The rise of Trump and the Sanders phenomenon this election cycle have produced an almost touching consensus around one thing: voters are economically anxious and furious with globalization. There’s probably a lot of truth to that, but there’s another, more dominant factor that may explain how Donald Trump made it all the way to major party Presidential nominee. It’s the oldest one in the book.
Now, the Trump coalition is made up of all kinds of people. Some are partisan Republicans, who are loyal to the party despite not liking the nominee all that much, either out of ideological conviction, classic 90’s style hatred of Hillary Clinton, or both. Some are religious Conservatives who are supporting a nominee that they often openly despise, in order to secure the future of the Supreme Court.
But the core supporters of Donald Trump, the base that has supported him since the very beginning of the primary election, have a few things in common: they are white and score high on various measures of racial resentment. They are, in short, racist.
In a way, that’s not very surprising. The Birther-in-Chief first emerged as a political figure while questioning the legitimacy of the first Black President. His campaign has at times eschewed the traditional dog whistles completely, in favor of simply stating racial stereotypes as facts. Just last week he resurrected the long disproven accusations against the Central Park Five, after first running a racist campaign for their guilt when they were first arrested in the 1980’s. In an article for Slate, Jamelle Bouie calls this “the core conceit of his candidacy: that people of color—either citizens or otherwise—are the principal threat to the United States”.
Instead of acknowledging this fundamental throughline of Trump’s candidacy, the focus has largely been on the economic anxiety of the Republican base. On further exploration, that explanation doesn’t seem to hold up. Racial anxiety is a much more potent predictor of support for Trump than economic hardship. A Washington Post analysis even shows how this racial resentment is largely the very thing driving the perception of having lost to globalization. Au contraire, The Upshot shows that income in rural America is actually growing, which doesn’t jive at all with the general view.
The establishment of the Republican party has long realized that the racial resentment route is a highway to electoral obscurity. After the 2012 election the Republican National Committee put together an “autopsy” which famously concluded that the party had to start pivoting away from their white-centric ways. Mitt Romney’s “callous tone towards minorities” was considered the culprit in the 2012 election. An embrace of immigration reform, an issue that has long alienated Hispanic voters from the GOP, was among the recommended remedies.
The United States is on track to be majority-minority by the 2040’s, which spells trouble for the GOP. Fairly soon it’s not going to be enough to just win the white vote, even by substantial margins. The Hispanic vote is rapidly growing, and it is going for the Democrats in devastating numbers. George W. Bush won white voters by 17 points to a victory – albeit a narrow one – over John Kerry in 2004. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, outperformed Barack Obama by 20 points among white voters in 2012, and still lost that election in what can only be called an electoral landslide.
But the primary voters did not want the same thing as the party elites. The Republican primary electorate looks very different from the population at large, which explains the Trump nomination. All the things that are true of the base of Trump’s supporters are also true of those who vote in the GOP primary. They are older, tend not to be college educated, and are overwhelmingly white.
This is a problem that the Democratic Party is not struggling with at all. This year, there were a lot more young people voting as a consequence of the enthusiasm around Bernie Sanders. The Democratic primary electorate is also a lot more representative in terms of race. If anything, black voters were over-represented in some states. The black Democratic base is a much less risky primary electorate to lean heavily on, as they tend to be pragmatic voters, focused on a viable path to a general election victory. That’s how Hillary Clinton, a Democratic Party mainstay, won the Democratic nomination this year.
Win or lose, the Trump movement spells trouble for the GOP in a couple of ways. This Trump-electing, older white nationalist group has been a loyal but fairly quiet part of the Republican electorate for a long time. The fact that they’ve been able to breathe some fresh air in this election may further strengthen them in the future. A fundamental rift within the Republican Party has been highlighted, and looks set to widen.
But Trump’s nomination also points out the way that the Republican Party may perish – in white nationalist obscurity. The Republican primary system is severely broken, with such a heavy bias towards the reactionary right that it seems unlikely to ever elect a presidential candidate capable of winning a national election, even in the future. The current system encourages exactly the kind of populist demagoguery that won Donald Trump his nomination, but will lose him the general election. Thus, the Grand Old Party stands at a crossroads. Do they continue down this path, or do they attempt to reform? Or rather, do they ever want to win the White House again?