Donald Trump has won the presidency, despite an unprecedented level of unfitness and in defiance of nearly every prediction and poll. And he’s done this not despite but because he expressed unfiltered disdain toward racial and religious minorities in the country.
The message his victory sent to nonwhites, Muslim Americans, immigrants, and their families is clear: Never underestimate the power of racism and bigotry.
In his victory speech early Wednesday morning, Trump promised to serve all Americans. But he’d already made clear what that meant to him: using his power to create a “great again” version of America where white Christian citizens would have the dominance to which they felt entitled, despite changing demographics. And if that meant insulting and snatching back the rights of everyone else, with women caught in the crossfire, so be it.
This is an unambiguous message. As a result, minority communities, in the lead-up to the election, were filled with a sense of terror about the possibility of rolled-back rights and emboldened personal bigotry. White nationalists and members of fringe hate groups heard the same thing: Full of renewed hope, they said Trump, win or lose, had given a voice to their worldview. And Trump was rewarded for this message by everyday white people, from every demographic group, who heard it and chose to deliver him to the White House.
Trump tapped into racial anxiety — and outright hate —to fuel his success
As Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox in October, it was popular to argue that Trump voters’ main concerns were about the economy.
“Trumpism has, in part, made the rest of the nation all the more eager to ignore the millions of white voters living on the edges of the economy,” the Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle wrote.
“Many decent, sincere people who feel disregarded, disrespected, and left behind — in ways that I do not feel and have never felt — can disproportionately embrace political opinions that I view as bigoted or paranoid,” David Blankenhorn wrote for the American Interest, urging Americans to believe that Trump supporters deserved understanding.
But that didn’t reflect what Trump voters were saying about themselves, and the data didn’t back it up. In a feature on the racist and anti-immigrant sentiments that fueled support for Trump in the same way they fueled the Brexit decision, Vox’s Zach Beauchamp wrote in November:
Michael Tesler, a professor at the University of California Irvine, took a look at racial resentment scores among Republican primary voters in the past three GOP primaries. In 2008 and 2012, Tesler found, Republican voters who scored higher were less likely to vote for the eventual winner. The more racial bias you harbored, the less likely you were to vote for Mitt Romney or John McCain.
With Trump, the opposite was the case. The more a person saw black people as lazy and undeserving, the more likely they were to vote for the self-proclaimed billionaire.
Tesler found similar effects on measures of anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim prejudice. This shows that Trump isn’t drawing support from the same type of Republicans who were previously picking the party’s winners. He’s mobilizing a new Republican coalition, one dominated by the voters whose political attitudes are driven by prejudice.
"The party’s growing conservatism on matters of race and ethnicity provided fertile ground for Trump’s racial and ethnic appeals to resonate in the primaries," Tesler wrote in the Washington Post in August. "So much so, in fact, that Donald Trump is the first Republican in modern times to win the party’s presidential nomination on anti-minority sentiments."
Multiple other studies have supported Tesler’s findings. An April Pew survey looked at whether Republicans had "warm" or "cold" feelings toward Trump and how they felt about the census projection that the US would be majority nonwhite in 30 years.
It found that 33 percent of Republicans thought this shift would be "bad for the country." These people were also overwhelmingly likely to feel warmly rather than coolly about Trump, by a 63-to-26 margin.
Meanwhile, as Matthews reported, there was no evidence to support the idea that Trump voters were disproportionately poor, and in fact, a major study from Gallup's Jonathan Rothwell showed the opposite: Trump support was correlated with higher, not lower, income, both among the population as a whole and among white people.
If anything, Trump’s win was powered by a not-so-subtle message that these people’s racial resentment was that of the potential president’s too. And all voters had to do to know this was take a look at his track record.
Trump is an unapologetic racist who has openly said he will violate the Constitution to discriminate against racial and religious minorities
As German Lopez has reported, Trump has a decades-long history of accusations of racial discrimination that is publicly known. Way back in 1973, the US Department of Justice sued the Trump Management Corporation, run by Trump and his father, for violating the Fair Housing Act. Federal officials found evidence that Trump had refused to rent to black tenants and lied to black applicants about whether apartments were available, among other accusations. Trump said the federal government was trying to get him to rent to welfare recipients. In the aftermath, he signed an agreement in 1975 agreeing not to discriminate to renters of color without admitting to discriminating before.
A 1991 book by John O’Donnell, a former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, quoted Trump’s criticism of a black accountant: "Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control."
Trump at first denied the remarks, but later said in a 1997 Playboy interview that "the stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true."
In 2011, he fueled the baseless, racist rumor that Barack Obama — the country’s first black president — was not a US citizen, even sending investigators to Hawaii to investigate whether the president’s birth certificate in fact said he was born in this country.
Those are just examples. There were plenty of other incidents in between.
It’s no surprise that bigotry carried over into his campaign.
Trump characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” He proposed a ban on Muslim immigration and surveillance of mosques. He didn’t just use “the African Americans” interchangeably with “the inner city” — he also went as far as to express enthusiasm for reviving stop and frisk, the New York City policing program that a judge expressly stated discriminated against black and Latino residents, in violation of their constitutional rights. He disregarded the fact that the black and Latino teens who made up the Central Park Five had been exonerated by DNA evidence; he wanted to see the innocent men punished.
Even among journalists, who tend to treat allegations of racism delicately and as a matter of perception versus fact, Trump’s candidacy created some unusual exceptions.
BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith told his staff in a December 2015 memo that it was acceptable for them to call Trump a racist as a fact on social media.
The Huffington Post began adding an unprecedented editor’s note to tell readers that “Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims.”
Members of Trump’s own party conceded that the candidate had tapped into some of the worst instincts of would-be voters. The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein warned last year that a win by someone with Trump’s views would validate the — in his view misguided — image liberals have of Republicans “being more about bombast and white resentment than substance and principles.” Two months later, he wrote, “I don’t want Republicanism that’s served with an entree of racism and sexism.” Others, in awkward cable news exchanges, painstakingly refused to answer journalists’ questions about Trump’s racism, not politically inclined to confirm it but seemingly unable to deny it either.
To be clear, it wasn’t just Trump’s critics who suggested that his campaign was fueled by racism. Actual white nationalists and supremacists themselves agreed. The Ku Klux Klan effectively endorsed him in a front-page article of its official newspaper, praising his “Make America Great Again” slogan as an important call to prevent “white genocide” in an increasingly racially diverse country. Members of fringe groups told the New York Times in the days before his election that he’d emboldened them to work toward their agendas. And when he won, white supremacists predictably delighted in his victory.
The white voters who are responsible for Trump’s victory had access to every one of these facts — every example of his words, actions, and fantasies. The result: They chose him.
Almost any way you slice it, white people supported Trump on Election Day and nonwhite people didn’t
In terms of raw numbers and proportions, it was the votes of Americans who identify as white that put Trump into office.
Exit polling showed that with a small exception for college-educated white women, the majority of every possible demographic subset of white voters — men, women, young, old — supported Trump over Clinton.
Despite opposition from the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the influential Christian magazines World and Christianity Today, even 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for him, according to NBC.
Vox’s Brian Resnick examined CNN’s exit polling to explain that it was a broad coalition of white Americans that helped give Trump very narrow victories in a few key states:
First, look at the topline numbers, from CNN’s exit poll of 24,537 voters at 350 voting locations. Fifty-eight percent of white voters chose Trump. A lot of the white areas that Obama won in 2012 went to Trump in this election, as the New York Times points out. Hillary Clinton lost Iowa, which Obama won in 2012. Clinton lost in Obama-won territory across the Midwest, the Rust Belt, and New England as well.
While much has been made of the evidence suggesting that black and Latino support for Clinton was lower than pollsters expected, it still dwarfed white support in terms of percentages. For example, CNN exit polls showed a full 94 percent of black women, and only 53 percent of white women, voted against Trump for Clinton. The fact that these members of racial minority groups are expected based on past behavior to vote for Democratic candidates (in large part thanks to the Republican friendliness to racism that laid the groundwork for Trump) doesn’t change the significance of the disparity when it comes to the outcome of this particular election.
These huge swaths of white voters were willing to overlook the many ways in which Trump was unqualified, temperamentally unfit, and dangerous and represented a massive threat to American democracy.
The most generous interpretation is that white voters chose him despite his racism, not because of it. But that’s a very difficult case to make, given his massive weaknesses.
They voted for him despite the fact that he had two newspaper endorsements to Clinton’s 57, among the nation’s 100 largest newspapers. They voted for him even though his campaign’s ground game paled in comparison to Clinton’s and didn’t directly reach many voters in the ways that are typically required for success. They did it even though his tax plan would raise taxes on low- and middle-income families, even though he lied about giving money to charity, and even though Trump University is mired in a pending suit of committing fraud against its students.
Trump got white votes even after he called all of his opponents names and was caught on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women, which then prompted more than a dozen women to accuse him of inappropriate sexual conduct. White voters weren’t swayed when 63 of his statements that the Washington Post fact-checked were deemed false, and it didn’t matter that he never apologizes or retracts when he’s caught making false statements. He was the first presidential candidate in history to refuse to release his tax returns, he threatened to alter American foreign policy in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways, and they weren’t put off.
Donald Trump didn’t have much going for him. But what he did have turned out to be enough.
The message to the country: Racism wins
It’s no secret that racism and xenophobia have long been powerful forces in American life, and that the election of Barack Obama didn’t represent the end of that. In fact, racial and political polarization increased in response to the first African-American president, and racist conspiracy theories about Obama’s citizenship were Trump’s way into national politics.
The deep and widespread disdain for Obama and the accompanying willingness on the part of many Americans to believe things that were objectively false — that he was a Muslim and wasn’t a citizen — and to embrace policy positions against their own self-interest looked to many like warning signs about the power of racial anxiety to shape political decision-making.
But how can we say that the white vote for Trump represents racism when in previous elections, Obama won their states? Social science has an answer, and it’s that white voters change their views to become more conservative when their fears of nonwhites are stoked. And it’s not hard to stoke them. As Matthews has written, Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos conducted studies concluding that even casual encounters with racial minorities can cause liberal whites to take on more conservative views. In one of Enos’s experiments, these encounters were between white voters and Spanish-speaking Latino men on commuter trains.
"The results were clear," Enos wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "After coming into contact, for just minutes each day, with two more Latinos than they would otherwise see or interact with, the riders, who were mostly white and liberal, were sharply more opposed to allowing more immigrants into the country and favored returning the children of illegal immigrants to their parents’ home country. It was a stark shift from their pre-experiment interviews, during which they expressed more neutral attitudes."
Trump’s version of the train encounter was his campaign rhetoric, and its message to would-be voters that immigrants, black people, and Muslims were to be feared. It especially stood in contrast to Obama’s delicate, even-handed treatment of issues related to race and identity. As a result, it’s entirely possible that people whose racism hadn’t shaped their political thinking in previous years suddenly found it activated by Trump’s campaign and guiding their votes.
For many nonwhite, Muslim, and immigrant Americans (as well as many of the white Americans who weren’t seduced by Trump’s rhetoric), Tuesday night’s victory was confirmation of their worst fears, and what can feel like one of the most hopeless realities of life in this country: Harnessing racism is a foolproof strategy.
When this is all said & done, I think Americans underestimate the strength of racism & sexism. Those of us who are POC and/or women, know.— Tracie Thoms (@traciethoms) November 9, 2016
we’ve proven tonight that racism and bigotry is a winning strategy. we have to do everything we can to change that.— half-price candy (@AaronM) November 9, 2016
CNN is giving every explanation about Donald Trump's success so far except racism. #ElectionNight— Terrell J. Starr (@Russian_Starr) November 9, 2016
I tried to tell y'all. Racism don't lose much.— Vann R. Newkirk II (@fivefifths) November 9, 2016
If any post-mortem on Trump and whatever votes he pulls down doesn't mention the word "racism," it's garbage, don't read it— Jessica Luther (@scATX) November 9, 2016
Dear white people,— Smillee Sims (@smilleesims) November 9, 2016
Donald Trump is the perfect example of how the racism you SWEAR doesn't exist is THE thriving factor in America.
Keys to Trump Victory— Khaled Beydoun (@KhaledBeydoun) November 9, 2016
1-Silent bigots voted in large numbers
2-Islamophobia was a winning strategy
3-Sexismand Racism are deeply embedded
As this election fades into the distance, explanations for the outcome will become gentler and more opaque. In a reflexive effort to find ways to be hopeful, we’ll spin a collective fairy tale about how a neglected group of white Americans who themselves were victims simply wanted change and used their votes to demand it, opening our eyes to their perspectives.
There will be a push to “understand” them, and this will be presented as the mature and moral thing to do. In the name of coming together, and in an attempt to avoid finger-pointing that many will warn could further divide the nation, we’ll normalize the way they see the world. We’ll twist history and tweak data and adjust our values to frame their outlook as reasonable.
And when that happens — when the deep bigotry that fueled the result is forgotten or explained away — racism will win yet again.