Race could be the most important factor driving voters to Donald Trump. It was a strong appeal to white voters that enabled the Donald to win the South Carolina Republican primary, Public Religion Research Institute CEO Robert P. Jones concluded in a recent Atlantic article.
Fears that white people will soon become an embattled and oppressed minority in America drove some Conservative Christian voters to Trump, Jones believes. He cited a survey that showed 61% of “evangelicals” now believe discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as prejudice against people of color in America. In contrast, only 43% of all Americans hold that belief.
The same survey found that 72% of what he calls White Evangelical Protestants (WEPs) believe that America has changed for the worse since the 1950s, when whites were in firm control and segregation was the law, Jones pointed out. That conflicts sharply with the majority of Americans; 53% of Americans believe that American culture has improved since the 1950s.
More tellingly, 66% of WEPs believe that today’s immigrants are a burden on America, Jones wrote. Around 46% of all Americans think that immigrants are a burden.
Do Whites Really See Themselves as a Beleaguered Minority?
Jones could be onto something here, although he does seem to be a little unfair to evangelicals. The same fears could be motivating other Trump voters, including moderate Republicans, who seem to make up a majority of Trump’s backers.
Interestingly, some other surveys indicate that Christians could be among Trump’s biggest opponents. Political scientist Matthew MacWilliams reached a very different conclusion after examining survey data from South Carolina. He wrote in Vox:
“Regular, weekly church attendance—as measured by a standard Pew Research question included in my survey—predicted a statistically significant and substantive opposition to Trump.”
That means Trump’s appeal could largely be secular or to individuals that claim to be Christian but are really unchurched. MacWilliams’ thesis is that Trump appeals to what he calls authoritarian personalities, not people of faith.
Such people are often obsessed with enemies, which indicates a proclivity towards racism and other forms of prejudice. That might explain Trump’s appeal to centrist law-and-order Republicans.
Mr. Trump’s message seems to be resonating as greatly with left-leaning country club Republicans such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani, who has made headlines for criticizing Beyoncé’s rather silly Super Bowl performance, has become part of Trump’s “kitchen cabinet,” according to media reports. Giuliani’s complaint about Beyoncé was that she is black and dared to criticize police.
The fears driving whites to Trump seem to extend far beyond the Bible Belt and the Southern working class. One has to wonder if the media’s embrace of Trump and its willingness to ignore his questionable past could be driven by fears in the lily white newsrooms of America. Could some supposedly progressive reporters, editors and producers be sympathetic to Trump and his racially-charged message?
How Trump Capitalizes on Real White Fears
Trump has succeeded in injecting race into the presidential campaign in a destructive way and making it an issue. In particular, he has figured out how to stoke some very well-founded white fears.
The death rate for middle-aged white Americans, the group most likely to vote for Trump, is increasing, Nobel Prize-winning Dartmouth economist Angus Deaton discovered and The New York Times reported in November. White people, particularly white men, are those most likely to be left out of today’s economic growth.
The average income for white Americans fell by 1.7% between 2013 and 2014, the US Census Bureau reported. At the same time the average income for blacks, Hispanics and Asians stayed the same.
Four states considered to be in recession in 2015—Wyoming, West Virginia, Alaska and North Dakota—are among the nation’s whitest. At the same time, the states with the most job growth were California, Texas and Florida, among the nation’s most racially diverse areas.
Rural poverty is also increasing in the United States; the average income for a farm family in the United States in 2016 will be $17,769, according to the Department of Agriculture, well below the federal poverty limit for a family of four ($24,300). The white working class is also heavily affected by job loss in sectors like mining and manufacturing.
Trump as Savior of the White Race
Trump has capitalized upon these fears by presenting himself as the savior of the white race. His slogan, Make America Great Again (code for make America white again), plans to severely restrict immigration, deport illegal immigrants, end Muslim immigration and put a 45% tariff on Chinese products, which are all designed to appeal to frightened white voters.
So far the strategy has worked largely because other candidates have ignored white fears. The remaining conservative in the Republican contest, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has concentrated on cultural issues such as abortion and efforts to build up his political coalition.
Could this strategy work and drive Trump to the White House? Probably not. Polls indicate that most Americans do not share the fears of the WEPS and other working-class whites. Trump also lacks the backing of any sort of organized movement, so there’s a good chance his campaign will fizzle out. Yet it could result in a paradigm shift in the Republican Party that many of its leaders fear.
What Republicans Are Afraid Of
Republicans are afraid that Trump will transform their organization from the Grand Old Party to the Scared Old White Party. He will create a party that will only appeal to older whites in a nation where Caucasians will become a minority within 30 years.
To make matters worse for the GOP, the largest group within the American population was born between 1982 and 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. At the same time, whites are older and dying off faster than non-whites; around 78% of deaths in the USA are among Caucasians, largely because they tend to be older.
That means Trump is effectively appealing to a declining minority with small chances of growth. His message does not bode well for younger Republicans that want to be reelected after 2020.
These numbers drive the Trump phenomenon because more whites are feeling like a minority even as their influence declines. This makes Trump’s White America propaganda more popular even as it becomes more fatal for the GOP’s electoral prospects.
One reason why Republicans are afraid is highlighted by Matthew Sheffield in a recent piece for The American Conservative. Sheffield noted that in seven swing states in the 2012 presidential election, between 70% and 78% of voters who considered themselves religiously unaffiliated voted for Democrat Barack Obama.
Sheffield believes that the overt religiosity in the GOP drives away nonreligious and secular voters—even those that share Republicans’ conservative values. A similar obsession with race and whites could have the same effect on nonwhite voters or those that do not care about race.
The White Christian Party
By becoming the “Christian Party,” Republicans have effectively driven away almost all non-Christian voters, even those that share their beliefs, Sheffield and other conservatives think. In addition to secularists, the GOP has effectively driven away many socially conservative immigrants, including Jews, Sikhs and Muslims. If Republicans become the “White Christian Party,” the result could be even more fatal.
Instead of revitalizing the Republican Party, Trump could be destroying its electoral chances. Even if he does not succeed, Trump could open the door to more racially charged politics. Something similar happened back in the 1960s and 1970s when segregationist George Wallace disrupted the Democratic Party; he didn’t win, but Wallace opened the door to Republicans to use race to get votes from working-class whites and Southerners.
For better or worse, Trump has reinjected race into American politics in a dangerous new way. One has to wonder where it will lead and how it will affect the outcomes of elections.