Donald Trump is a different kind of president. Not because he has bragged about sexual assault, not because he had the support of the KKK, and not because he has again and again proven himself to be a bigot and a bully. He is different because despite all of that, he won.
In the 2016 campaign, Trump was not a strong candidate; he showed little self control and bucked against the restraints of the political system—of democracy itself. Others in the Republican party would have been viewed as a fundamentally normal part of the American political system. John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, all of these could have been nominated without the fuss created by a demagogue like Trump. Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein writes, “Donald Trump is not a man who should be president … This is not something I would say about Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio.” Nominating Trump was a rebellious move by voters in the Republican primary. His success in the general election was something else entirely.
“Among Donald Trump’s supporters, the real estate mogul’s victory was akin to a revolution, a mandate delivered en masse by working class voters sidelined in the modern economy.” This first sentence of a TIME article about his victory shows a common misconception, especially among center-line pundits. The idea is that Trump won because of the common man, the proletariat, the working class. But there’s a big problem with that narrative: it’s just not true.
Hillary Clinton won those making less than $50,000 by 12 percent, according to CNN exit poll data. It was her strongest demographic group and, importantly, Trump’s weakest. Where was his working class support when the income bracket with the most voters—below $50,000—voted overwhelmingly for his opponent? Why did he only win 41 percent of the working class vote? Why did the people whose most important issue was the economy vote against him in droves, preferring Clinton by nine percent?
The reason for the loss among these demographics is that “working class” is a code. Appeals to the working class are not geared towards all low income Americans; when politicians and pundits on TV talk about the “working class,” they mean whites. And there, Trump had no problems, winning the white vote by 20 percent. He dominated the white demographic. Because it makes up so much of the electorate, this group was enough to win Trump the White House.
“In 2016 Trump enjoyed majority or plurality support among every economic branch of whites. It is true that his strongest support came from those making $50,000 to $99,999 … Sixty-one percent of whites in this “working class” supported Trump,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates, a leading American political thinker, in an essay for the Atlantic. “Only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks did. Indeed, the plurality of all voters making less than $100,000 and the majority making less than $50,000 voted for the Democratic candidate … The real problem is that Democrats aren’t the party of white people—working or otherwise.”
The idea that Democrats failed to speak to working class voters is a tactic that journalists use to sound neutral, what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “viewlessness.” It would be too partisan to acknowledge that white voters propelled Trump to office. Instead, a myriad of other explanations have risen from the throats of TV commentators, New York Times columnists, and hot-takers.
Non-racial explanations run the gamut. They say that he didn’t really win the popular vote, and that the electoral college was the real problem in 2016. But the electoral college didn’t give Trump 63 million votes; racism did. They say Hillary Clinton was an imperfect candidate who didn’t speak to many core demographic groups. This is just a code that she didn’t speak to whites. They say that James Comey shifted the election when he announced an investigation into Clinton’s emails, but that doesn’t explain Trump’s meteoric rise to become the Republican nominee. It doesn’t nullify Trump’s own scandals. It doesn’t give reason to his 74 point electoral college victory, rocketing him into the oval office.
The cause of all these things was race. “Trump … proved that a candidate who is explicitly talking to white fears about race could win,” says Ezra Klein. The power of American whiteness is that this is true, that Trump didn’t have to win the black vote, or the Hispanic vote. As long as he was supported by whites, he would come out on top. Coates calls this the obvious of Donald Trump: “he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.”
His party allowed this type of candidate to win, they encouraged it. “Trump’s dominance among whites resulted from his running as a Republican, the party that has long cultivated white voters,” says Coates. When David Duke, the former leader of the KKK, ran for—and almost won—a Louisiana Senate seat, he did so with an “R” next to his name on the ballot. When he ran again in 2016, he appeared on the same line as Donald Trump. They were both Republican nominees. The Republican party has set itself in a position to benefit from white racial fears. “Republicans now have a temptation to explicitly appeal to race,” says political scientist Michael Tesler in a video from Vox.
These claims are unpopular, but they have to be acknowledged. Trump won because of racism, or at least because white voters were ambivalent towards it. Coates laments this, saying, “to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world.” Understanding that whiteness was the cause of Trump is fundamental to understanding why he will win again.
Racism, the problem that got Trump elected, has not been solved in the three years of his presidency. The support of whites has not fallen out from under him. Democrats haven’t attempted to appeal to whites with their presidential primary. Many candidates are endorsing reparations for black Americans, an idea that exclusively appeals to black voters. It’s not a bad policy, but it shows a huge contrast between Democratic and Republican rhetoric around race.
These aren’t bad policy, but they don’t appeal to whites like Trump does; “why are we having all these people from shithole countries [African countries and haiti] come here? We should have more people from places like Norway.” In short, American politics have not changed since the last time Trump was elected.
So if the problem of racism, which led to Trump’s reign, hasn’t gone away, how can we expect him to? If the white plurality still leans towards nationalism and supremacy, why are we preparing for a Democratic president? There is something fundamentally delusional about assuming that Trump will not keep his seat as president. In 2016, he was elected because he appealed to whites’ racial fears and prejudices, whereas his opponent did not. What has changed since then? What will change in 2020?
In this election, there isn’t anything you can do. Oregon isn’t a swing state, so in the presidential election, your vote won’t change anything. So in a way, I’m arguing for resignation, acceptance, and partly, despair.
Despair is my response to tragedy. These trends, this deep seated racism, are a stain on our country, a country Abraham Lincoln described as “conceived in liberty.” He asked if such a nation could “long endure.” Now it has been taken over by a bigotted demagogue and the systematic racial inequality that gave him the highest honor we can bestow upon a citizen. He is a man who was not qualified for his position but was given it because, unlike his opponent, he and his party appealed to whites. The hatred and racism he espoused during the campaign attracted enough white voters to seat him in the White House, and it is a tragedy. Our president is a tragedy. So I advocate for despair. Wail in the streets if you want. Or maybe, to any Trump fans who continued reading this far, celebrate. Because Trump will win again.