I discussed in my last blog post how Republicans have used racist appeals to the white working class since the 1960s. Trump is only different in his undisguised embrace of the tactic. However, we should be careful not to accept the phrase casually tossed around in the media, “Trump is appealing to his base.” It reflects elite opinion, from both the conservative and liberal establishments, that Trump voters are an unwashed, ignorant mass, easily led by the nose by demagogues like the president.
While the Tea Party Republicans are willful in their racist rage, there is a whole segment of white working class Trump voters who voted for Barack Obama (often twice) and only voted for the “outsider” candidate because of his populist rhetoric.
Here is an excerpt from my new book (The Roots of Defeat) that analyzes the Trump vote in the Midwest:
“While Clinton won 300,000 more total votes nationwide than Obama did in 2012, fueled by new Latino voters in Texas and California, she won 3 million fewer votes than the former president did in 2012 in the eight upper Midwestern states and Pennsylvania.
Moreover, in almost every one of the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump in that red crescent mentioned earlier (from Iowa through Wisconsin and Michigan to Ohio and Pennsylvania), local plant closings either occurred during the campaign or were announced in local papers.
In Ohio, for example: in May, GE’s century old locomotive plant in Erie County announced that it was transferring hundreds more jobs to its new facility in Fort Worth, Texas. In July, Republic Steel formally reneged on its promise to reopen and modernize the enormous three mile long U.S. Steel plant in Lorain that had once been the area’s largest employer. In August, pink slips were handed out to workers at Commercial Vehicle Group’s big stamping plant in Martin’s Ferry on the Ohio River (Belmont County). Each incident, repeated in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, reinforced the sinking feeling that opportunity was seeping out of the Midwest and that the status quo was untenable.
As they did in 2000, many working poor voters, black and white, exercised their right to not vote. In Milwaukee’s poorest precinct, District 15, Ian Pfeiffer, a 25-year-old white male who works the grill at Jake’s Delicatessen, told a reporter he did not vote. ‘I felt cornered. We were stuck between Trump and Hillary. They really left us with no choice.’ A local barber who voted twice for Obama told the NY Times that he and the three other black men who work in their barber shop did not vote because Clinton gave them no reason to think she would make life better in Milwaukee. ‘I do not feel bad… Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.’
The question of whether Trump’s white working class supporters were motivated by racism or by economic distress has a simple answer. There is no “typical” Trump voter. Some of his supporters, especially those who packed his rallies, were long standing converts to the Republican Party’s racist messaging. Covert racism has been a Republican tactic for decades. The Tea Partiers, most of whom are small businessmen and lower level professionals – usually long-time Republicans – supported Trump to express their resentment over having a black president. But another cluster of Trump’s supporters were people left behind by globalization, desperately gambling that Trump might try to improve the Midwest’s economy.
In the Midwest, the “economic distress” case for the Obama-to-Trump voters in the counties that Obama won (usually twice) seems relatively strong. We have seen that these communities have received a series of blows over the last 40 years, blows to the bedrock economy that have shredded the social and mental health of their residents. Focus groups held in January of 2017 revealed that 50 percent of Obama voters who switched to Trump say their income is falling behind the cost of living, while another 31 percent said they were barely keeping up. Similar percentages of Obama voters who did not vote in 2016 were also under these economic pressures. Their views about race were simply subordinate to their pressing economic situations.”
As we saw in Virginia and Alabama, black voters are highly mobilized and white Republican women are turning against Trump. The next step is advancing populist policies that address the needs of both white and black workers in the Midwest.