Now that Donald Trump’s campaign for President looks likely to win him the Republican nomination, outraged writers both left and right are screaming bloody murder. The screams sound different, though. Liberals worry that Trump is a fascist, with comparisons to Mussolini and Hitler. Establishment Republicans denounce him as an insincere conservative and worry that he’ll lead them to crushing defeat in November. Only late-night comedians appear to be enjoying the spectacle.
Trump loves all the attention. He deliberately provokes the screams and then screams back. Much more important than listening to his wailing is to ask why he has so many followers. Why are millions of Americans so angry that they look to Trump for leadership?
The comparisons of Trumpism to fascism often invoke the history of Germany before Hitler came to power. But that comparison doesn’t work well. Hitler and the Nazis were a fringe party as late as 1928. That year they won 2.6% of the vote and were the ninth largest party. Only after the crash of the Western world’s economy in 1929 did their votes jump to 18.3% in 1930, as unemployment surged to 23%, on its way to over 40% by 1932.
Nothing like that is happening in the US. We see signs of economic distress in America every day, however unemployment has fallen to 4.9%, after peaking at 10% just after Barack Obama took office. But even if the economy may be improving, that is barely noticeable to most people. The proportion of Americans who have “good jobs”, meaning more than 30 hours per week with a steady paycheck, has barely inched up from about 42% five years ago to 44% now. Wages have stagnated for 20 years.
Since 2009, despite the recovery, the percentage of Americans who think economic conditions are “getting worse” has remained over 50%, reaching 56% in the most recent Gallup poll. Republicans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about our future: in January, 88% of Republicans, but only 27% of Democrats told CNN/ORC that things in the country today are going badly.
I don’t think the anger that propels people to Trump is all about the economy. The greatest unemployment and the dimmest economic prospects for the future plague young African Americans: their unemployment reached nearly 50% in late 2009 and 2010, and still hovers around 25%. Overall, black unemployment is twice white unemployment, and Hispanic unemployment is 50% higher than whites.
But this month Hispanics told pollsters how much they disliked Trump: 77% said they had an unfavorable opinion of him. None of the other candidates, Republican or Democrat, had higher than 30%. Another poll was worse: over 70% of Hispanics had a “very unfavorable” view of Trump. Even 60% of Hispanics who are Republicans have an unfavorable opinion, three times as high as the other Republican candidates. African Americans dislike Trump even more.
A poll from July 2015, when many Republicans were still in the race, showed Trump’s appeal to be greatest among whites without a college degree. That advantage grew by the end of 2015. Americans without a college degree are much more likely to have negative ideas about immigration in general and undocumented immigrants in particular.
A February Public Policy poll in South Carolina, before the primary, identifies which Republican voters like Trump best: those who support banning Muslims and homosexuals from entering the US; who support shutting down mosques in the US and making Islam illegal; who support flying the Confederate flag; who think whites are a superior race.
One of Trump’s biggest attractions is his disdain for what he calls political correctness. His supporters recognize that their beliefs in white superiority, the evils of Islam and homosexuality, and the importance of ending immigration are no longer acceptably announced in polite society. What once was politically fine is now incorrect, liable to be criticized. Trump says these things in the crudest way and ironically makes them more respectable. His voters’ idea of a great America may mean a place where they have better jobs, but it also means an America where Christian whites regain their ascendancy, where the world respects our dominance, where traditional hierarchies return.
Trump voters don’t travel in the same circles as establishment Republicans. Powerful Republicans say they don’t know any Trump voters. Surveys in January show that Republican voters consider Trump the most anti-establishment candidate.
Trump the birther gave birth to Trump the candidate. Outrageous racist attacks on a black President provided a base of support: two-thirds of Trump supporters still believe that Obama is a Muslim born outside of the US. Trump exploits the anger about a changing America and stokes it. He repeatedly has encouraged violence against those who protest his message. His white supporters have been waiting for their deliverance. They will be even angrier if he loses or if he wins and can’t turn the clock back.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 15, 2106