Trump people: The GOP and the politics of white identity, class and gender
Professor Inderjeet Parmar
Why are so many white women supporting Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency against Hillary Clinton, the first female major party candidate for the White House? On top of everything Trump has said about particular women or women in general, he also repudiated Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that enabled women’s right to abortion, a right that the GOP has chipped away at for decades.
Why are so many white workers supporting a billionaire elitist who exploits his own workers? Trump uses illegal immigrants in his various companies, undercuts wages and uses Chinese steel to build his hotels, despite his complaints about China dumping goods in the United States.
Why are so many relatively affluent Americans backing Trump?
The big answer, according to new research by Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell, is a lethal mixture of financial anxiety, fear and hopelessness for the future – of immigrants, globalisation, job insecurity, poor health – and the politics of white identity. They yearn for a mythical golden age of 50 years ago. White Americans, especially men, are intending to vote for Trump not because they believe he is going to solve their problems but because, they believe, he will reverse the privileged treatment bestowed upon those who have destroyed white supremacy: the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant, the asylum seeker, the terrorist, the African-American enemy within – and even highly successful white women who challenge white male supremacy. In 2008 and 2012, the outsider had a black face – Barack Obama; now the outsider with a woman’s body is on the verge of electoral victory.
Women supporting Trump tend to be those who occupy the weakest position in the labour market, leading them to see themselves in traditional gender roles as nurturers and carers. The corollary of this is that they see their men as responsible for protecting them, and professionally successful women as competitors for those men’s jobs.
According to women’s historian Stephanie Coontz, the highest proportion of women in America who are stay-at-home mums reside in the bottom 25 per cent income bracket. Their households need two incomes but the woman going out to work finds only low-paying jobs which do not cover child care costs. They are locked into a position of a subordinate in a male-dominated household, resentful of two-income families and strong, successful women.
Combine all this with anxieties about the looming spectre of an America dominated by non-whites – by 2050, the US will be a majority-minority nation – for many, their country is facing an existential crisis. Fears about globalisation, free trade, immigration are real enough as sources of economic insecurity. But combined with white hyper-ethno-nationalist identity politics, those fears become a major threat to American society as a whole, and its global authority – it’s identity as a land of immigrants, of opportunity based on merit not race or colour, its democratic and egalitarian ethos and image – its attractiveness to the world as an advanced society, its soft power.
Donald Trump has fused economic worries, racial and gender resentment into a politics of fear and revenge, a politics fuelled by a desire to “take our country back” from enemies domestic and foreign, and from the elites who gave America away – to Mexicans, Muslims, minorities.
But Trump hardly invented the politics of white identity – the GOP has framed issues of gender and race in such terms for decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, during the rights revolution, Republicans – along with their Dixiecrat allies – contended that unpatriotic blacks, students, pacifists, uppity women were destroying the fabric of America – family, religion, nation, hope. When right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater won five southern states in the 1964 presidential election by opposing civil rights and de-segregation, he blazed a trail followed by successive GOP presidents. It is said that Goldwater lost the election but won the future. And the lesson of 1964 led to the racist ‘southern strategy’ of Richard Nixon and to Ronald Reagan’s coded racism, apparent in his call for the restoration of ‘state’s rights’ – the slogan of southern slavery and segregation – in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980.
This call attracted non-conservative working class white voters to the party of low taxes and small government. It gave them a psychological wage only: economically they lost ground due to deindustrialisation and globalisation, and cuts to welfare programmes – as did, to an even greater extent, African-American workers. The GOP’s coded racism divided black and white workers and offered only hyper-anxiety about others taking what whites were supposed to have by prior right. From that politics of fear and resentment, the Republican Party developed a discourse that has damaged the basic tenets of democratic Americanism. It has been racist, xenophobic and misogynistic. And it has now sprouted a movement with the hallmarks of a “last stand” against a changing America, one that would declare an election stolen before a vote’s been cast and demand their opponent be jailed as a common criminal.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric is not new; he’s just more open with it. Trump’s language, the coarse vulgarity, the lack of recognition of the legitimacy of the opposition – is not his invention. It was pioneered during the 1990s by Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America - a declaration of war against the Democratic Party, bipartisanship, and the Clintons.
Trump’s talk of ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lying Ted’ is part of a rhetoric that began in the 1990s. The GOP employed Orwellian PR men like Frank Luntz who changed the language and imagery of politics, attaching epithets to everything they opposed – corrupt, greedy, lazy. Luntz’s claim to fame is that he invented “climate change” as the neutral-sounding term to replace “global warming”.
Whoever wins this election, the country is in for a very tough time. America will survive Donald Trump but at what price? And how will a changing world react –a China that still champs at the thought of its ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of colonial exploitation, a Middle East seething with the lethal and illegal exercise of American military violence, an India trying to shed its colonial past and enter the top table of world politics – still dominated by the US-led West?