The Trump-ocalypse is upon us: America can't afford to misunderstand what his nomination means

The establishment was caught off guard by the Trump phenomenon, but it shouldn't have been. The signs were there

Published May 4, 2016 8:15PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Jay LaPrete)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Jay LaPrete)

Not to rub it in, but so many pundits were so extremely wrong about Donald Trump.

  • “The notion that Mr. Trump should be considered a strong front-runner based on current polls is understandable, but inconsistent with recent history,” resident New York Times wonk Nate Cohn wrote in December.
  • “The voters’ hopes for transformation will give way to a fear of chaos,” opined David Brooks, who for unclear reasons compared electing a president to shopping for rugs.
  • “I don’t think that Donald Trump is very likely to win the nomination in part because he’s not really a Republican,” said polling guru Nate Silver.
  • “Trump won’t help the GOP’s eventual nominee, but—barring a third-party run—it’s hard to imagine a world in which he’s dispositive,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote in a piece that failed to address whether it was Trump who might actually be the nominee.

As Larry Sabato and company wrote last August, “If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong.”

Being so wrong is a professional hazard of the dumb game of covering politics like a sports match. But it’s worth exploring more specifically why.

The immense power of conventional wisdom can swamp all but the most powerful contrary evidence—evidence like, say, Trump becoming the presumptive nominee yesterday. There were lots of clear messages that the rules of the game weren’t holding, such as when, last July, Trump insulted John McCain for being captured in Vietnam and suffered zero concrete consequences. Pundits weren’t listening.

Trump’s rise should not have been incomprehensible. Much available evidence has long suggested that today’s Republican Party is capable of anything. In recent years, government shutdowns became the norm, a huge fan of Ayn Rand was elevated to House Speaker, and somewhere near half of all Republicans said they believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Meanwhile, everything hinted that Jeb Bush’s candidacy might prove to be the very nonstarter that it was. But no matter.

Wonks typically make predictions from big data sets that are in reality drawn from presidential elections—something that, in numerical terms, have happened a very small number of times. If journalists are only good at describing what passes for normal over a few decades, journalism is not very useful at understanding reality when things get interesting. And as things have gotten more interesting, journalists have played catch up every time, from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. It’s been clear since the financial crisis that American politics are fragmenting under the stress of enormous income inequality -- toward the socialist left and, on the white right, a toxic quasi-fascist stew that conflates middle-class decline with growing racial diversity.

Trump is tapping that deep current of white anger, one that is simultaneously economic, racial and cultural. Yesterday, Nate Silver published a piece entitled “The Mythology Of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support” in an effort to dismiss this interpretation, arguing that many Trump supporters are in fact relatively affluent. Trump supporters’ median household income is $72,000, higher than the overall median household income of $56,000.

Silver is right to point out that plenty of wealthy people support Trump, an important reminder that conservative movements, from Richard Nixon to the Tea Party, have never been largely comprised of poor people. It’s also true that racism is not the sole preserve of poor whites, as much as wealthy whites like to exculpate themselves by blaming it all on white trash.

Silver, however, still gets the class argument wrong. Trump supporters, after all, have a significantly lower median income than Kasich backers, and equivalent income to Cruz’s. Working class is not, as Silver seems to assume, the same thing as poor. A two-earner household with kids earning less than $50,000 a year (the income of roughly a third of Trump voters) does not add up to a hell of a lot of money. Neither, really, does a combined income of $72,000— what a couple with one partner working on the low-rungs of the white collar world and another laboring as a cement mason might earn. And it feels like even less money if you’re downwardly mobile, paying $5,000 for health insurance if your company provides it, and haven’t saved for retirement. Nearly a third of Americans have neither retirement savings nor a traditional pension plan. And Trump voters skew older.

Finally, Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white. And it’s not that useful in terms of political analysis to simply note that white Republicans have higher incomes than Democratic voters who are much more heavily black and Latino. White people, thanks to centuries of government policy geared toward protecting white supremacy, have greater wealth. By Silver’s logic, since every Republican candidate’s base earns more than the median household income, none are a candidate representing poor and working class Republicans. That, of course, is wrong: Trump supporters having the lowest median income among Republicans, combined with Trump’s economic populist railing against free trade and support for Social Security, suggests very much that he is that candidate.

Trump support is highly correlated with areas that have less educated people; that have seen a decline in manufacturing, and where the white death rates are spiking. And Trump supporters are the most likely to fear the coming white minority. The factors are related because the human mind doesn’t categorize fears and anxieties into neat categories like “economic” or “racial.” If one’s world is changing for the worst, and one also notices a lot of non-white people around, economic pain can very easily translate into white nationalism and a demand for security delivered by a strong leader. Tellingly, Trump appears to have significant support from law enforcement and the military.

At the New Yorker, Evan Osnos had an early insight into how Trump’s appeal lands squarely at a rather unpleasant intersection of race and class. Trump supporters, he writes, comprise a

“confederacy of the frustrated—less a constituency than a loose alliance of Americans who say they are betrayed by politicians, victimized by a changing world, and enticed by Trump’s insurgency…During a half-century of change in the American labor market—the rise of technology and trade, the decline of manual labor—nobody has been hit harder than low-skilled, poorly educated men.”

Hillary Clinton will most likely beat Trump, though the punditocracy’s primary season failure should give them a little bit of humility when they say this. But Clinton can’t muster the forceful response necessary to effectively confront Trumpism, a symptom of a larger demographic slide toward a politics of xenophobic populism. Rallying a coalition of bipartisan status-quo defenders and scared progressives is good enough to win. But to win what?

“With Sanders, I’ve little doubt that every Republican and conservative would quickly—and happily—line up behind Trump,” writes Corey Robin. “It’s only because Clinton does not pose a threat to core GOP commitments that these apostates from Trump can even think about straying from the fold.”

Mainstream Republicans can stomach Clinton because she will maintain the very immiserating policies that fostered Trump’s rise. Discounting racist white anger, and waiting for the arrival of white nationalists’ feared minority majority, is one option. Building a multi-racial populist movement right now is the other. If the Democratic Party simply hopes that Trump’s extremism will turn off a slim majority then there’s not much good to hope for this November.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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