Is Donald Trump’s political ascent the result of American racism or economic anxiety? The simple answer is yes. But a handful of pundits have made the case that pure racial animosity is the sole factor driving Trump’s appeal. They are wrong, and their argument has damaging implications for the Democratic Party.
If race is the only cause of Trump’s rise, and economic forces do not influence racist attitudes at all, then policymakers ― particularly Democrats ― can be absolved of any responsibility for the ugly side of American culture Trump has inflamed and exposed.
Decades of social science research has shown that economic hardship makes people more susceptible to demagogues who scapegoat minority groups. In 1959, psychologist Seymour Martin Lipset found that the prevalence of labor unions in the United States curbed authoritarian impulses in the electorate. The decline of union power has probably created an opening for racist appeals. A 2014 study by New York University psychologists found that racial attitudes harden under conditions of economic scarcity, while a recent study by three German economists concluded that “far-right” political parties enjoy major gains after financial crises.
Thirty years of stagnant wages, corporate consolidation and deregulation under Democrats and Republicans alike has created a lot of economic hardship for people of all colors. This creates an opportunity for legitimate grievances of some white communities to be channeled into illegitimate demonization politics.
If racism alone is responsible for Trump, and economic factors bring no influence to bear on racial attitudes, Democrats can shrug off the uncomfortable notion that they could have prevented or blunted Trump’s appeal by supporting different policies. If trade policy can have no effect on bigotry, then the fact that Trump’s support comes from counties most negatively impacted by trade with China becomes irrelevant. If the problem is simple personal nastiness, then the fact Trump supporters live in counties where white life expectancy is declining and unemployment rates are higher ― even a recent study widely touted as “debunking” the idea that Trump is fueled by economic distress shows that his support comes from enclaves where whites are dying younger and experiencing limited economic mobility ― presents no useful policy lessons. The country can be neatly divided into Good People and Bad People, and Democrats conveniently emerge with God on their side.
Economic factors can be one element in the causal stew behind Trumpism without being the only or even the dominant force. Racial justice and economic justice are not opposites. They are dependent on each other. Slavery was both an economic institution and a system of racial domination. The Fair Housing Act is a piece of civil rights legislation and an assault on economic inequality.
Racism is the American sin ― not merely a character flaw, but a stain on the soul that cannot be cleansed by time and repentance the way other failures can. Thieves, liars, homophobes, even perhaps, rapists, can be redeemed in the public eye, but the racist must be exiled from moral and political life. As Greg Howard writes in The New York Times Magazine, by the late 1960s, “calling people racist was no longer a matter of evaluating their opinions; it was an accusation of being irrevocably warped at the very core.”
It is easier to point fingers at the most pernicious of contemporary attitudes than to acknowledge the complicity of even well-intentioned individuals in the perpetuation of injustice. We eagerly and rightly condemn the cries of “sieg heil!” at Trump rallies, but when 88 Democrats vote to legalize racial discrimination at car dealerships by deregulating auto lending standards, it doesn’t make the cable news cycle. To say that racism cannot be influenced by economic factors is to say that the Trump problem is just a few million hearts of darkness that were always beyond salvation. This is easier than grappling with subtler wrongs.
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in a landslide that delivers both chambers of Congress to Democrats, she will have the opportunity to boost the minimum wage, expand Social Security benefits, deploy a robust new infrastructure program, subsidize child care and make college tuition free for every family outside of the upper class, as her policy platform promises. These efforts would improve the lives of Clinton and Trump supporters alike, and help assuage some of the economic fears that bolster Trump’s popularity in certain parts of the country. They wouldn’t solve everything, but they’d help.
But imagine none of that actually happens. Democrats don’t take the House, or Clinton decides that a foreign policy crisis requires her to spend political capital on war rather than domestic concerns. Trumpism isn’t going to simply evaporate as white people everywhere spontaneously examine their privilege and respond to well-reasoned arguments about the irrationality of bigotry. If nobody believes that economic solutions are a critical part of solving the Trump problem, we probably won’t see much urgency to implement economic solutions.
By 2020, everyone will have forgotten about Clinton’s 2016 campaign promises, and Democratic leaders will be explaining to the public why she did the best she could given the circumstances. That’s a recipe for the Good People losing. And the consequences won’t be pretty. Trump won’t be the GOP nominee in four years, but whatever candidate emerges will have to embrace the party’s Trumpist faction. The Republican leaders who have refused to reject Trump this cycle probably won’t stand in the way of aggressively racist retribution four years down the line.