In less than two months, the state of Iowa will kick off the official nomination process of what is already one of the most fascinating U.S. presidential election seasons in decades. The punditry came into 2015 expecting a civil race on the legacy of the Obama administration between Hillary Clinton and one of a few establishment-approved Republicans—Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio. Maybe Hillary would talk about paid leave and Jeb would bring up education reform. Some pundits, like Nate Silver, still irrationally insist that everything will settle, and that the general election will still be a horserace between two neoliberal establishment politicians.
It is easy to understand why some still see Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination as such a long shot; there’s very little precedent for a candidate like him succeeding when nearly every Republican nominee has been an establishment insider—the most recent exception, Dwight Eisenhower, had obvious prestige as a war hero and was in fact courted by both parties in both 1948 and 1952. But as Trump continues to say things that would rightfully sink any normal candidate, and as every imaginable political tendency from leftists to liberals to mainstream conservatives constantly denounce his remarks and call on him to exit the race, his numbers in the polls continue to rise (a phenomenon which he often brags about on Twitter and Facebook). As of December 16th, he leads the Republican field by a 17-point margin in the RealClearPolitics polling average; while he narrowly trails Ted Cruz (a candidate who is only marginally more attractive to the party and donor elite than Trump) in Iowa, he holds healthy leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The rest of the party is no closer to uniting around one “anti-Trump” than it was in June, and there is no reason to think that Trump will suddenly collapse before the primaries start.
What are the reasons for the Trump phenomenon? What do nearly two-fifths of Republican primary voters see in a man who acts and talks in a manner that would never gain traction if someone like the low-energy Jeb Bush tried it? Poll crosstabs have provided some insight; Trump polls fairly evenly across “ideology” (moderate, somewhat conservative, very conservative, Tea Party), but the average Trump supporter is both less affluent and less educated than supporters of other candidates. Really, Trump represents none of the three pillars of modern American conservatism—fiscal conservatism (neoliberalism), social conservatism (the Moral Majority), or defense (neoconservatism). What he speaks to, instead, are a large swathe of economically stagnant, working-class whites who vote Republican but rarely see their concerns handed more than lip service by traditional conservative Republicans. While swimming in false consciousness, these people are justifiably disaffected from the last forty years of neoliberalism. Real wages have remained stagnant, costs of living have sharply risen, and driven by alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide, death rates for middle-aged white Americans have skyrocketed since the beginning of the 2007-8 recession. Some of Trump’s policy proposals appeal directly to these people; he is the only Republican candidate to express support for increased federal spending on infrastructure and has been a harsh critic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But far more important to understanding the appeal of Donald Trump is his hardline stance on immigration, pledging to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants (the logistics of which have not been elaborated on) and build a “big, beautiful” wall along the Mexican border. Many native-born working-class people, both white and nonwhite, hold hostility towards immigrants, chiefly from Latin America and Asia, who are seen as “taking their jobs” because they are willing to work for less and under worse conditions. The tension, and sometimes violence, between native and immigrant workers is by no means a new phenomenon. Irish immigration in the 1840s and 1850s faced heavy resistance; those same Irish immigrants opposed the Great Migration of blacks to the industrial Northeast and Great Lakes. And many African-American organizations, including the NAACP, backed the harsh immigration restrictions passed in 1924 in the wake of waves of people arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe. Many of their descendants—the “ethnic” whites who formed the backbone of the Democratic Party for much of the 20th century—are taking a good look at voting for Donald Trump today. Given the Democratic Party’s embracing of neoliberalism (most notably in Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” and more recently Obama’s support for education “reform”), its increasing focus on wedge social issues, and the obvious disdain that so many petty bourgeois white liberals hold towards the white proletariat, it’s not entirely impossible to understand.
Socialists know, of course, that the white working-class’s rightful anger should be directed not at the immigrant workers, but at the capitalists—people like Donald Trump himself–who lay them off to exploit cheaper labor. The weakening of organized labor and the liberalization of trade with developing countries have also been factors in this stagnation of the American white working class’s living standards. However, we must face the fact that class consciousness has never been a strong current in a country built on a very bourgeois individualist ideology—the “American Dream”. Far from making him toxic to white working-class voters, they may view Trump, who has framed himself as the paragon of American success, more positively for it—one might be reminded of John Steinbeck’s quote about “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.
The United States never developed a strong socialist, or even social-democratic or labor party, and the American superstructure has been more effective than most in its ability to isolate and divide elements of the working class. Trump, therefore, is not a unique or isolated phenomenon. His success is merely the result of the increasing marginalization and socio-economic distress of a disaffected white proletariat. His not only understanding, but embracing of their anger, and his brazen defiance of every established convention in politics, has only broadened and deepened his support even as he receives universal condemnation for his remarks about Mexican immigrants, women, Muslims, the disabled, and others.
Nearly all other presidential candidates from both of the major parties, plus countless other political figures and celebrities around the world, have condemned Trump’s stoking of racism and other forms of bigotry. Some of these people simply fail to see that the conditions that make Trump a relevant candidate in the first place, but they are well-intentioned in opposing hate. However, the condemnation coming from most other presidential candidates is not only deeply ironic, but quite sinister.
What not enough people have realized is that Trump’s racist rhetoric is little more than a less formal and more honest version of the rhetoric that American conservative strategy has embraced for nearly half a century now. The watershed for this was the 1968 presidential election. Thanks to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the white South was in the process of a breakup with the Democratic Party. A third-party candidacy of Alabama firebrand governor George Wallace, running not only to end desegregation but to call for “law and order” in response to heightened social unrest, won over 10% of the popular vote and five states in the South. However, there existed another set of white, conservative Southern voters who, while completely rejecting the liberal Hubert Humphrey, found Wallace’s rhetoric to be excessive. This sentiment was cleverly exploited by the Republican nominee that year, Richard Nixon. While embracing the end of de jure segregation and condemning the open white supremacism of George Wallace, Nixon echoed his calls for “law and order” and attacked efforts to promote integration, most notably in busing. Thanks to this, it was Nixon, not Wallace, who carried the Upper South, guaranteeing an Electoral College majority.
The Southern Strategy was only bolstered as the postwar Keynesian consensus withered and the Republican Party embraced neoliberalism. Infamous Republican strategist Lee Atwater elaborated this new Southern Strategy in a 1981 interview. “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Elements of this more subtly racist approach, often referred to as “dogwhistle politics”, can plainly be seen in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign strategy. In the previous presidential election, the Southern Strategy seemed dead; Jimmy Carter had swept the entire former Confederacy except Virginia despite only a narrow victory overall, but his unpopularity put the South into play once again. On August 3rd, 1980, Reagan made an infamous visit to the small Mississippi town of Philadelphia, best known for the murders of three civil rights workers sixteen years earlier, where he made remarks reminiscent of modern Tea Party conservatism; attacking the excesses of the federal government while calling for increased power to the states—that is, “states’ rights”. Nowhere in his speech was race even mentioned, but the implication was not hard to pick up.
Even more well-known is Reagan’s exploitation of the so-called “welfare queens”—isolated incidents of fraud which were often used as excuses to strip away the already fairly limited welfare system in the United States. Reagan’s favorite anecdote, which may or may not have actually been true, was of a woman on the South Side of Chicago (here is a dog-whistle for black—the South Side is overwhelmingly African-American) with “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.” Jeb Bush’s father won with the infamous Willie Horton ad, and his brother beat John McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries by a smear campaign implying he had an illegitimate black child. So, it is an amusing spectacle when Jeb and other mainstream Republicans attack Trump—what they’re really condemning is not his racism, but the honesty of his xenophobic fearmongering in contrast to the dogwhistling of the establishment right.
By no means is this to let Hillary Clinton, another vocal critic of Donald Trump, off the hook. She has correctly pointed out how many of the Republican candidates hold very similar positions to Donald Trump—nearly all of them engage in fearmongering over Syrian refugees and several echo Trump’s calls to build a wall along the Mexican border. While her husband signed off on the execution of a mentally handicapped black man, Ricky Ray Rector, to appear ‘tough on crime,” gutted the welfare system, escalated the racist War on Drugs and supported the prison-industrial complex, she either stayed silent or actively supported him. And while condemning Trump’s statements about Muslims, she would be the most hawkish Democratic nominee in decades, having voted for the Iraq War, having pushed for military intervention in Libya and Syria as Obama’s Secretary of State, and being a full-throated defender of Israel. Non-American Muslims would have just as much to fear from a Clinton administration as a Trump administration.
Given all this, how should the left approach Donald Trump’s candidacy? Of course, acknowledging the hypocrisy of many of Trump’s critics does not mean we should not speak out against the misinformation and bigotry that he spouts and to show others the truth about issues like immigration and Syrian refugees. But to make these attacks about Trump himself, which most criticism has done, is wholly insufficient and may even serve to bolster Trump’s presidential campaign. Most of the Republican candidates, as well as the Democratic frontrunner, call for a more aggressive foreign policy, not only in the Middle East, but also in Eastern Europe, the Pacific, and Latin America, and they ultimately represent not the interests of the working masses, but of a minute, parasitic elite. By educating and organizing around issues, rather than simply attacking the most honest reactionary in the race (and implicitly giving all the other candidates a free pass), the left can once again start to establish itself a relevant force in the United States and plant the seeds for a better America, and ultimately a better world.