Why Do People Still Support Trump? Try Identity Politics.

Here’s the estimable Clive Crook at Bloomberg, offering a false dichotomy to explain why people still support Trump:

There are two main theories of Trump’s support. One is that a large minority of Americans — 40 percent, give or take — are racist idiots. This theory is at least tacitly endorsed by the Democratic Party and the mainstream liberal media. The other is that a large majority of this large minority are good citizens with intelligible and legitimate opinions, who so resent being regarded as racist idiots that they’ll back Trump almost regardless. They may not admire the man, but he’s on their side, he vents their frustration, he afflicts the people who think so little of them — and that’s good enough.”

Crook, who disagrees with Trump on a number of issues, chooses the second theory.  I think Trump support is more complex than this, as I’ve written from several different angles.  But playing on Crook’s terms, there’s also more than two theories about the role race plays in Trump’s support.

As far back as August 2015, The Federalist’s Ben Domenech wrote:

Ultimately, Trump presents a choice for the Republican Party about which path to follow: a path toward a coalition that is broad, classically liberal, and consistent with the party’s history, or a path toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.


‘Identity politics for white people’ is not the same thing as ‘racism’, nor are the people who advocate for it necessarily racist, though of course the categories overlap. In fact, white identity politics was at one point the underlying trend for the majoritarian American cultural mainstream. But since the late 1960s, it has been transitioning in fits and starts into something more insular and distinct. Now, half a century later, the Trump moment very much illuminates its function as one interest group among many, as opposed to the background context for everything the nation does.”

There is plenty of political science bearing out Ben’s theory.  As Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke, wrote in 2014:

When the dominant status of whites relative to racial and ethnic minorities is secure and unchallenged, white identity likely remains dormant. When whites perceive their group’s dominant status is threatened or their group is unfairly disadvantaged, however, their racial identity may become salient and politically relevant.”

Similarly, as far back as 2005, political scientist Cara Wong and then-grad student Grace E. Cho found that “white racial identity is not politically salient,” but added that because

white identity is indeed unstable but easily triggered, the danger is that a demagogue could influence the salience of these identities to promote negative outgroup attitudes, link racial identification more strongly to policy preferences, and exacerbate group conflict.”

Enter Donald J. Trump.  As further noted in the NYT, political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck, analyzed an American National Election Studies survey taken in January 2016 and found:

[F]ewer than five percent of white Republicans who indicated that their racial identity was of little importance supported Trump.  Among those who said their identity as whites was extremely important to them, Trump’s support reached 81 percent.”

BTW, that ANES survey found 36% of whites described their racial identity as either “very important” (16%), “extremely important” (20%), while another 25% said it was “moderately important.”  The pool here is substantially larger than the the fringe of white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville, Boston, etc.

Again, as Ben noted, this is not simply about racism.  Many likely white identifiers voted for Obama (in 2008, anyway) before voting for Trump.  But as Jardina noted, “white identifiers would like many of the same benefits of identity politics that they believe other groups enjoy.”  Public opinion polling continues to suggest this growing sense of white victimhood.

In sum, while Crook’s analysis hypothesizes that Trump supporters could only be viewed as either “racist idiots” or “good citizens with intelligible and legitimate opinions, who… resent being regarded as racist idiots,” it leaves out the category of “race-conscious.”  The reality is not (dare I write it)… black and white.

Interestingly, Crook views the “racist idiots” theory, if true, as “an argument against democracy,” but does not see his preferred theory — in which people largely support Trump because they don’t like others calling them racist — as an argument against democracy.

Name-calling has been part of politics since politics was invented.  Democrats have been calling Republicans (and anyone else who differs with them) racists since LBJ, with disproportionate aid from the GOP, stopped Democrats from offering Jim Crow to voters.  What does it say about American democracy that this rather ordinary state of affairs now causes people to abandon individual responsibility and moral agency mostly to troll the Left?

What I think it says is that the Left has been successful at emphasizing identity politics not only in the electoral arena, but in the culture more generally.  And like most left-wing social engineering, there were unintended consequences.

Remember this the next time someone more pro-Trump than Crook smugly trots out theories of How You Got Trump that rely on people rebelling against the media, Hollywood, etc. etc.   The more realistic version of those theories is that white identity politics is How You Got Trump.  It’s nothing to be smug about.

[Note: I will probably skip a post for Friday and return, like many of you, after the long holiday weekend.  If you don’t see me in your inbox or your timeline, I’m not dead, merely tired and shagged out after a long squawk.]

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