The rise of Trumpism, for lack of a better term, now appears to be overdetermined. The financial crisis of 2008 put an exclamation point on 40 or so years of declining wages and growing economic inequality, for which immigrants from Mexico and Latin America were an easy scapegoat.
Immigrant scapegoating joined a long-standing condemnation of affirmative action as reverse discrimination against white people. The increase of social equality over the same period contributed to the “status anxiety” (the historian Richard Hofstadter’s term) on the part of many whites and conservative Christians over their declining cultural hegemony.
Since the late 1970s, the Republican Party successfully captured and stoked these anxieties, managing to tie the discontent of the white working class and small business owners and conservative evangelicals to policies largely unconnected to their immediate concerns, including the deregulation of industry, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the demonization of federal spending for social welfare programs.
In this election it was as if the Republican base woke up to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? thesis, and discovered that the Republican political elite had sold them out. But this awakening did not mean a turn to Democrats or to the left.
With its own shift from the New Deal’s commitment to the working class and an anti-monopoly or at least a regulated economy, and its turn instead toward deregulation, free trade, and orientation toward white-collar professionals, the Democratic Party, too, was perceived as selling out the working class.
Complicating this hugely was the national Democratic Party’s support for the Civil Rights movement and the women’s and minority rights movements that Civil Rights had set in motion. This put class and racial matters in great tension.
The culture wars of the 1980s onward showed us then, and Trump constituencies show us now, that conservative constituencies are not against government spending. But race and class are in tension.
For decades a central political question for white people was whether government benefits go to the “deserving” or the “undeserving,” with themselves constituting the former and minorities comprising the latter. In this regard, white status anxiety and Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” clearly intersect. In the past, among other things unionism and a growing economy were able to lessen status anxiety; the decline of unions and a weak economy are of course now part of the problem. This was a status anxiety election.
Identity politics abets the “deplorability” dynamic, for it creates a retribalization process along racial/ethnic/sexual identification lines. If black people and gays/lesbians and Latinos and others all identify and act politically in group ways, asserting a politics of difference, what are politically unsophisticated white people supposed to do? They (re)create their own white identity group. And because identity politics feeds on and fuels a sense of victimhood, victimhood becomes the currency of politics. Ergo, white people are now victims.
This is not new. It was articulated as early as the late 1960s by neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, who argued that LBJ’s Great Society had fostered a “New Class” of highly credentialed public sector and non-profit professionals who effectively amassed power by pushing for more government programs and greater benefits for minorities. Those who suffer from the New Class’ will to power is the little guy. A lesson: class matters, in all its complicated ways.
With Trump this has led to populism, with all of populism’s historically double-edged hatred of elites, economic nationalism, and racism. Trump in particular was able to articulate a version of white populist nationalism.
Media of course played a part here. Trump had been a strong presence in television, having performed in the very popular reality TV show, The Apprentice, for more than a decade. His charismatic embodiment of celebrity culture was finessed into a palpable political resource. The deregulation of communications in the 1970s and subsequent proliferation of media choices led to a situation where you can choose your idiosyncratic channel with its own idiosyncratic viewpoint, which led in complicated fashion to where you can now choose your facts.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s quip that “you’re entitled to your own opinions; you are not entitled to your own facts” no longer applies. This may be one of the most dangerous aspects to the election: we no longer live in the same conceptual universe, which makes politics – the messy, clash of views and interests fashioned into often unsatisfying pragmatic policies – effectively impossible.
Robert B. Horwitz, professor at University of California, San Diego, is the author of America’s Right: Anti-establishment Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party (Polity Press 2013).