There has been no shortage of think pieces in the past few months that promise to “explain” why Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been so wildly successful. And that’s fine; I’ve written a few such pieces myself.
The problem with most of these pieces, however, is that for all the valuable insights they may offer — about economic inequality, the institutional Republican Party’s disintegration, the preponderance of “authoritarian”-minded voters, and so on — they tend to ignore what is arguably the most important question about Trump’s campaign.
That question, simply put: Why now?
For all the (somewhat justified) self-congratulation many on the Left are feeling right now, what with seeming vindication of their long-held claim that the conservative movement is fundamentally ethno-nationalist, there hasn’t been as much talk about what it is that’s made 2016 so different.
After all, it’s not like the Trumpist bloc of the GOP didn’t exist in 2012 or 2008 — or, indeed, 1980. But Trump didn’t happen during any of those elections; he happened during this one. Why? What’s different? What’s changed? Why has he been able to do what so many of the rightwing authoritarian candidates before him could not?
In all honesty, I don’t really know. I don’t think anyone does, really. Whether or not Trump wins the Republican Party’s presidential nomination (or even the presidency itself), I’m guessing some very smart people will devote years of their life to trying to find an explanation. I’m guessing that, ultimately, there will be more than one.
Given the limited amount of evidence we currently have at our disposal, though, I think a recent piece from Slate’s Jamelle Bouie is the best of the first drafts. Not necessarily because Bouie’s argument is unlike the ones we’ve heard already; but because it refuses to strip Trumpism from its context. And what is that context? The eighth-straight year in which an African-American man by the name Barack Hussein Obama is president.
Here’s how Bouie sees it. Globalization and the GOP’s embrace of white identity politics have both “been in play for years,” he writes, correctly. So the relevant variable here is almost certainly something else. And considering this is American politics we’re talking about, that something else is — you guessed it — race:
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.
All of which is to say that we’ve been missing the most important catalyst in Trump’s rise. What caused this fire to burn out of control? The answer, I think, is Barack Obama.
Now, before anyone starts righteously thundering about all the ways in which President Obama has been a centrist, neoliberal sellout, know this: Generally speaking, Bouie does not disagree. It’s not Obama’s policies that have led to Trump; on the substance, Obama is, Bouie writes, “no radical” and “well within the center-left of the Democratic Party.”
But the “symbolism,” as Bouie puts it, of an Obama presidency? That’s something considerably different. Bouie writes:
In a nation shaped and defined by a rigid racial hierarchy, his election was very much a radical event, in which a man from one of the nation’s lowest castes ascended to the summit of its political landscape. And he did so with heavy support from minorities: Asian Americans and Latinos were an important part of Obama’s coalition, and black Americans turned out at their highest numbers ever in 2008.
The point here is not to say that all Trump backers have a viscerally negative reaction to African-Americans, though it’s undoubtedly the case that many of them do. The point, rather, is that Obama’s ascension — as well as his success and, perhaps most importantly, his endurance — is perceived by Trumpists as a threat to one of their last sources of stability and comfort. Namely, the privilege of being white.
And we’re not talking about the ill-defined, amorphous version of “privilege” that gets turned into click-y listicles for BuzzFeed. This is not about the privilege of not having to worry on Halloween that an acquaintance of yours will wear a costume that you find personally offensive. This is a concrete, tangible kind of privilege, the kind of privilege that provided material security:
In the recent past, holding the favored spot in our racial hierarchy brought benefits. As historian and political scientist Ira Katznelson details in “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America,” being white was traditionally a pathway to middle-class security, the key that won access to vital mortgage and education programs, as the federal government worked to build a white middle-class in the middle part of the 20th century. Even after the civil rights movement and the end of formal discrimination against black Americans, it was still true that being white and middle-class offered protection from the worst of our economy’s ravages. Drugs, ghettos, and dependency existed among whites in pockets of the country, but they were popularly understood as black and Latino problems, not white ones. Now, that isn’t true. Now, middle-class whites face addiction and dependence, which adds a racial element to economic anxiety, as the security provided by whiteness no longer exists for many Americans.
This is the America that Trump supporters have come to know; it’s the America they want to escape and make “great” again.
It’s a world in which one of the most deep-seated assumptions of American society — that there is an unspoken social hierarchy in America, one in which white, straight, and Christian Americans are always on top — was all that many people had left. And now that it’s gone, now that Obama succeeded in “fundamentally transforming” the country as they knew it, these people are yearning for someone who will bring it back.
Perhaps these people would be equally hysterical if we were nearing the end of a Hillary Clinton presidency (it’s not like patriarchy isn’t a part of what shaped American society, too). It’s possible. But I doubt it.