I could guess why she was glaring at us. Sitting in the Nationals Park bleachers on a humid July evening, we had spent the first two innings talking politics, the conversation inevitably veering towards Donald Trump. My friend wondered if Trump’s campaign persona was a facade that might fall away upon election. I didn’t think so, and rattled off the list of adjectives that Trump seems to have monopolized over the past months: narcissistic, thin-skinned, cruel, racist, sexist, greedy, dishonest, amoral. I finished my list, and the conversation continued. But I noticed that the woman sitting in front of me had turned around and was staring at us, her lips drawn into a scowl. After five long seconds, she turned back to the game.
I understood why, but didn’t think much of it. My friend and I continued to argue, always returning to Trump — how he’d pulled it off, his chances of winning in November — and although I don’t remember exactly what we said, I’m sure our disdain was obvious. I do remember, though, the woman shooting us another glare. And I remember her husband, who had joined his wife in the third inning, turning around in the fourth to angrily inform us that he was trying to watch a goddamn baseball game and we should stop talking so goddamn much.
I was a little stunned. We quieted down for a while, not feeling that we’d done anything wrong but taken aback at his anger. My friend asked me if you were supposed to be quiet in the bleachers at a baseball game; based on my experience at Red Sox-Yankees games, I assured him that you weren’t. We resumed talking, and a little while later I heard the man, who had moved a few seats farther away, loudly and pointedly complain to his wife: “I don’t know what to do, I already told them to shut the fuck up.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I jumped in, an edge to my voice. “We’re just talking.”
“I’ll buy you a beer if you just shut the fuck up for five minutes,” he shot back. “Five minutes.” His eyes were wide, his voice almost desperate.
“We’re trying to watch a baseball game,” his wife snapped. “You’ve been talking since the beginning.”
“We’re friends. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“Well, we’re not the only ones who you’re bothering.”
I looked around. The man behind us smiled and volunteered that he didn’t mind our chatter.
“You know what, we’ll move,” I told the woman. “Enjoy the game.”
“Good,” their twentysomething daughter joined in.
We stood up and walked down the row. The episode was over, the moral high ground ours. As I looked back down the row, I saw the man, still standing after our confrontation, remove his Nationals cap from his shaved head and start whipping his seat with it, screaming, “Fuck! FUCK!”
* * *
Of course, the family in front of us didn’t actually care that we were talking. They cared what we were saying. They were, I assume, Trump supporters; we were bratty Ivy League kids, breezily heaping scorn and condescension on the man who they thought spoke for them. And while I might raise an eyebrow at someone bashing Obama in the row behind me at a baseball game, the anger directed at us caught me off guard. The man, especially, took our talk as a personal affront. A few snobby elites had insulted his candidate, ignored him and his wife, batted away his anger when it boiled over, won the support of people around him, and walked away. He had just wanted to watch a baseball game; we had violated his space with impunity, and now he was the one made to look foolish. We were in the right, but his reaction was uncomfortable to watch. His curses were those of someone who felt diminished, frustrated and angry.
Donald Trump trafficks in just these sentiments. To hear him say it, the United States is under siege, humiliated from without and undermined from within. His convention speech was a sinister prophecy of disintegration at the hands of illegal immigrants, Islamic terrorists, incompetent trade negotiators, cop killers, and, most of all, craven politicians who have failed to even recognize our problems. Trump uses such threats, and politicians’ supposed complicity in them, to legitimize people’s darker, more volatile sentiments. He exaggerates the problems, points to the culprits, and offers himself, and his wall, and his ban, as easy solutions. In doing so, he makes people feel big again. Trump’s campaign aimed at people who usually didn’t vote. More than any other candidate’s, his primary supporters tended to believe that people like themselves had no voice in government. Trump’s votes came from the politically vulnerable, from people whose resentment and anger had not, until now, found a suitable voice. Evidently, there are many such people.
And yet, by most standards, the United States is doing well. Unemployment has returned to pre-recession levels, and the economy continues to add jobs. Crime has risen slightly this year, but had fallen for the first seven years of Obama’s presidency, and is at historically low levels around the country. The Middle East is a mess, and lone-wolf terror attacks present an unfamiliar, unnerving threat, but the United States has largely extricated itself from decade-long bloodbaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while things certainly feel unstable right now, much of that is Trump’s own doing. So what accounts for the emotional darkness feeding his campaign? Why was the man in front of me at the Nationals game so quick to anger, and so distraught when the argument was over? Why did I present such a threat to him?
That puzzle, I think, relates to another one. In 2015, a paper by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton revealed that the all-cause mortality rate for middle-aged American whites had risen significantly over the first decade of the 21st century. After some debate over the paper’s statistical methods, Case and Deaton’s initial estimate of the mortality-rate increase was revised downwards, but their result stood: Alone among other demographic groups in the developed world, middle-aged American whites were dying faster than they used to. The increase was concentrated almost entirely among those with a high school degree or less, and the principal causes were drugs, liquor, and suicide. While more-educated whites saw their death rates hold steady or decline, they too saw more deaths from these causes. Middle-aged whites also reported increases in pain, depression, poor health, and inability to work. The study was a haunting snapshot of working-class despair. “Seldom have I felt as affected by a paper,” Ronald E. Lee, an economist, told the New York Times. “It seems so sad.”
Case and Deaton’s result might have been expected in the the Soviet Union, but in twenty-first century America it came as something of a shock, and pundits quickly began pondering its meaning. The findings were, as the New York Times’ Ross Douthat put it, an ideological Rorschach test. Conservatives saw the rising death rate as the inevitable result of eroded social norms combined with welfare-state dependency; liberals blamed laissez-faire economics and a frayed safety net. Douthat, a conservative, sided mostly with the liberals: European countries, he noted, had seen no comparable death-rate increase, despite more permissive cultures and more indulgent welfare states.
Yet the liberal explanation was also incomplete, Douthat argued, because blacks and Hispanics, facing worse economic conditions than whites, had seen their mortality rates decrease. There was another factor in play. White society had long been structured according to a “bourgeois moral logic” that promised economic prosperity to those who maintained a stable, churchgoing family. But with the decline of religion among whites and the fraying of white family structure, that avenue was no longer open; the promise no longer made sense. The result, Douthat concluded, was a sense of dispossession and broken promises: “a feeling that what you were supposed to have has been denied to you.”A recent Pew poll corroborates this point: it shows whites to be far more pessimistic about their economic futures than blacks or Hispanics. But Douthat took the problem to be existential rather than simply economic. Struggling whites felt lost and abandoned.
Briefly, Douthat suggests a connection between two unsettling dots: Case and Deaton’s paper, and Donald Trump’s rise. Trump feeds on dispossession. He promises to bring back things that have been taken: jobs, law and order, American greatness. And Douthat implies that whites are voting for Donald Trump as a remedy to the ailments that are sending their death rates up. Noam Chomsky, among others, has suggested the same. It’s a dark line to draw, but a tempting one. When one remembers that Trump draws support from people who rarely vote and believe they have little say, it makes sense that he enjoys unusually strong support in regions hard-hit by the pain, loss and sense of abandonment that Case and Deaton describe.
One connection between Case and Deaton’s result and Trump’s ascendance seems especially salient: both are almost entirely white phenomena. Trump has maligned Latinos and Muslims, and famously drew 0 percent support from black voters in one poll of Ohio and Pennsylvania voters. Among whites, though, he leads by roughly 20 percent. Why do whites buy into Trump’s dark message? Likewise, the question raised by Case and Deaton’s paper is: Why are only whites dying faster?
Perhaps the answer to both questions is the same.
Since its founding, America has been a white, Christian country. This is less a demographic truth than a political one, about which group’s story has become the fictive story of the enduring, progressing polity called America. The story our politicians, our historians, and we ourselves have long told about who we are — a common phrase this election — is a political history told from the perspective of America’s white Christian polity. And that political truth was propped up by a demographic truth: for most of our history, the white, Christian story was the one most Americans wanted to hear.
That’s changing. The American electorate has gone from roughly 10 percent nonwhite in 1980 to roughly 30 percent this year. Before Barack Obama won two terms while losing white voters by 12 percent and 20 percent, respectively, no American president had ever lost whites by more than four percent. But it would be a mistake to only view these numbers through the lens of electoral politics. Demographic shifts have changed the face of our country and challenged the vitality of the old story we used to tell about ourselves by making it possible to win politically while telling a different story. Perhaps starting with Obama’s 2004 speech at the DNC, the Democratic Party has taken up that new story: a story not of morally unblemished white Christians living together in a “city upon a hill,” but of a multicolored multitude bound by shared principle. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias recalls:
“It was nominally a speech about national unity between the red states and the blue states, but in reality the very pluralism and ecumenism of Obama’s vision of America was itself a partisan statement. For the red/blue divide posits a false symmetry. There isn’t — and wasn’t — a single, unitary Blue America facing off against the Red Team, with red and blue together reflecting diversity. Instead, diversity and pluralism is the signal quality of the blue vision of America — it’s the place where you find the Muslims and the Jews and the atheists, the immigrants and the descendants of slaves.”
One need only read the Republican National Committee’s so-called “Autopsy Report,” drafted after the 2012 election, to see that Yglesias is right. By their own admission, Republicans lost in 2012 because they failed to appeal to non-white voters, especially Hispanics. Obama lost whites by 20 percent that year and still kept the White House. And he has remained true to his pluralistic, inclusive story of America right up until the end. In his speech to the DNC this year, Obama referred to “Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves.” By drawing a line between black slaves and the White House, Obama made it clear: they, and their descendants, were American too, and always had been. Our history, our inheritance, was that of oppressor and oppressed, founders and immigrants, ingroups and outgroups. Obama has broadened the American circle not only to African-Americans, but to everyone whose story isn’t the triumphant story of white Christian America.
In this light, conservatives’ touchy responses to a line in Michelle Obama’s celebrated DNC speech — “I wake up every day in a house built by slaves” — makes sense. Rush Limbaugh moaned that the Obamas “can’t stop talking about slavery.” Bill O’Reilly asserted that the slaves who built the White House were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” Why pick a fight on a statement of pure fact? Because the Republican story of America, which was until recently the American story of America, skips over the dark (and dark-skinned) parts of our history. Those dark facts aren’t part of the story that white America wants to hear, so O’Reilly denies their darkness and Limbaugh tries to change the subject. In doing so, they tell the descendants of slaves: That might be your history, but it’s not American history.
This will not be a tenable position for long. “Americanness and whiteness are fitfully, achingly, but finally becoming delinked,” Eric Liu writes in the Atlantic. “[A]nd like it or not, over the course of this generation, Americans are all going to have to learn a new way to be American… What is the story of ‘us’ when ‘us’ is no longer by default ‘white’?”
That’s the question that Donald Trump’s supporters don’t want to answer. Ethnic anxiety is the organizing principle of Trump’s candidacy, the sentiment common to all his rants and insults and proposals. It unites his supporters, from working-class, Rust Belt whites with legitimate economic grievances to college-educated Floridians living in gated communities. It’s not just about the way people look: it’s about the way people look, and speak, and think, and pray. America has always been a white, Christian country, and white Christians have always equated their way of life with the American way of life. But now white Christians feel that their country is being taken away from them. Trump’s campaign has succeeded by telling them that they’re right. But they’re wrong to believe Trump’s central claim: that he can get their country back.
Trump’s flirtation with birtherism was a trial balloon. But even if he now cloaks his racism in half-baked policy proposals, the sentiment persists. Trump blurs the boundary between immigration and national security, creating the sense that an amorphous, dark-skinned threat has arrived at our gates. His promise to “Make America Great Again” appeals to people who unconsciously equate “America” with “White America,” and when he barks that slogan, his supporters hear, Make America America again. His anti-elitism appeals to people who feel that the political class, having surrendered to “political correctness,” are complicit in selling out the country. His campaign has cultivated an aura of violence by telling white Christians that their very way of life is under siege — that their right to be who they are, the hallmark issue of identity politics, is at stake in this election. One of Trump’s most striking departures from Republican orthodoxy, his olive branch to the gay community, can be understood in this light: “As your President,” he told the RNC, “I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” Gay people are welcome in our camp, Trump suggested, as long as they join us in the fight against dark-skinned foreigners from alien cultures — who, by the way, Obama might be in league with.
This explains why the political turmoil surrounding the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and the massacre of police officers in Dallas fit so neatly within the larger campaign. Prior to that awful week, crime had not been one of Trump’s hallmark issues: anti-black racism is far more taboo in American politics than Islamophobia or racism against hispanics. But Dallas gave Trump political cover to take aim at Black Lives Matter, just the sort of assertive minority movement his candidacy arose to resist, and suddenly he had a new item on his political agenda: law and order, a phrase he repeated time and again during his convention speech.
By disguising ethnic anxiety as legitimate policy — national security, immigration, crime — Trump coaxes the worst out of people who might otherwise muzzle their discomfort with Obama’s multicultural America. But while most of Trump’s supporters need a dog whistle, his instant and overwhelming popularity among white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other unrepentant white supremacists betrays the underlying premise of his candidacy. White nationalists and their ilk grasp the demographic facts upon which Obama has built his political coalition. They understand that “Americanness and whiteness are fitfully, achingly, but finally becoming delinked,” and they have responded not by opening their minds but by switching their allegiance from white, Christian America, to white people.
When such groups embrace Trump, he vaguely “disavows” their endorsements, while making sure not to actually insult them. As William Johnson, a white nationalist whose American Freedom Party made robocalls for Trump in Iowa, told the New York Times: “He disavowed us. But he explained why there is so much anger in America… I couldn’t have asked for a better approach from him.”
Of course, economics are inseparable from the Trump’s rise. But economic conditions only provide fertile soil from which a movement bound by white unease can grow. As mentioned, Trump enjoys immense support in depressed white regions hit hard by deindustrialization. The anger in those communities is understandable: the Left can win without their support, and the Right has only paid them lip-service while pursuing the Chamber of Commerce’s agenda. But Trump’s popularity can’t be explained in economic terms alone. For starters — why is this happening now? Why not in 2012, when the economy was worse? Why not after the allegedly disastrous NAFTA deal in 1994?
Economics also can’t account for the particular character of Trump’s candidacy. The economy simply isn’t bad enough to explain the anger and violence he has summoned. Plenty of politicians have ridden economic anxiety to success without descending into racist demagoguery; Jeb Bush made the economy the focus of his campaign and went nowhere. So why is Trump’s furious rhetoric so attractive? He taps into ethnic anxiety to channel and inflame economic discontentment: not only did you lose your job, but now a Mexican has it. That sentiment can account for Trump’s popularity among reasonably well-off whites, too. After all, according to FiveThirtyEight, his voters’ median income was higher than the American average, and higher than the median income of many of his primary opponents’ supporters.
The confluence of race and economics brings us back to Case and Deaton. Recall that increases in the death rate were concentrated almost entirely among whites without a college degree — a demographic among whom Trump leads by a whopping 40%. The postindustrial economy hasn’t been kind to that demographic, but again, that’s been true for a long time. Why has that dispossession only boiled over now? And why has it taken this specific form? Because we’ve had a black president for eight years—the ultimate insult to whites who could tolerate economic deprivation and political neglect as long as they were allowed to feel superior to blacks. This was the political logic of segregation, as Martin Luther King, Jr. explained. The New Yorker’s Hua Hsu puts it well: American voters “are willing to acquiesce in a busted political system as long as it produces leaders who appear to be ‘no different from the rest of us.’” But when people find themselves governed by someone of a race they used to dominate, once-tolerable deprivation and neglect suddenly become grievous insults.
The mortality increase Case and Deaton observed, it should be said, took place between 1999-2005, long before Obama’s presidency. But Obama didn’t inaugurate the multicultural shift in American identity: he consummated it. White Christians have been losing their grip on American political and cultural life for a long time, depriving whites of the comfort that comes with belonging the governing race. When poor whites lose that comfort, the result might be the despair and hopelessness that Douthat describes. And the proximal causes he notes—declining church attendance among whites, the dissolution of the white family—might be expected in a country whose identity no longer exclusively reflects and reinforces white Christian values and mores.
While Case and Deaton looked only at data from 1999-2013, the current opioid epidemic suggests that the sentiments they unearthed have not dissipated. It’s worth noting that, between suicide, liver disease, and poisonings — together responsible for the mortality increase — poisonings increased the most significantly between 2010, overtaking the other two in deaths per 100,000 people. That trend seems to have continued. And while the data aren’t broken down by race, 2015 statistics show that the United States’ overall mortality rate increased last year. The increase was driven in part by suicide and drug overdoses.
* * *
Calling Trump’s candidacy an expression of ethnic anxiety isn’t the same as calling all his supporters bigots (though some, even many, certainly are). Trump’s supporters aren’t all like William Johnson, who explicitly calls for white dominance of the United States. Any of a number of grievances might drive someone into Trump’s arms: material deprivation, anger at a dysfunctional government, fears of terrorism. But most Trump supporters probably share, in a less articulated form, Johnson’s desire for a country that looks more like them. Trump disguises his racial appeals as legitimate policy because most of his supporters aren’t as honest as Johnson, with themselves or others, about the tribal instincts driving them. But people tuned to the right frequency know exactly what message Trump is sending. “Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters,” wrote James Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, after Trump retweeted and then deleted messages from multiple white-supremacist Twitter accounts in January.
Ethnic anxiety infects and exacerbates Trump supporters’ other grievances, and this volatile mix accounts for the tone of Trump’s campaign. Economic opportunities disappear, many believe, because lazy minorities get preferential treatment. Terrorists threaten us because Obama won’t admit that Islam itself is the problem. Crime is up because of barbaric illegal immigrants. Trump weaves all these strands together into a narrative of American decline, and he can do so because his supporters, whatever their most pressing individual concerns, largely share the feeling that their country is being taken away.
But satisfied countries don’t fracture along ethnic lines. Ross Douthat was right to point out that the white mortality increase probably wouldn’t be happening if people without college degrees had better job prospects. The passing of white Christian America is a trauma because, thanks to our fondness for hands-off economic policy, middle-class white Christians had little else to hold on to. Rising inequality, stagnant wages, shrinking socioeconomic mobility: all these problems provide fertile soil for someone like Trump. But that doesn’t change the fact that Trump’s campaign is a rebellion against Obama’s multiculturalism. Fertile economic soil allowed ethnic anxiety to take root. It’s a revolution of rising expectations: when struggling white Christians start to believe that their country is being taken away from them, they have an explanation for why their situation is what it is, and they begin to think that it could be otherwise.
As indeed it could. Prior to this election, as Obama’s 2008 “guns and religion” comment and decades of Republican economic policy testify, neither major party cared much for the interests of whites without college degrees. That’s changed, as both parties’ instant (and hopefully short-lived) flip on trade shows. But Trump is not the man to improve the lot of the white working class. Trump’s candidacy is flailing white backlash, and the man himself is a moral vacuum who would do little if anything to materially improve his supporters’ lives. Whatever their legitimate grievances, his supporters are participating in a movement built on ethnic intolerance, intolerance antithetical to the American way of life. To some of Trump’s defenders, his critics are elitists who don’t understand his supporters’ struggles. But the real elitism would lie in holding the less educated to a lower moral standard.