America appears caught in a maelstrom of what I have described as “malignant reality,” sustained by lies, half-truths, misunderstandings, willful ignorance and confusion about many things. Most notably, how Donald Trump became president. There will be no return to normalcy until there is a full and proper accounting of how this crisis came into existence.
This article was originally published at Salon.
Here are some examples of those falsehoods and evasions.
Trump is a populist who represents a mass movement of “forgotten” Americans. In reality, he is an elitist whose policies serve the rich and hurt the vast majority of Americans. Donald Trump lost the vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes; the aggregate turnout in the 2016 election was not that dissimilar from the last three presidential elections.
Trump will at some point be restrained by the Republican Party and “mature” into the responsibilities of the office. Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party; his policy positions are supported by the vast majority of Republican voters, elected officials, media and interest groups. Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated hostility towards democracy and the basic standards of decency and dignity exemplified by his predecessors.
Donald Trump was elected because of “economic anxiety” among the “white working class.” In reality, those voters who were most concerned about the economy supported Clinton. Donald Trump won every category of white voters — not just those who were poor or working-class.
At the center of these claims is a belief that racism was a peripheral variable which was not central to Trump’s razor-thin victory over Clinton. This is one of the most egregious and toxic falsehoods to emerge from the 2016 election.
The new article “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism,” by political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams and Tatishe Nteta, demonstrates that racial animus and sexism were in fact the most powerful factors influencing Trump’s voters.
Writing in the Spring 2018 edition of Political Science Quarterly, the authors explain that the 2016 election “witnessed the largest gap between the presidential vote preferences of college-educated and non-college-educated whites” since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.
While Donald Trump enjoyed just a four-point margin over Hillary Clinton among whites with a college degree (10 points less than Mitt Romney’s margin over Barack Obama among that group in 2012), his advantage among non-college-educated whites was nearly 40 points. … While many election postmortems were quick to make note of the education gap among whites in terms of presidential vote choice in 2016 explanations for the origins of this gap were a subject of significant debate. …
We find that while economic considerations were an important part of the story, racial attitudes and sexism were much more strongly related to support for Trump; these attitudes explain at least two-thirds of the education gap among white voters in the 2016 presidential election.
Schaffner and his fellow researchers conclude that the 2016 campaign “witnessed a dramatic polarization in the vote choices of whites based on education,” and argue that “very little of this gap can be explained by the economic difficulties faced by less educated whites.” Had college-educated and non-college-educated white voters split between the two candidates in roughly the same manner, Hillary Clinton would almost certainly be president today.
In a political environment where racism and conservative politics almost fully overlap, where authoritarianism intersects with racism and sexism, and where political polarization is driven in anxiety about changing racial demographics, Donald Trump may be a prototype for a more refined, and even more dangerous, right-wing successor.
I recently spoke with Brian Schaffner, co-author of this paper, about the dangers to American civic life posed by the Republican Party’s increasing reliance on sexism and racism to win elections, and about how these pernicious attitudes and values influenced Trump’s voters.
How do you explain Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election? And how does your new research inform that analysis?
Given the fact that Trump won the election by such a narrow margin, any number of things could have made the difference. It’s always difficult for a party to win a third term in the White House, so part of the outcome was merely an advantage that any Republican would have had. It’s also the case that changes in turnout patterns from 2012 mattered. Specifically, I have shown (along with some colleagues) that black turnout was down while white turnout was up in 2016, which may have very well made the difference.
But Trump also seemed to benefit from receiving an unprecedented amount of support from whites without college degrees, a fact that was particularly important in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. My research suggests that this support was strongly driven by racial resentment and sexism among that exact demographic.
Your research, as well as that of other political scientists, clearly shows that it was racial animus that motivated white voters to support Trump. Why do you think there has been so much denial about this fact?
I think the narrative which emerges first about an election is difficult to dislodge. In this case, I think it is especially difficult because many people in the mainstream media are not particularly comfortable discussing how racism plays a role in the way a lot of Americans vote. It is also hard to educate Americans about these patterns because people are often not particularly good at understanding why they do certain things. Most people are not comfortable thinking of themselves as harboring prejudice, and the easiest thing to do in such a situation is deny that they feel that way and explain away their support for Trump as being about something else entirely.
What do we know about the relationship between racism and America’s polarized and partisan environment?
I think we are learning more every day. The most important — and perhaps most troublesome — pattern that I see is that peoples’ partisan identities are increasingly overlapping with their social identities. We call this “negative partisanship.” Here, if the opposite party does not reflect who you feel you are as a person, you are motivated to have strongly held negative views of that party. Thus, the Republican Party is increasingly the party of white, male Christian America while the Democratic Party is increasingly the party of racial and ethnic and gender diversity. Both sides increasingly dig in their heels when it comes to partisan conflict.
Definitions are important. How do you measure racism in your new research?
We are actually measuring a concept called “denial of racism.” The basic idea here is to differentiate Americans who acknowledge the fact that there are racial disparities in society from those who deny that such disparities exist. For our scale, people who score higher in denial of racism are those who disagree with statements such as, “White people in the United States have certain advantages because of the color of their skin” and “I am angry that racism exists,” while agreeing with the statement, “Racial problems in the United States are rare, isolated situations.” This is not racism per se, but it is a reluctance to acknowledge that racism is an unfortunate fact of life.
But in many ways, we think this captures what modern-day prejudice looks like. Specifically, the Obama presidency was for many whites an excuse to claim that there was no more racism and that, if anything, whites were now getting a raw deal.
That said, I should note that we have shown similar patterns when using racial resentment measures — those that tap into a sense among whites that blacks don’t work hard enough to lift themselves up — and other scholars have uncovered similar patterns using other measures. No matter how you measure it, racial attitudes did appear to matter a lot in this election.
How do sexism and racism influence Republican voters?
We tried to examine whether Trump was unique in a couple of different ways. First, we have found that racial and sexist attitudes only had a weak relationship to how people evaluated Mitt Romney and John McCain, the two previous Republican nominees for president. More significantly, we show that racial attitudes in particular played a stronger role in predicting the 2016 vote compared to the 2012 vote. In fact, denial of racism was a significant and pretty strong predictor of whether somebody who voted for Obama in 2012 would then vote for Trump in 2016.
Your research highlights the enduring and continuing salience of racism in how white voters make political decisions. What does this suggest about the Republican Party’s strategy going forward, in a country that is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse?
I think the fact that the parties are increasingly galvanized around racial attitudes unfortunately suggests a strategy for Republicans that doubles down on Trump’s rhetoric — at least in the short term. Since Republicans generally fare poorly with minority voters, they have to get a very large share of whites to win elections. What Trump showed is that a Republican can do this by stoking fears about increasing diversity and how it threatens white dominance in the country. For their part, if Democrats are going to continue to run as champions of diversity, they need to do better at turning out minority voters.
More hopeful voices highlight how America’s young people, especially young white people, are supposedly becoming more progressive and tolerant and inclusive in their racial attitudes. The hope is that generational replacement will serve as a remedy for the white backlash that put Trump in office. Is that too hopeful?
I do not think that is too hopeful. That’s why I note above that the Trump approach may be the path forward for the Republican Party in the short term. In the long term, it is much harder to see how Republicans can sustain this strategy. If you look at the demographics of who abandoned the Republican Party in 2016, it was overwhelmingly younger voters.