Theory that racist ‘whitelash’ was behind Trump victory ignores true reasons, experts say

The instant moral of Donald Trump’s electoral victory was one of racial hatred, in which a crass bigot’s barely disguised dog whistles to white supremacists transformed the mundane economic worries of America’s poor white people into a racist rage against , Hispanics and Muslims.

This was a whitelash, and as CNN commentator Van Jones, the first to use it in this context, described it on election night: “This was a whitelash against a changing country, it was a whitelash against a black in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.”

The effects of this analysis were broad and prompted some panicked soul searching. Not all of it, it appears, was necessary.

Nell Irvin Painter, a historian best known in popular culture for her 2010 book The History of White People, called the whitelash vote a “turning point in white identity,” which marked both the emergence of whites as an ethnic racial , and their “demotion” from the “unmarked default” of racial diversity.

Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty ImagesProtesters in Manhattan after Donald Trump's election.

Parents fretted over what to tell their children about this new AmeriKKKa. “Well the world changed late last night in a way I couldn’t protect us from,” Hollywood producer Aaron Sorkin wrote his daughter. “That’s a terrible feeling for a father. I won’t sugarcoat it — this is truly horrible.”

As proof of this new heartland rebellion — almost of the kind foretold in white supremacist fantasies of racial holy war — people cited acts of racist vandalism and vulgar social media behaviour. Even in Canada, there are now hate crime investigations into flyers promoting blogs of the “alt-right,” the term of choice for far-right ideologues who indulge in the same identity politics that traditional conservatism prefers to ignore. And several petty conflicts on public transit or at grocery stores have been interpreted as evidence of this whitelash.

There are reasons to be skeptical, though, and whites voted less strongly for Trump in 2016 than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012, and the whitelash thesis allows a failure of the left to be recast as the simple villainy of the right.

White men, who make up about a third of the electorate, went 63% for Trump, with white women at 52%. Non-white voters, who represent 30% of the electorate, went 74% for Clinton, short of what Obama achieved in 2012. In fact Clinton underperformed Obama in nearly every voting bloc.

The whitelash theory, however, allows liberals to feel morally superior while selectively ignoring what angry white male voters said were their reasons for voting Trump. It also lends undue credence to the efforts of actual neo-Nazis, whose tried and true publicity strategy is to opportunistically exploit news cycles in an effort to boost their own apparent , for example by posting anonymous flyers in parks.

The core of the anger, the core of the frustration, is a sense of too much month left over at the end of the money

But the strongest reason to be skeptical, according to Gil Troy, a presidential historian at McGill , is that putting too much emphasis on race, to the exclusion of economic, cultural and security concerns, is precisely the same mistake that cost Hillary Clinton .

“To reduce these people to racists, as so many are now doing with their ‘basket of deplorables,’ misses a subtlety,” Troy said in an interview. “Whitening Trump’s support too much plays into the identity politics which led Hillary to misread the electorate in the first place. Simply seeing it through a black and white lens misses the economic dimension, which I think Trump and Sanders understood, which is that at the core of the anger, the core of the frustration, is a sense of too much month left over at the end of the money… I really think it starts with the economics.”

The infrastructure of middle class American life has “exploded,” he said, and the very same consumers who demand low cost products are, ironically, the same people who lose their jobs as industry and the market shifts accordingly. There is widespread unease about a declining culture, with compromised security and poor economic prospects, and a danger for the left is that fixating on Trump’s blame-game rhetoric against immigrants or Muslims can risk minimizing those primary concerns.

“I think the ugly bits (of Trump’s rhetoric) were reinforcers,” Troy said. They were not the main message.

Before she won the nomination, Clinton was outflanked on the left by Bernie Sanders’ appeal to the class, Troy said, so she shifted left, convincing herself the electorate was dominated by lefties and millennials, and that she could recreate Obama’s haul of the northern white vote in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

So in an election between two disliked candidates, with a large number of voters lacking party affiliation, and economic factors pushing against Democrats after eight years in power, she simply lost, as much from tactical error as from racist uprising.

As the Columbia University scientist Mark Lilla put it, Clinton pitched to every identity group except white people, and her failure in the vote should mark the end of “identity liberalism.”

“If you are going to groups in America, you had better all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions,” Lilla argued. “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

Barack Obama, after enduring a meeting with Trump in the White House, tried to steer the narrative of the election back toward the blander worries about money and equality, away from the darker, more extreme theories that have caught wind since the vote, such as fascism and Nazism.

“We are going to have to guard against a rise of crude nationalism and tribalism being built around us,” Obama said in Athens, the intellectual cradle of democracy. “The more aggressively and effectively we deal with economic dislocation and inequality, the less likely these fears will channel into counterproductive approaches that can pit people against each other.”

Even Jon Stewart, the former Daily Show host who took left-wing comedy at the right-wing’s expense to new heights of political influence, cautioned against holding every Republican voter responsible for the worst things to came out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

“I thought Donald Trump disqualified himself at numerous points. But there is now this idea that anyone who voted for him is — has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric,” Stewart said, in an interview with Charlie Rose. “Like, there are guys in my neighbourhood that I love, that I respect, that I think have incredible qualities who are not afraid of Mexicans, and not afraid of Muslims, and not afraid of blacks. They’re afraid of their insurance premiums. In the liberal community, you hate this idea of creating people as a monolith. Don’t look as Muslims as a monolith. They are the individuals and it would be ignorance. But everybody who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist. That hypocrisy is also real in our country.”

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About Joseph Brean