The Anti-Trump Uprising: Forging a Path Forward in Uncertain Times

The January 20th “Women’s March on Washington” looks to be an important symbolic moment in the nascent anti-Trump movement. But problems are already emerging regarding the protest, with the Washington Post reporting that the National Parks Service has not yet decided how municipal land will be set aside for this contentious weekend. “Federal regulations essentially give priority to the inaugural committee, setting aside prime land, including the entire Mall…for its use. Land around the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument is also included… The permits are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis. Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee hasn’t technically been issued any permits yet, but it’s at the front of the line to receive them.”

Permits or not, the Parks Service is in for a rude awakening if it thinks that hundreds of thousands of activists already committed to attending the march will be deterred at this incredibly important historic moment. Not since Abraham Lincoln have mass protests emerged prior to and coinciding with a presidential inauguration, signaling just how controversial the Trump presidency has become.

Available data suggest that, contrary to Trump’s pronouncements of a public mandate and a “record” electoral college victory, the incoming President is already the least popular in modern history, before even spending a single day in office. First off, his electoral mandate is the weakest we’ve seen in modern times. Trump lost the popular vote by 2.83 million, as of figures from mid-December. This translates into a two-percentage point defeat, compared to Hillary Clinton’s popular vote total. By comparison, Bush lost the popular vote in the 2000 election by just half a percent. While Trump took the electoral college, his margin of victory was just above the bottom 20th percentile when compared to all other electoral college victories in U.S. history. In other words, there’s little evidence of an electoral mandate here, contrary to Trump’s shameless declarations.

Secondly, there is no majority mandate for Trump that is evident in the polls. The Pew Research Center’s December 2016 survey finds that the public is nearly evenly split on Trump. “Overall, 35 percent of Americans think Trump will be a good or great president; 18 percent say he will be average, while 38 percent say he will be poor or terrible.” Trump’s numbers look dismal compared to other modern presidents. Just 40 percent of Americans approve of his cabinet choices and other high-level appointments, compared historically to 71 percent support for Barack Obama’s, 58 percent support for George W. Bush’s, 64 percent support for Bill Clinton’s, and 59 percent support for George H. W. Bush’s. Similarly, only 41 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump has done explaining his policies and plans, compared to 72 percent of Americans supporting Barack Obama’s policies and plans, 50 percent for George W. Bush, 62 percent for Bill Clinton, and 65 percent for George H. W. Bush.

Much of the public is expressing distress over the incoming Trump administration, for various reasons. This president promised to drain the swamp of elitism and plutocracy in Washington politics. Instead, he’s made it worse by appointing a veritable who’s who list of financial and other business elites to key positions in his transition team and cabinet. Trump has continued to demonize dissenters and minorities in the post-election period, to the surprise of no one who paid attention to his rhetoric during the election season. Many Americans are refusing to “give Trump a chance” if that means embracing economic elitism and social bigotry. Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, of the “alt-right” white supremacist variety to be White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor suggests that pre-election concerns about Trump’s attacks on immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, and other disadvantaged groups are warranted. And then, there’s the matter of Trump’s climate change-denying politics, which threaten any effort to deal with the problem of CO2 emissions and runaway global warming, and represents a very real threat to environmental sustainability and civilization itself.

Considering the extremely high stakes on numerous fronts, it is necessary to understand the Trump phenomenon if we wish to develop a plan for building an alternative future. We now have at our disposal a variety of national surveys that shed light on precisely how Trump won this election. Analyzing these findings provides us with hints for where activists can focus their energies moving forward, and for how to build a positive social movement that opposes Trump’s reactionary agenda, while spelling out a competing vision for the American people.

The dynamics driving support for Trump are more complicated than many Americans across the political spectrum seem to recognize. In the “moderate” center, pundits and journalists have tried to normalize this presidency, despite Trump’s proto-authoritarian, quasi fascist tendencies, which he has made little effort to hide. But “mainstreaming” this president will do nothing to help Americans understand how the Trump administration threatens the rule of law, democracy, and basic human rights.

On the right, there is a self-serving effort to try and cover-up the long-standing white supremacist, white nationalist, misogynistic overtones exhibited by Trump and his supporters. Such efforts are thoroughly Orwellian, and display a fundamental contempt for democracy considering Trump’s open embrace of sexism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia. Countless surveys find that large numbers of Trump supporters embrace his reactionary social positions, so it’s silly to try and deny this point. Among progressive Americans, much attention has been devoted to pointing out the legitimate economic grievances of Trump voters, as related to outsourcing of American factory jobs and the decline of the American working class. But we shouldn’t go too far in lionizing the working class by celebrating its alleged commitment to leftist causes. As available polling data suggest, working class Trump voters (and Trump voters in general) are far less open to progressive ideas than some on the left may think. To put it bluntly, we give Trump’s supporters too much credit by portraying them as an enlightened, prophetic force that recognizes the problems inherent in neoliberal capitalism. They’ve never demonstrated this kind of insight, so there’s no reason to think that this philosophy drives their support for Trump.

The fact of the matter is that Trump supporters represent a perverse fusion of economic discontent and hateful, right-wing bigotry and nationalism. We ignore the latter part of Trump’s support at our own peril. On the one hand, the Trumpeters’ economic grievances are now well-documented. In the CBS-New York Times post-election exit poll, 79 percent of voters who said the state of the U.S. economy is poor voted for Trump. Similarly, 78 percent of those indicating their family’s financial situation is worse today than before also voted Trump, while 65 percent of those who said U.S. trade policy takes away U.S. jobs preferred Trump. But this is only part of the story. In the same exit poll, 84 percent of Trump supporters agreed that illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be deported, while 86 percent supported building a wall along the entire U.S. border.

The findings from the Pew Research Center’s post-election poll uncover similar results. Economically speaking, 63 percent and 58 percent of Trump supporters respectively cite the lack of “job opportunities for working class Americans” and “job opportunities for all Americans” as “very big” problems. But the Pew findings don’t end there. Seventy-nine percent of Trump supporters also cite “illegal immigration” as a “very big problem.” One can also tell a lot about Trump supporters based not merely on the problems they recognize, but the problems they refuse to recognize. For example, the December Pew survey finds that just 38 percent of Trump supporters cite “affordability of a college education” as a “very serious problem,” despite record student loan debt and the danger of the student loan bubble bursting in the future. Just 7 percent of Trump supporters cite “sexism” as a very serious problem, and just 21 percent cite “racism.” A miniscule 14 percent feel that climate change is a very serious problem, while just 33 percent indicate that the gap between the rich and poor is of very serious concern. In sum, most Trump supporters share little interest in the problems of historically disadvantaged groups; instead, they feel too much has been made of the plight of the disadvantaged.

Despite their serious economic anxieties, Trump supporters also embrace many of the worst character traits that are endemic within modern neoliberalism. These include a widespread lack of concern with record inequality, dismissal of societal concerns with sexism and racism, lack of interest in the dangers inherent in the gutting of public goods such as education, and a penchant for dehumanizing immigrants for the economic problems of society created by corporate America. Fox News, Republican political officials, and rightwing talk radio pundits have spent decades constructing a fictitious, phantom immigrant threat, seeking to blame foreigners and illegal immigrants for the decline of working Americans’ access to decent-paying jobs. This is not to say that outsourcing isn’t real, or that it hasn’t driven the decline of the middle class. But to blame the victims working in American sweatshops abroad, and the unauthorized immigrants earning poverty level wages in the U.S. for the decline of the middle class, while exempting corporate America from blame, is counterproductive and stupid. And yet, this is precisely what’s happened in Trump’s America, with tens of millions of citizens voting for a reactionary billionaire who made attacking minorities the center of his campaign rhetoric, while celebrating the business class as the “job creators” who will “Make America Great Again.”

Should it be surprising that Trump supporters embrace ugly racist and reactionary views considering Trump’s open celebration of bigotry? It was no state secret that Trump is a deplorable human being among those who paid even brief attention to the 2016 election. We do ourselves a great disservice by pretending that this element of the Trump “insurgency” is not fundamental to explaining this election’s outcome. Statistically speaking, it is simply not possible for the vast majority of Trump supporters to embrace misogyny, racism, and xenophobia one the one hand, and voice economic frustrations and anger on the other hand, and have these two trends be unrelated to each other. The exit polling data following the election is perfectly clear: the Trump “rebellion” against the decline of the working class is at least as much about bigotry as it is about serious economic concerns. From the CBS-New York Times and Pew data, one can argue that white nationalism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry and ignorance are the defining trait of the Trump rebellion, considering that attacks on illegal immigrants, contempt for opposition to sexism and racism, and disregard for attempts to address climate change are the most commonly and strongly embraced positions among Trump voters – and are more commonly expressed than concerns about jobs.

Trump’s success draws on a nostalgic commitment to lost “greatness” on the part of white, working class males. His campaign called back to a return of the “good old days,” which it turns out were not so great for anyone but white, middle to middle upper class, heterosexual males. This “greatness” can be recovered, Trump promises, by going after the real enemies of the republic, including those drug-dealing, white woman-raping immigrants, the “terrorist” fifth column Muslim threat, and those damn “uppity” women and blacks – to borrow a term from Rush Limbaugh’s verbal repertoire – who have the nerve to challenge their subordinate position in society. Of course, white male anger at stagnating to declining wages fits within the narrative of lost greatness, but this concern is just one component of the broader Trump phenomenon.

The bad news moving forward is that it will be very difficult to de-couple the legitimate economic anxiety of Trump voters from their toxic bigotry. Trump’s rise is inextricably linked to an imagined historical greatness that is deeply interwoven into the psyche of many Americans. Attempts to undermine the myth of white nationalist patriarchal greatness will be met with fierce resistance by the reactionary right contingent of the mass public. Their bigotry has been stoked by decades by hateful pundits and political officials, and is a core element of the identity of tens of millions of Trump voting social conservatives. I am speaking from personal experience (with numerous conservative family and friends) when I say that this bigotry has been quietly reinforced within interpersonal friend, family, and other peer networks throughout the nation for decades. And as we’re now learning, it’s supporters are not going to go away quietly.

None of this means, however, that those who oppose bigotry shouldn’t resist it at every turn. Previous social movements have shown that vigilance, activism, and the shaming of prejudice play a vital role – over time – in changing minds. The civil rights movement represents a classic example of the cultural transformation that is possible because of civil disobedience and protest. More recently, the gay and lesbian rights movement and Black Lives Matter have also made headway in terms of changing hearts and minds and fighting for equality. With gay and lesbian rights, public support for same-sex marriage grew from just one-quarter of the population in the 1990s to two-thirds by the mid-2010s. Support grew among all age cohorts, including Baby Boomers and The Silent Generation, two groups that historically were the most likely to embrace anti-gay stereotypes. As Pew polling found, approximately one in five Americans indicated when surveyed during the 2010s that they had changed their minds about same-sex marriage, suggesting that bigotry can be reversed through the hard work of citizens and social movements.

Similarly, the rise of the second civil rights movement, as embodied by protests of Trayvon Martin’s death, the Ferguson protests, and Black Lives Matter, has also accompanied a growing awareness on the part of Americans about the problem of racial inequality. CBS-New York Times polling, for example, finds that while 57 percent of Americans believed “race relations in the United States” were “generally good” in August 2013, that number had fallen to just 26 percent in July 2016. To see such a staggering decline in Americans’ ignorance about the problem of racism in America – by more than 30 percentage points in just three years – was astounding. It suggests that social movements are the vital lifeblood of American democracy. They spotlight oppression and create the pressure necessary to achieve social change. Regarding the Trump “rebellion,” activists must remain vigilant if they wish to roll-back the rise of right-wing bigotry.

For those opposing Trump’s agenda, the campaign against the president-elect may be easier than they imagine. It would be one thing if working class Americans rose in mass to vote Trump, while embracing his ugly nativism and misogyny. But this does not appear to be the case. Trump’s support among working Americans was massively oversold in the media. In what is one of the most meaningful pieces of post-election commentary, Slate magazine reports that the image of the “Rust Belt revolt” is largely a “myth.” The real story of the 2016 election is not that Trump won over working class America, so much as Clinton and the Democrats lost it. As Slate summarizes, “Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the Rust Belt collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party. Trump did not really flip white working-class voters in the Rust Belt. Mostly, Democrats lost them.” Per data pulled from various exit polls, Slate reports that the decline of Democratic voters among the working class in 2016 (compared to 2012) was far larger than the increase in Republican voters during those two elections. Of those earning less than $50,000 a year, the decline in Democratic voting from 2012 to 2016 was 3.5 times greater than the rise in Republican voting. Similarly, among white voters in general, the decline in Democratic voting was 2.1 times greater than the growth in Republican voting.

These results suggest that the change observed in the last two elections was more about growing working class and white voter disgust with the Democratic status quo than it was about being enamored with the Trump candidacy. If the Democratic Party had fielded a real progressive candidate who had a meaningful history of seeking to help the working class – Bernie Sanders for example – the outcome of the election may have been very different. While Democratic Party elites are showing little interest in rethinking their commitment to political suicide via the betrayal of the working class, the path forward for the party would seem clear cut, at least for those who pay serious attention to exit polling data analyzed here.

The Trump campaign can do a lot of damage in the next few years, especially with a Republican Congress. With mass citizen resistance to the reactionary political, economic, and social elements of Trump’s “rebellion,” positive change could come sooner than many may think. Remember the short leash the public fixed to the Obama administration following the overwhelming Democratic victories of 2008. Within just two years, the party was handed embarrassing electoral defeats, losing control of the House of Representatives due to the failure of the party of “hope” and “change” to improve the living standards of Main Street America. Donald Trump comes into office with a far weaker mandate than Obama did, and there is zero chance that the Republican’s agenda for the top one percent is going to deliver any meaningful economic benefits to the masses. The reality of the matter is that the Republican Party’s unified control over both Congress and the White House will probably come to an end with the 2018 midterms, after Trump fails to deliver on all the promises he made to working Americans. Where we go from there is anyone’s guess.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.