What Trump’s campaign says about the politics of white identity, class and gender
By Professor Inderjeet Parmar, Department of International Politics
Why are so many white women supporting Donald Trump’s bid for the US presidency instead of that of Hillary Clinton, the first female major party candidate for the White House? On top of everything that Trump has said about some women in particular and others in general, he also repudiated Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that enabled women’s right to abortion – a right that the Republican Party (GOP) has chipped at for decades.
Why are so many white workers supporting a billionaire elitist who exploits his own workers? Trump uses illegal immigrants in his various companies, undercuts wages and uses Chinese steel to build his hotels in spite of his complaints about China dumping goods in the US.
Why are so many relatively affluent Americans backing Trump?
The answer, according to new research by Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell, is a lethal mixture of financial anxiety, fear and hopelessness for the future – of immigrants, globalisation, job security, health – and the politics of the white identity.
They yearn for a mythical golden age of 50 years ago. White Americans, especially men, are intending to vote for Trump not because they believe he is going to solve their problems but because they believe he will reverse the privileged treatment bestowed upon those who have destroyed white supremacy – the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant, the asylum seeker, the terrorist, the African-American enemy within and even the highly successful white women who challenge white male supremacy.
In 2008 and 2012, the outsider – Barack Obama – was black. Now the outsider is in a woman’s body and on the verge of electoral victory.
Women who are supporting Trump tend to be those who occupy the weakest position in the labour market, which often then leads them into seeing themselves in traditional gender roles of nurturers and carers. The corollary to this is that they see their men as being responsible for protecting them and professionally successful women as competitors for the jobs of those men.
According to women’s historian Stephanie Coontz, the highest proportion of women in the US who are stay-at-home mothers reside in the bottom 25 per cent income bracket. Their households need two incomes but when these women go out to work, they find only low-paying jobs that do not cover child care costs. They are locked into a position of being subordinates in male-dominated households, resentful of two-income families and strong, successful women.
Trump’s language, his coarse vulgarity and his lack of recognition of the legitimacy of the opposition, is not his invention.
Combining all this with anxieties about the looming spectre of a US dominated by non-whites – by 2050, the US will be a majority-minority nation – leads many into fearing that their country is facing an existential crisis.
Fears about globalisation, free trade and immigration are real enough as sources of economic insecurity. But combined with white hyper-ethno-nationalist identity politics, those fears become a major threat to US society as a whole. It also then becomes a threat to the US’s global authority – its identity as a land of immigrants, of opportunity based on merit and not race or colour, its democratic and egalitarian ethos and image, its attractiveness to the world as an advanced society, its soft power.
Trump has fused economic worries, and racial and gender resentment into a politics of fear and revenge, and into a politics fuelled by a desire to “take our country back” from enemies – domestic and foreign – and from the elites who gave the US away to Mexicans, Muslims and minorities.
But Trump was not the one to invent the politics of white identity, the GOP has framed the issues of gender and race in such terms for decades. In the 1960s and 1970s – during the rights revolution – the Republicans, along with their Dixiecrat allies, contended that unpatriotic blacks, students, pacifists and uppity women were destroying the fabric of the US that was based on family, religion, nation and hope.
When right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater won five southern states in the 1964 presidential election by opposing civil rights and desegregation, he blazed a trail that was followed by successive GOP presidents. It is said that Goldwater lost the election but won the future. The lesson of 1964 led to the racist ‘southern strategy’ of Richard Nixon and to Ronald Reagan’s coded racism that was apparent in his call for the restoration of ‘state’s rights’ – the slogan of southern slavery and segregation – in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980.
This call attracted non-conservative working class white voters to the party of low taxes and small government, but it only gave them a psychological wage. Economically, they lost ground due to de-industrialisation, globalisation and cuts to welfare programmes, as did, to an even greater extent, African-American workers.
The GOP’s coded racism divided black and white workers, and offered only hyper-anxiety about others taking what whites were supposed to have by prior right. From that politics of fear and resentment, the Republican Party developed a discourse that has damaged the basic tenets of democratic Americanism. It has been racist, xenophobic and misogynistic. Now it has sprouted a movement with the hallmarks of a “last stand” against a changing US – one that would declare an election stolen before a vote’s been cast and demand their opponent be jailed like a common criminal.
Trump’s rhetoric, however, is not new. He is just more open with it. Trump’s language, his coarse vulgarity and his lack of recognition of the legitimacy of the opposition is not his invention. It was pioneered during the 1990s by Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America – a declaration of war against the Democratic Party, bipartisanship and the Clintons.
Trump’s talk of ‘crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lying Ted’ is part of a rhetoric that began in the 1990s. The GOP employed Orwellian PR men like Frank Luntz who changed the language and imagery of politics and attached epithets to everything they opposed – corrupt, greedy, lazy. Luntz’s claim to fame is that he invented “climate change” as the neutral-sounding term to replace “global warming.”
No matter who wins this election, the country is in for a very tough time. The US will survive Trump, but at what price? And how will a changing world react – a China that still champs at the thought of its ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of colonial exploitation, a Middle East seething with the lethal and illegal exercise of US military violence, an India trying to shed its colonial past and enter the top table of world politics – still dominated by the US-led West?
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London and a columnist at The Wire. Follow him on twitter @USEmpire.