Why Trump Really Won: It’s Not Just Race, Gender and Class

Portside Date:
Author: Jonathan Michael Feldman
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It would be nice to think that Trump’s victory is simply about class revenge mixed with racist and patriarchal support systems.  Yet, our story begins in 1972 when a powerful anti-war movement propelled George McGovern into the Democratic presidential nomination.  At that point, a division of labor between the Democratic Party and a social movement created an organic Left basis for pushing that party to the Left.   McGovern’s anti-militarism was constrained by Cold War liberalism linking many politicians and trade unions to the permanent war economy.  His defeat led to the rise of the “super-delegates” and rules making it very hard for insurgent campaigns to ever gain control of the party again.  

The McGovern loss was followed with various realignments within the Democratic Party tied to the extension of the professional managerial class and gradual abandonment of working class issues.  These trends were first noted in the mid-1980s by Thomas Byrne Edsall in his book, The New Politics of Inequality.  A prescient text which foreshadowed similar latter treatments by William Greider (Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy  published in 1993), Chris Hedges (The Death of the Liberal Class, published in 2010), and most recently Thomas Frank (Listen Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People, published this year).

While the warning bells were sounded long ago, matched in part by various campaigns like those of Jessie Jackson, Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders, none of these campaigns garnered sufficient support from party elites or could make it past their organizational filtering systems. One reason is that the Democratic Party establishment is firmly aligned with business patronage, bourgeois feminism, what used to be called “the Black bourgeoisie,” and corporate environmentalism.  Three key systems accumulate and reproduce establishment power, creating obstacles for the Left opposition.

The first system consists of various Democratic Party politicians, and associated funders, who act as political entrepreneurs for identity politics, political fragmentation and the militarist “democracy promotion” business.  EMILY’s List which will even back female politicians tied to the war machine is a key network for this kind of activity as was Congressional Black Caucus PAC which picked Clinton over Sanders.  In contrast, grassroots women’s groups like Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) backs a comprehensive anti-militarist agenda.

The second system consists of a series of non-profit organizations like NOW, corporate-sponsored environmental groups and various non-profit organizations which cut deals with members of Congress and foundations to reproduce a certain brand of highly atomized, piecemeal politics.  In some cases, there is turnover between the non-profits and the government, resembling the iron triangle relations linking military firms, the Pentagon and Congress.  For example, when labor unions cooperate with environmental groups sometimes the latter become the voice of corporate rationality in addressing climate change.  One pattern is that a staffer works for a Congressperson financed by various corporate interests.  The staffer trades in their network ties to (or former work with) the Congressperson to gain employment at the non-profit.  When speaking for the “environmentalist” interest, the staffer actually helps reproduce the corporate interest.  When NOW endorsed Hillary Clinton, they did not simply endorse a woman, but also a leader of the military industrial complex.

The third system is ideological and even infects various parts of the Left. We can see this in how organizing ideas based on class and economic realities became subverted by newer approaches simply tied to identity. The Neoliberals have used gender, race, and identity politics as vehicles to legitimating their militarist and neoliberal policies.  Fragmentation is Neoliberalism’s glue.  The price of voting against the sexism and racism of Trump and his equivalents has been an endorsement of the Neoliberal, militarist agenda.  Sanders was able to abandon the worst elements of identity politics without Trump’s baggage, and thus was demonized by the Clinton Neoliberals. A similar fate met his predecessors.  Even Trump’s critiques of bankers and elites (in his effective closing advertisement) was recoded as the reincarnation of anti-Semitic tropes, i.e. the Neoliberals will use accusations of anti-Semitism as a way to black list deconstructions of class and elites.

Basically a segment of the Left, centered in the academy and think tanks, has been coopted by the Neoliberals and constrains Left movements as Vivek Chibber, Adolph Reed and others have argued.  The recent presidential campaign illustrates how this works.  The dominant paradigm among various segments of the journalistic and academic elite was that Donald Trump (like many Brexit voters) represented xenophobic right-wing nationalism, with support linked to racism and a white identity crisis.  In contrast, Hillary Clinton was cast as someone who both embraced and benefited from diversity and cosmopolitan virtues.  Clinton rhetorically aligned herself with what was cast as the generally progressive direction of the Obama Administration.    

I will now scrutinize two examples of this kind of superficial identity framing promulgated by academics and journalists.  One is an interview which Judith Butler recently conducted with Zeit on line on October 28th.  The other is an article by Amada Taub, “Behind 2016’s Turmoil, a Crisis of White Identity,” published in The New York Times on November 1.  Both interventions displace economic factors and a sin of omission related to how such factors inflate the far-right.

Taub explains that Brexit and Trump’s nomination, together with right-wing nationalism in Norway, Hungary, Austria and Greece are byproducts of “white anxiety.”   The white majority has often conflated “national and racial identity,” and now white people feel that their identity is under threat.  Working class whites not only “enjoyed the privileged status based on race,” but also “the fruits of broad economic growth.”  As Western manufacturing and industry decline, however, this limits opportunities for new generations in communities affected by this decline.  For Taub, the problem is that deindustrialization “creates an identity vacuum to be filled.”

Judith Butler, a leading philosopher, echoed these each sentiments. In an interview with Zeit on line this October, she explained: “I think that there are forms of right-wing populism that we are seeing now that object to laws that were securing equality between men and women, laws against racism, laws that permit migration and even affirm an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous population.” The goal of “reactionary populists” is “to restore an earlier state of society, driven by nostalgia or a perceived loss of privilege.” The right populists “want to take down state power for the loss of their former world.”  Taking a page from Hannah Arendt, Butler deconstructed the nation: “As long as one functions within the notion of the nation-state, one is basically asking for a specific nationality to represent the state and for the state to represent that nationality.” Butler’s solution is pluralism as well as racial and ethnic heterogeneity.

Yet, are diversity and plurality sufficient? In the essay “Reflections on Little Rock,” Arendt wrote that equality could not “equalize natural, physical characteristics.”  To the extent that equality is even reached, it may trigger resentment based on difference: “the more equal people have become in every respect, and the more equality permeates the whole texture of society, the more will differences be resented, the more conspicuous will those become who are visibly and by nature unlike the others.” Butler says some right-wingers feel “excluded” as when “their privilege has been lost,” with privilege tied to “their white presumption.”  These losses refer to “a former world in which white privilege could be assumed.” This privilege, I assume refers to a hierarchy which whites had over others, an ability to exclude.   Butler admonishes such people who are losing privilege that “it is their job to adjust, to accept their loss and to embrace a larger, more democratic and heterogeneous world.”  In fact, Arendt wrote that “it is therefore quite possible that the achievement of social, economic and educational equality” for African Americans “may sharpen the color problem in this country instead of assuaging it.

The problem is not that the journalists and academics can’t see economic (and potentially class) factors at work behind the rise of the far right and Donald Trump.  Rather, they go out of their way to downplay them.  Moreover, they prefer intellectual dualisms in which persons aligning themselves with racist politicians can only be defined in this way.  So, when it comes to gender, race and (sometimes) class, intersectionality reigns.  But, the racist dimension of the far-right is often taken to be the most significant—if not the only significant—factor.  Nevertheless, even racists can have class interests (as can Trump voters more generally).

Yet, while whites may resent Obama’s status as president or Brexit voters dislike mass immigration, the current story is not simply one of race, but also one of class and economics.  Furthermore, Obama’s presidency has been associated with stagnating or worsening conditions for African Americans.  Reflecting on race relations in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, Arendt wrote, while the “difference between North and South,” was “still marked,” it was “bound to disappear with the growing industrialization of Southern states,” even if African Americans stood out in North and South “because of their ‘visibility.’”   

Given the potential ameliorating effects of industrialization in the South which Arendt addressed, what do we make of the current wave of deindustrialization in this region?  Trump won all five core states in the deep South during the Republican primaries: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.  The percentage decline of manufacturing jobs lost in each of these states during the WTO-NAFTA period (1994-2015) ranged from a low of 19.7% in Louisiana to a high of 40.7% in Louisiana.  Trump beat Clinton in all of these states.


In the North, we see similarities.  Let us explore the differences in electoral outcomes among ten key states in the industrial belt stretching from Minnesota down to Iowa in the West and into New York and Pennsylvania in the East.  Trump lost only four of these states: Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.  Generally speaking, aside from Ohio which was won by native son John Kasich, Trump won six out of the seven states in this group experiencing the greatest loss in manufacturing jobs during the NAFTA-WTO period (1994-2015). Here are the percentage losses in manufacturing jobs in the states Trump lost: Ohio (-30.3 percent), Wisconsin (-11.6 percent), Minnesota (-10.6 percent), and Iowa (-3 percent).  In contrast the manufacturing job losses in the states Trump won were on average far greater:  in New York (-45.4 percent), Pennsylvania (45.4 percent), Illinois (-32.8 percent), Missouri (-27.5 percent), Michigan (-26.3 percent), and Indiana (-16.2 percent). Against Clinton, Trump won Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Indiana.  By losing New York, he lost to Clinton’s home state.


Taub and Butler both emphasize the psychological reaction to economic trauma in explaining the far-right’s rise and also tend to demonize Trump and far-right voters by failing to appreciate the potential economic motivations leading to their support.  This move, centered on a kind of post-modern reading of the far-right, is problematic for several reasons.  


First, accepting pluralism will hardly solve the far-right’s rise when pluralism is limited by a politics of scarcity, i.e. as economic conditions worsen, ethnic minorities, immigrants and non-whites will be scapegoated.  While diversity policies may limit racism, in and of themselves they are unlikely to be effective in an era when economic conditions deteriorate.  Many whites have lost more than their ability to exclude non-whites.  This March Noah Smith wrote an essay explaining that  “Trump has a Point About American Decline,” in Bloomberg News.  Noah wrote: “the economic well-being of the average American – defined as median household income – has fallen since the turn of the century.”  I don’t think diversity and multiculturalism are sufficient to trump Trump’s appeal with many of his supporters to “Make America Great Again!”


Second, there is a materialist basis of support for racism that can’t be reduced to racism per se.  Butler builds a lot of her arguments about white and far-right identity trauma on references to Hannah Arendt.  Yet, Arendt argued that victimhood had some basis in larger material realities.  In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt wrote: “Totalitarian politics—far from being simply antisemitic or racist or imperialist or communist—use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value—the reality of class struggle, for instance, or the interest conflicts between Jews and their neighbors—have all but disappeared.”  Just as Jacques Ellul argued in his classic study, Propaganda, ideology is based on a combination of truth and lies.  Simply deconstructing the lies and ignoring the truths cannot explain the far-right’s power.

Third, Butler tends to use the discursive, ideological and psychological factors behind racism to displace the materialist factors.  Butler does acknowledge that some right-wing persons blame “the migrants for taking their position,” but they fail to identity the roots of their problems in “an expanding precarity that cuts across economic class, though the very rich continue to profit.”  Correctly, she argues that migrants become scapegoats as some right-wingers fail to analyze the “fiscal and financial policies” which jeopardize many persons.  Yet, she also is quick to devalue any class explanation.  She says persons laying “claim to white privilege…may claim that they are ‘excluded’ by migrants, but they actually worry about losing their privilege.”  Yet, if whites worry about losing their jobs or their security, calling a job or such security a privilege would be patently absurd.  My point is not to give a pass to racists and national security paranoids, but rather examine how racist politics overlaps with class politics and economic factors. Economic decline promotes security paranoia as well. Moreover, we might focus on how class and economics each propel what is nominally coded as racist.  If the two intermingle, then someone who is a racist might act out of the subjective reflection of their changed economic status, not simply out of their lost “race” privileges.

Fourth, the displacement of the material and objectification of the far-right other is a way for academics and journalists to valorize their own professional interests. By casting the subjective reaction to objective material developments as their primary focus, Taub and Butler repeat a practice common to the human relations school of management, i.e. psychological reactions to industrial life (rather than changes in industrial realities) are of pre-eminent importance.  In 1947, in an essay for Commentary, Daniel Bell offered a critique of this school of thinking, explaining that industrial psychologists (rooted in universities) were useful for industries’ seeking compliance.  Today, many industrial workers conflicted about globalization’s impact on their communities are “acting out,” voting for Trump and Brexit, as a way to make the system pay.  Yet, their reactions are reduced to psychic phenomena or the politics of these psychic reactions.  Why?  In Bell’s era psychologizing workers’ attitudes best suited academics’ “professional interests.”  As he explained, such persons “the professors in general have an ideology geared to the need.” As academic scientists, “they are concerned with ‘what is’ and are not inclined to involve themselves in questions of moral values or larger social issues.”

Finally, the demonization of Trump voters and the far-right amounted to a kind of problematic application of the idea of “collective responsibility.”  An essay by Arendt on that topic declared, given what Hitler’s regime did to the Jews, “the cry ‘We are all guilty’” first sounded “very noble and tempting” but “has actually only served to exculpate to a considerable degree those who actually were guilty.”  Thus, “where all are guilty, nobody is.”  While Trump and far-right voters are responsible for helping elect those whom they support, it is reasonable to explore the institutional roots of racism in deindustrialization, globalization and a faulty educational system.  Castigating right-wing voters while glossing over institutional failures will prove fruitless in the long-run, particularly if far-right candidates win (as almost happened in Austria with the narrow defeat of Norbert Hoffer, candidate for the Freedom Party).  

Some might object that Taub and Butler correctly offer a moral critique of the racism of white identity politics, yet the “what is” they take for granted is the current regime of deindustrialization and globalization.   Neither explains when discussing Trump’s rise how to alter deindustrialization.  Instead, both offer explanations that prioritize the non-economic explanations or delink economic explanations from right-wing politics.  In contrast, a reconstructive politics would link opposition to the far-right to a nationally embedded Green New Deal, sustainable reindustrialization, new budget priorities to cut military expenditures and fund job creation and integration, and the development of economic democracy.  This agenda of economic reconstruction (tied to Left Nationalism) and creation of new materialist possibilities stands in direct opposition to post-modern deconstructions of psychologies or the assumption that deflated white privileges automatically translates into citizen “privileges” tied to employment, security or even sustainability.    

In the early 1980s books on reconstructive alternative emerged by leading Left intellectuals concerned with industrial policy, manufacturing and progressive alternatives.  Among these books were Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of the America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (1982), Seymour Melman’s Profit without Production (1983), and Robert Reich’s The Next American Frontier (1983).  These books found some support among populists like Fred Harris who ran for president in 1972 and 1976 (the first campaign supported “economic democracy”).  Such alternative ideas, readily available to Democrats and the Left, lost favor to identity politics and piecemeal reformism. Now that politics is in crisis. Trump won 67 percent of whites without a college degree, 42 percent of the women’s vote and even 29 percent of the Latino vote.  Alternative political organizing strategies are needed for the Left to advance beyond the false choice of Right Cosmopolitanism and Right Nationalism.

[Jonathan Feldman is Associate Professor at the Department of Economic History at Stockholm University.  He can be reached on twitter @globalteachin.  This essay builds in part on discussions with Mark Luccarelli, Steven Colatrella, John Rynn and Brian D’Agostino. Thank you to the author for submitting this to Portside.]

Source URL: https://portside.org/2016-11-23/why-trump-really-won-its-not-just-race-gender-and-class