Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Trump's Supporters Are Not The Dispossessed

Jesse Helms' infamous "Hands" ad is just proto-Trumpism in its appeal to white racial resentment

One of the most notable things about Trump is his political thievery. His slogan “Make America Great Again” was basically stolen from the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980. He’s also fond of speaking of the “silent majority,” which was Nixon’s great rhetorical turn of phrase.

Trump may be ignorant of a lot of things, but he’s not dumb. He knows the message that has worked for conservatives in the past, and is using it. His combination of nationalism, white racial resentment, and anti-global populism brings together some well-worn strands of conservatism.

What gets me are the pieces that talk about Trump’s supporters as the dispossessed. The way that the narrative goes, Trumpers are all working class whites who are angry at an economy and political party that has left them behind.


Trump may draw more working class whites than his primary opponents, but he still draws large numbers from middle and upper class whites. Not to mention the fact that a sizable number of working class whites –especially outside of the South- are Democrats. I would easily bet that a majority of working class whites to have voted in the primaries thus far have voted for someone other than him, whether it be Clinton, Sanders, or one of the other Republicans.

Trump’s supporters are the same type of people who have supported similar figures in the past. Trump's white supremacy combined with nationalist militancy and an attack on elites is the same stew that drew so many to Andrew Jackson back in the early 19th century. More recently, the same type of person who voted for George Wallace is the same time who votes for Trump.  His voters also tended to be working and lower-middle class, and they were also driven by white racial resentment and nationalism. Trump was just savvy enough to know that those voters were out there and that no one was trying to reach them directly with the red meat they wanted to eat.

The news media has made the mistake of assuming that because the white working class has suffered under the neoliberalization of the last 40 years, that that economic angst is the primary engine of white working class support for Trump. There is correlation, but not necessarily causation. Trump is playing with the same populist nationalist politics that others have before him, pure and simple.

Some of the media's misconceptions might stem from the well-meaning but untrue myth that the poor are inherently more virtuous than the rich. They are in fact people like anyone else, and thus susceptible to appeals to the darker side of their nature. Many wealthy conservatives express their sociopathic tendencies through a libertarianism hell bent on getting them more money at the expense of others. Less affluent conservatives, on the other hand, lower their sights onto those just below them on the social ladder, with promises to keep them down. It's an impulse that's been there in American history from the New York Draft Riots to the 1920s iteration of the KKK to the Southern Strategy.

Trump's supporters are thus NOT the dispossessed, but those who want to keep what they've got, and a lot of what they've got is white skin privilege. That privilege has been tenaciously guarded throughout this nation's history, we shouldn't be surprised to see a demagogue rise who speaks to the anxiety of its loss.

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