Donald Trump won the presidency last night. Many voters were stunned, after the media overwhelmingly predicted a Clinton win and Trump began to look desperate, sending a lawyer to Nevada to demand information about when a line ended for early voting. Now, Americans are looking back at the past few months and trying to understand what happened.
In the days before the election, the Washington Post published a piece entitled, “What is this election missing? Empathy for Trump voters.” But a lot of people who have watched this election closely pointed out there has actually been a lot of outpouring of empathy for Trump voters.
Throughout the campaign, the media was on a perpetual quest to understand what attracted people to Trump’s message. Journalists considered economic disadvantage as a major factor for why Trump voters felt unheard — and interpreted Trump’s support as evidence that these people reject the establishment Republicans and Democrats who have left them behind.
That was the popular narrative for months. It appears that many members of the media wanted to consider anything but racism, as if it couldn’t possibly that be so straightforward. But it really is.
America’s demographics are changing, and they’re changing quickly. By 2055, there will no longer be a single racial or ethnic majority in the United States and 14 percent of the country will be foreign born, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-three percent of Millennials are people of color.
Let’s be clear: This is scaring white voters. White people believe that they are more often the victims of racism than black people, according to a 2011 new study from researchers at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. The research also found that white voters perceived social progress for people of color to be much swifter than it actually is.
The authors wrote, “These data are the first to demonstrate that not only do whites think more progress has been made toward equality than do blacks, but whites also now believe that this progress is linked to a new inequality — at their expense.”
Research has also established that as U.S. demographics shift, the pro-white and racist attitudes of white people become more apparent, according to a study from New York University and Northwestern University. The same researchers also found those who read about these demographic changes often are generally more supportive of conservative policies and more likely to identify as conservative.
Throughout history, there are many examples of how the racism of white voters has been mobilized to favor a candidate for president. We saw Barry Goldwater and President Richard Nixon employ the Southern Strategy, which took advantage of white people’s anxieties about the economic and social advancement of people of color. Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie describes this pattern of progress and white backlash, starting with the Reconstruction:
Like clockwork, white Americans embraced a man who promised a kind of supremacy. We haven’t left our long cycle of progress and backlash. We are still the country that produced George Wallace. We are still the country that killed Emmett Till.
We have also seen these fears manifest themselves overseas as European far-right political parties with anti-immigrant sentiments win historic victories.
The fear of white voters — the fear we will no longer be at the center of American politics and culture, having our needs tended to first, and the fear that we will be asked to acknowledge our role in white supremacy and to stop doing harm to people of color, whether it be violence or perpetuating racist stereotypes — has always been there. Now, we need to acknowledge that it is largely what motivated Trump voters. A majority of Trump supporters said they saw black people as “less evolved” than white people, according to a Slate survey with a sample of 2,000 non-Hispanic white people.
When we say that class is what takes a Trump voter from dangerous to misguided and confused, we are condescending to low-income people living in rural areas. By doing this, the media takes away their agency and suggests they didn’t know any better. But they know exactly what they have done.
The economic hurt experienced by some Trump voters — along with whatever stereotypes people hold about Americans living in rural areas, especially the southern United States — does not allow anyone a free ride to support a racist presidential candidate.
And as Dylan Matthews explained at Vox, we don’t actually know that this “economic anxiety” characterization of Trump supporters is accurate. An analysis from Gallup’s Jonathan Rothwell found that personal finances alone couldn’t account for Trump supporters’ motivations. On average, his supporters did not have lower incomes than other Americans. The analysis did find that the voters’ concerns may be for their children and their ability to find work that doesn’t require a lot of education. But these supporters were also the most likely to have issues with immigration despite the fact that they were least likely to meet an immigrant in their neighborhood.
In fact, the research shows that people’s racial resentments are what correlate with their support for Trump.
Nonetheless, many members of the media have remained focused on the anxieties of working class Trump voters — all while failing to acknowledge that many people of color belong to the working class, and that these people weren’t supporting Donald Trump.
Its dishonest for the media to keep saying this was about working class anger, that this was populist. That erases us. And it's wrong.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) November 9, 2016
Hillary Clinton’s gender has also introduced another media narrative that Trump’s success represents the country’s rejection of female leaders. That isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s missing something far more important. White women are no less culpable than white men for the election of Donald Trump.
White women (53 percent of them) voted against this white woman and for this white man who has fully embraced white supremacy. The racism of many white women in this country overwhelmed any interest they may have had in seeing the first female president. Their vote was just as harmful as the white men who voted last night. As white women, we need to look at each other and demand that we do better in the future. A feminism that ignores their decisions is not feminism at all but a continuation of white supremacy.
When we remember Donald Trump’s now infamous words at the Republican National Convention about how some Americans have been forgotten, and other Americans are doing well, it’s important to realize he wasn’t talking about the working class. He was tapping into the idea that for people of color to succeed, white people need to lose something.