Over the weekend, Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin in the New York Times published a 2,000-word account of how Donald Trump managed to execute "a hostile takeover of one of America’s two major political parties." Remarkably, the idea of racism never appears in the article.
Race is alluded to at one point in the article, but it's kind of backdoor and offered essentially as a form of false consciousness argument attributed to Robert Putnam. Closer to the top, the authors observe that "Trump is an unlikely spokesman for the grievances of financially struggling, alienated Americans: a high-living Manhattan billionaire who erects skyscrapers for the wealthy and can easily get politicians on the phone."
What they don't consider is that one reason Trump is an unlikely spokesman for the grievances of the financially struggling is that he isn't a spokesman for the grievances of the financially struggling. Some of his supporters are poor, of course, but they mostly aren't. And most economically struggling Americans aren't supporting him. To understand the patterns of support and opposition to Trump, you have to talk about race.
Trump supporters are pretty rich
As best we can tell from the data available in exit polls, the median household income of a Trump supporter is about $72,000 a year. It's true that this makes Trump voters more downscale than John Kasich voters ($91,000 a year) but it's essentially equal to the median household income of Ted Cruz voters ($73,000 a year) and well above the $61,000-a-year median household income of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters.
Note that the median household income in the United States is only $52,000 a year and most people don't vote in primaries, so all of the major 2016 candidates turn out to have supporters who are more affluent than the typical American. Trump, in particular, built his big primary wins on the backs of people who are economically comfortable. There is no country on Earth where the median household income is higher than the median household income of a Donald Trump primary voter, and there never has been throughout world history.
Trump performed well in affluent regions
Trump leaped out to a big delegate lead by winning a series of mostly poor Southern states on Super Tuesday. This led to an early equation of Trump with economically struggling regions that was reinforced when Trump's single best county-level performance came in Buchanan County, Virginia — a hard-hit coal county in the southwestern portion of the state.
But this image of the Trump movement is out of date and largely a consequence of the primary schedule. Trump has now won Maryland, the richest state in America, along with Connecticut (No. 4) and Massachusetts (No. 5). California (No. 3) hasn't voted yet, but Trump was ahead in the polls there when his opponents dropped out. When New York voted, Buchanan County lost its status as the Trumpiest county in America.
The new No. 1 is Staten Island, an affluent suburban community with a median household income of $72,000 a year.
Black and Latino people really dislike Trump
This is perhaps so obvious that analysts tend to skip over it, but it's important to note that Trump's approval rating with black and Latino voters is dismal.
His 77 percent disapproval rating with Hispanics, for example, was more than 40 percentage points higher than the comparable number for any of his Republican rivals.
The fact that Trump's support is concentrated among white people is important because, of course, white people are substantially more affluent than African Americans or Latinos. Whites enjoy a lower unemployment rate, higher household incomes, and substantially more household wealth.
Any political movement that was straightforwardly based on economic distress would find its greatest support among nonwhite Americans.
You can't talk about Trump without talking about racism
It's taboo in the United States to throw around accusations of racism. And obviously nobody can be sure what's in the heart of Donald Trump or his voters.
But we do know that the unusual geographic pattern of Trumpism — stronger in the South and Northeast than in the Midwest or West — corresponds to the geography of white racial resentment in the United States. We also know that Trump rose to political prominence based on the allegation that America's first black president wasn't a real American at all, and launched his 2016 campaign with the allegation that Mexican immigrants to the United States are largely rapists and murders.
We know that this kind of rhetoric does not resonate with nonwhite Americans but has appealed to white voters in the kinds of places — some poor, others affluent — where the level of racism among the white population is unusually high.
Opposition to Trump is in part about race
Leaving this racial element out of the story not only paints a false portrait of Trump's rise, it makes it impossible to understand the resistance to Trump in some segments of the GOP elite. It's true that Trump has been less than entirely orthodox on some important policy issues. But that was also true of George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.
Part of the difference is that Trump simply hasn't kissed the right rings in an effort to have his past deviations expunged. But a big part of the difference is that over the past 15 years the Republican Party has been trying to respond to the shrinking white share of the population by broadening its demographic appeal. There have been plenty of disagreements about exactly how to do that, but building bridges to black and Latino voters has been a common goal.
Trump represents, in effect, abandonment of that goal in favor of a very different idea of responding to the shrinking white share of the population by politicizing and mobilizing white identity while downplaying free market doctrines. That, in turn, reflects a broader trend in right-of-center politics that is also manifesting itself in different ways everywhere — from the UK and France to Sweden and Finland, a trend that threatens the ideals many American conservative leaders are deeply committed to.
It's polite to both Trump and his supporters to sweep this all under the rug with hazy talk of "anti-establishment" feeling. But to do so completely misses a huge part of what the conflict between pro- and anti-Trump forces is actually about — is the Republican Party going to be an ideological party or an ethnic one?