17 November 2016

The secret Trump voter

Reveal podcast recently ran a show on the secret Trump voter. One of the Trump voters they talked to was Richard Spencer, white nationalist. Spencer invented the term “alt right” for his political movement, which calls for a racially pure post-American nation state. He talks in his interview of the importance of white identity — which, along with a belief that whites are treated unfairly, is a powerful predictor of Trump support.

Stephen Bannon has proudly declared that Breitbart is the platform of the alt right. Bannon has now been appointed as chief strategist and senior counselor in the Trump White House. The Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party are delighted by Bannon’s appointment. The KKK is planning a victory parade in December.

Those old-style racists are just a small part of Trump’s following, though. It wasn’t all about straightforward Klan-style racism. There were a number of other issues that doomed Hillary Clinton. Of course, the NRA turned out its roster of single-issue voters to support Trump, but that was a given. I want to consider the other things various people have claimed the election was about.

One thing the Trump victory wasn’t about, in the end, was education. The myth of the dumb Trump voter is just that — a myth. When you control for racial resentment and immigrant resentment, less educated white voters are no more likely to support Trump. If you didn’t see any educated Trump voters, that’s because they kept really, really quiet about it — until the election.

Trump’s victory wasn’t about religion either. Yes, white Catholics overwhelmingly supported Trump — but among Hispanic Catholics, the surge towards Clinton was just as strong. The same pattern held in other Christian groups. (Muslims, of course, were really strongly anti-Trump, but there weren’t enough of them to make a big difference to the result.)

I thought Hillary Clinton’s position on free trade, NAFTA and TPP would hurt her, but that probably wasn’t an issue either. The white working class has steadily drifted towards the Republicans for decades, even as that party has championed free trade and globalization and cosied up to Wall Street. In fact, one of the problems vexing the Republican party is that its voters did a sudden 180 on free trade as soon as they decided they liked Trump.

So was there any economic issue motivating Trump voters? In a national survey carried out by YouGov, how dissatisfied people were with their economic situation did correlate strongly to Trump support — but two other things correlated just as strongly. The first of those was denying that white people have an advantage in society because of their skin color.

If you spend any time discussing race on the Internet — and I do — you quickly find the same grievances coming up time and time again: “affirmative action” and “reverse racism”. People get really angry about affirmative action, because they don’t believe the need for it is real. They reinterpret it as special advantages for others, and develop racial resentment, telling you that if you support affirmative action then you’re the racist. So assuming you want to view the whole election as an exercise in strategy, rather than truth, the Democrats made a major blunder in admitting that yes, white privilege is real.

Hillary Clinton’s second day at the Democratic convention was summarized as “Black Lives Matter”, and it infuriated the right, who insist that systemic racism “doesn’t exist in America”. This myth of postracial America is deeply ingrained in many white Americans, and they get really angry when it’s questioned — the phenomenon known as white fragility.

While he infuriated the straightforward racists during his time as President, Barack Obama seemed to manage to avoid causing too many feelings of white fragility. (It was Michelle Obama who triggered those.) Barack Obama was popular with many white people precisely because his success seemed to offer evidence that racism was dead. When Hillary Clinton said it wasn’t, they hated her for it. The only thing worse than being told that systemic white racism is still an issue, is having another white person tell you; and the only thing worse than that, is having a woman tell you.

Which brings me back to that YouGov survey. The second thing which correlated strongly to Trump support was a belief that women were trying to seize power by gaining control over men. The issue turned up repeatedly in surveys — one of the strongest predictors of Trump support was hostility to women. Many men simply don’t trust women; never have, probably never will. Obviously, there was just no way Hillary Clinton was going to win that battle.

The media certainly played a role in Clinton’s downfall. There was very little coverage of actual policy — nothing new there — but considering what little there was, they gave Trump three times as much coverage, and Clinton’s coverage was almost all about her e-mail policy. Liberals didn’t trust her on TPP and Wall Street, but that wasn’t what killed her with the ordinary white guy; Joe Biden was a supporter of TPP and the bank bailouts, yet he was really popular with the white working class.

So the Trump victory was about economics — but apparently only in as much as Trump supporters were dissatisfied with how well off they were compared to women and black people, who get unfair advantages from racist and sexist Democrats, right Trump voters?

No, Trump voters weren’t actually poor — they were better off than average — they just weren’t happy to see women and people of color starting to catch up. They wanted the racial hierarchy to be restored, they wanted to be told the reassuring myth of postracial America, and they wanted the glass ceiling to be strengthened.

So, a con artist ran on a platform of straightforward anti-immigrant racism mixed with white identity, racial resentment, and misogyny. That and some gun owner votes seem to be what helped him win. Maybe you voted for something else, but your vote said that those things were OK, that they weren’t deal-breakers. I hope you can live with that.

© mathew 2017