Last August, Donald Trump held his biggest outdoor rally up until that time down in Mobilem Ala. The press dutifully covered it from beginning to end as they like to do and contrary to what Trump says every day on the stump, they panned out to show that he had filled up a very large space with thousands and thousands of ecstatic supporters. It was a bit surprising to see signs which said "Thank you Lord Jesus for President Trump" and even more startling to hear people in the crowd yelling "White Power." Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions appeared at the rally and Trump handed him a "Make America Great Again" hat. At the time, most people thought it was just one more wacky moment in the early days of the crazy primary campaign that we'd all laugh about later.
Nobody's laughing today. Donald Trump is the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. He held another gigantic rally in Alabama yesterday and Senator Jeff Sessions appeared onstage again, this time to officially endorse his candidacy. He gave the crowd what they wanted, saying:
"For 30 years, politicians have promised to fix illegal immigration. Have they done it?"
"No," the crowd roared back.
"Donald Trump will do it," Sessions said.
There were no reports of people screaming "white power" in the audience but the rousing reception for Sessions speaks for itself. He's one of the leading xenophobe voices in America and has a long and illustrious history of hostility toward African Americans as well. He is the most unreconstructed racist in the U.S. Senate today.
Throughout the morning leading up to the surprise endorsement, the media had been pressing Trump on whether he would disavow any support from KKK leader David Duke; Trump was dancing around it, pretending he wasn't sure who Duke was. When word of the Sessions endorsement was announced it suddenly became clear why he did that. Sunday was "white power" day for the Trump campaign and he didn't want to dampen the celebration by criticizing the participants.
If you look at the public figures who are first out of the gate to endorse Trump now that he looks to be so formidable that they cannot hope to stop him, you'll see Chris Christie, known for his derision and bullying; former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, best known for her anti-immigration proposals demanding that people who "look illegal" offer up their papers; former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke; and Maine Governor Paul LePage, who was last heard complaining that drug dealers come up to Maine from New York to sell their drugs and "half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave." Now there's Sessions too. Trump is, in other words lining up the country's most famous bullies, xenophobes, and bigots to endorse him. (And that's not even counting the avowed white supremacists who are doing robocalls on his behalf.)
The right is acting shocked — shocked! — that anyone would ever say there's racism going on in their party, and they are all practically calling for the smelling salts at the mere suggestion that Donald Trump might be appealing to white people who hold racist views. This is to be expected. After all, even their protestations are a form of dogwhistle at this point: The pretense of horror at being called racist is a signal to fellow racists.
But the right wing isn't alone in protesting the very obvious fact that Trump's appeal is based in racism. There are more than a few members of the left who get similarly upset at any suggestion that the Trump phenomenon might be driven by race. This is odd considering his blatant xenophobia with respect to Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, his blaming of every economic problem on cunning leaders of foreign governments and his long history of outright racism when it comes to African Americans.
If these racist and xenophobic polices weren't the central message of his campaign --- if he weren't promising to deport and ban millions of people --- perhaps it might be believable that the white people who are voting for him [he doesn't have any other kind] do so in spite of this agenda rather than because of it. The data does not support that. The New York Times reports:
According to P.P.P., 70 percent of Mr. Trump’s voters in South Carolina wish the Confederate battle flag were still flying on their statehouse grounds. (It was removed last summer less than a month after a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston.) The polling firm says that 38 percent of them wish the South had won the Civil War. Only a quarter of Mr. Rubio’s supporters share that wish, and even fewer of Mr. Kasich’s and Mr. Carson’s do.
Nationally, further analyses of the YouGov data show a similar trend: Nearly 20 percent of Mr. Trump’s voters disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Southern states during the Civil War. Only 5 percent of Mr. Rubio’s voters share this view.
Mr. Trump’s popularity with white, working-class voters who are more likely than other Republicans to believe that whites are a supreme race and who long for the Confederacy may make him unpopular among leaders in his party. But it’s worth noting that he isn’t persuading voters to hold these beliefs. The beliefs were there — and have been for some time.
Progressives naturally balk at the idea that hardworking people, suffering in a stagnating economy, might be driven by something something so dark as racism when the fact is that they have much more in common economically with people of color than this blowhard billionaire who's selling some snake oil about "making deals" with foreign countries so America will be "great again." But it's a sad reality that this racial animosity lies at the heart of many of America's pathologies, particularly its unwillingness to adopt social democratic policies going all the way back to the beginning.
And it's still with us:
However, just because Trump is appealing to many white people who are motivated by bigotry, it does not also mean that white people, or even the white working class, are all bigots who will vote for Donald Trump. After 2012, when the conventional wisdom held that Democrats were as dead in the water with working class whites as Republicans were with Latinos and African Americans, The New Republic's Nate Cohn pointed out that the whites Romney won were very much centered in specific regions. In a piece called "The GOP Has Problems With White Voters, Too," he wrote:
Romney’s strong national showing among white voters was almost exclusively driven by historic support from Southern and Appalachian white voters. In many counties, Obama’s performance was the worst by any Democrat since McGovern or, in some places, ever. Even a quick glance at overwhelmingly white, Southern, or Appalachian counties with a history of offering even limited support to Democratic candidates shows Obama performing anywhere from 15 to 30 points worse than Kerry did eight years ago. Obama even lost more than 50 points compared to Kerry’s performance in several “coal country” counties in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
Outside the South, Romney’s performance among white voters was anything but historic. He ran behind Bush’s tallies in most of the northern half of the United States. While some believed that Obama’s weakness among white voters would translate into opportunities for Romney in overwhelmingly white states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, Obama ultimately won these three states by 5.6 to 6.9 points, even though Bush never lost any by more than 1.3 points.
The point is that there are plenty of white working- and middle-class people in this country who are not necessarily going to be seduced by Donald Trump's noxious racism. And there is also no doubt that the Democratic party's coalition now and in the future is multi-ethnic and multi-racial and those who are hostile to that idea are simply never going to vote for the Democrats regardless of policies that may benefit them. Those people are motivated by the need to maintain a social status and cultural dominance that is rapidly disappearing.
That is not to say that Democrats should not offer an agenda that benefits these people regardless of their voting habits. It's the job of the left to push hard for policies on behalf of all working families. But it's foolish to expect that this cohort is going to respond with gratitude or even acknowledge that they are better off. (Witness the loathing for Obamacare even as many benefit from it.)
Maybe Trump will be the last gasp of this dynamic, and class solidarity will rise above racial resentment at long last. But for now, it does no good to ignore the fact that the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president has just been endorsed by some of the the nation's most notorious racists and xenophobes and is routinely cheered by ecstatic crowds for his bigotry. America's made a lot of progress but it's not there yet.