For 15 months, pundits, journalists and observers have characterized Donald Trump's base as racist Islamophobes, and understandably so: Exit polls from many primaries found between 40 and 50% of Trump supporters thought black people were lazier and more violent than white people. And 70% held unfavorable views of American Muslims.
Yet ever since Trump was elected president on Nov. 8, these same pols and pundits have started to reject the idea that he rode a wave of white, racial resentment to the White House.
"Trump didn't win because of racism," reads a Bloomberg headline from Nov. 9. "If white liberals listened, Donald Trump could have been stopped," reads the headline on a Mic piece which attributes his win to Clinton's failure to address white, working class economic anxieties. Columnists at NPR, CNN and the New York Times have all made similar assertions. Not all Trump supporters are racist, they argue; most just want change and a better lives for themselves and their families.
It seems not to have occurred to these observers that voters can be racist and nervous about economic stability at the same time. In fact, the racialization of economic anxiety is so defining a feature of American life that it's nearly impossible to untangle the two.
While it's true that aggregate numbers do not tell each voter's full story, it's also no coincidence that the group most consistently drawn to racist explanations for their woes is white people. Blacks and Hispanics have also been hit hard by job loss — today, white unemployment stands at 4.4%, compared with 5.8% for Hispanics and 8.5% for blacks. Yet black and Hispanic voters have not been so easily seduced by the GOP's racialized charms.
White voters, in fact, were the only racial group to line up behind Trump at higher rates than Clinton. Whites who lack college degrees — a metric pollsters typically use as a proxy for working class status — supported the president-elect at a rate of almost 70%. But that's only part of the story, as white people with money and college degrees were responsible, too: 49% of college-educated whites voted for Trump, as did 53% of white women voters. Overall, nearly 60% of white voters backed the president-elect.
Contrary to the popular narrative, economic anxiety was not the main reason white Trump voters cast ballots for the president-elect. Those who listed the economy as their top concern voted for Clinton at a rate of 52% compared with Trump's 42%, according to exit polls published by the New York Times. Of the four priorities given as options by the pollsters, Trump voters on average ranked immigration and terrorism — both starkly racialized issues in the U.S. — above America's financial state.
Some observers have maintained that white, Rust Belt voters' support of President Barack Obama absolves them of the charge of racism. But it is possible to be pragmatic and racist at the same time. White voters supported Obama in 2008 or 2012 because he convinced them he would bring change to a broken system. If you need a liver transplant but the best surgeon in the hospital is black, you're probably not going to say no to surgery. Obama was the exception, not the rule.
This should surprise no one with a cursory understanding of U.S. history. In her rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) outlined some of the ways white social and economic anxieties have been harnessed by politicians in the past.
"'Divide and conquer' is an old story in America," Warren told the crowd. "[Segregation] was created to keep people divided. Instead of higher wages for workers ... poor whites in the South were fed Jim Crow, which told a poor white worker that, 'No matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.'"
Racial animus was further stoked by white landowners at the time, who used the availability of cheap black labor as a threat to force white laborers into working for "near-starvation wages," according to Martin Luther King, Jr., who explained this dynamic in 1965. "The segregation of the races was really a political stratagem," he said.
Ever since Richard Nixon sold himself as the candidate who would curtail the gains of the Civil Rights Movement in 1968, making his famous "law and order" speech at the Republican National Convention in Miami, white voters across the class spectrum have fled the Democratic Party for the GOP.
Much of the white working class has stayed reliably Republican in the subsequent four decades, despite the fact that they are overwhelmingly governed by GOP-state legislatures that routinely oppose the union and wage protections that once gave middle-class lives to millions in the Rust Belt without college degrees. Republican presidential hopefuls have garnered the majority of white, working class voters in all but two elections since 1980: those in which Bill Clinton ran, in 1992 and 1996. A big reason, per most available evidence, is unavoidably racial.
In case after case, instead of figuring out how to ensure stable and livable jobs and wages for these workers, GOP leaders have scapegoated black welfare mooches and "illegals" coming from Mexico, whom they accuse of stealing jobs and committing crimes. Rather than reject this race-baiting, white Americans have been consistently willing to accept these explanations.
The result has been a deep entangling of economic anxiety with racial anxiety. There is no hard line between the two, as many today would suggest.
Yet much of the dispute over the "racist" characterization of Trump voters hinges on the meaning we've imbued the term with. One would think, considering many white folks' panicked reaction to being named as such, that a racist was some kind of monster or demon. Many seem to have convinced themselves that if a person is "racist," that's the only thing they can be — that they can't also be human.
"The guy I know isn't any of those things," RNC chair Reince Priebus told the Today Show this week, responding to allegations that Steve Bannon — the former Breitbart editor and president-elect Trump's chief of staff — is racist, anti-Semitic and a misogynist.
"Here's a guy who's Harvard Business School," Priebus continued, "he was a 10-year naval officer, London School of Economics ... a very smart guy."
Bannon also oversaw a website that praised the Confederate Flag, gave a platform to white nationalists like Milo Yiannopoulos and produced a video in which employees asked people on the street if they'd rather have "feminism or cancer." Neither higher education degrees nor a naval career contradict these facts.
If anything, the shift in the debate over whether Trump supporters were guided by racism seems more rooted in a desire to avoid confronting racism. One could argue that calling these people racist hurts their feelings and will make it harder to convince them not to vote for candidates like Trump in the future. This may be true. But it's also dishonest about the dynamics at play. If we wish to create a society where we flatter and indulge people into voting how we want, avoiding calling out their "racism" when it arises may be a good idea. But if we want to address the real root of the problem — racism itself — we'll have reckon with more uncomfortable truths.