And it got worse when Bill Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993, accelerating manufacturing job loss and replacing them with shitty, low-wage, no benefit service sector jobs. Fifty years ago the number one employer in America was General Motors. Now it’s Wal-Mart.
These skinheads knew lots of people who had been laid off or downsized (including their parents). What was happening to America? they’d ask. The answer came from neo-Nazis like John Metzger (son of White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger) who would tell them exactly why. It was immigration, Affirmative Action and a “Jew-controlled” economy conspiring to take away “their” country. A very real problem (deindustrialization) was given a bogus explanation (Jews) and followed up with a very old-fashioned solution (violence). A recipe that has driven the racist skinhead movement ever since.
In much of America, this problem persists. Wages are down and benefits are few and far between. The factory is gone and in its place is a Wal-Mart selling American flags made in Vietnam. There must be somebody to blame for this.
Donald Trump as a Strongman
Donald Trump is a hyper-masculine cartoon character. He wants to torture terrorists and kill their children. That is until one of his seemingly slow advisors hands a note saying that’s illegal. He wants to “bomb the crap” out of ISIS, unaware that Obama has been quietly doing just that. He wants to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., “until we know what the hell is going on,” except for the fact that we do know what the hell is going on. And he goes on and on about how “they” are chopping off our heads (in New Jersey?). Most famously he wants to “build a wall” to magically keep illegal aliens out, seemingly oblivious to the fact that illegal immigration has decreased and deportations have increased under Obama. All that might not play well on college campuses where kids actually keep up on the news, but it’s a huge hit with the white boys in South Carolina and Mississippi.
My Orlando skinheads were little authoritarians who were frightened by the changes in the world and wanted someone to come along and give them a path out of the chaos to order. Unfortunately, it was older Neo-Nazis who gave them that very ordered worldview and action plan. There’s a real parallel with the Trumpists who are scared shitless of Muslims, Mexican immigrants and Black Lives Matters protesters who are upsetting their world. It’s hard enough to keep up with cell phone technology, let alone these non-WASPS who might push terrified whites off the privilege throne. So here comes Trump, railing against “political correctness,” and the “God-given-right” to push back against these darkies. “All lives matter,” he bleats. “I’ve got a big dick!” he promises us. “Believe me.”
Recent research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found support for this idea. A doctoral student named Matthew MacWilliams found that Trump supporters, unlike the general population, demonstrated authoritarian personalities (just like my skinheads). Trumpists felt threatened by outsiders and were more likely to flock to a strongman who, they believed, would stop the changes that they feared the most. So Donald Trump says he’s going to build a wall on our southern border and suddenly he’s their savior. It might be too obvious to draw the parallels with Hitler here but the xenophobia of Trump and his core following is not exactly new. We can talk about how fear-mongering moves us toward another F word, fascism.
Fear is the Path to the Darkside
We’ve got plenty of evidence about the frightening views Trump supporters hold. A recent YouGov poll found that a third of Trumpists thought placing Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II was a good idea and one in five Trumpists thought freeing the slaves was a bad idea. No wonder Trump has been slow to disavow support from white supremacists. (He’ll disavow it with a hrumpf that says stop making me do this.) And disavowing someone like Klansman David Duke is much different than making a heartfelt statement about the evils of white supremacy. The bottom line is these are Trump’s people!
Trump’s support has been less in whiter states, like Oklahoma, where Ted Cruz has been winning. Researchers have shown that you find higher rates of racism among people who believe they are directly competing with minorities for the same jobs. Data has shows that Trump supporters overwhelming believe (wrongly) that Affirmative Action takes jobs away from whites and hands them to blacks. They also have the incorrect idea that their taxes go to welfare for lazy (minority) adults who refuse to work. This was a lie Ronald Reagan pioneered in 1980 to move working class whites away from the Democratic Party. Driving this trend are southern evangelicals who have little to do with Jesus and lot to do with racial resentment, according to recent research done at Vanderbilt University.
Trump has tempered is huge support from white supremacists by pushing a more politically correct version of racism that makes brown the new black. He’ll find a small number of African-Americans who are ginned up on the competition with Latinos for crappy jobs and place them in front of the camera at his rallies. They are victims of the same economic policies that he’s profited from but he tells us that he has a “great relationship with the blacks.” “No on has done more for equality than I have,” he recently proclaimed. So fuck you, MLK.
Earlier this week I was on The Gavin McInnes Show, the right-wing internet show that’s popular with anti-feminists and “angry white men,” having a surprisingly good discussion about racism and Trump with guest host Jim Goad, author of The Redneck Manifesto. I think we both clearly stated our points and I was glad to participate. Afterwards I got a tweet from a fan of the show that said, “ if u dont believe blacks have a problem with violence why do u live in a white city? Move to black Chicago and test your bullshit.” I’m trying not to engage these folks on Twitter but I wanted to explain to him all the years I joyfully lived in downtown Atlanta and that I purposely moved to historically black part of Portland. But he lives in fear and the fear drives his political choices.
The year of the “I’m not a racist, but…” voter
Of course Trump’s coded racism is clearly understood by his followers. The endless data is telling us who his supporters are. They are older, whiter and angrier. They’re angry at the how the country has changed in the last fifty years with all the feminists, homosexuals, non-English speakers, and most symbolically of all, Barack Hussein Obama, their black president. Like the white supremacists I studied, they want somebody to “make America great again,” when a white man could beat up a black protestor and not get labeled as a “hate criminal.”
The anger is also targeted at the “disastrous trade policies” of the “stupid leaders” in Washington (who are mostly Republican) who have been unable to stop the the “Obama agenda” from driving the country off a cliff (or to renewed prosperity, if you look at the actual economic measures). With merely the power of his awesome personality, they believe that Trump will transform the complex workings of all three branches of the federal government. (“Meat Loaf for the Supreme Court!”) Just like Mussolini, who Trump is fond of quoting.
The great irony is that the Trumpists are motivated by a very real problem, the erosion of the middle class rooted in the very policies that Trump has benefited from to make his money. Trump’s lovely ties are made in China where the cheap labor is. And it’s a problem that impacts EVERYBODY in the working class, not just whites. These policies, including the Clinton-signed NAFTA, are also motivating many Sanders supporters, but instead of blaming the people at the bottom (who are often not white), Sanders and his voters are more likely to understand the problem is systemic magnified by the influence of corporate lobbyists in politics. But that’s a more complex issue. Scapegoating Mexicans is easier for Trumpists.
Bernie Sanders might be able to reach out to these economically dislocated Trump supporters in a way that Hillary Clinton can’t. But they have to be willing to abandon their authoritarian need to bash outsiders and insiders who don’t look (or pray) like them. They will have to let go of their fear. That’s a big “If” and points to the sad reality that after Trump goes back to his golden palace, another strongman will likely arise with the promise of making America great (white) again.
Post-script (Aug. 3, 2016): Warning: This Trump rally video includes vulgarities and racial and ethnic slurs.