It isn’t entirely surprising that white workers would gravitate toward an unapologetic racist like Trump. It wouldn’t be the first time. A good number of white workers enthusiastically supported the outspoken racist George Wallace in 1968, including more than a few Michigan auto workers. That same year and then four years later, white workers in the South especially, climbed on the bandwagon of Nixon’s Southern strategy, which was racist at its core. In 1980 and then again in 1984, a significant number of white workers – so-called Reagan Democrats – threw their support to Ronald Reagan, who employed more subtly than Wallace racist dog whistles and great-power nationalism.
Years later New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote of Reagan’s campaign visit in 1980 to the Neshoba County fair in Mississippi, not too far from where civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney disappeared in June, 1964 and were found dead two months later, victims of racist murderers. But Reagan wasn’t there to praise the brave young martyrs in freedom’s cause, but for quite a different purpose. Herbert writes:
“Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.
Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.
He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County, Mississippi, they were saying that “when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.”
Thus, the support of white workers for Trump, the most overtly racist candidate since George Wallace, has its antecedents in U.S. politics. What distinguishes Trump is that his racist invective is unrestrained and, using the White House bully pulpit, he brings it fully into the political and cultural mainstream. And for what purpose other than to lay waste to democracy and democratic governance, as we know it, and set the foundations for a White Republic.
There is a school of thinking that lays the blame for the shift of white workers to Trump on the economic sins of the Clinton and Obama administrations. Clinton and his economic team, for example, shepherded NAFTA through Congress. But what goes unmentioned here is that the turn to corporate globalization, trade agreements (including NAFTA), austerity, and neoliberalism generally got under way during Reagan’s presidency. Furthermore, most Congressional Republicans were full blooded supporters of “free trade,” while many Democrats in Congress opposed it. And it wasn’t like the Republican leaders offered a progressive economic alternative to the Democrats at the time (or any time). The best they could offer in the 1990s was Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and punishing austerity, hardly a solution to declining wages, plant closings, and corporate globalization.
The George W. Bush administration came up empty too. Its economic policies were all about the 1 percent. At the beginning of his second term, Bush unsuccessfully tried to privatize Social Security. And, of course, Mitch McConnell and Congressional Republicans were no better during the Obama years. They blocked every progressive economic initiative of the Obama administration that would have reduced income inequality and sped up the recovery of the economy from the Great Recession.
Besides leaving unmentioned the economic bankruptcy of the Republican Party as it pertains to the working people, this narrative blaming the stewardship of the economy of Clinton, Obama, and the Democratic Party for the migration of white workers to Trump covers up what should figure at the center of any explanation of this phenomenon: the power of racism
For the past half century the rhetorical power of racism has been systematically shopped by the Republican Party. Plutocratic at the top and in the clutches of right wing extremists, the GOP became the master and conveyor of racialized politics. And its efforts have not been without result. Trump then isn’t an outlier, but a continuation, albeit in a more extreme form, of a party that has been tacking toward white nationalist authoritarianism for 50 years now. As presidential candidate and then president, Trump gave voice to the most vile forms of racism and white nationalism. And in doing so captured the attention and support of a new tranche of white workers. Some are struggling to make ends meet, but others are doing quite well, even in today’s economy.
In effect, Trump, with the assistance of a whole ecosystem of right-wing, even proto-facist, media and social media sites, has reconstructed and racialized the political consciousness of a section of white workers. Whiteness, not class has become the frame through which these workers look at the world, understand their interests, and choose their friends and call out their enemies.
But what he couldn’t do is win another four years in the White House, despite doing everything he could to racialize the elections. On January 20, he will no longer be president. And while Trump will leave the White House, he and his base won’t leave the stage of politics nor will they retire their most powerful weapon. Employing racism, crudely and relentlessly, they will attempt to delegitimize the new administration and disrupt its plans to pull the country out of a devastating and deadly pandemic and onto a trajectory that accents justice, equality, and sustainability. We (meaning the broad and diverse democratic coalition that proved instrumental to Biden’s victory) can’t allow that to happen. The struggle continues!