Donald Trump’s increasingly inflammatory statements have caused consternation among the political establishment and fear among minority groups. His media coverage, however, is out of all proportion to his actual influence in the country. He has a vociferous following of white voters, and polls continue to show him leading the Republican presidential primaries. But even after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, his call to exclude Moslems from the United States is opposed by most Americans.
What Trump has succeeded in doing is to bring outrageous ideas like internment camps into the political mainstream. His speeches are legitimizing racist attacks on minorities and Scalia’s open dismissal of integration in colleges. His support has crystallized out of a layer of white, non-college educated workers who have lost jobs and houses through two recessions and are now facing a downward slide into poverty. They are animated by resentment of immigrants and minorities, and by hostility to government, which they see as corrupt and in the pockets of big business. This is the same demographic that between 1998 and 2013 saw a marked increase in the death rate from suicide, drugs and alcohol poisoning, while that for all other groups declined.
New industries that require semiskilled labor of the kind that in the past elevated many Americans into the middle class are no longer being created in the US. Trump references a time when the lack of a college degree was not a barrier to well-paid industrial work – and when white skin implied social privilege. In These Times writer Walid Shaheed comments: “His high poll numbers among white voters in the Midwestern rustbelt show his appeal to people in this region who have been dealing with an economic collapse that has completely changed how millions of people live their lives. As those who came before them, these white voters blame their woes on immigrants and people of color who are ‘taking over the country.’ When Trump declares he will ‘Make America Great Again,’ he appeals directly to the heart of this demographic.”
It’s important to realize that Trump didn’t create his following from scratch: his bombast has gained traction because he was able to pick up the racist subtext of the Republican party’s rhetoric and make it explicit. Political commentator Josh Marshall pointed out: “What Trump has done is taken the half-subterranean Republican script of the Obama years, turbocharge it and add a level of media savvy that Trump gained not only from The Apprentice but more from decades navigating and exploiting New York City’s rich tabloid news culture. He’s just taken the existing script, wrung out the wrinkles and internal contradictions and given it its full voice.”
However, in doing so he is also voicing and legitimizing the suppressed prejudices of people who feel themselves losing an imaginary past cultural unity because of the growth and increase in political influence of the nonwhite population. The New York Times commented: “He harnessed feelings that long predated his candidacy — feelings of besiegement and alienation, of being silenced — and gave them an unprecedented respectability. … America is living through an era of dramatic changes: its demographics shifting, its middle class contracting, its institutions grappling with the pressures of the networked age.”
His supporters come from the most rightwing Republican voters. According to CNN: “A recent poll found that three quarters of Trump’s supporters are in favor of deporting all of the 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants and banning any Syrian refugees from seeking shelter in America. In contrast, Marco Rubio only has 5% and Jeb Bush 6% of those far-right voters.” The Washington Post explains: “Trump draws strong support from the kinds of voters who see illegal immigration as eroding the values of the country and who might worry that their jobs are threatened by the influx. About half of those Republicans who favor deporting immigrants who are here illegally back Trump for the party’s nomination. These are also the kinds of voters who agree most with Trump’s call to ban the entry of Muslims into the United States until security concerns are laid to rest.”
This is by no means a majority of Republican voters, likely less than a third of them, located in areas that have been hit hardest by the economic downturn like the South and Midwest. After years of dog-whistle campaigning by Republican politicians blaming minorities and immigrants for crime and lack of jobs, this social layer is angry and contemptuous of its political leaders for their perceived inaction. It has the potential to break the Republican party apart.
Surveys show that “white working-class Republicans made clear their conviction that government policies favor minority and immigrant interests over their own, and that the nation — its economy and its culture — has gone into decline as, and because, it has become more racially diverse. It’s those beliefs that have driven a large share of the white working class into Donald Trump’s column rather than Sen. Bernie Sanders’s, even though its members plainly agree with Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s perspective that the economy is rigged to favor the wealthy and big business. … years of talk radio, Fox News and now the Trump campaign have tapped into and built a right-wing populism that focuses the white working class’s blame for its woes downward — at the racial other — rather than up.”
On the other hand, there is bipartisan agreement on whose interests the government is acting for. The same survey found “Ninety-three percent of Democrats and 88 percent of Republicans said it tended ‘very’ or ‘somewhat well’ to the interests of the wealthy; 90 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans said it did the same for big corporations.” By nearly a 2-to-1 margin Americans believe their “vote does not matter because of the influence that wealthy individuals and big corporations have on the electoral process.”
Support for Bernie Sanders among the public is actually a lot greater than for Trump, although you wouldn’t know it from the media, which has devoted 80 times more airtime to Trump than Sanders. He has the challenge of making his presidential candidacy believable to the electorate, despite the pundits’ claims of Hillary Clinton’s inevitability, and of generating enough excitement among new voters to get them to the polls. He continues to advocate a $15 hourly minimum wage and free college education, but, like Corbyn, finds it difficult to get traction for a rational policy on terrorism.
If the Republican vote indeed splits over a Trump or Cruz presidential run, this presents Sanders with an opportunity to win national support on a left populist platform that extols the contribution of immigrants and minorities to the country and advocates stringent controls on foreclosures and Wall Street speculation. He has to foreground policies that will win the less prejudiced sections of the white working class away from supporting corporate billionaires against their class interests.