Donald Trump is a stone cold racist. So are most of his supporters. These facts are incontrovertible, and no realistic analysis of the current state of political affairs can be written without acknowledging them up front.
Unfortunately, those realities have led many intelligent analysts to overinterpret the results of the 2016 election in ways that give too little credit to the majority of Americans, too much credit to center-left electoral strategies, and foster an unwarranted attitude of resignation and defeatism. The fact that Donald Trump and most of his supporters are prejudiced bigots does not absolve the Clinton campaign of its mistakes, nor does it mean that a greater focus on class politics and core economics would have been useless against Trumpism. Far from it. Pretending that Trump tapped into an irrepressible and invincible current of hatred is not only inaccurate, it also leaves progressives no actionable options for winning the country back and repairing the damage.
Adam Serwer most recently pushed the defeatist line at The Atlantic, arguing (correctly) that Trump’s nationalism is simply code for racism and (incorrectly) that no economic arguments could have dissuaded Trump voters from supporting him. Serwer’s arguments build on those in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book We Were Eight Years in Power that Donald Trump is “America’s first white president,” and that at every point in American history economic equality has been subverted by racism that either weakened or prevented the implementation of social democratic safety nets.
There is, of course, a huge element of truth to this. America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow is the principal reason we don’t have universal healthcare or public pensions. But it’s not the only reason. Voters even in nearly all-white states and communities implement cruel economic libertarian policies on their own white cousins and sisters, nor can it reasonably be argued today that European nations are free from virulent racism. Indeed, the proto-fascist European far right is often less skeptical of labor unions and social safety nets than the neoliberal centrists. Much more is going on than Serwer, Coates and their adherents would like to make out, and that includes support at the margins for Donald Trump.
Longitudinal multi-variate academic studies notwithstanding, direct research with Obama-Trump voters has shown that Democrats have lost much credibility on economics with longtime Democratic voters, particularly in rural communities that in some cases flipped over 20 points from Obama to Trump and made the difference in toppling the Rust Belt firewall. Meanwhile, direct qualitative conversations with marginal Trump voters–not the hardcore racists that attend his rallies and make Pepe memes on twitter and alt-right subreddits, but the ones on the fence susceptible to persuasion until the end by Comey and Wikileaks–show again and again that they believed that Trump would at least make an attempt to bring the factory jobs back, reinvigorate their dying towns, and be immune to personal corruption due to his vast personal wealth. Voter suppression made a huge difference in reducing liberal and minority turnout in many of these states, but it doesn’t explain the collapse in Democratic persuasion efforts between 2012 and 2016 in formerly liberal nearly all-white communities.
Which is not to say that racism didn’t have an effect with these voters as well. Of course it did in most cases. But that itself is a constant of the American electorate. It’s worth noting that a full one-third of Hillary Clinton voters do not have a positive impression of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even today, a large number of people with racist and sexist sentiments supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump and continue to do so, mostly because the economic angels on their left shoulder overwhelm the bigoted devils on their right. If American elections were decided only on the basis of race and gender resentments, Democrats would lose almost every single contest in the country. American elections have always been about whether the people would vote their hopes or their fears, and the Democratic challenge ever since the Civil Rights era has been to get a majority to choose the former over the latter.
The thesis of Serwer and Coates posits that Trump was something of a magic racism leprechaun, activating the worst instincts of the electorate in previously unattempted ways. But this idea falls apart on its face. Serwer points to the relevantly similar campaign of David Duke, glossing over the obvious point that David Duke lost the election even back in 1990, at a much more racist time when even Democrats were just a few years away from the dogwhistles of tough-on-crime bills against “super-predators” and the promotion of welfare reform as a signature policy achievement. Serwer’s argument implicitly assumes that eight years of a black president caused Obama’s own voters in Wisconsin to turn against him when presented with Trump as an alternative, a theory that defies common sense. Nor was the Republican Party simply too stupid or lacking in courage to nominate a David Duke-style racist prior to 2016. A Republican candidate running on Paul Ryan’s economic platform combined with Trump’s bigotry would not have defeated Clinton in 2016, even with the assistance of Russia and Julian Assange. Further, though this admittedly falls in the realm of speculation, it is unlikely that Trump himself would have defeated Obama running for a third term, or even any number of other potential Democratic nominees.
Trump’s rapidly declining approval numbers since his election are also telling in this regard. After running a campaign that combined ugly intolerance with an ideologically heterodox insistence on protectionism and safety nets (remember his promises to deliver better and cheaper healthcare, and not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security?), economic candidate Donald Trump has been replaced with economic president Paul Ryan. Trump’s utter disinterest in the details of policy combined with his instincts for corruption and graft have led to the complete takeover of his economic agenda by the corporate Ayn Rand-worshipping objectivists in the GOP. Consequently, as Greg Sargent has repeatedly noted, the only remainder of Trump’s supposed populism is his pure distilled racism.
If economics were unrelated to Trump’s electoral fortunes, we should expect his support numbers to remain at election-era levels on the basis of his social agenda. But they have cratered instead. Most relevantly, he suffered especially heavy losses in support after refusing to disavow the support of neo-nazis in the wake of the Charlottesville protests. This strongly suggests that a significant chunk of Trump’s supporters likely backed him for reasons unrelated to or even in spite of his bigotries.
Finally, there’s the Democratic turnout side of the equation. Those who argue against including an economic populist component of Democratic campaigns frequently point to Clinton’s margins over Sanders, particularly among older women and people of color who rejected Sanders’ more aggressive approach. But that theory of Democratic base motivation doesn’t reflect the reality that the Clinton campaign failed to motivate the Obama coalition in adequate numbers to defeat Trump. In fact, per exit polls Trump gained against or stayed within a point of Romney’s performance in almost every demographic except for older, college educated and wealthy whites.
While Obama’s rural white working class supporters are now the most marginal voters in terms of persuasion, the young voters of all races and genders who backed Sanders in the primary have long been the most fickle category in terms of turnout. So while catering to the messages that appealed to the most reliable liberal voting base in the Democratic primary did not appreciably mobilize that base in the general election, sidelining the messages that appealed most to the more marginal persuasion and turnout universes almost certainly had a catastrophic effect.
All of these data points draw a stark conclusion: there are dramatic gains to be made by emphasizing an economic populist politics that rejects the Serwer/Coates fatalism about the supposedly indomitable racism of the American electorate. As the always excellent Briahna Joy Gray concluded in her New York Magazine piece in the same vein:
My ultimate quibble with Coates’s piece is with its pessimism — the presumption that the union between rich and poor whites, forged in the heat of antebellum anti-black antipathy, is America’s destiny as well as its past. Coates argues that admitting race, rather than class, was the proximate cause of Trump’s electoral victory would mean that leftists “would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism.” But that presupposes that class unity was attempted by the Democratic Establishment in 2016. Tragically, it was not. Perhaps, if it had been, there would be no need to address the phenomenon of our “first white president.” We’d be discussing our first female president instead.
Regardless of strategy, Democrats will no doubt do well in most places in 2018 and 2020 due to a motivated base angry and fearful of the Trump Administration, much as Republicans performed well in 2010 and 2014 after the elections of Obama. Such is our hyperpartisan era.
But in the tougher districts and states, and over a longer time horizon, there is a viable pathway for Democrats to win back many of the Obama voters who flipped to Trump and mobilize the less reliable elements of their coalition without sacrificing any ground on social justice.
If Coates and Serwer are right, then Democrats cannot succeed until rural white voters are somehow shamed out of their prejudices or until enough people of color and college-educated whites are mobilized to take their place. Neither event will happen anytime soon. But there is no need to wait. A more productive path forward is available. But it will require abandoning the defeatism of Serwer and Coates, and respecting the litmus tests of both social and economic progressives within the Democratic tent.