The Baseness of Trump’s Base: a review-essay on Sides, Tesler & Vavreck’s Identity Crisis

 
by Andrew Kliman
 

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, by John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. xii + 333 pages.

 

The denizens of the soft-on-Trump, anti-neoliberal “left,” pining for a ready-made “constituency” of potential followers that can provide the muscle to help them secure political power, love to misrepresent Donald Trump’s electoral-college victory. They portray it as a revolt of the “white working class” against the “economic distress” that a rapacious neoliberalism has inflicted on it for the last several decades. We in Marxist-Humanist Initiative have fought this very dangerous, and naïve, effort to encourage and valorize Trump’s base.

We have shown that the voters who “flipped” from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 were not revolting against neoliberalism. The voter-survey evidence suggests, instead, that the main driver of their defection was their marked affinity with Trump’s racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. We have also shown that, rather than being a response to neoliberalism and “economic distress,” Trumpism is a pre-existing condition. Well before neoliberalism came along and allegedly pummeled the working class, the presidential campaigns of George Wallace—the authoritarian, racist governor of Alabama––garnered surprisingly strong support, not only in the South, but in the North as well, particularly in the industrial Midwest that “flipped” to Trump in 2016.

Yet if Trump’s base has been with us all along, then why did it seem to emerge suddenly, from out of nowhere, in 2016? Why did a candidate like Trump win the Republican nomination, and indeed the presidency, only in 2016 and not before? The answer, we have suggested, is that

until 2016, mainstream Republicans managed to retain control of their party, by making concessions to this base and placating it with racist and misogynistic “dog whistles.” In 2016, however, mainstream Republicans lost control. The base was allowed, for the first time, to vote for a Trump, not a mainstream Republican, in the general election. And thus the base wrongly seems––on the surface––to have emerged from out of nowhere, and to be a reaction to recent economic changes.

Key elements of this understanding of the Trumpite base have now been confirmed—and fleshed-out and amply documented­­––by Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck (ST&V). Their new book is a masterpiece. Having scoured voter surveys, exit polls, academic studies, and much more, they bring together, in one volume, what must be a large majority of what is actually known, not merely alleged, about who is in Trump’s base and what they think. Putting this together with important findings regarding recent shifts in party allegiance––especially the belated recognition by a substantial minority of racist and anti-immigrant voters that the Republicans are “their party,” that is, the white people’s party––the authors provide a convincing explanation of how Trump was able to secure just enough votes to win a victory in the Electoral College.

The short version of their explanation is that “eight years of an African American president accelerated and intensified” (p. 25) the switch in allegiance of a sizable number of racist and xenophobic voters, from the Democratic Party to the Republicans. Then Trump came along. The naked racism and xenophobia of his campaign, and the contrast between him and Hillary Clinton on these matters, served to “activate” the pre-existing, but previously latent, racism and xenophobia of yet another substantial segment of voters. While their vote choices in past elections were driven more by longstanding party allegiances, economic concerns, and so forth, their votes in 2016 were based on their white identity.

This explanation and the evidence underlying it are completely consistent with what we have been arguing regarding Trump’s base and how he was elected, with one exception. The exception is that ST&V’s book says nothing, one way or another, about whether a latent Trumpite base existed in the US prior to neoliberalism. The voter-survey and polling data they rely on do not extend back far enough to deal with that issue. Historical evidence, like the evidence of Wallace’s mass support that we have provided, is needed.
 
There is much more to ST&V’s book than their explanation of Trump’s Electoral College victory. They also compare voters who supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries with those who supported Bernie Sanders. (Self-branding aside, there was very little difference between them on ideological issues. What actually distinguished Sanders’ voters was that they were younger and disproportionately white, and had less allegiance to the Democratic Party.) ST&V also discuss depressed turnout among black voters in 2016, relative to 2008 and 2012, and Clinton’s failure to improve on Obama’s performance among Latinos. They argue persuasively that these phenomena are attributably largely to “racial solidarity” having boosted the turnout for Obama, and to the existence of a large share of Latinos who do not identify strongly with other Latinos.

Identity Crisis also includes discussion of other aspects of the 2016 election­­––media coverage of the Trump, Clinton, and other campaigns; the extent to which James Comey’s meddling and the Putinite attack on the election process influenced the outcome; the “fracturing” of the Republican Party establishment, which helped Trump secure the party’s nomination; and more. But ST&V’s explanation of Trump’s victory in terms of his activation of racism, xenophobia, and white identity is the core of the book, and the reason to study it carefully.

I do have one major misgiving about the book. The authors’ bloodless, “evenhanded” language frequently obscures the lessons to be drawn from the data and analyses they provide. The most pronounced expression of this defect is their thesis that “partisan polarization is the lynchpin of America’s identity crisis” (p. 203). What they mean by this is that the most divisive issues today revolve around whether “real Americans” will be defined in terms of a privileged “identity”— white, Christian, and native born––and that this is a political crisis because voters and parties are becoming polarized in terms of their attitudes to identity-based issues.

This “evenhanded” way of portraying the crisis smacks too much of Trump’s “both sides” apologetics for the white-supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, at which a neo-Nazi murdered Heather Heyer. “Polarization” is not the cause of the crisis in the US; “both sides” are not to blame. The causes of the crisis are the Trumpite base and the powerful, moneyed forces that have activated it. A shocking 45% of the electorate voted Republican in last month’s midterm elections, which Trump rightly called a referendum on him––after the murder of Heather Heyer, the genocide through intentional neglect in Puerto Rico, the ripping of immigrant kids away from their parents, the ascendancy of a credibly-accused sexual assailant to the Supreme Court, the murder of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh right before the elections, and much more. It should be clear by now that if and when the stench of human bodies charred in crematoria reaches the nostrils of the Trumpite base, its only pushback will be “not in my backyard.”

To overcome this crisis, what is obviously needed is more “polarization,” not less­­––intensification, not slackening, of the Resistance. And inasmuch as the roots of the crisis extend back to the failure of even Civil War and Radical Reconstruction to crush white supremacism, this time the Resistance needs to continue until the job is done.

So Identity Crisis isn’t the place to look for political solutions. Nonetheless, the authors’ meticulous presentation and insightful analyses of objective data are a great help for those who want to work out such solutions. Below, I summarize some of the book’s most important findings.

 
Identity-based political realignment. During Obama’s presidency, a sizable share of voters belatedly began to recognize that the Republican Party is the white people’s party (the authors use bloodless language, but that’s their point), while Democrats are for more “liberal racial policies” (p. 27) Racial attitudes were the most important predictor of changes in voters’ party affiliations during this eight-year period.

Asian-Americans’ and Latinos’ affiliation with the Democrats went up, and more blacks came to affiliate “strongly” with the Democrats. Whites without college degrees went in the opposite direction, especially those without any college education. Republicans enjoyed a 15-point advantage among the latter group in 2004. By 2012, this rose to 39 points. Although race-based realignment has been taking place for more than half a century, since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the authors hypothesize that a substantial degree of realignment of whites with less formal education occurred only recently because “they tended to follow politics less closely” (p. 27).

In addition, although political realignment based on one’s attitude to immigration had started before Obama’s presidency, it accelerated under it. And in the 2016 Republican primaries, support for Trump was very strongly related to the strength of a voter’s “white identity.”

 
The pre-existing Trumpite base. In the run-up to the 2016 election, there was little change in attitudes or in how voters perceived their identities. There was no increase in prejudice, anti-immigrant sentiment, “anger,” or “economic anxiety.” “It was not the voters who changed in 2016 so much as the choices they were given” (p. 71).

Before Trump ran for president, almost half of Republican voters flatly rejected a broad-based legalization program for undocumented immigrants. Trump simply exploited the issue after aides, who he had instructed to listen to thousands of hours of conservative talk radio, reported back that “the GOP base was frothing over” immigration. “Trump succeeded by tapping onto long-standing, but often unappreciated, sentiments among Republican voters …. Trump simply met many Republican voters where they were” (p. 35).

Moreover, the idea that whites were suffering because immigrants and/or minorities were getting benefits they did not deserve was already “common among Republican voters …. He just leveraged it to his advantage. … The roots of Trump’s appeal were hiding in plain sight. He capitalized on an existing reservoir of discontent about a changing American society and culture” (p. 71).

Indeed, ST&V’s overall conclusion from the Republican primary data is that Trump was able to capture the Republican nomination precisely because he “met many Republican voters where they were.” “In 2016, those voters finally had someone to vote for” (p. 96). There were lots of Republican voters who were not “movement conservatives” (i.e., not motivated by free-market ideology and opposition to “big government”), and Trump stood out from the pack of Republican candidates by being more blatantly racist, more anti-immigrant, and less economically conservative. “What Republican leaders did not understand … was just how long standing and potent this constellation of sentiments was. Trump tapped into beliefs, ideas, and anxieties that were already present and even well established within the party” (p. 96).
 
 
Activation of pre-existing sentiment. ST&V note that political-science literature has shown that the information that voters receive during a presidential campaign “can ‘activate’—or make more salient—their preexisting values, beliefs, and opinions” (p. 70).  The conclusion they draw from the data is that this was “exactly how Trump won support” (p. 70). Largely as a result of his blatantly racist and xenophobic campaign, attitudes toward race, ethnicity, and religion had more influence on how people voted than in recent elections in this past. And this helped Trump win, since voters who defected from the Democrats because of identity-charged campaigning––especially those whites without college degrees who have reactionary views on issues of identity––greatly outnumbered minority and racially-tolerant voters who broke with the Republicans.

The authors hypothesize that “[e]ven some of Trump’s positions and rhetoric that were ostensibly not about race may have activated racial attitudes” (p. 81), including his support for Social Security and Medicare. This runs counter to the intuitions of most of us who are aware of the close tie between racism and opposition to welfare spending. But ST&V explain that whites with relatively negative views of blacks have been more supportive of Social Security and Medicare than others have been, because these programs, in contrast to “welfare” programs, are regarded as programs for the “in-group” (whites) that has worked hard for and deserves these benefits.

They also suggest that the pushback against Trump that Clinton’s campaign provided was an additional factor that contributed to the activation of racist and xenophobic sentiment. Noting that Clinton, in her post-election book, opined that “some white voters may have decided I wasn’t on their side,” ST&V comment, “This is a tidy summary of what happened” (p. 200).

 
Obama-Trump voters. There were a lot of voters (probably between 6.7 and 9.2 million)  who voted for Obama, the Democrat, in 2012, but then “flipped” to Trump, the Republican, in 2016. It has long been asserted that these “Obama-Trump” voters couldn’t possibly have been motivated by racism, since Obama is black, after all, and they voted for him. Filmmaker Michael Moore put the point this way: “They’re not racist. … They twice voted for a man whose middle name is Hussein.” The dream of the anti-neoliberal, soft-on-Trump “left” to conquer political power by winning over Trump’s base rests squarely on this myth.

I have done my part to combat the myth, but now ST&V have put forward some additional facts that utterly demolish it. I was able to show that the attitudes of Obama-Trump voters were decidedly racist in 2016. But that still leaves open a narrow hole for proponents of the myth to wriggle though: perhaps these voters were not racist back in 2012 … because, of course, no racist would vote for a black guy! ST&V have now barricaded that hole. They went back to a survey, conducted before the 2012 elections, that captured voters’ racial attitudes, and matched the results with how these individuals voted in 2012 and 2016. Back in 2011, whites who would go on to become Obama-Trump voters responded as follows:

  • 49% of them did not agree that blacks have gotten less than they deserve
  • 46% thought that black should “work their way up” without “any special favors”
  • 45% favored the death penalty
  • 39% did not agree that the legacy of slavery and discrimination makes it hard for blacks to “work their way out of the lower class”
  • 35% had unfavorable views of Muslims
  • 34% favored additional restrictions on immigration
  • 32% thought that “illegal immigrants” are mostly a drain on society.

 
In addition, ST&V point out that even many whites with explicitly prejudiced views voted for Obama. “About one-quarter of whites who opposed interracial dating … still voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012” (p. 167).

As David Sedaris wrote around the same time, well before Trump ran for president, “My first boyfriend was black as well, but that doesn’t prove I’m color-blind, just that I like big butts.”

 
“Economic anxiety.” Both before the 2016 election and since, there have been widespread claims that support for Trump was driven by “economic anxiety,” and accompanying claims that voters’ poor and/or worsening economic conditions are what underlie that “anxiety.” This has, for instance, been a major trope among the soft-on-Trump, anti-neoliberal “left.” But ST&V summarize a large and growing body of evidence which shows that these claims are false.

First, voter-survey data on different measures of “economic anxiety” show that, in the Republican primaries, voters with more economic anxiety were either no more likely or less likely to support Trump than were voters with less economic anxiety (p. 92).

Second, in the general election, there was only a weak relationship between a voter’s expressed economic anxiety and who he or she voted for, once one controls for other influences on vote choice. And some measures of economic anxiety were more closely related to voters’ choices in 2012 than they were in 2016. In fact, the more worried a voter was about being laid off, the more likely he or she was to vote for Clinton rather than Trump (pp. 172-5).

Third, “Democrats and Republicans … had starkly different views of the economy—but which side they were on changed rapidly after Trump was elected” (p. 207). Actual economic conditions hadn’t changed much but, suddenly, the percentage of Republican voters who said that economic conditions are getting better shot up from 15% to 80%. ST&V correctly stress that this is “another reason to downplay the role of subjective economic dissatisfaction in the election: it was largely a consequence of partisan politics, not a cause of partisans’ choices (p. 208, emphases added).

Fourth, consumer sentiment was rising in 2015 and 2016. So was income­­—of all quintiles of the population. (In other words, the income of the bottom 20%, the income of the next-lowest 20%, the income of the middle 20%, etc., were all rising). There was “no increase in dissatisfaction or anger” (p. 18). And the authors note that almost-equal shares of Clinton and Trump voters said that they knew someone who had been addicted to alcohol, to illegal drugs, and to painkillers. Furthermore, “[a]mong whites, it was Clinton voters, not Trump voters, who were more likely to report knowing people in any of these circumstances” (p. 175). These facts likewise indicate strongly that when voters expressed “economic anxiety,” what they were actually anxious about were frequently something else entirely.

 
“Racial anxiety.” What might that “something else” be? ST&V argue that Trump voters who allegedly suffered from “economic anxiety” were actually anxious about blacks and immigrants (supposedly) getting ahead at their expense. “The important sentiment underlying Trump’s support was not ‘I might lose my job’ but, in essence, ‘People in my group are losing jobs to that other group.’ Instead of a pure economic anxiety, what mattered was racialized economics” (p. 8). And they marshal a lot of evidence of various kinds to support this conclusion.

They note that whites’ support for Trump in the primaries was only “weakly related to their own job security but strongly related to concerns that minorities were taking jobs away from whites” (p. 176). They cite the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, whose discussions with whites in Louisiana revealed widespread resentment that others are “stealing their place in line.” They note that three surveys conducted in late 2015 and 2016 found that a large minority or majority of Republican voters contend that discrimination against whites is a significant problem.

And they discuss the results of an experiment they conducted shortly after the 2016 election:

Almost two-thirds of Trump voters said that average Americans were not getting what they deserve, but only 12 percent said this about blacks. Among Clinton voters, there was no such disparity. In other words, the dividing line between Clinton and Trump voters was not the widespread belief that average Americans are being left behind. Rather, the divide was whether a racial minority deserved help. [p. 176]

In sum, there was only a weak relationship between expressed “economic anxiety” and support for Trump and, in any case, such expressions of anxiety were reflections of racism and Republican affiliation instead of objective economic facts. In striking contrast, “views of racial equality, Muslims, and immigration, as well as a more politicized white identity” were strong determinants of vote choice, and more so than in the recent past (p. 156). And these identity-related attitudes, not economic factors, were the most important factor underlying the strong support for Trump among whites without college degrees (and weak support among those with degrees), compared to previous Republican presidential candidates.

 
Conclusion

As I noted above, the source of the political crisis in the US today, which threatens to become a problem for the rest of the world as well, is not “polarization.” It is the existence of a large minority of racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic whites who are determined to stick with Trump—come hell or high water, despite (or maybe because of) the damage he does to the lives and well-being of the rest of us.

Although Identity Crisis isn’t the place to look for a solution to this crisis, it provides tremendous help in understanding the underlying problem. To be sure, Trump is much more than a symptom; he has turned a latent problem into an immediate and chronic crisis. But he “simply met many Republican voters where they were” (p. 35). That is the underlying problem—where they were, and where they are determined to remain.

It is high time for the “left” to jettison its post-truthy attachment to the propagation of comforting and self-serving talking points, and instead to grapple seriously with the actual, hard, objective facts, of which Identity Crisis is the most complete compilation. And it is time for all of us to recognize that a politics of persuasion has not succeeded and will not succeed in the face of widespread and deeply entrenched white nationalism and white supremacism. What is needed is a politics of combat in the tradition of Karl Marx: solidarizing with the so-called “white working class” by decisively defeating Trumpism and other far-right forces. Their defeat will help liberate the elements of the “white working class” who now attach themselves to Trump from the grip of reaction and thereby spur the independent emancipatory self-development of working people as a whole.

 
 

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