The One They’ve Been Waiting for: White Fear and the Rise of Donald Trump

By Linda Alvarez, Ivy A. Melgar Cargile, Natasha Altema McNeely, Lisa Pringle, Patricia Posey, Andrea Silva, and Carrie Skulley

On November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Many, including members of the Republican party were shocked that a man openly propagating racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia would now be the leader of the most powerful country in the world. How did this happen? While several factors contributed to Donald Trump’s alarming success, there is no doubt that tapping into American racism and sexism were integral to his victory. However, Trump’s election rhetoric alone was not enough to ignite an entire sector of the U.S. population. Instead, Trump built his campaign on a historical culture of white fear of “the other.” Through this rhetoric, The Trump campaign united white America in particular, under a banner of fear. Trump’s campaign was based on igniting a “moral panic—an upwelling of intense emotion and feeling over conditions that challenge people’s deep seated values and threatens the established social order.” Yet, this panic was not created by the Trump campaign. Instead, his campaign was able to capitalize on an already salient white fear in the United States- a white fear present since the founding, that resurfaced in a post 9/11 context, and was fed by the rhetoric of “uncontrollable other,” set on destroying the “American” way of life. The extreme nationalism, fear, and xenophobia ignited by 9/11, the challenge to entrenched white privilege posed by the election of Barak Obama, the adoption of relatively liberal immigration policy, and the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement all threatened the status quo that white Americans have enjoyed in this country since its founding. Trump’s rallying cry to “Make America Great Again,” was about more than an economic policy, it was a literal call to regain and reinstate white supremacy. Here, we argue against suggestions that the Trump campaign and subsequent win has created backlash and erased our post-racial America. We argue that this backlash was decades in the making and that a “post-racial America” has never existed. Further, our policymakers and institutions have been continuously changed and challenged to preserve white supremacy structures in America   Fear and hatred of the “other” has been codified since the founding of this country like the Pogroms against First Nations, slavery and later Jim Crow laws, Women as Property, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese internment camps. These are examples of white supremacy systemized into law, and entrenched in our culture to create and maintain a status quo that upholds white power. This article delves deeper into the continuous effort by white nationalist to marginalize vulnerable groups and the Trumps campaign’s ability to exploit these institutional changes into a victory. The façade of a “post-racial” society was created and reified after the election of the first mixed race president and congealed among sectors of white America. we begin this discussion with the break in our “post-racial” façade after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

9/11: (Re)Setting The Stage

In the wake of 9/11, American nationalism was at all-time high. The U.S. had just been attacked by terrorists, intent on destroying the “American Way of Life.” Freedom, liberty, and the war on terror were absorbed into the national discourse to reshape the meaning of “American.” This discourse was used to justify war, the reduction of civil liberties and racial profiling, all of which relied on othering groups in the United States now deemed a threat to national security. This time the targeted groups were of Middle Eastern heritage and/or suspected Muslims- the state was intent on investing in the racial formation of the Muslim as a terrorist. The USA PATRIOT Act was a clear sign from government that white American values and norms would be upheld at any cost. The post 9/11 context legitimized racial profiling and emboldened xenophobic nationalism through immigration policy. This led to the resurfacing of nationalist racist groups, such as the minutemen, intent on “taking back America.”

Build Up The Wall: Immigration and the Threat of The Other

While the possibility of immigration reform seemed to be within reach prior to 9/11, the passing of the PATRIOT Act removed any possibly of legalizing undocumented workers or revising the severely restrictive 1996 immigration laws. Since 9/11, state and federal government have introduced xenophobic immigration legislation with varied success. Legislation like the Sensenbrenner bill (HR 4435) and Arizona’s SB 1070 have only emboldened the xenophobic rhetoric and promises made by the president-elect. Further, the recent Trump campaign exploited this xenophobia and economic threat with respect to policies that offered legal presence to undocumented youth. Programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) increased the salience of undocumented people as a threat to national sovereignty and national security. Trump has doubled down on this rhetoric to white America, proclaiming he would “break the cycle of amnesty and illegal immigration.” However, these are only the latest of multiple attempts to block temporary respite to special groups in the United States. In fact, with respect to DACA, a “post racial” America never existed. Elected officials and bureaucrats have been actively blocking and challenging permissive immigration policies since the beginning of our Union (e.g. The Chinese Exclusion Act). Using the justification of “rule of law,” or for national security, lawmakers and pundits actively opposed an Executive Order that assisted undocumented immigrants. After the failure to pass a Federal DREAM Act in Congress in 2012, eleven years after it had been originally proposed, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that undocumented immigrants who arrived as children to the United States and that met certain requirements could apply for a deferred action from deportation. This policy, entitled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) offered residents a way to show “lawful presence” and offered undocumented youth a chance to live in the United States with temporary respite from the threat of deportation. For all intents and purposes, having DACA meant immigrants had temporary lawful status, a requirement that is the cornerstone to applying for state licensure or programs after the 1996 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Even though this Executive Order only applied to a small number of undocumented immigrants, it was opposed actively at the state and federal level. At the federal level, the Republican led Congress acted to defund DACA at the first opportunity. Representative Steve King sponsored the amendment and justified its introduction as a measure to counteract the Presidents orders as they violated the Constitution. The bill passed in the house along party lines. States responses and implementation of DACA, were mixed and few. Only nine states and Washington DC allowed the new DACAmented youth to obtain driver licenses. Only sixteen states offered DACAmented students in-state tuition via state policy changes (four university systems established in-state tuition independently), and only five states and DC offered state-funded health insurance for low-income DACA recipients. The plan was met with vehement obstruction in Arizona, a state led, at the time, by restrictionist Governor Jan Brewer. Her effort to stop the implementation of DACA in Arizona was eventually stopped by the Supreme Court. Similarly, the extension of DACA, known as DAPA, was challenged in the Supreme Court by twenty-six states. More than half the states in the Union, led by Texas, argued the lawsuit protected these states “from the economic and public safety implications of illegal amnesty.” Since 2012, members of the GOP have continuously signaled their disapproval, ranging from disappointment to outrage. In 2013, Jeb Bush argued against a pathway to citizenship saying it was unfair to other immigrants. Ted Cruz, the son of Cuban refugees and one of DACAs most active opponents, told a DACA recipient he would deport her because “violating the laws has consequences.” Immigration policy could become even more draconian as Kris Kobach, author of one of the most restrictive pieces of immigration legislation in the country, Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010, has been chosen as part of Trump’s transition team on immigration policy. DACA has been threatened by Trump, and all signals have indicated that this program will be ended by the incoming administration. However, it would be folly to assume first, that this program was ever a permanent solution for immigrants and that this program was ever not under threat via Congress, States, or the Judiciary. From the current President’s executive orders to the controversy created by conservatives over his alleged foreign birth. Trumps campaign was built on xenophobia, from which not even the current president could avoid. In fact, Trump based his entire political carrier on this prejudice, sparking a fictional controversy over the supposed foreign birth America’s first multiracial president. This further supports our argument that this recent election is only a continuation of racial prejudice and xenophobia, not the immediate revocation of a “post-racial” America.

Fear of a Black President

The Obama presidency unleashed racial fears that have only multiplied over time. The historic election of a black man to the highest political office in the United States only served to heighten White fear. The rise of the birther movement propelled citizenship conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birth in Kenya (not Hawaii). The Republican Party never challenged these claims, but embraced and perpetuated these theories to delegitimize Obama and his administration in the eyes of suspicious whites across the country. By the 2016 Presidential election cycle, polls showed that about a third of Republicans said President Obama was born in the United States. While a cornerstone of the Tea Party movement was a call for reducing the national debt and lowering taxes, the movement was also heavily influenced by racial resentment and the acceptance of racial and ethnic stereotypes. The 2008 election was more polarized by racial attitudes than any other presidential election on record, and other scholarship has illustrated attitudes associated with President Obama are polarized by racial attitudes and race. From the birther movement to Black Lives Matter, the racial climate grew tenser under the Obama presidency, escalating white fear and threat against marginalized groups seeking to dismantle white supremacy.

Rise Up: The Black Lives Matter Movement and White Fear

The rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, was yet another challenge to white hegemony in the United States and has been confronted by white supremacy at every opportunity. Since its inception, the movement has been focused on making salient the issues of inequality and police brutality against the black community in the U.S. The unprecedented popularity and support the movement received was a direct challenge to the brand of respectability politics that whites have long attempted to enforce and engrain in U.S. society. Yet, as Obasogie and Newman explain, “one of the many goals of the Black Lives Matter movement…[is] to disrupt and eradicate respectability politics.” Given that whites associate racial minorities with crime, they are more likely to associate police action against communities of color with minorities’ “inherent criminal behavior.” Whites are less likely to understand this relationship as result of the historical, systemic, entrenched racism and inequality against people of color in this country. Much like the discourse surrounding respectability politics, the idea that anyone can access the “good life” as long as they behave in an acceptable (read: white) manner suggests that those who are targets of police deserve it. In other words, marginalized people, when advocating for inclusion, are acting outside the bounds of what the white status quo deems acceptable and worthy of protection. However, the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s repudiation of such respectability politics has led to widespread political activism among the black community and other people of color. This movement has not only challenged respectability politics, it has simultaneously called for the wide spread accountability of police behavior, and has functioned to make the issue of systemic white privilege salient in the American discourse. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was immediately met with criticism by white elites, and that criticism was echoed by a majority of white Americans. This is most blatantly seen in the appropriation of #BlackLivesMatter by counter movements under the banners of #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and even #WhiteLivesMatter.

Further, public figures advocating for white supremacy circled around discrediting BLM as well. Rudy Giuliani, a former New York Mayor, was one of the first to criticize #BlackLivesMatter as an “inherently racist” movement that was dividing America. Rush Limbaugh referred to the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a terrorist group carrying out hate crimes. Frank Gaffney, head of the right-wing Center for Security Policy stated, “BLM operatives, Occupy movement anarchists, and Islamic supremacists collaborate in what is being openly discussed as “Revolution in America.” When a lone wolf gunman ambushed police at a BLM march in Dallas, former Illinois representative Joe Walsh tweeted, “This is war. Watch out Obama. Watch out Black Lives Matter punks. Real America is coming for you,” begging the question, who is part of Walsh’s “real America?” The Black lives matter movement has shaken the foundation of normative hegemonic whiteness in the United States, a serious threat to a population who enjoy and rely on this foundation to maintain their power and privilege in society. The whitelash against the #BlackLivesMatter movement also raises an important consideration of who, in white “America” is “allowed” to protest their government and who is “allowed” to call for revolution. #BlackLivesMatter protestors are perceived as dangerous, disorderly and criminal, and whites, represent the preservation of a “real America.”

Institutions Matter: How Changes to Electoral Institutions Affected Turnout

Pundits and experts have argued Trump’s electoral success was that an overwhelming turnout of previously disfranchised poor white voters, overlooking recent changes to our election institutions effectively changed the “rules of the game.” Multiple voter suppression tactics were in place across the United Sates on the days leading up to and including Election Day. The first is the deletion of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and the second is voter suppression through voter identification laws. The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder struck down the preclearance component of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The Court concluded that preclearance to change voting laws in certain states is no longer necessary as we had moved past race as a cultural problem. The result was immediate as several states moved forward with legislation restricting voting access in the name of protection against voter fraud, some within hours of the ruling. This was the first presidential election that occurred without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. The Brennan Center noted that since 2010, six states have reduced early voting days and times and six states have introduced a strict photo ID requirement. Seven states have increased the difficulty to register to vote and three states increased the difficulty to restore voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.

These laws are problematic as research in electoral politics finds that when rules governing elections change, opportunities to participate are negatively affected. Moreover, changes in electoral rules can prove to be obstacles resulting in voter suppression of certain segments of the electorate – particularly the elderly, communities of color, and those with low education and income levels. Ironically, it is often thought that voting restrictions such as voter identification laws only depress turnout that would benefit Democrats. However, studies show that while generally, Democrats are disproportionally affected by voter identification laws, both parties stand to lose eligible voters because they do not turnout on Election Day. Wisconsin is a prime example of this.

In 2014, the state legislature passed one of the strictest Voter ID laws in the nation and had an impact on voter turnout throughout the state. Milwaukee County, one of the largest population centers in the state was of particular interest in this regard. The Milwaukee Election Commission reports that turnout in 2016 was 13% less than in 2012. This dramatic drop is troubling considering that Milwaukee County is where 70% of Wisconsin’s African American population resides. While African American turnout was depressed for various reasons throughout the country, strict identification requirements directly influenced the decrease in Black voter turnout. While Voter ID laws are not solely to blame for the outcome of this past election, we argue here is was an important contributing factor. These laws, justified to curb voter fraud, instead chip away at democracy, skewing pivotal elections in favor of one political party over the other. These electoral changes leave voters with little to no trust in government or their electoral system, a cornerstone to our republican democracy.

Voting at the intersection of Race and Gender

In the same area as elections, political support for Democrats and Republicans has been determined by race and divided across class and gender cleavages. Between the 1960s and 1980s, a “class inversion” occurred where working class, non-college educated whites shifted their support to the Republicans, while middle to upper class white men and women turned to the Democratic party for their political representation. As a result, not only have Democrats relied on support from minority voters (both African American and Hispanic), but also on white, college educated men and women for continuous support during elections. This assumption persevered throughout this most recent presidential election. There was clear evidence that Secretary Clinton did not have as much support from the working class / blue-collar portion of the electorate as her opponents (both Trump and Sanders). Specifically, her level of support among working class, non-college educated white men was significantly lower than that received by Trump; “In the national CBS/NYT poll, Trump led Clinton by 27 percentage points among non-college-educated white men, while she led him by 17 points among college-educated white women, according to figures provided by CBS.” However, what was clear was that white college educated women supported her at much higher rates compared to Trump. This level of support was expected to continue to grow as more and more media coverage of Trump’s inappropriate comments and actions made toward women received non-stop coverage.

During the months leading up to the recent presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump made atrocious comments, not only about racial minorities, but also about women. Many of these comments were made as a reaction against what he perceived to be inappropriate actions taken by the female celebrities and/or female news anchors towards him. In recent weeks, tapes were released which featured Trump insinuating that he could sexually assault women without consequence. As a result, polls including those conducted by CBS / New York Times found that 68 percent white college educated women viewed Trump “unfavorably.” At the end of the day, white, college educated women were viewed as a potential “Achilles Heel” to the success of Donald Trump’s presidential bid; surpassing even the expected electoral impact of working class white men. In addition, many assumed that women from all backgrounds would wholeheartedly support former Secretary of State Clinton’s bid not only to win the election, but also to become our nation’s first female president. However, the reality did not match these expectations.

As the world seeks to understand the result of this presidential election, some knowledge is becoming clear. First, we know that President-elect Trump received the largest portion of votes from the working class, non-college educated portion of the electorate; although working class non-college educated white women supported him less than working class non-college educated white males. Second, it is known that 53% of white women voted for President-elect Trump, while 42% voted for Candidate Clinton. In other words, “That group voted for Trump despite allegations of sexual assault made against him and the vulgar remarks he made about women, and even though Hillary Clinton was in position to make history as the country’s first woman president.” Why did white women choose to vote for President-elect Trump despite all of his statements and alleged actions against women? A recent LA Times article found some voters cited that Trump was an outsider who promoted the idea of change from the status quo. Respondents also believed he would restore the economy by returning jobs to the United States. This latter reason could also explain Trump’s support among working class, non-educated white females; that the lack of economic opportunities for those living in the rust belt states led to the belief and hope that the Republican candidate would help solve our nation’s economic problems.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite the fear, anger, and frustration expressed by racial and ethnic minority groups at the election of Donald Trump, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Previously political targeting of Latinos in California has been shown to increase political awareness and participation of Latinos, even more so among Latino immigrants who naturalized during a hostile political climate. The anti-immigrant policies and climate of the 1990s in California were also found to have led to the Democratic Party dominance in voters, which has resulted in the Democratic supermajority in the State Legislature and two-thirds of the Congressional delegation. Beyond California, the Immigrant’s Rights Marches that were organized throughout the United States in 2006 demonstrated the political awareness and coalition building of a community that had largely thought to be political uniformed and unengaged. The election of the first Black President, the Black Lives Matter movement, authorization (even temporary) for immigrants, all led to a fear and call to “Make America Great Again.” With its implications, the call was successful for an Electoral College (not popular vote) victory for Trump. In response, the “Not my President” protests that have erupted from throughout the country as well as walkouts led largely by minority youth show promise for future political engagement like we have seen in California. In fact, California, with the largest Latino population in the Country, also has the largest number of Latino Members of Congress who have, along with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, begun to pressure the President-elect on his campaign promises of mass deportations, the hiring of Steve Bannon, the idea of a Muslim Registry, and the consideration of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.

This post sought to compile and present evidence to show that far from a surprise, Trump’s victory was actually the long awaited product of a national white fear. The xenophobia, misogyny, bigotry, and prejudice personified by the Trump campaign resonated with a threatened group in power. It was also supported by institutional changes that marginalized and disenfranchised traditionally vulnerable groups. Although the light at the end of a Trump presidency seems dim, understanding our current position in the history is important for discussing the next step towards protecting and empowering marginalized and vulnerable groups. The concerted effort to continue a white nationalist agenda has only continued since the United States claimed itself post-racial. The election of Trump is the personification of these efforts and any work to protect and empower communities should start from this understanding of white fear and our life in a racially stratified America.

Linda Alvarez (Assistant Professor, California State University, Northridge), Ivy A. Melgar Cargile (Assistant Professor, California State University, Bakersfield), Natasha Altema McNeely (Assistant Professor, University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley), Lisa Pringle (Ph.D. Candidate, Claremont Graduate University), Patricia Posey (Ph.D. Candidate, University of Pennsylvania), Andrea Silva (Assistant Professor, University of North Texas), and Carrie Skulley (Assistant Professor, Albright College).

Picture Credit: Flickr