In his final chapter, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on Donald Trump’s election, a tragic turn of events from his point of view.
Race trumped class
Many commentators on the Trump election prefer to explain it more by class than by race. Focusing on Trump’s slim but crucial victories in industrial states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, they tell a story of working-class voters threatened by trends like globalization, loss of manufacturing jobs, and the declining share of national income going to labor. Although there is some truth to this interpretation, Coates has some good reasons to be skeptical.
As I pointed out in my post “Why Trump Won” shortly after the election, Trump won Michigan by less than one percentage point, but he won Alabama by 28 points. This is no surprise to Coates, who finds that race and racial attitudes were better predictors of voting than economic class. Although enough Obama voters switched their allegiance to Trump to swing the election, the bulk of the Trump voters were the same whites who never supported Obama in the first place.
There are plenty of working-class people in all racial groups, and “deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality…have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people.” Yet it was primarily whites who went for Trump, by a 20-point margin according to the exit polls. Clinton won blacks by an 81-point margin, and she won both Latinos and Asians by 38 points.
One study found that “the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was ‘Is Barack Obama a Muslim?'” This is not really surprising considering that Trump achieved political notoriety as a “birther” suggesting that Obama’s African birth disqualified him to be president. “Trump truly is something new,” Coates says,”–the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” Trump’s election was impossible without eight years of white fear and resistance directed against Obama despite his moderation and careful racial neutrality.
Considering all the talk about the Trump campaign as a populist working-class movement, readers may be surprised to learn that on the average, Trump voters had incomes a little higher, on the average, than Clinton voters. And why shouldn’t they? Trump voters were predominantly white men, who are still the highest earning group in the country.
In order to predict how someone voted, the first thing I would want to know is their racial identification. The second thing I would want to know is how threatened they feel by the ascendancy of minorities and women. (I would also want to know if they are evangelical Christians threatened by the secularization of public policies on issues such as abortion and gay rights.) Only then would I turn to economic status for an explanation.
The politics of racial identity
Our ability to see race as an issue is affected by white racial dominance itself. If white is the norm and black the exception, then blackness is what is noticed. Problems concentrated in black areas, like a crack epidemic, are black problems, while problems concentrated in white areas, like opiate addiction, are just problems. The second type gets a lot more sympathy than the first.
Although many commentators have criticized “identity politics” for polarizing the country, they apply the term more readily to black identity than white identity. If a black female voter votes for Clinton, they can easily see her as voting her race or gender identity, and they can readily blame Democrats for playing “identity politics.” If a white male votes for Trump, they say he is voting his working-class interests. So Trump is the working-class champion, while Clinton must be the elitist out of touch with “real people.” Never mind that Clinton did better among voters who saw the economy as the most important issue, as well as voters who were most interested in having a president who “cares about me.” And never mind that she won the popular vote, which Democratic candidates have now done in six out of the last seven elections. If Trump voters were real people, what were Clinton voters, aliens? Trump’s suggestion that he lost the popular vote because of fraudulent votes from illegal aliens goes exactly in that direction.
Identity politics is alive and well in both parties. Accusing the other party of narrowly appealing to blacks and women is an effective way of making one’s own narrow appeal to white men. And vice versa.
But class mattered too
Coates emphasizes that Trump was elected by a broad coalition of white voters–men and women, young and old, with and without college degrees. But his own numbers show that Trump won white college graduates by only 3 points, while winning white non-graduates by 37 points. No doubt economic issues played a role in that result, since people without college degrees are faring especially poorly in the new economy.
However, we cannot be sure that even people who are in the working class actually voted on the basis of their class interests. They could still be voting more as whites clinging to white privilege, as men with disparaging attitudes towards women, or as evangelical Christians hostile to gay rights. All of these tendencies are more common in the less educated white population, and especially in the less educated white Southern population. They may even be voting against their true class interests, if voting conservative on race, gender or religious grounds plays into the hands of economic elites pursuing their own agenda.
When less educated workers do vote their economic interests and insecurities, they may be drawn to an ugly, zero-sum, “beggar thy neighbor” kind of economics. The aim is to protect one group’s jobs at the expense of some other group, such as immigrants or foreigners or even U.S. citizens in other industries. Tariffs on steel may help U.S. steelworkers but hurt not only foreign steelworkers but workers in other domestic industries affected by higher steel prices.
Trump’s populist appeal continues a long tradition of appeals that do not so much help workers as a class as keep them fighting among themselves for meager benefits, while the interests of the wealthy are fully served. That’s a pretty good description of Trump’s fiscal policy, which cuts taxes primarily for the few while hurting programs beneficial for the many.
How to respond?
The fact that race and class are so entangled in our politics makes Coates’s emphasis on race both illuminating and limiting. How much to focus on race in our political discussions remains a delicate issue.
When Obama was interviewed by Coates, he said, “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” He understood that calling his white opponents racists would only harden opposition to his policy agenda. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton couldn’t resist calling Trump supporters racists, sexists and xenophobes–deplorables, in short–and that didn’t help her cause either.
I would like to see politicians promote their policies with positive appeals to egalitarian values and the general economic good. For progressives, that includes sharpening their economic message to persuade people that progressive taxation to support investments in education, infrastructure and universal health insurance is better than more trickle-down economics. To those who say the country cannot afford these things, progressives should challenge them to explain how we can afford still more tax cuts, extravagant military expenditures and deficits.
As an educator, I realized that I had to gently lead my students to raise their consciousness about race and gender, so they could gradually acknowledge and transcend their own prejudices. I would like to think that a good political leader would also be partly such an educator. We must call out political operatives who manipulate prejudices for their own advantage, but we must also have some faith in the majority of Americans to achieve greater racial understanding. Coates admits that his own experience–and his experience of the Obama years in particular–has caused him to lose that faith. I understand his pessimism, but I cannot endorse it.