Wissot: White identity politics, not economic fueled Trump’s rise (column)

Jay Wissot
Jay Wissot
Special to the Daily

Memo to the Democrats: Next time you plan to play identity politics in a national election it might be a good idea to not forget that the largest identity group in this country is still Caucasian. How did we miss the obvious?

For more than a year and a half now, ever since Donald Trump shocked the world and won the presidency, the standard explanation has been that he addressed the long neglected needs of white working class voters while Hillary Clinton didn’t. It was claimed he resonated with that electorate because he addressed manufacturing jobs sent overseas, trade imbalances with China, the plight of the faltering coal industry, the perilous future they faced in a country where illegal immigration was on the rise.

I believed it. I accepted the standard narrative that Donald Trump was a billionaire hero to his blue collar base because he understood their kitchen table, pocketbook priorities. Boy, was I fooled.

Two articles in the Atlantic Monthly, one published last October, the other this April, put the big lie to that line of thinking. The more recent article refers to research by the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz which showed that a “growing body of evidence came to the conclusion that the 2016 election was not about economic hardship. Instead it was about dominant groups that felt threatened by change and a candidate who took advantage of that trend.” (Olga Khazan, “ People Voted For Trump Because They Were Anxious Not Poor,” the Atlantic Monthly, April 23, 2018).

Mutz’s review of the research found that Trump supporters thought “the American way of life is threatened now, and that high-status groups like men, Christians and whites are discriminated against.” Moreover, “white evangelicals saw more discrimination against Christians than Muslims in the United States.” The take-away from the studies was that Trump’s supporters “felt threatened, frustrated and marginalized — not on an economic, but on an existential level.”

Support Local Journalism

Other research supports Mutz’s conclusions. Gallup researchers Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Roswell found that voters who supported Trump had “a higher mean household income ($81,898) than those who did not ($77,046).” Whites who voted for Trump transcended income, gender, education and age. His base ran the gamut from “Joe the Dishwasher, to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.” The common denominator was that they lived in areas of the country which were isolated, rural and overwhelmingly white. “The racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the Zip code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” the Atlantic Monthly, Oct. 27, 2017 ).

I admit to not having a clue as to what racial pride means to someone. I have never gotten up in the morning thinking how proud I was to be white. I am white by default. I can’t check off the African-American box or the Hispanic box on any ethnic survey.

I am proud to be an American. I am proud to be Jewish. I am proud to be from New York City. I am proud to have lived in Colorado for 40 years. I am proud to be a liberal. But the complexion of my skin has never been a source of pride for me.

I can understand why it is hard to accept change. Trump rallied his followers by telling them that they didn’t have to accept unwanted change. His nostalgic vision of America harkened back to an era when white dominance wasn’t questioned, when gays stayed in the closet, when women stayed in the kitchen, when people of color “knew their place” and acted accordingly. Why not vote for a guy who said that you wouldn’t have to change and that the country would return to a time you liked better than now?

The problem with Trump’s fantasy is that history moves in its own direction and the movement is forward, not backward. Reactionary forces often emerge after a period of divisive social change, but ultimately to no avail. Reactionary politics is not sustainable. This country is becoming more inclusive, less exclusive; more Hispanic, less Anglo; more secular, less religious …

Attempts at autocratic abuse don’t last long in democratic societies. History shows us that the reign of tyrants usually ends badly. There is a reason that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are revered and Hitler and Stalin are reviled.

Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at

Support Local Journalism