This newsletter is an attempt to answer the question: Would we have Trump as the Republican presidential candidate if we didn’t have Barack Obama as our president? I don’t know if anyone can conclusively answer this question, but it is worth exploring, as others have.
“The election of the country’s first black president had the ironic upshot of opening the door for old-fashioned racism to influence partisan preferences after it was long thought to be a spent force in American politics,” wrote Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler in a 2013 paper titled The Return of Old Fashioned Racism to White Americans’ Partisan Preferences in the Early Obama Era.
For Tesler, “old-fashioned racism” isn’t a rhetorical term. It refers to specific beliefs about the biological and cultural inferiority of black Americans. His work suggests that there are some white Americans who, in his words, have “concerns about the leadership of a president from a racial group whom they consider to be intellectually and socially inferior.”
The Republican Party does have a tradition of harnessing white racial resentment to win elections, from the infamous “welfare queen” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich labeling Barack Obama the “food stamp president” during the 2012 presidential election. However, Republican elites have failed to offer solutions to struggling working-class whites who have suffered keenly from the collapse of the industrial economy.
But none of these theories answer the question of why Trump now? Each of these forces has been in play for years. Wages for working-class Americans have long been stagnant, and the collapse of job opportunities for workers without a college degree was apparent in the 1990s—long before the Great Recession. Economic and social decline, as well as frustration with foreign competition—which Trump has channeled in his campaign—isn’t unique to white Americans. Millions of Americans—African Americans and Latinos in particular—have faced declining economic prospects and social disintegration for years without turning to a person like Trump.
Race plays a part in each of these analyses, but its role has not yet been central enough to our understanding of Trump’s rise. Not only does he lead a movement of almost exclusively disaffected whites, but he wins his strongest support in states and counties with the greatest amounts of racial polarization. Among white voters, higher levels of racial resentment have been shown to be associated with greater support for Trump.
This isn’t the first time in our history that whites have worried about losing their pre-eminent status. In the early 20th century, massive Southern and Eastern European immigration, as well as Chinese immigration in the American West, fueled nativism and white racism and helped lead to the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan. Our current burst of nativism and racial anxiety is proving to be a similarly potent force with Trump as the Republican presidential nominee.
Listen to My Talk on ABC News Radio
On July 14, 2016, I had the privilege to talk about employment law issues on ABC KMET 1490 news radio with Aaron Sanchez. Click on this link to listen: Joshua Cohen Slatkin on The Morning Show.
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005) was an American politician, educator, and author. In 1968, she became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress and represented New York’s 12th Congressional District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States and the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism.” ~Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm