03/28/2016 12:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Trumpism: A Toxic Cocktail of White Racial Resentment, White Cultural Anxiety and White Despair


Why Trump? It is the question of this presidential cycle. A long, reported piece by Clare Malone at Five Thirty Eight set out to explore "what's happening in America" and why so many people are supporting Donald Trump. It's not about racial resentment -- at least that's what Trump supporters will tell you.

According to David Merritt, managing director of Frank Luntz's polling and messaging outfit Luntz Global, Trump voters "were actually surprised" by such a suggestion. "They said, 'Why would you think we're racist because we want to protect America? When Muslim terrorists want to come into America and blow up our buildings and kill us, why is keeping them out racist?'" Why, indeed.

It's easy enough to assert that white racism and white racial resentment stand at the core of Trumpism. It appeared obvious from the start, when Trump launched his campaign by painting Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. But is that assertion truly accurate? Now that we've got data on Trump supporters, the verdict is in.

The answer: Hell, yes.

American National Election Studies conducted a survey in late January. The Monkey Cage (hosted at the Washington Post) analyzed at the data. To summarize, among those white Republicans and "pure" independents surveyed, there was a clear correlation between a stated intention to vote for Trump and the following:

1) Placing a great deal of importance on having a white racial identity -- almost 60% of those who do so support Trump versus a bit over 20% of those who don't.

2) Believing that discrimination against whites is a widespread, serious problem -- 60% of those who believe this support Trump compared to barely 20% of those who don't.

3) Stating that "many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead" -- over 60% of those who say so support Trump versus only 10% of those who don't.

4) Calling for whites to work together to change laws that are unfair to whites -- again, over 60% who agree with such a call support Trump compared to just over 20% of those who don't.

If you're a rightward-leaning white American, whether or not you harbor racial resentment is a powerful predictor of whether you support Donald Trump. Or, to put it more simply, Trump attracts white racists.

The aforementioned article by Clare Malone cited another piece of data -- a poll of likely Republican voters done from December 13, 2015 through January 6, 2016, by the RAND Corporation. RAND reported that 60.1 percent of respondents who expressed strong agreement with the assessment that "immigrants threaten American customs and values" were supporting Trump, and also found that the stronger the agreement with that statement, the more likely one was to be a Trump supporter.

It is important to note that anxiety about America's cultural and national identity in and of itself does not mean one is likely to support Trump. For years, the College Board/National Journal Next America Poll has been asking respondents whether: "The growing number of newcomers from other countries are a threat to traditional American customs and values." In 2013, 25 percent of Asians agreed, as did 31 percent of Latinos. One in three black people agreed (interestingly, that number is down from 47 percent in 2012 and 62 percent in 2009; perhaps the shift has something to do with Republicans increasingly expressing anti-immigrant sentiments while also treating a black president they way they have). For whites, the number was 47 percent (45 percent of whites agreed in 2012, but 52 percent did so in 2009, so even there we see slight progress).

The point is that even though somewhere around 30 percent of non-whites feel this way, we can extrapolate that very, very few of them actually support Trump -- given that his support is overwhelmingly white, as are Republican primary voters in general.

We can add to this the real economic effects on the white middle and working classes in recent decades, during which most of the economic gains in this country have flowed to those at the very top. Were those beneficiaries white? Overwhelmingly so. But that fact does little for a laid-off white coal miner in Appalachia. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, significantly fewer white Democrats perceive the country's overall economic situation positively than do African American Democrats, and an NYT/CBS poll from last December likewise found significantly fewer white than black Democrats saying that their own family's economic situation had improved compared to two years earlier.

While these were polls of Democrats, it stands to reason that -- after accounting for income -- white Republicans would feel as bad or worse about the economy, given their feelings toward the sitting president. A September 2014 NYT/CBS poll, for example, found that 43 percent of Democrats felt the economy had improved in the previous year, compared to 20 percent of independents and 8 percent of Republicans.

In addition to economic statistics and the perceptions thereof, we see what's happening with white Americans in the increased death rates among middle-aged whites in recent years, in particular those toward the bottom of the economic ladder. The rising death rate is being caused disproportionately by suicide and substance abuse (i.e., both alcohol-induced liver disease and drug overdoses). Talk about increasing disillusionment among whites.

Trumpism draws on a toxic cocktail consisting of white racial resentment, white cultural anxiety, and just general white despair. He offers an antidote to all these with his talk of making America great again. He evokes a better time -- saying he can bring back American greatness but, using coded language, making clear he's also talking about, as Jamelle Bouie put it, "restor[ing] the racial hierarchy upended by Barack Obama."

There's a reason why white supremacist organizations and people expressing concern about "white genocide" are on board with Trump. Looking at Twitter, we can see strong social media connections -- flowing in both directions -- between the Trump campaign and promoters of the white genocide theme. This one retweet brings together the support of white genocide people for Trump and the white restoration Bouie was talking about in one perfect image.

Donald Trump is far from the first person to speak the language of white resentment and anxiety. The night Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, Bill O'Reilly declared:

Traditional America as we knew it is gone. Ward, June, Wally and the Beav, outta here. The white establishment is now the minority.

O'Reilly wasn't trying to reach all of us. If you had no idea who the people he mentioned are, then he probably wasn't trying to reach you. In a 2013 article for In These Times (later republished at Daily Kos), I defined "culturally anxious whites" as a group that "includes anyone who heard O'Reilly's statement and thought, at least to some degree, 'He's right, and that's a problem for us and for America.'"

In a nutshell, those are your Trump supporters. As a country, we ignore their resentment, anxiety, and despair at our own peril.