The racial fears and economic frustration surrounding Trump’s political momentum do not form in a vacuum. Here’s how the angry white tornado formed, and where it goes next.
When the 2016 election is over—when the months of debates, nonsensical Tweets, and bizarre news appearances have faded into the annals of history—many will try to pinpoint the moment that best summarized the mood of the country in 2015 and 2016; the one event that encapsulated the emotions that have enveloped the American electorate as they watched nearly two dozen people try to succeed Barack Obama as president of the United States.
Here’s one contender. During a Fox Business Network Republican debate in South Carolina in January, just a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses, moderators asked Donald Trump about South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union, where she cautioned voters from being drawn like moths to “the angriest voices.” Amid Trump’s usual bluster was a potent message that has resonated with his supporters:
“I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. Our healthcare is a horror show. Obamacare, we’re going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry. And I won’t be angry when we fix it, but until we fix it, I’m very, very angry. And I say that to Nikki. So when Nikki said that, I wasn’t offended. She said the truth. One of your colleagues interviewed me. And said, well, she said you were angry and I said to myself, huh, she’s right. I’m not fighting that. I didn’t find it offensive at all. I’m angry because our country is a mess.”
If anything, Donald Trump’s diverse range of backers are united by their anger. They’re angry at big companies for moving overseas and taking jobs with them. They’re angry at banks for offering predatory loans and not being there to help clean up the mess. They’re angry that they can’t seem to lead the middle class lives their parents and grandparents enjoyed.
Trump has offered voters a simple way to channel that rage. He provides a litany of targets—immigrants, Muslims, refugees, Democrats—and he tells these people that their anger is okay, that it’s understandable, and that even if no one else with power is going to feel that anger alongside them, he will.
We’ve seen this before, notes sociologist Michael Kimmel, who is the author of Angry White Men, which traces the paths of marginalized men who turn to racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Kimmel notes that Trump “represents a long tradition” of populist politicians using race and national identity to win supporters, from William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long. Trump also invokes the nostalgia that populism thrives on, the idea that things were much better “back then.”
But this kind of anger doesn’t form in a vacuum. Here is how we got there.
America’s Face Is Changing
In Trump’s first address as a political candidate—the one where he rode majestically down his golden escalator at Trump Tower in New York City and announced that he was running for President—the real estate mogul took aim at illegal immigrants from Mexico, stating plainly that those new arrivals brought crime with them and that many of them were rapists. Later, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, Calif., Trump issued a press release advocating for a ban on Muslim entry to the United States.
“I’m watching this circus unfold on the Republican side and [seeing] the amount of permission that people are feeling finally to express the deep and abiding racism and rage,” Kimmel says.
Trump’s focus on race has won him support from white supremacists, or “race realists,” as they refer to themselves. He got attention in the weeks leading up to his second place finish in the Iowa Caucuses when he retweeted a supporter with the handle “WhiteGenocideTM.” (“White genocide” is a term far-right Internet denizens use to describe the trend of increased immigration and multiculturalism in both Europe and the U.S.)
The Trump campaign did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment on this story.
Despite taking flack for the move, Trump didn’t delete the tweet.
Jarred Taylor, the founder and editor of American Renaissance and a dedicated white supremacist, recorded a robocall urging Iowa voters to support Trump in the caucuses. Taylor says that while he’s voted for Republicans in the past, Trump is the first one he’s actively campaigned for. Taylor is plain in his conviction that Trump is good for white Americans. “It’s his approach to immigration. That’s his No. 1 thing,” he says. “I’m sure that’s what is the central aspect of his appeal to most people who support him.”
Taylor maintains that most people like to live near others who are like them. “We are supposed to be rejoicing at demographic change,” he says, but he and others like him don’t feel the joy.
But America’s racial identity is changing, no matter how anyone feels about it. The share of America’s Hispanic population is expected to increase by 2030 in much of the country. And by the mid-2040s, white people will no longer constitute a majority in the country (but they will still be a plurality, and by a fairly healthy margin.) This is the result of several factors, including higher birth rates among minority communities and the expectation that immigration will continue apace in the U.S.
Doug Holtz-Eakin, the president of the American Action Forum and the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, notes that often in the wake of a wave of immigration to the U.S., there is an equal and opposite move toward nativism. “We had a big wave of Hispanic immigration,” he said. “Sadly, in politics, nothing works better than fear and anger, and Trump is just out there stoking it.”
Trump likes to claim he created this issue, but resentment and angst about demographic shifts were simmering before he entered the presidential race. Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, notes that white parents have much greater fears for their children’s futures than black and Hispanic parents. This trend, she says, has persisted for around a decade. And in a 2014 Reuters/Ispos poll, 70% of Americans and 80% of Republicans expressed a belief that undocumented immigrants “threaten traditional U.S. beliefs and customs.”
Trump is channeling these fears for his own electoral gains. Matthew Heimbach, a self-described white nationalist who recently formed his own “Traditional Workers” party, points out that while other political candidates like Pat Buchanan have used dog whistle tactics to court these voters, “Trump uses a bullhorn.”
In a July poll from the Washington Post and ABC News, 42% of whites said they viewed Trump favorably, compared with 17% of non-whites who said the same.
This is not an exclusively American phenomenon. In the 2015 Israeli elections, Likud Party candidate and sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly appealed to his supporters to get to the polls to offset an increased voting bloc of Israeli-Arabs. And in France, Marine Le Pen and her National Front party seem to have a real chance of winning national elections. The Danish People’s Party and Golden Dawn in Greece have also seized on a nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment to gain power.
This Thing Isn’t Working
The racial anxiety that Trump has capitalized on has an economic sibling. That fear rests on the notion that large swathes of the American working population have no place in the post-recession U.S. economy. Trump conveniently directs that fear toward easy targets like immigrants and Muslims.
While the Obama administration has enjoyed several months of steady job creation in the U.S., with the unemployment rate falling below 5% in January 2016, there’s another side to this tale. Many people have simply dropped out of the workforce. The national labor force participation rate is currently at 62.7%. In the fall of 2000, at the end of the late-Clinton years boom, that rate was at an all-time high of 67.3%. For white men, it has gone from 75.9% in 1994 to 69.8% in 2014. And it is expected to dip to 66.5% by 2024.
Unlike the unemployment rate, the labor force participation rate includes people who aren’t looking for a job, either because they’re a student, a stay-at home parent, or because they’ve simply given up on the job search.
For young people, the situation is almost as bleak. In 1994, 83.1% of people between 20 and 24 were part of the U.S. labor force. In 2014, it was 73.9%.
At the same time, the long-held belief that a college degree can open doors to a bright economic future has come under attack. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of Americans enrolled at degree-granting institutions rose by 15% between 1992 and 2002, and by 24% between 2002 and 2012. At the same time, the job market for college grads has been challenging, with many graduates accepting positions that once would have gone to people with a high school diploma alone.
A 2014 survey from CareerBuilder found that 51% of college grads were employed in jobs that didn’t require a degree. This has pushed those with a high school diploma alone further into America’s economic periphery. The seasonally adjusted rate of employment for people under 25 with only high school diplomas in January 2016 was 54.7%. For college graduates, it was 72.5%.
A 2014 survey from the Pew Institute found that the median college-educated person made $17,500 more than those with a high school diploma. In 1965, the difference was closer to $7,500, and in 1986 it was $14,245. (Numbers adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2012 dollars.)
Making matters even more depressing, wages in the U.S. have been more or less stagnant since 1979, according to a study from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “I think that’s the preeminent issue of our time,” said EPI President Larry Mishel.
Donald Trump’s message has resonated with these voters, the ones who feel that the economy does not have a place for them. In an ABC News-Washington Post national poll of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning voters taken in July 2015, Donald Trump received 32% support among people without a college degree, giving the candidate the largest portion of support from that group. Meanwhile, he received just 8% support from degree-holders.
Who’s Got Your Back?
On top of that, there’s another declining force in American politics that, once upon a time, would have provided a helping hand to at least some unemployed and underemployed workers—the union. In 1983, 20.1% of workers belonged to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2015, that figure was just 11.1%. Unions, for much of the 20th century, functioned as an equalizer for working-class Americans. Even if big companies and the nation’s wealthiest held more power than any worker individually, with a union working Americans had a collective voice to advocate for increased benefits, higher pay, and safer working conditions. But the jobs that the American economy is creating—in retail and health, for instance—do not always offer such support.
So, where exactly are people to turn? Increasingly, it isn’t to political parties. A 2015 poll from the Pew Research Center showed that 24% of Americans have a negative view of both Republicans and Democrats. So, people start looking for a third way, and some have found that in Donald Trump.
America’s current case of anxiety and anger stems in part from the unhealed scars of the financial crisis, Bowman says. The fear that the American financial system was going to collapse, that the economy was on the brink of an irreversible meltdown—are still there. And with indicators pointing towards another possible recession, those anxieties are being reawakened.
Bowman likens the current economic mood to the events of 1979 and 1980, when America was contending with a struggling economy and embarrassment abroad with the Iran crisis. And what happened in 1980? Voters turned to Ronald Reagan. Reagan, to be sure, is not quite the same as Trump — he’d been a governor before he ran for president. But he was a Washington outsider, someone who promised to come in and fix the problems that career politicians had created. His campaign slogan? “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Sound familiar?
The Other Side of the Same Coin
But Trump is not the only populist in the 2016 presidential race. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the insurgent democratic socialist who recently won the New Hampshire primary, has given Hillary Clinton a much tougher fight for the nomination than anyone thought likely.
At a basic level, Sanders’ message to voters is similar to Trump’s: You’ve been screwed over. You worked hard but you can’t make ends meet. And it isn’t your fault.
Sanders claims that it’s the nation’s biggest banks, the wealthiest 1%, and the crony capitalists (like, for instance, Donald Trump) who’ve taken your money, shipped your job overseas, and given you an unfair mortgage just to sell off the bad debt and eventually receive a bailout.
Heimbach, for his part, praises Sanders for taking on big banks. The problem for him and others in his camp, though, is that Sanders thinks globally. He encourages immigration and the extension of social benefits to those new arrivals.
Heimbach says that while Sanders is a “global socialist,” Trump is a “national socialist”—yes, a national socialist.
If Sanders represents the classic Marxist line of thought that people are united more by class than race, Trump is the exact opposite. He wants to make America — and, implicitly, that means white America — great again. Everyone else be damned.
Donald Trump won the Republican Primary in New Hampshire this week. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary. It is possible neither will win their party’s nomination, though. If so, what happens next to their many supporters who feel disenfranchised and marginalized?
Michael Kimmel argues that, if Hillary Clinton makes it to the White House, the anger and bile may turn towards feminists—a shift that can already be seen online from groups like Men’s Rights Activists and #GamerGate. Such groups draw support from both sides of the political aisle.
To counter this anger, Holtz-Eakin says, the next president—assuming it isn’t Donald Trump—will have to have an “aggressive focus” on growing the economy, encouraging wage growth and job creation. At the same time, while that may have been enough to douse the flames Trump has lit the enormous potential for anger via social media may keep this fire alive and well. The establishments of both parties will try to restore the status quo—they may not be able to.