Almost a decade later, the televised scenes of a waving Barack Obama crossing the enormous Grant Park stage with his family to deafening Chicago cheers on Election Night 2008 are bittersweet, bordering on heartbreaking.
The joyful tears on audience faces back then are gripping — blacks and whites, recognizable faces such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and anonymous ones, all rejoicing that the landslide election of an African-American president signaled something wonderful about the capacity of America to evolve.
Those images were part of a recent PBS documentary about the arc of race relations since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago. Titled “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” it featured several black leaders suggesting that racism actually had not receded with Obama’s election. In fact, seeing a black man in the White House for eight years brought out racial anger for many white people, they ruefully remarked.
The Obama victory images were followed by images of the racist shirts and signs and Confederate flags of opponents, culminating in images of all-white crowds looking on adoringly as Donald Trump talked of making America great again.
For these past 17 months, white progressives have been figuratively staring at our shoes, scolded and dressed down for allegedly condescending to whites without college degrees who had been left behind by automation and globalization and whose prospects were grim. They have legitimate grievances, we were told, and progressives failed to listen.
But to me, Donald Trump’s ascent has always been more about race and gender, with economics, while a legitimate issue, employed in part as a facade.
So you can imagine my satisfaction when the new edition of Political Science Quarterly featured a wonky 34-page analysis by three researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that carried this headline: “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism.”
The article begins by detailing the voting divide between whites with and without college educations. There was a historically unprecedented gap of nearly 40 percent between college-educated whites supporting Hillary Clinton and those without college degrees backing Trump.
The authors write that there were two popular explanations — first, that “white working-class Americans were left behind” and “Trump’s populist economic message, focusing on protectionism and other policies to help working people, resonated with this feeling.”
And the second: “Trump’s willingness to make explicitly racist and sexist appeals during the campaign, combined with an African-American president and the first major party female-nominee, made racism and sexism a dividing line in the vote.”
The authors used two major national surveys from before the election, and combined them with deep-dive measures of racist and sexist attitudes and dissatisfaction with personal economic conditions. They concluded, “We find that while economic considerations were an important part of the story, racial attitudes and sexism were much more strongly related to support for Trump.”
Through an array of charts and graphs, the authors contend that, more than other variables, the tendency to support Trump increases as “one moves from low levels to high levels of racism or sexism,” much more so than based on opinions about economics or other policy questions.
The authors wrote diplomatically: “Trump’s rhetoric frequently violated norms that were supposed to inhibit politicians from making explicitly racist appeals.”
It used to be, said the experts, that explicit racism would backfire, but in a series of more recent survey experiments, “whites now view themselves as an embattled racial group, and this has led to both strong in-group identity and a greater tolerance for expressions of hostility toward out-groups.”
Clinton’s gender was also a factor, they said. They cite a so-called “role incongruity theory” that is “based on the notion that people tend to think that women should behave but that political leaders ought to be independent and assertive.”
So what does this all mean?
“If Republicans see little prospect of winning over racial or ethnic minorities in the near future, they have two choices — moderate their appeals in order to restore their advantage among more educated white voters or repeat the Trump strategy.”
“The latter strategy,” they concluded, “is at least as plausible as the former.”
Look at the evidence here in Wisconsin of voter suppression and the racial stereotypes that Republicans have tried to attach to people of color in Milwaukee for all of this decade. If you don’t believe the politics of race and gender are central to today’s Republican Party, consider the tepid reaction to Trump’s trade war.
The most recent Chinese retaliation against Trump on trade is aimed at pork products and soybeans produced in the United States, which analysts have said seem to place a bull’s-eye on Trump’s Midwestern base.
If Obama had proposed such tariffs, there would have been hell to pay, but fellow Republicans and Trump’s devotees employ only careful rhetoric, gently urging the president to look out for his core constituency.
During the Trump presidency, stories too many to count have been published about how Trump’s true believers retain an unshakable loyalty toward him even as he offends their moral sensibilities and their economic prospects diminish.
And yet, almost daily, we are told not to attack Trump’s supporters because it will only exacerbate the gulf. I agree that addressing the economy — the enormous gap in wealth and opportunity — is vital. That’s always been a progressive focus.
But just recently, columnist David Brooks of the New York Times wrote: “The main reason Trump won the presidency is that tens of millions of Americans rightly feel their local economies are under attack, their communities are dissolving and their religious liberties are under threat. Trump understood the problems of large parts of America better than anyone else.”
Perhaps writers such as Brooks cling to this economic narrative because it is hard to accept the deep well of racism, sexism, and xenophobia that runs through large swaths of American society.
In the same passage, Brooks wrote that Trump “has been able to strengthen his grip on power over the past year because he has governed as he campaigned.”
On that point, sadly, I’d agree.
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