Trump won on "white fright": Why identity politics win elections

Salon talks to Christopher Parker about why the Democrats should "play the race card" in the next election

Published July 22, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)

A Confederate flag with a depiction of Donald Trump (AP/Evan Vucci)
A Confederate flag with a depiction of Donald Trump (AP/Evan Vucci)

The United States of America has become a giant church basement where members of Alcoholics Anonymous congregate to commiserate over their self-made problems. Sobriety never lasts, because white Americans continue to redefine their bottom. In October of 2016, anyone reasonable would have assumed that the election of a grotesquely ignorant and incompetent clown would inspire rehabilitation, but the protectors of white fragility and the enablers of white ignorance quickly came to the rescue.

America’s problem is not racial resentment, mainstream reportage and even progressive reaction insisted, it is economic anxiety. “No one saw the election of Trump coming,” countless analysts proclaimed — but they should have, they whined, because of growing dissatisfaction with globalization, international trade and wage stagnation.

Christopher Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington, not only predicted the nomination and presidential victory of Donald Trump. He also accurately forecasted the flatulent rise of the white reactionary constituency when the Tea Party was in its embryonic stage.

Parker and his research partner Matt Barreto wrote "Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America," which won the American Political Science Association's award for the best book in race, ethnicity and politics, and are currently working on a book examining how “white fright” led to the Trump victory. Racial resentment and terror at the prospect of social change is what animated the Tea Party and now energizes Trump supporters, according to their research, not perceptions of economic interest.

The meticulous research and masterful argumentation of Parker and Barreto is difficult to dispute, especially considering that they have correctly predicted the outcome of American politics for several years. Yet, they are largely invisible, far from mainstays on television and radio and anything but viral. The mediocre punditry, while scrambling to dissect and decipher Trump’s ascension, has ignored the two men who consistently called it.

Parker suspects that the reason for his own obscurity bears hideous resemblance to the impetus for the rightward shift in American politics. It is the purloined letter left out in the open that no one wants to see, much less read. It is racism.

I recently had an impassioned discussion with Parker over the phone.

Your work is fascinating, and I was delighted to find it, even if the conclusions it naturally leads one to draw are unpleasant. It is important to get to the truth, and you are doing it. Let’s start at the beginning. How did the election of Barack Obama create the Tea Party, and how did the creation of the Tea Party lead to the election of Donald Trump?

These people — white reactionaries — are always there. They just need something to stimulate them into action. Obama was that stimulus for white reactionaries, because he represents the rapid change that was happening in America, and is continuing to happen. In one fell swoop, there is the first non-white president, one that is black, and it spiked the anxiety of a certain percentage of the electorate, and by that I mean white, middle class, native-born, heterosexual, Christian. If one does not check all those boxes, to use their language, one is not a “real American.”

So, what happened with Obama is, not only do you get the first black president as head of the government, but the president, symbolically, is America personified. For this 20 to 30 percent of the population, it was too much to handle.

These people are always there, but they are not always activated. In the present case, it was Obama who activated their anxiety, but in the past it was the Civil Rights Movement. Before that it was the Klan in the 1920s reacting to the return of the “new negro,” and before that it was nativism against the suspicion that Jews were dominating American capital, and before that it was the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, anxious and angry about Catholic immigrants. It is always the perception of rapid social change that freaks these people out enough to start a regressive movement.

How was Donald Trump able to reassure the white reactionary constituency of American politics, and why did those voters flock to him as not only an appealing political candidate, but their social savior?

Well, these voters are motivated by the fear that the “real America” they know and love is slipping away from them. So, what you have is that 76 percent of the people who supported the Tea Party love Donald Trump. They love Trump for the same reason they loved the Tea Party. They view him as a bulwark against social change. He reassures them [about] seeing people of color as criminals or terrorists. He is anti-feminist, or sexist, to put it in a more truthful way. He is a nativist. He wants to return to the America where white men enjoyed dominance without question. That is the America that these voters know and love.

If you go back to 2009, most scholars said that the Tea Party will soon go away. Matt and I said, “No, bullshit.” They are here to stay. They never go away. They just need to feel motivated enough to turn themselves into a political presence. That’s what you are seeing today. They are stimulated by what they interpret as an existential threat. When Obama was president, they saw him as an existential threat — not a material threat.

So, Matt and I have been proving that the Tea Party is not about economic anxiety. We showed this in the book. We said that Trump would get elected. Nobody wanted to f***ing believe it. I said it publicly on the History Channel. I wrote it in a few pieces. Nobody f***ing believed it. What angers me is how many people, including progressives, now say, “Oh, we need to forget about identity politics, and win back the white working class.” That’s bullshit. Trump won 48 percent of college-educated white voters. They aren’t worried about globalization. Progressives are going to let Bozo the Clown beat them again if they continue to make this about economic anxiety. The working class, manufacturing jobs have been gone for 20 years. It isn’t going to work.

What does work, and Matthew and I show this in the forthcoming book, is that people of color are mobilized and engaged, and the more they saw Donald Trump as a threat, the more mobilized and engaged they became. This goes to voting, participating in a protests, donating to candidates, volunteering for a campaign. The more they saw Trump as a threat, the more they did these things. That means Democrats need to use fear and identity politics as an organizational tool on the left as well as Republicans have done so on the right.

Before we get too much further into the analysis, what are some of the research methods that support your observations?

Matt and I are top-flight social scientists. I got my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. What we do is we have survey data. We have survey-based experiments. We have qualitative stuff in which we did open-ended interviews with people to get at the mechanisms for why these models work the way they work. Then, we back it up with the history to demonstrate a pattern developing over time that we can test contemporaneously.

James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal went after us, and essentially said, “What do you think they are going to find? You have a black man and a Latino man. What do you think they are going to find?” So, he attacked all of our qualitative and quantitative stuff, and our historical evidence, but that just pulled his own card, because if you object to all those methods, you aren’t going to like whatever you find.

If there was only one source of evidence, and someone was skeptical, I could say, “Ok, I got you,” but if all these different sources of evidence are triangulating at the same point, it is pretty hard to say that the conclusion is wrong.

Why do you think the mainline media was so eager to broadcast the economic anxiety, white working class opposition to free trade narrative, even though there is little evidence to support it and it flies in the face of the cultural flow?

Oh man, you are giving me some low-hanging fruit to knock off the tree today. White progressives do not want to believe that people in their strata voted for Trump. It is too hard for them to reconcile with reality. There is some cognitive dissonance going on. It is easier for them to believe that Jim Bob and Mary Sue out there in the shed with missing teeth are at fault. It comes down to believing, “It wasn’t people like us. It was those rural people.”

That’s bullshit. Hillary won 53 percent of people who make under $50,000. So, get the f**k out of here with that. It is not only theoretically wrong and empirically wrong, but it will lead to erroneous political assumptions. I would say to progressives that Bozo the Clown will kick your ass again if you continue to miss this point. You cannot continue to presume that this nonsensical white working class argument will work.

You certainly know the numbers more than me, but one of the exit polling results that I found informative and illustrative was that among voters who claimed that they voted primarily on economic issues, Hillary won.

Exactly! These people are willfully hiding their heads in the sand. The evidence is all around them, but Chuck Schumer is out there talking this [misconception], Chris Matthews is doing it. It is infuriating . . . crazy.

Let’s say that the Democratic Party regained its intelligence and composure, and asked you to offer a political outreach strategy, what would you advise them to do beyond dropping the white working class idiocy? What is something proactive they can do to better ensure the likelihood of their victory? 

They need to scare the s**t out of their base, especially people of color. The base needs to see Trump as an existential threat. For black people, that means that on Trump’s watch racism is increasing, civil rights protections are decreasing, and voting rights are in danger. For Latinos, it is the fear that they don’t belong, and that someone from the government will soon snatch up a member of their family. The Democrats need to take the legitimate anxieties that exist among people of color, and among women, and among gay voters, and make them more salient and manifest. This is exactly how conservatives punch above their weight. Conservatives are rarely in the majority, but they continue to win elections, because their base is anxious and angry. It is a huge motivation for mobilization. Even within the Republican Party, Tea Party conservatives turned out at a much higher rate than so called “establishment conservatives.” Do you know why? Because they were afraid and they were pissed.

The same logic should apply to the left, but the left always wants to have an empowering, uplifting conversation about process. F**k that. You need to retake power before you have the luxury of discussing process.

In order to do that, you need to use what works. Anxiety and anger works for people of color. The more they were worried about Trump, the more they were mobilized. Too many people of color did not take Trump seriously. They thought he was a joke. The same is true for women. This needs to be about identity politics on the left. Class-based politics will not work for people of color. We know that for a fact, because it never does. It also won’t work for women.

It is amazingly frustrating to see how quickly progressives have dropped race and gender in their response to Trump, and how they are succumbing to pressure to surrender identity politics in a failure to realize that Trump is the most powerful practitioner of identity politics in the country. 

Liberals always want to take the f**king high road. The high road leads to Bozo the Clown beating their ass again. It looks good in theory, because race and class correlate, but in practice, it does not work with people of color. They need to play to people’s fears and anxieties. Given the changing demographics, which work to the left’s advantage, they also need to play the race card. I’m sorry. Call me whatever you want to call me, but Democrats needs to play the race card if they want people of color to show up.

There is no shortage of justification to play the race card given the policies and positions of the Trump administration. It isn’t as if this requires a great imagination.

You are right on point. Why not play the race card? The right wing is playing it. So, why not play it better? These anxieties need to become salient and manifest. I know this isn’t the most positive tactic, but we need to get beyond the idealistic and look to the pragmatic. Conservatives by their nature are pragmatic, and progressives are idealistic. That does not serve us well.

It is a matter of human nature. Typically, people who feel they have more to lose will fight with greater force than those they are against.

Oh my gosh! There is so much cognitive psychology on this. You can cite Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on prospect theory. People fear losing more than they enjoy winning. That is why negative messages do so well among conservatives. They already have a predisposition in favor of the status quo. They have a hard time processing change, because it makes them nervous.

One difference between establishment conservatives and the reactionaries is that establishment conservatives will not embrace change, but they prefer organic and controlled change over revolutionary change. So, if they believe that change is inevitable, they would rather see a little change now in order to stave off revolutionary change later. The reactionary types view any social change as subversion.

So many people proclaimed that “no one saw Trump coming.” Well, you and your research partner saw it coming a mile away, yet you aren’t on television. You aren’t going viral. No is treating you as the accurate prognosticator that you are. What is that about? 

It’s about race, pure and simple. James Taranto said it in his Wall Street Journal piece, “What do you think they are going to find? They are black and Latino.” That suggests that we cannot be objective. That suggests that we are not credible social scientists. Plus, and this is important, no one wants to believe us.

If Matt and I were white men, we would be all over the news. Suddenly, you have some white men making the same arguments — “Well, it isn’t about economic anxiety…” Well, we’ve been saying this for six years. It is the same way that people of color are frozen out of these discussions in academic journals. Recently, a journal of political theory had a symposium on Black Lives Matter, and not one of the participants was a person of color. The Annals of Political Science had a large feature on the 2016 election, and again, not one of the contributors was a person of color.

It is almost like some comedy writer is plotting all of this out, because it is so absurd in 2017.

[Laughs] We don’t know whether to think they don’t take us seriously as social scientists or if there is some kind of conspiracy, because they don’t want to hear what we have to say, but there are enough of us now, with enough seniority and long enough CVs, that we can fight back.

Speaking of fighting back, in the conclusion of an essay you wrote for The Conversation, you write, “[Trump’s election] could be a good thing: It forces us to reckon with who we really are. Is America really about the democratic, progressive values professed in the founding documents? Or, are we really the small-minded, bigoted place Trump’s election represents?” How do you answer the question of American identity? Who are we? What will we become?

Part of my answer is colored by who I am — a black man in America. Every time it seems like we are making progress, white folks move the goal posts. I’ll put it like this, if the outcome depends on the goodwill of the majority of white folks, I’m not faithful at all. If the outcome depends on people of color, feminists, and all the others who are not considered the “real Americans,” then I’m much more sanguine. We cannot depend on the largesse of white folks. We can forget about the reactionaries. They’re gone. Now, the conservatives who are willing to put country before party -- they are viable allies, but I’m not depending on them either.

Anyone who has traveled outside the United States, especially Europe, knows how backwards we are. What really concerns me is that so many white people were so afraid of change that they voted this idiot into the White House. Progressive have to do this on our own. If we are concerned and committed, and we do the work, we can make the country consistent with the values of its founding documents, even if those values were never meant to include us. We can still use them, and they were used by King, Frederick Douglass, and Du Bois as rhetorical boons. I still believe we can use them that way, and build a progressive party that can actually achieve progress.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for Salon, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression, and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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