Racism and Trump Voters: A Reassessment

by Neil H. Buchanan

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's shocking non-majority win in 2016, everyone was struggling for answers.  Why did it happen?  Why did no one see it coming?  Who is to blame?  Is everything different forevermore, or did Trump luck into something that he could not possibly long survive -- politically or legally?  What did all of this tell us about American voters?

My research assistant recently came across one of my articles from the first few weeks after Trump was declared the winner of that election, "Reaching the Reachable Trump Voters," and she offered a short, pointed response: "How things have changed since 2016!"  This suggested to me that it might be worthwhile to go back and look at what I wrote, to see whether my arguments still make sense to me in light of the evidence at the time as well as in light of the evidence of the past four-plus years.

Short answer: Yes, things have changed, but not in any way that was not already at least somewhat predictable back then.  In particular, what did we know about those "reachable" Trump voters, and what do we know now?

This question is especially interesting in light of recent polling research that was presented on the May 6 edition of Christiane Amanpour's PBS show.  Professor Richard A. Pape, who directs the University of Chicago's Project on Security and Threats, summarized research on the 420 people who by that point had been arrested for storming the Capitol on January 6 (out of the roughly 800 who participated in that act of insurrection).

Pape first emphasized that this research shows that the Trumpist fanatics absolutely did not fit the usual picture of domestic terrorists.  Only about ten percent, for example, were affiliated with paramilitary groups or gangs.  Similarly, the mob was not a spontaneous gathering of classic "young, disaffected lone wolf" young guys (the infamous Travis Bickel type from "Taxi Driver").  Most were older (over 34), married with children, and socially interconnected.  As Pape pointed out, we often try to defuse potential terrorists by increasing their social integration, to make them less likely to commit violence, but the Trump mob was filled with pillars of communities.

Similarly, the economic explanation for desperate actions is not supported by the evidence.  Only 7 percent were unemployed, which matches the national average in January.  Not only did they have jobs, but according to Pape, 45 percent of those arrested are CEO's, business owners, doctors, lawyers, and so on.  These are very much unlike the alienated "take this job and shove it" types who too often enter their current and former workplaces to wreak deadly havoc.
What did explain their actions?   Combining the interviewer's setup of that question with Pape's answer, we are told that "the primary driver that stands out across three separate studies, all of different methodologies ... is the fear of the great replacement," which "is the idea that the rights of Hispanics and Blacks -- that is, the rights of minorities -- are outpacing the rights of Whites."

Interestingly and crucially, Pape points out that over half of the mob were Trump fanatics who came from counties that Biden won.  Indeed, the more rural and more pro-Trump a county was, the less likely it was that a county would have seen one of its residents become a domestic terrorist.  "The number one risk factor" for counties that produced a January 6 arrestee "was percent decline of the non-Hispanic White population."

In short, the most radicalized Trumpists are the people who have seen their own communities become less like 1950's era "great" America, and they associate the increasing diversity of their communities with the idea that the rights of non-Whites are "outpacing" those of the established power structure.  That is, they see life very much as a zero-sum game among races.  It is apparently not possible, in their view, for minorities to be "leveled up" to Whites in a way that leaves no one worse off.  If minorities gain, then what matters for the insurrectionists is that, relatively speaking, Whites have lost ground.  Whites are, in short, being replaced -- even though the people who believe this are still successful professionals with apparently solid family and community lives. 
My December 2016 column, however, was about Trump voters, not insurrectionists (who had not yet revealed themselves).  What can we say about the almost 63 million people who voted for Trump in his first election, and the 74.2 million who voted for him last year; and how much can we generalize from an unhinged, violent group that is barely more than one two-hundred-thousandth the size of his voting bloc?
For one thing, we already knew that Trump's voters were overwhelmingly not the mythologized displaced blue-collar workers sitting in diners now being interviewed by confused news reporters from the coasts.  Trump's voters have always been older, more prosperous, White people.  They have, in other words, been Republicans -- Republicans who decided that they liked Trump's more openly bigoted message, compared to the dog-whistle stuff that they had grown up chafing under, even though he was supposedly not a Republican on issues like foreign trade.

In that regard, then, Pape's studies paint a picture of the most extreme Trumpists that is no different from what we already knew about his base, no matter what self-flagellating newspaper editors in Manhattan might think.  What is surprising is that the profile of the people who were willing to risk it all by committing violent felonies included people with so much to risk.
After all, even if the overall group is mostly comfortable, one would have thought that the people who would lose control and become violent would be those who were on the fringes.  I recall a lecture by a history professor some years ago, in which he was discussing revolutionary violence.  In a clipped English accent, he said something so obvious that it was profound: "People generally do not like to be shot at."  His point was that uprisings against governments are per se evidence that people have very good reasons to be willing to take a bullet.
It is true, of course, that many of the insurrectionists were seen to be genuinely confused that the police were stopping them.  They had apparently convinced themselves that they would be greeted as liberators, or something.  Even so, participants in that violent assault surely knew that they were putting themselves at some risk, and again, people with a lot to lose would seem to be unlikely to take such risks.  Not so with this group.

But the most interesting way to think about my late 2016 column concerns racism.  Back then, I tried mightily to allow for the possibility that Trump's voters -- people who had revealed their willingness to vote for a man who has always been flagrantly racist (and sexist) -- were possibly troubled by his racism but were willing to look past it for other reasons.  I wanted to believe that to be true.

One sentence in that column stands out: "I can say with absolute sincerity and conviction that I do not believe that the typical Trump voter is a bigot."  I vividly remember writing those words (which is somewhat surprising, because I often find myself having forgotten things that I wrote), and I recall that including it in the final version was at best a close call.  I certainly needed to qualify the sentence by adding the modifier "typical," because saying simply that "Trump voters are not bigots" would have been dangerously misleading -- and to some large extent quite wrong.

I then spent most of that column talking about economic displacement and supposed "liberal condescension" as possible non-racist explanations for becoming a Trump voter.  Even then, however, I argued that those explanations did not hold water.  And although I did not say it quite in this way, the analysis boiled down to saying that Trump's voters were either racists or dupes who fell for false economic promises from Republican elites (who are truly condescending to the non-rich).  I noted that I have never thought of them as dupes, but I pointed out that Trump and the Republicans certainly do.

When I claimed to be absolutely, sincerely convinced that the typical Trump voter was not a bigot, then, I was hardly saying that "reasonable people can differ when it comes to voting for President."  Trump was obviously a tragically terrible choice, as the past four-plus years have amply demonstrated.

But what about "the great replacement," the theory that Professor Pace offers as the most supportable theory to explain Trump's stormtroopers?  What about the tens of millions who did not try to stop Congress from certifying the results of a free and fair election?

One puzzle is that the Trumpiest areas have long been known to be the opposite of the areas in transition that Pace described.  Typical voters in rural Iowa, Ohio, Alabama, Utah, and so on have probably never lived near a non-White person, yet reports have shown that these White Trump voters are the ones who can easily be convinced that they are on the verge of being replaced.  The standard story is about fear of the unknown other, where lack of familiarity allows people to imagine the worst about Those People.

Pace's findings, however, instead suggest a "familiarity breeds contempt" model of racial interactions.  Whereas Republicans outside of major cities might be worried about Black people as some kind of looming threat, those in diverse metropolitan areas think they see the great replacement happening in the here and now.  The latter group, then, would be the most likely to feel the need to take extreme action.  This suggests that the much larger group of people who stayed home on January 6 were simply not yet scared enough to take up arms.

When I first watched the video from Charlottesville in 2017, with neo-Nazis chanting, "Jews will not replace us," my first thought somewhat surprised me: "They're still on about Jews?  I thought they had decided to focus on other people, like immigrants."  But I was wrongly focusing on the objects of hatred, not on the deep insecurity that seems to underlie all such hatreds.  I was not aware of the prevalence of the idea among surprisingly large numbers of White people that their racial identity is under threat.  I knew that such people existed, but I had no idea how widespread the idea was.

After four years of Trump failing to deliver on anything meaningful for his supposedly non-racist, economically insecure voters, one would have thought that they would have left him behind.  In the end, Trump's only claim to meaningful legislation was a billionaire-friendly tax bill that was straight out of Wall Street Republicans' oldest playbook.  He undermined his voters health care, made their workplaces less safe, and did nothing but increase their economic insecurity.

In late 2016, it was just barely possible to imagine a Trump voter saying, "I'm truly not a bigot, but I'm voting for this bigoted man for other reasons."   By 2020, and certainly in the months since that election, it has become much, much harder to imagine someone honestly saying that they support Trump for some non-racist reason -- especially since "cancel culture" and "owning the libs" are thinly veiled (at best) primal screams in response to greater diversity.  (The Dr. Seuss controversy was notably about a publisher choosing not to continue to publish books with racist content.)

So yes, a lot has changed since late 2016, especially when it comes to finding exculpatory and non-bigoted explanations for those who continue to support Trump.  Even so, I suspect that I will continue to try, because I retain a tiny bit of optimism in the midst of 2021's political despair.  Optimism, however, is still not a plan.