White Backlash Fueled Donald Trump’s Candidacy

Resentment toward black advancement helps explain why the white underclass supports Donald Trump.

Businessman Donald Trump gives a speech in Fayetteville, North Carolina, March 9
Businessman Donald Trump gives a speech in Fayetteville, North Carolina, March 9 (Donald J. Trump for President)

Edward Luce has an excellent essay in the Financial Times this weekend about how white working-class backlash in America has propelled Donald Trump’s candidacy.

He cites Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies and author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, which appeared in May, arguing that the trigger for white rage is inevitably black advancement.

This is the subtext to proclamations like “let’s take our country back” and “make America great again” that can be heard at Trump’s rallies.


I argued here in January that Trump drew most of his support from so-called Jacksonian Americans, named after the populist seventh president of the United States who brought non-educated white voters into the political process for the first time.

This constituency has shifted between the two parties over the years, depending on which one they believed best safeguarded their interests.

Through the New Deal and postwar eras, many of these voters, living in the Appalachian Mountains and the South, voted for the Democrats. But since the 1980s, what were then called “Reagan Democrats” have voted mostly Republican — without ever really accepting Republicanism.

They don’t believe in smaller government per se. They don’t care about tax cuts for the rich. They oppose cuts to programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security but support “welfare reform”. That’s because they regard entitlements as “middle-class” benefits and think welfare is for black people.


Jacksonians have been on the losing side of every major argument of the last twenty years, from the culture wars about feminism and gay rights to free trade and globalization.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 encapsulated the demise of an America they knew: a black president elected to end wars and provide universal health insurance would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Patrick Buchanan, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996 on a platform not too dissimilar from Trump’s, postulated the “end of white America” in 2011. “Mexico,” he warned, “is moving north.”

Enter Trump who kicked off his presidential campaign last year by accusing Mexico of deliberately sending its drug dealers and rapists across the border.

White resentment

John Marshall has argued at Talking Points Memo that this mix of racial grievance and desire to reclaim what has been taken away is the centerpiece of Trump’s campaign, far more than any sort of economic argument about globalization.

To be clear: this doesn’t describe the full 40 percent of Americans who tell pollsters they will vote for Trump in the fall. Many of those are run-of-the-mill Republicans who may not particularly like Trump but can’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton either.

We’re talking about those voters who turned out in droves during the primaries to nominate Trump.

Why did they suddenly come to the forefront?

David Marcus suggests it’s because white Americans have been pushed “to take stock of their whiteness.” The result is not a catharsis of white identity, he writes in The Federalist. “It will be resentment toward being the only tribe not given the special treatment bestowed by victimhood.”

A big part of the reason so many white Americans of all classes have been willing to support policies that aimed to rectify the wrongs done to blacks in the past “is that they do not view themselves as a tribe,” according to Marcus.

“Should that change,” he warns, “white privilege (whatever one views that to be) will not be eviscerated — it will be entrenched.”

Reservoir of hatred

Marcus’ argument is that liberals have pushed the white underclass too hard.

I don’t think that’s totally wrong. You don’t open people’s eyes to how deep racial injustices still run by shaming their whiteness. You do that by literally showing them. The ubiquity of dashboard and smartphone cameras may be doing more for racial justice than years of old-fashioned campaigning.

Conservative commentators and politicians are now coming around to the view that, yes, there is institutional racism in at least parts of the country and that at least in part explains the social and economic backwardness of blacks as a group. This is progress.

But Marshall is also right that Trump has brought out something that was shimmering for years. His careless rhetoric, as I wrote about the other day, is whipping people into a frenzy. Trump deserves a lot of blame for this, but he couldn’t have succeeded if there wasn’t a reservoir of hatred and bigotry to tap into.

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