Giga-gallons of ink have been spilt over the last year or so as pundit after pundit has attempted to explain “the meaning of Trump.” There are plenty of explanations ranging from voter ignorance to right-wing extremism, but it seems to me that there are three particularly compelling explanations that deserve a look.
White Supremacist Racism
First, there’s the “Racism Thesis” that so many on the Left tend to fall back on. In this reading, Donald Trump’s appeal is primarily with the racially prejudiced white working class, who once made up the majority in this country but have seen, since the 1960s, an America gone multicultural. They have looked in alarm upon increased post-Civil Rights Era black consciousness, along with dramatic increases in nonwhite immigration from Latin America and Asia.
The Racism Thesis assumes that the descendants of Slave Lord and Scots-Irish alike have cast aside their socioeconomic differences and united behind a primal fear of the overhaul of white supremacy. And there’s a lot to this- as Chris Ladd (GOPLifer) has demonstrated time and time again, the GOP after the Southern Strategy received an influx of racist Dixiecrats and became a white nationalist party beneath its libertarian-neocon elite surface.
Second, there’s the “Neoliberal Thesis” that some on the Left and a very few on the Right have identified. In this school of thought, Trump’s appeal is based on the economic frustration of the white working class, who have seen their wages decline and their jobs get shipped overseas, even as the moguls on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley and Hollywood have had their earnings and assets skyrocket. Working-class people have seen neoliberal influxes in low-wage immigrants from Latin America, both legal and illegal, alongside massive dubious trade deals negotiated with low-wage labor developing countries.
Michael Lind has been probably the most vocal proponent of this theory– the idea that neoliberal free-market economics of the sort practiced by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama (to a degree) has disenfranchised millions of working-class white voters. He’s demonstrated that the free-market consensus in the GOP will be increasingly giving way to a “big-government” economic populism incompatible with most of Reaganism, and that Trump’s economic policies represent the harbinger of that future.
Finally, there’s the “Jacksonian Thesis” that very few on either side of the aisle have articulated. Seen culturally, the largely traditionalist working class feels disconnected from the elites who control the political process not solely for economic reasons, but also for cultural reasons. They see a political elite that cares about everyone except working class whites, that makes a big deal about sexuality and gender issues while discounting everything about traditional religion, and that supports dubious environmentalist schemes at the expense of people who rely on industrialism for their livelihoods. The Jacksonians- historically the most important component of 20th Century electoral coalitions- see a decadent ruling elite on the coasts, and they’re fighting back.
The Jacksonian Thesis goes beyond the Racism Thesis in that the primary motivator for pro-Trump sentiment is disgust with the elite rather than alarm at multiculturalism (though the two sentiments are by no means exclusive.) Jacksonian working-class people, as Walter Russell Mead has demonstrated, believe they’re on the losing side of an apocalyptic culture war based not on abortion and gay marriage but on patriotism itself. They’re fighting for everything they hold dear, forgetting about the concerns of anybody else, and we’re seeing the ugly results.
In my view, all three of these views are accurate, and none are mutually contradictory. Trump supporters ARE motivated by racial prejudice, in many cases; they ARE concerned with their economic situation, often; and they DO feel that their cultural values are at stake.
The fact that there’s such widespread popular support for such a concoction should give us pause and open up the stage for frank national discussion on all three fronts.
In the first place, the fact that so many Americans are as openly racist as they are, and do not appear to be dying off, is an obvious reason for concern.
In the second place, our prevailing economic orthodoxies are no longer serving masses upon masses of people of all races. It may well be time for a rethink.
In the third place, our political elite speaks a cultural language that puts it apart from the rest of America, and the rest of America is not all bad. An openness to non-elite conceptions of truth and value might be healthy to our fundamentally pluralistic society.
So are Trump voters racist, populist, and traditionalist?
Yes, yes, and yes.
That just means we have some serious issues to deal with as a country. When the dust settles in November 2016, it’ll be time for reformers in the GOP to get to work.