Many of my friends from college and fellow academics in the last year are focusing their anxieties on the Donald Trump campaign. A common frustration voiced among intellectuals is the disbelief that a candidate as bigoted, pig-headed, and willfully ignorant as “the Donald” could be running neck and neck with a seasoned political veteran like Hillary Clinton. This piece is not about Hillary Clinton, however. Rather, it’s about promoting a much needed discussion of what Trump’s rise really tells us. I don’t believe we have a “Donald Trump” problem in this country. The problem is much worse than that. More ominously, we have an American public problem that cuts to the very core of the quality of our democracy. Demagogues rise to power on the backs of workers, citizens, and your average “Joe” or “Jane.” They do not owe their success to their actions alone.
If Donald Trump is enjoying electoral success, it’s because the public – passively or actively – allowed it to happen. While Pew Research Center surveys do find considerable ignorance among Trump supporters – the most commonly cited reasons for supporting him have nothing to do with policy, but everything to do with personality characteristics – this trend was observed across all the front-runners, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz supporters. What makes Trump’s case more disturbing than the norm of across-the-board voter ignorance is that such a large contingent of Americans know full-well about his bigotry, and embrace it. The ascendance of Donald Trump tells us much about the quality of American character – particularly about our enduring and toxic legacy of hate, ignorance, bigotry, and white-supremacy.
Hillary Clinton caught a lot of flak for referring to half of Trump Supporters as “the deplorables.” She was being far too generous. Public opinion surveys over the last year or so suggest that the white supremacist contingent of Trump voters is even larger. When I say white supremacist, I’m not referring to the old-style, KKK, white robe donning and lynchings of America’s past. Rather, the contemporary form of white supremacy is more of a “hate-lite” – if such a thing exists – in terms of its supporters embracing horrible, racist stereotypes, while claiming to reject racism. Call this “color-blind” racism, dog whistle racism, coded racism – or whatever you like, but it’s clear that white supremacy never disappeared from America’s political culture.
Consider recent surveys, if you want to ascertain the size of the problem. Polls of Trump supporters and Republicans more generally from 2015 and 2016 find clear and indisputable evidence of racism and prejudice against non-white, non-Christian Americans. I review these findings below.
Irrational hatred of foreigners is pronounced on the American right. Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that in August 2015, 54 percent of Republicans, and 61 percent of Trump supporters still believed Obama was born in another country – drawing on fringe the birther conspiracy. Sixty-six percent of Trump supporters thought Obama was a Muslim, compared to 54 percent of all Republicans. The findings hadn’t changed much in 2016, when a May PPP poll found 65 percent of Trump supporters said Obama was a Muslim and 59 percent said he was born outside the U.S. The birther-Trump right is obviously impervious to evidence-based logic on anything related to Obama, considering this conspiracy theory was debunked long ago by countless sources.
Much of the right-wing Christian contingent seems set on demonizing non-believers. Most Trumpeters see “Muslim” as synonymous with “bad.” A Reuters-Ipsos June 2016 survey, for example, found that 58 percent of Trump supporters said they held a “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of Islam. This type of blanket hatred is troublesome when Pew Research Center polling finds that the vast majority of American Muslims reject terrorism, and hold moderate, rather than extreme political values. A Texas Policy Project poll from June 2016 also found that 76 percent of Republicans “somewhat supported” or “strongly supported” a blanket ban of Muslims from entering the U.S. – no doubt based on the erroneous, blanket notion that Muslims represent an imminent threat to national security.
Most Republicans and Trump supporters also embrace negative views of unauthorized immigrants. Seventy percent of Republicans agreed in an August 2016 Pew survey that “undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit serious crimes.” This view persists, despite statistics from the Public Policy Institute of California concluding that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than U.S. citizens. The myth remains popular, despite national data over the last decade and a half showing that, as the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. grew, violent crimes rates were on the decline. On the macro- level, then, there is little merit to the idea that unauthorized immigration is destabilizing society and making us less safe. Still, 70 percent of Republicans agreed in a Fox News July 2015 survey with Donald Trump’s statement that Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems…they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The hatred was not reserved for unauthorized immigrants. Two-thirds of Trump supporters agreed in a March 2016 Pew survey that “immigrants [in general] today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care.”
Old-fashioned, anti-black racism is alive and well on the American right, despite naive academic claims that the U.S. was “getting beyond race” as early as the 1990s. Reuters polling from June 2016 finds that nearly half of Trump supporters agree that African Americans are more “violent” and “criminal” than whites. Similarly, 40 percent say African Americans are more “lazy” than whites. These findings are prominent on the reactionary right, despite social scientists’ longstanding findings that race is not a significant predictor of Americans’ level of commitment to work, or hours worked, and despite the reality that the vast majority of whites, African Americans, and Hispanics are employed. Anti-black stereotypes are not surprising. They have long been woven into U.S. political and media commentary, as seen in academic studies identifying how African Americans are far more likely to be depicted in the media as criminals and as poor, in far greater numbers than the actual number of African Americans who commit crimes or are in poverty.
After framing Trump supporters as “deplorables,” Hillary Clinton publicly apologized, rejecting “grossly generalistic” characterizations, which are “never a good idea.” Her apology was unfortunate. Generalizations are perfectly acceptable, even valuable, if they are an accurate depiction of reality. And the above data suggests that it is indeed fair to generalize about Trump voters, considering most of them are racist and xenophobic. The polls I’ve reviewed should be sobering and disturbing for Americans who call themselves supporters of equal rights and democracy, and for those who abhor irrational hatred and bigotry. America’s white supremacy culture is wide-spread indeed. Consider the following: if approximately 55 percent of the voting age population turned out in 2012, and 2016 sees similar turnout, and about half of likely voters say they are planning on voting for Trump, his support base includes approximately 28 percent of American adults – give or take a few percent because of the small number of Americans who may vote third-party. Of this 28 percent, the polls above found that approximately two-thirds can be categorized as racist in their attitudes, meaning that nearly 20 percent of American adults – or one in five – fall within the category of Trump supporting white supremacists.
In the title of this piece I spoke of the “return” of the hate culture in America. Realistically, that culture never disappeared, even if many intellectuals thought we had transcended the old racist, sexist, and homophobic battles of the past. The right-wing reactionary movement has always been there, but was waiting for a populistic, demagogic character of the Trump variety to take the reins. On a symbolic level, public discourse on issues like race and immigration speaks to an overarching and enduring culture war in America. We are in the midst of a battle for this country’s very soul, and there is much uncertainty about the path forward. Reactionary forces – organized under Trump – represent an old order, which would like to reinvigorate the racist, bigoted, white supremacist culture of the past. Progressive societal forces, as seen in the rise of social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and others, are pushing for a progressive future in which government plays a crucial role in promoting political equality between social groups, and reduces economic inequality.
I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone who they should vote for in the coming election, although I can say without hesitation that I’m entirely opposed to the continuation of the Trump-inspired, old reactionary order. I don’t know whether or not a Trump defeat would be a fatal blow to racist forces in this country. I can say this much: at some point soon, Americans will have to decide whether they want to live in a country that respects democracy and equal rights for all, or embraces the racist, fascistic politics of a white supremacist culture. The answer to which side prevails will soon be upon us.
Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2015). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org