Analysis |

Trump Is White America’s Great White Hope

It is no coincidence that Donald Trump’s rise coincided with the end of Barack Obama’s term.

Yael Sternhell
Yael Sternhell
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"Raise your right hand..." Donald Trump makes Florida crowd swear they'll show up to vote for him, March 5, 2016.
"Raise your right hand..." Donald Trump makes Florida crowd swear they'll show up to vote for him, March 5, 2016.Credit: Screenshot from @wpjenna
Yael Sternhell
Yael Sternhell

Whatever the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, it will be remembered as a referendum among America’s white majority on the country’s future in the 21st century.

Whites today constitute about 61 percent of the United States population, and are expected to lose their majority within one generation. That is an earthshaking change, practically inconceivable, for a country where the balance of power in society has always been based primarily on skin color.

A majority of whites are voting Trump, constituting more than 90 percent of the bloc that supports him. Among whites without higher education, Trump has a big advantage, which goes a long way toward explaining why the race has remained neck-and-neck throughout.

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The Trump phenomenon cannot be understood except against the background of the internal conflicts within the white community.

Despite the decline of their demographic power, whites in America still have a tremendous economic edge over every minority, with the exception of Asian-Americans. The median wealth of a white household in America is $144,000, versus about $11,000 for a black household. Trump voters are not poor, by any criterion. The median annual income of a Trump voter, based on a calculation by polls guru Nate Silver, is $72,000 a year, while the poverty line in the U.S. is $22,000 a year. Whites still receive preferential treatment in hiring, and suffer much less from the arm of the law compared with minorities. They still hold the vast majority of positions of power in the economy, in politics, in academe and in the judicial system, while minorities continue to suffer from under-representation.

Yet these objective statistics do not cancel out the fact that many in the white community feel their lives have descended into a crisis from which they cannot extract themselves. It is true that their standard of living is higher, on average, than that of minorities, but it is lower than the standard of living their parents enjoyed, living as they did during America’s Golden Age, when the salary from one factory job or a small business could support a family in dignity. Some live in rural areas, outside American mainstream life, and others suffer from the repercussions of mass manufacturing closing down in recent decades, and the loss of jobs that destroyed employment security for uneducated men.

Signs of white despair

Other criteria also attest to genuine distress. Mortality rates among American whites have been rising since the late 1990s, while the rates throughout the West, as well as among American minorities, has been declining. In rural America, areas where Trump enjoys strong support, a trend of addiction to painkillers has spread in recent years, joined by spreading use of heroin.

Added to the objective difficulties are feelings of frustration, which are harder to quantify, over what some groups feel as a loss of traditional privileges. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump’s rise coincided with the end of Barack Obama’s term. Together with the strengthening of the Hispanic community, which now constitutes 17 percent of the U.S. population and whose electoral clout is mounting, there is a realistic basis for the feeling that America is losing its character as a country of the white majority.

For whites supporting the Democratic party, most of whom live in the cities and graduated college, the changes America is undergoing express the ideal of an equal society, one that takes in immigrants and is blessed with cultural variety. But for people living outside the cosmopolitan areas and adhere to the traditional American way of life, it is a nightmare come true. Donald Trump’s promises to block Hispanic and Muslim immigration and to return America to its “heyday” fell on receptive ears.

The split within the white majority, between town and country and between people with different levels of education, is also reflected in the reluctance to support the candidacy of a woman as U.S. president. Barack Obama enjoyed much greater support from the white working class than Hillary Clinton does.

How can we explain that whites who feel threatened by the rise of minorities would vote for a black man, but not a white woman?

Beyond the instinctive opposition many feel to the idea of a woman as head of state, there are apparently two explanations. The first is that during Obama’s two terms in office, American politics grew even more extreme, and today the alienation between the social classes and the two main political parties is even greater than when Obama was running for president.

The second explanation has to do with the structural changes the American economy has been undergoing, also with regard to gender. Traditional male jobs are disappearing while work that had been considered traditionally female continue to provide jobs. The heavy demand for workers in care-giving and administration enables women to continue working in a rapidly changing employment environment. Although women still earn, on average, 80 cents for each dollar that a man earns, the changing trend is palpable, and portends a future in which women have opportunities in the jobs market while men lag behind.

So even if the Hispanic vote determines the outcome in states like Florida or Nevada, the story of this election is in the deep processes within the white community, whose position of power is cracking for the first time in 400 years, and which is dividing economically and culturally. Trump’s skill at exploiting the tensions and frustrations within that community is responsible, to a great degree, for the tremendous success he achieved despite his total absence of political experience and his serial scandals, which would have buried any other candidate. The rift exposed during these elections will continue to shape American politics in election campaigns to come.

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