The mainstream media has twisted itself in knots trying to separate Donald Trump’s base from the candidate’s obvious bigotry. When pundits talk about Trump’s enduring popularity among non-college-educated whites, they studiously avoid ascribing broad racial motivation. I’ve encountered the habit on panels myself. Bring up racism and, reliably, someone will respond, “But of course you’re not talking about every Trump supporter...” Even Hillary Clinton, in corralling the racists into a basket, set a cap on their numbers.
His rhetoric on immigration, on crime, on terrorism — somehow, between Trump’s baggy lips and his audience’s tender ears, these all become cogent arguments about free trade and monetary policy. His crowds’ anger and frustration are based in economic anxiety, don’t you know? They’re worried about immigration because it threatens their jobs, not because they have a generalized fear of brown people.
But if Trump’s fans are experiencing economic anxiety, it’s not based on actual economic insecurity or losing jobs to immigrants. Studies show that Trump’s voters are more likely to be employed, more likely to live in racially homogenous regions, and to have higher incomes than those who view Trump unfavorably. They may be anxious, but it’s not because of any tangible threat to their livelihood or way of life.
Well, perhaps that’s going too far. Maybe Trump supporters are experiencing a real threat to their way of life, at least insofar as “way of life” means the freedom to never have to think about their own privilege. Which is, after all, the ultimate privilege — to not even notice that you have it.
Trump supporters are largely, almost exclusively white. We can’t ignore how a white Trump voter’s whiteness plays a part in his choice of candidate. We in the media seem quite content to speak broadly of “the black vote” and “the Latino vote.” So what about “the white vote,” which is unambiguously in support of Trump? Who are the Trump supporters, typically? Here’s a thumbnail from one widely cited, extensive survey:
Trump’s supporters are older, with higher household incomes, are more likely to be male, white non-Hispanic, less likely to identify as LGBTQ, less likely to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher education, more likely to be a veteran or family member of a veteran, more likely to work in a blue-collar occupation, and are more likely to be Christian and report that religion is important to them.
I know this person personally. In fact, I know a few people that fit the description. And I’ve interviewed dozens over the last year, at rallies and in the airplane seat next to me. (Tell strangers that you write about politics and they — well, the men, mostly — tend to spontaneously provide their own toasty take.)
So [insert wavy-line dream-sequence signifiers] let me use those conversations to add some imagined color to the bare sketch given by demographics.
Until eight years ago, every time our Trump supporter turned on the news, he saw people like himself in charge of things.
His own life may have had its ups and downs, but one thing was for sure: He knew that those who ran the country had his back. They were, after all, just like him.
Things changed in 2009. Since then, he’s had a black man talk down to him from behind a podium in the White House (he never really thought of other presidents as “talking down” to him; W reminded him of his cousin). Hillary Clinton might be at that podium next. (She was the one who said she wouldn’t bake cookies, remember?)
He sees other black people shutting down freeways on television, and even after law and order prevails, their cause is in his peripheral vision. People are questioning whether or not the police are honest — the police! Why would you not trust the police? He’s never had a problem with them, ever. And law enforcement is what protects us from the Muslim terrorists.
He personally doesn’t know any illegal immigrants, but he’s sure they’re out there — Fox News has reports on massive border crossings all the time. The Syrian refugees make him very nervous.
Now, he doesn’t actually dislike any brown or black people himself, he thinks. His mechanic is Latino and they get along fine. He doesn’t know a lot of black people but obviously he’d never discriminate. He’s annoyed by Colin Kaepernick but he got teary-eyed when he heard Ali died.
For him, there are dozens of small, almost daily reminders that straight white men don’t have a lock on power anymore. He can’t watch ESPN, much less the news, without experiencing a slight bump in the otherwise smooth highway of his privilege. (Although let’s be very clear here, that highway is very well-maintained in general.)
But he is worried. He isn’t sure anymore about his place in the world. He looks around and there are people different from him wielding enormous influence on his life. Do they have his back? How does he know if they do or not?
Donald Trump, on the other hand ... this is a man he recognizes. He understands what drives Trump. Trump is loud and rude, but this “Make America Great Again” thing sounds like exactly what we need. He knows his place in a “Great America,” whereas the America he’s living in now? He doesn’t know where he fits in, and that means he’s not sure it’s “great.”
Is our hypothetical Trump supporter “racist”? He would take offense if you called him that. He knows it’s one of the worst things you can call a person. I struggle with whether or not calling my imaginary Trump supporter — much less the Trump supporters I know personally — “racist” even serves a purpose. Ironically, we’ve made the word itself so toxic that using it often shuts down conversations about whether or not racism is present.
Besides, I’m willing to believe that his discomfort about this changing world is as much about how he feels about whiteness as it is about black and brown and all the other shades. What I don’t doubt is that Trump supporters have been forced to grapple with a world in which whiteness doesn’t mean quite as much as it used to. (It still means quite a lot.) What I don’t doubt is that Trump supporters are nostalgic for a world in which white supremacy had a firmer hold on the American way of life. More than that: Their nostalgia has to do with that white supremacy. They may not experience that nostalgia as an explicit longing for white hoods and segregated water fountains, but it’s still a romantic vision of a time prior to the incremental civil rights progress we’ve made today.
It might be more comfortable for white people to call this longing a form of “racial anxiety,” as opposed to “racism” per se. It might even be a more accurate description, as it locates the impulse as a kind of self-involved neuroticism rather than individual, day-to-day acts of hatred and violence. Then again, whether we call this broad trend “racism” or “racial anxiety” doesn’t make much of a difference to the people on the receiving end of the policies Trump advocates — individual Trump supporters may not be actively seething with hatred when they applaud stop-and-frisk, but it doesn’t make the activity any less an expression of underlying fear and distrust.
But if it helps white people to hear what I’m saying, let’s call the impulse behind white voters’ support for Trump “racial anxiety.” Somewhat more bluntly: Their support is a function of a crisis of white supremacy.
The point is that it can’t be separated from whatever else is motivating them, in much the same way we take as a given that the heritage of black and Latino voters motivates them. To gloss over racial anxiety as economic insecurity or concern about trade agreements is to ignore the persistence of white supremacy’s power. To not call it out allows the anxiety to fester, and the “anxious” can become emboldened. To not talk about race is a privilege. We begin to undo the damage of white supremacy every time we are honest about its existence.