During his campaign, Donald Trump demonstrated no knowledge on the issues, an abundance of childish invective, and plenty of outright scandals yet none of that deterred his predominantly white base. Exit polls show that white voters, who make up sixty-nine percent of the total, voted fifty-eight percent for Trump. These included a significant majority of both white men and women, especially non-college educated white men between the ages of 18-29. It is safe to say that Trump was the White people’s candidate.
As Trump accurately referenced in his victory speech, he led a movement, not a campaign. Specifically, a white nationalist movement eager to identify as white and as victims whose righteous hold on wealth and dominance had been taken away from them from a rising non-white majority. Trump consolidated and energized this movement and even had he lost the election, it would have persisted as a political and social force in the United States. The question is, where did it come from?
I think it is an incarnation of the Tea Party grassroots movement whose base is eighty-nine percent white. In 2010, after the Tea Party won several key victories in the mid-term congressional elections, I wrote an essay about its relationship to race in an effort to understand why a movement mostly concerned with a weak economy and high unemployment projected that anger at big government rather than unregulated financial institutions. Then I turned to social theorist and geographer, David Harvey, who explains that when big business aligned itself with the Republican Party in the 1970s it found a solid electoral base in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. According to Harvey:
The Republican Party now had its Christian base. It also appealed to the cultural nationalism of the white working classes and their besieged sense of moral righteousness (besieged because this class lived under conditions of chronic economic insecurity and felt excluded from many of the benefits that were being distributed through affirmative action and other state programs). This political base could be mobilized through the positives of religion and cultural nationalism and the negatively through coded, if not blatant, racism, homophobia, and anti-feminism.
As such, this white base felt that the government was using state power to provide for “special interests” like blacks, women, and the environment, but not for them and was doing so at their expense. This was no coincidence but the deliberate outcome of spending by what columnist Frank Rich describes as “billionaire sugar daddies.” Rich comments that despite what appears to be a leaderless populist movement, corporate tycoons including Rupert Murdoch and Charles and David Koch are bankrolling the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party framed its grievances in nationalist, rather than economic terms.
Consider the Tea Party’s uniformly negative attitude towards President Barack Obama, whom they consider a socialist whose policies favor the poor and minorities. Despite reducing taxes for the majority of Americans during his Presidency, 64 percent of Tea Party supporters believe that the President increased taxes. Moreover, the Tea Party movement believes that the Obama Administration favors blacks over whites (25 percent) and that white people do not have greater opportunities to get ahead than their black counterparts (84 percent).
In effect, the campaign for smaller government today not only favors unfettered neoliberalism but marries its concerns with a percolating white cultural nationalism that equates federal laws intended to treat structural discrimination with racism against white people. Unsurprisingly, the movement of predominantly middle class whites takes a militant stance against immigration as evidenced by its support of State Bill 1070 and has fueled much of the anti-Islamic uproar sweeping through the United States.
At a Tea Party rally held in DC at the end of the health care debate in late March 2010 protesters collapsed this dual concern as they screamed racial epithets at three African-American Congressmen and spit on one of them. A few months later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution that called on the tea party and “all people of good will to repudiate the racist element and activities within the tea party.” Tea Party super heroine Sarah Palin decried the NAACP’s accusation and shot back, “I am saddened by the NAACP’s claim that patriotic Americans who stand up for the United States of America’s Constitutional rights are somehow ‘racists,’”
If unchecked, the Tea Party’s vehement views that collapse racial righteousness and concerns for the economy has the potential to unfurl into a white nativist movement whose target will not only be federal policies that seek to treat structural discrimination against minorities but minorities themselves.
Six years later, it seems like the Tea Party has fully transformed into a white nationalist movement whose concerns are not just economic but explicitly about the right to racial dominance. Trump’s call to “make America great again” unapologetically said as much. A Clinton victory would not have suppressed this movement nor reversed its gains. We would have had to deal with it either way. And perhaps one way to do this is to develop a more robust class consciousness and develop a sense of social solidarity that is more appealing that white nationalism. That is a tall and unlikely order in the short term, but one that needs to be a critical part of our work as Trump unleashes white feelings of victimhood and entitlement to dominate to pave the path to an even more violent and unregulated neoliberal landscape in the United States and across the globe.