Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Understanding Trump’s Base


When the label “conservative” comes up in political discourse, we have been conditioned to think in terms of individual psychological characteristics such as resistance to change and intolerance for new ideas.  Corey Robin has provided a startlingly different view of political conservatism in his book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump.  In Robin’s view, political conservatives are quite willing to embrace change provided change is used to maintain an inequality in which the majority is kept subjugated to a presumably meritorious elite.  Robin explains.

“….many of the characteristics we have come to associate with contemporary conservatism—racism, populism, violence, and a pervasive contempt for custom, convention, law, institutions, and established elites—are not recent or eccentric developments of the American right.  They are instead constitutive elements of conservatism, dating back to its origins in the European reaction against the French Revolution.  From its inception, conservatism has relied upon some mix of these elements to build a broad-based movement of elites and masses against the emancipation of the lower orders.”

From this perspective, conservatism is all about maintaining power for elites.  The political history of the past two centuries can be thought of as a sequence of revolutions as the poor and dispossessed attempted to lessen their subjugation by those in the higher classes, while conservatives plotted counterrevolutions that would maintain the subjugation.  Conservatives are quite willing to change as needed to maintain the notion that the better man will always be superior to the lessor man.  The definition of who was superior could change as conditions changed, but the ideal society for a conservative was one in which there was a hierarchy of subordination where each person could view himself as superior to those below him and inferior to those above him.

Conservatism works as a political philosophy by convincing large numbers of people that they are, in fact, members of the elite even though they know that not all elites are equal.  The most formidable conservative political appeal is to convince a voter that he is in danger of losing his position of superiority over another person.  Since the Nixon era, Republicans have focused on race as a means of creating fear of loss of status in white voters.  Over the years they have dealt in misogyny as they encouraged men to continue to feel superior to women both in the economy and in family life.  They have also captured evangelical white Christians by providing them refuge from secular and scientific ridicule.  Patriotism is another ploy used to convince those with little else to provide them comfort that they are members of the greatest nation on earth, and therefore they are superior to all those from lesser nations.  A slogan such as “Make America Great Again” would resonate with many.

The success of Donald Trump in taking over the Republican Party was, in Robin’s view, not an aberration, but a logical next step in the evolution of conservatism in the United States.  People were so startled by Republicans’ acceptance of Trump as a viable candidate that they began associating his popularity with that of Hitler.  A much more valuable comparison would have been with George Wallace and his candidacies. Wallace brought a southern cultural message of white dominance and god-fearing religion coupled with a populist economic thrust that was welcomed then by the same people in the North who would rush to support Trump.  Middle to lower class whites welcomed both Wallace and Trump and would explain Trump’s ultimate victory.

It might be difficult for some to comprehend the degree to which the Republican Party has changed since the time of Nixon.  Nixon was a master of race baiting and his quest to capture southern whites was so successful that more moderate members had to look elsewhere for a home, leaving the party to be dominated by the racist southern democrats who soon became racist southern Republicans.

It is not possible to comprehend politics in the United States without focusing on racial issues.  Consider Robin’s statement on Nixon’s strategy.

“Pioneers of the Southern Strategy in the Nixon administration….understood that after the rights revolutions of the sixties they could no longer make simple appeals to white racism.  From now on, they would have to speak in code, preferably to one palatable to the new dispensation of color blindness.  As White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman noted in his diary, Nixon ‘emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.  The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.’  Looking back on this strategy in 1981, Republican strategist Lee Atwater spelled out its elements more clearly:

“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’  By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you.  Backfires.  So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff.  You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.  And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.”

The issue of race has driven our culture for over 400 years, particularly in the South, where elites developed the master plan that would keep the masses of poor whites faithful to the “Southern Way,” now the Republican Way.

“The genius of the slaveholders, wrote Daniel Hundley in his Social Relations in Our Southern States, is that they are ‘not an exclusive aristocracy. Every free white man in the whole Union has just as much right to become an Oligarch.’  This was not just propaganda: by 1860, there were 400,000 slaveholders in the South, making the American master class one of the most democratic in the world.  The slaveholders repeatedly attempted to pass laws encouraging whites to own at least one slave and even considered granting tax breaks to facilitate such ownership.”

“In the words of Calhoun: ‘With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”

Slavery was not kind economically to poor whites.  Yet when the Civil War came, they were willing to die to preserve a system that provided them only the privilege of believing they were superior to blacks.

One might argue that this was only a southern thing and has no relevance for the nation as a whole, but southern attitudes did not stay localized in the South.  There came a vast dispersion of southern whites—and their culture— throughout the remainder of the nation. James N. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Washington, presents relevant data and conclusions in The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (2005).

“In the Great Migration era of the early twentieth century, when African Americans moved north for the first time in large numbers and established much-noticed communities in the major cities, less-noticed white southerners actually outnumbered them roughly two to one.  The margins became larger after 1950 and still larger as the century drew to a close.  Over the course of the twentieth century, more than 28 million southerners left their home region—28 percent were African Americans, 68 percent were non-Hispanic whites, and 4 percent southern-born Latinos, Tejanos mostly, who had been joining the flow north and west since World War II.”

“In doing so, they changed America.  They transformed American religion, spreading Baptist and Pentecostal churches and reinvigorating evangelical Protestantism, both black and white versions.  They transformed American popular culture, especially music.  The development of blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hillbilly and country music all depended on the southern migrants.  The Southern Diaspora transformed American racial hierarchies, as black migrants in the great cities of the North and West developed institutions and political practices that enabled the modern civil rights movement.  The Southern Diaspora also helped reshape American conservatism, contributing to new forms of white working-class and suburban politics.  Indeed, most of the great political realignments of the second half of the twentieth century had something to do with the population movements out of the South.”

Southerners did not create racism in other parts of the country, but their attitudes made racism more politically correct and encouraged open expressions of racial bias.  One can track migration paths from former slave states and correlate conservative politics with the number of southerners who settled in a given location.  The Central Valley of California supports political attitudes not too different from those of the many immigrants from Oklahoma and Arkansas that settled there during the Depression. 

When the Ku Klux Klan came organizing it found fertile ground among whites in the North and West.  When George Wallace later came with his southern politics he was welcomed by many whites.  When Donald Trump came campaigning with a similar message to Wallace it should have been no surprise that he was welcomed by the same class of people.

Robin provides an explanation for why Trump was so much more successful than believed possible.  He believes Trump’s success derived from a disappointment on the part of whites in the promises not kept by the Republican Party, and from the outrage associated with living with a black man as president for eight years.

“Trump’s ascendency suggests that the lower orders are no longer satisfied with the racial and imperial privileges the [conservative] movement has offered them.  The right has reversed many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement: the schools that African Americans in the South attend today are more segregated than they were under Richard Nixon; the racial wealth gap has tripled since 1984; and in several states, voting rights for African Americans are under attack.  Yet a combination of stagnating wages, rising personal and household debt, and increasing precarity—coupled with the tormenting symbolism of a black president and the greater visibility of black and brown faces in the culture industries—has made the traditional conservative offering seem scant to its white constituents.  The future of the United States as a minority-majority nation exacerbates this anxiety.  Racial dog whistles no longer suffice; a more brazen sound is required.”

“Trump is that sound.”

Just as hundreds of thousands of poor whites were willing to die during the Civil War for a system that abused them economically but provided them with racial superiority, Trump’s supporters seem willing to follow him anywhere.  There appears to be no crime, no act of malfeasance, that will weaken their support for him.

Of particular interest is the degree to which evangelical Christians support this most unchristian of politicians.  Robin attributes this again to racial issues.  It is only white evangelicals that support Trump.  Michael Gerson provides a deeper look at the relationship between Trump and evangelicals in an article in The AtlanticThe Last Temptation: How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory.  Gerson is a white Christian who has considered himself to be proud of the evangelical label although he is struggling to maintain that pride given the behavior of evangelical leaders with respect to Trump.  He also recognizes the primacy of race in the religious response.

“….consider the contrasting voting behaviors of white and African American evangelicals in last year’s Senate race in Alabama. According to exit polls, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Roy Moore, while 95 percent of black evangelicals supported his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones. The two groups inhabit two entirely different political worlds.”

He fears that evangelicals are risking their Christian reputation by supporting Trump.

“For some of Trump’s political allies, racist language and arguments are part of his appeal. For evangelical leaders, they should be sources of anguish. Given America’s history of slavery and segregation, racial prejudice is a special category of moral wrong. Fighting racism galvanized the religious conscience of 19th-century evangelicals and 20th-century African American civil-rights activists. Perpetuating racism indicted many white Christians in the South and elsewhere as hypocrites. Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country. Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most-basic requirements of their faith.”

“Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.”

Why are white evangelicals so grateful to Trump for his political shelter?  Gerson suggests that evangelicals lost there way when they doubled down on the rejection of evolution after the Scopes trial.  They emerged from that conflict as a national joke.  Rather than change, they assumed the posture of a “besieged and disrespected minority.”  Trump decided to treat them with respect, something they found hard to come by.

“It is true that insofar as Christian hospitals or colleges have their religious liberty threatened by hostile litigation or government agencies, they have every right to defend their institutional identities—to advocate for a principled pluralism. But this is different from evangelicals regarding themselves, hysterically and with self-pity, as an oppressed minority that requires a strongman to rescue it. This is how Trump has invited evangelicals to view themselves. He has treated evangelicalism as an interest group in need of protection and preferences.”

“Having given politics pride of place, these evangelical leaders have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.”

“If utilitarian calculations are to be applied, they need to be fully applied. For a package of political benefits, these evangelical leaders have associated the Christian faith with racism and nativism. They have associated the Christian faith with misogyny and the mocking of the disabled. They have associated the Christian faith with lawlessness, corruption, and routine deception. They have associated the Christian faith with moral confusion about the surpassing evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”

And they seem willing to stick with Trump to the bitter end.

We are at a very dangerous—but perhaps inevitable—juncture in our history.  A violent Civil War and a violent Civil Rights revolution failed to resolve our racial issues.  What will it take?


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