“America,” wrote Ari Shavit in Haaretz a few days ago, “is no longer the country we have knownIt is no longer a nation confident in itself, its identity and its future. It is a frightened, angry America. An America that has lost its way.”
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The man who spurred these words is, of course, Donald Trump, the billionaire bigot who appears likely to become the Republican presidential nominee. Shavit isn’t America’s only foreign friend who wonders what’s become of the country they admire. In Europe, notes The New York Times, “The reaction” to Trump’s rise “is a mix of befuddlement, outrage and panic.”
The worry is understandable. But America will be OK.
There are three main reasons for Trump’s rise. First, ordinary Americans have still not recovered from the financial crisis. In fact, they’ve seen no wage growth in 15 years. Second, the rise of the super-rich—and the Supreme Court’s elimination of virtually all limits on their ability to buy candidates—has made American politics breathtakingly corrupt. Third, some older Americans, having grown up in a country where immigration was low and white dominance largely taken for granted, feel that people with Barack Obama’s ideology and skin tone have stolen America from them. They want it back.
Trump is on the verge of winning the GOP nomination because his Republican opponents were too enthralled to free market fundamentalism to adequately answer the economic anxieties of working class Republicans and too enthralled to super-rich donors to admit that America’s campaign finance system is corrupt. They were also too polite, or maybe too decent, to demonize Mexicans and Muslims—the groups that currently stoke the most white racial anxiety—in the ways he has.
But while this triple cocktail is potent among people who vote in Republican primaries, it’s probably not potent enough to get Trump elected president. A majority of Americans may be anxious about stagnant wages and angry at government corruption. But a majority of Americans don’t support making black and brown people the primary scapegoats for that resentment. Racially embittered white voters just aren’t numerous enough.
In the Republican primaries, where almost all the voters are white, Trump has successfully exploited fears of America’s demographic change. But it is that very demographic change that makes it so hard for him to win in November. By calling undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and challenging Barack Obama’s citizenship, Trump has earned the enmity of Latinos and African Americans. Among both groups, his disapproval rating tops eighty percent. In 1980, when non-white Americans constituted only 12 percent of the electorate, that might have been surmountable. But in 2016, the minority share of the electorate will likely reach thirty percent.
Donald Trump might beat Hillary Clinton among white voters. But Mitt Romney won 59 percent of whites in 2012, the highest percentage ever recorded for a Republican candidate against an incumbent president and he still lost. To compensate for his overwhelming losses among a growing minority population, Trump would have to win close to two-thirds of whites. But even among whites, his overall favorability rating is negative.
“In the two election campaigns won by Barack Obama,” Shavit writes, “American politics celebrated the change. Now comes the reaction.”
But the “change” and the “reaction” aren’t equal phenomena. Obama won groups of Americans whose share of the population continues to rise. Trump is exploiting the resentment of Americans whose share of the population continues to fall.
Trump is still dangerous. It is always dangerous for a society when a national leader legitimizes bigotry. A few days ago in Iowa, for instance, fans at a high-school basketball game chanted, “Trump,” at the opposing team, which comprised Latino, African American, and Native American players. It’s also dangerous because while it’s highly unlikely that Trump, having won the Republican nomination, could win the general election, nothing is ever certain. A large terrorist attack sometime this fall, for instance, could scramble the race in unpredictable ways.
But the most likely result, by far, is that Trump loses. That doesn’t mean American politics will settle down. The first two ingredients in Trump’s rise—wage stagnation and corrupt politics—will continue to convulse American politics for years to come. Until working class Americans regain confidence in their economic future and in the government that represents them, all manner of unorthodox candidates will unsettle American politics. But as the white population continues to decline, and exploiting racial resentment becomes less politically effective, these insurgencies are more likely to resemble Bernie Sanders’ campaign than Donald Trump’s.
The changes that Barack Obama embodies are not temporary. They’re permanent. And the fury of the Trump revolt stems, in part, from the fact that his supporters know it too.