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Donald Trump and the politics of white insecurity

Wealthy TV star Donald Trump, who in recent years has been best known for saying, "You're fired!" to people who don't work for him, is not just running for the Republican nomination — he's leading the polls.

Worryingly, Trump seems to owe his success in large part to the political nativism he has embraced. In the speech he made to launch his campaign, he explicitly accused Mexican immigrants of being "rapists," and claimed they were the source of crime and disease in the US, saying, "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." This been a continuous theme of his campaign. On July 11, he held a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, which Slate referred to as the "single most anti-immigrant event of the year."

Those remarks have cost Trump his NBC reality show and a host of business deals, but they have not cost him his popularity. Of course, he is not speaking for a "silent majority," as he might claim. Polling data reliably shows that Americans of all races overwhelmingly support the DREAM Act and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. But Trump apparently does speak for someone; he is polling higher than any other Republican candidate.

Where does this support come from? Why are some Americans drawn to this rhetoric? Surely, I thought, there must be something more complex driving it than just simple racism.

To try to figure out what might be going on, I spoke to Tufts University political scientist Deborah Schildkraut, who studies immigration and national identity. She had some insightful things to say about where these attitudes come from and what they might mean. One thing she pointed out is that while it might on the surface seem odd for some white Americans to earnestly believe they are suffering for being white, such attitudes can be a common response in times of economic uncertainty.

"There’s something about bad economic situations that's leading people to feel like they’re under siege, and almost kind of cling to their group a little more, and feel like their group is threatened," she said. "Whiteness has come to matter more in how people understand their sense of self."

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.


Amanda Taub: Donald Trump is doing well in the polls. Is he tapping into a real sense that Americans have that immigration is a threat to them?

Deborah Schildkraut: There are two things going on here. First is the context of the current Republican primary field, and how that leads us to be talking so much about this. But second, there’s this bigger question about the connections between race and ethnicity and being American.

Part of this is just who Trump is: He’s one of the few people that most Americans had heard of before the Republican primary started. Name recognition matters, and he has it. So that’s going to amplify anything that he says.

And then how many people is it who are running [in the Republican primary] now? They’re all in the same party, and they all agree on so much that anything that distinguishes any of them from the others really further amplifies that message.

So the context in which we’re giving attention to Trump and his remarks has to be noted. I think that’s important to keep in mind when we’re seeing his poll numbers and saying, "Oh my god! Is everyone a racist?" It’s a lot more complex than that.

I think that if one of the other candidates was saying stuff like this it would be mentioned in the press, but it wouldn’t have gotten the attention it did from the late-night shows, and gotten all the attention on the morning shows. It wouldn’t have had the same kind of power if it had been, I don’t know, Ben Carson saying it. It would have gotten some attention, but then it would kind of fade. So part of it is because of who was saying it.

Amanda Taub: Okay, so what about the part that isn't just Trump getting attention for being Trump? Are there reasons this particular issue would resonate so strongly?

Deborah Schildkraut: There’s no simple way to characterize how white Americans feel about immigration and ethnic change. There just isn’t. It’s wrong to say that "they’re just nativists and racists," and it’s wrong to say "they’d be fine with diversity."

We know that if you ask people, "Should being white be an important factor in making someone a true American?" most people say "no."

But there’s a strain of research that shows that if you show [white] people headlines saying things like "Census shows America to become a majority-minority nation by 2043," people become more conservative. Not just on racial issues, but on non-racial issues as well. So even if they’re not aware that they feel a sense of anxiety about ethnic change, they do. We know this from experiments.

Merely talking about [this kind of demographic change] has that effect. And lately, we talk about it a lot! In fact, I was just writing up a paper this week, and as I was writing about it, there was a press release from the Pew Research Center that said the percentage of counties in the US that are majority nonwhite has shot up in the past 20 years. It seems like I come across these press releases and headlines all the time.

Amanda Taub: Do you think that's because people feel like that kind of change threatens them somehow?

Deborah Schildkraut: There's also research showing that over a several-decade period, whiteness has come to matter more in how people understand their sense of self.

The work that I am most familiar with is survey data. I’ve asked people on surveys [about identity], "How do you think of yourself most of the time?" A fair number of whites do think of themselves as "white" most of the time.

One of the big debates happening right now is what does that mean, exactly, if people say they think of themselves as white most of the time? Does it mean that they are acting in a more nativist way? Or is it simply a reflection of the fact that they are in a more diverse environment, and that it’s pretty normal when you’re not the majority in the room, to be more aware of that aspect of yourself?

Amanda Taub: How much does that shifting sense of identity correlate with people’s perceptions that the country isn’t going where they want it to in other ways, such as economically?

Deborah Schildkraut: I’m very interested in people’s perceptions of discrimination. Do people think that their group is discriminated against? And do they think that they personally have been victims of discrimination?

And for both whites and nonwhites, one of the things that predict whether they’re likely to feel discrimination is if they feel like the economy is doing poorly. That’s true even if you control for a bunch of things.

So there’s something about bad economic situations that's leading people to feel like they’re under siege, and almost kind of cling to their group a little more, and feel like their group is threatened.

I’ve seen this association show up with more than one data set, and across racial groups. So I think there’s something to this idea that a feeling of economic uncertainty, and people feeling like they’re being discriminated against — that these two things are linked.

Amanda Taub: Trump has also really focused on linking immigrants and crime, such as by saying that Mexicans are "rapists." Is there data showing a connection between people's worries about crime and their feelings about immigration?

Deborah Schildkraut: There’s [public opinion] research that shows that when people are forming their opinions about these things, they really mush together Latinos, immigrants, and illegal immigrants. That no matter how you phrase the question, they’re all jumbled together. In some of the statistical analyses of people's views on illegal immigrants and whether they predict other views, you get the same results if you plug in "Hispanics" or just "immigrants."

And for some people, the fact that [unauthorized immigrants] are in the country "illegally" and we use the term "illegal" implies that they’re criminals just by being here. Just their mere presence.

Amanda Taub: So is Trump right that he's speaking for a "silent majority"? Are these views really widely held?

Deborah Schildkraut: These views are far from majority views. Americans support the DREAM Act. They support giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

There are differences by party among whites. But the majority of whites, consistently, ever since the Bush administration, a majority supports them. So this is definitely one of those cases where you have to be careful to separate out "the majority" versus "the vocal."

It’s wrong to assume that most whites feel that way. It’s just not true.

Amanda Taub: Does this have the potential to fracture Republican politics, at least at the national level? If catering to these views appeals to a substantial minority within the party, but it puts them out of step with the country as a whole, that seems like it could be a substantial problem for national politics.

Deborah Schildkraut: This is a question that really fascinates me: How long can Republicans try to win elections by catering to whites in ways that alienate nonwhites?

And certainly at the congressional level it can probably be a winning strategy for a while, but at the presidential level? That’s, to me, the question.

But there was this meeting yesterday [between Trump and] Ted Cruz, and this argument that he wants to get Trump’s support if and when Trump's campaign ends. And so it does seem like some candidates think that this could at least be a route to getting a nomination, if not to winning the presidency.

At some point, this is not a message that can lead to Republicans being successful on a national level. And so how the party resolves that will be very interesting to watch.

Amanda Taub: Do you think that it's useful for the party to have someone like Trump who can take these extreme positions?

Deborah Schildkraut: In the sociology literature on social movements, there’s something called a "radical flank effect." That’s where you have one element of a social movement that’s really out there, and makes everything else seem actually much more acceptable — even though without that radical flank, everything else might seem a little more radical.

[Trump] is occupying that space. He might have already maxed out the support he’s able to get with that message. But there will be space for somebody to give a similar message, but [one] that’s not so extreme.