Written by Emily Badger and Nate Cohn
Two forces convulsing American politics found each other at President Donald Trump’s rally in North Carolina this week: a sense of anxiety among white voters about their standing in a country that is growing more diverse, and a politician intent on stoking those worries.
Surveys show fears among some white people that they are losing status in America, and those holding such views are increasingly aligned with the Republican Party. These voters perceive anti-white discrimination. A growing share say the nation risks losing its identity because of openness to foreigners. And many are concerned about what it will mean when non-Hispanic whites lose majority status, as demographic projections suggest will happen around 2045. A large if not majority share of white voters, and a majority of Republicans, say this change will threaten American customs and values — a prospect that they say makes them anxious, even angry.
But without a politician of the president’s stature so vocally exploiting it, political scientists say, this lurking sense of white status loss would probably not be such a combustible theme in American politics.
“It really takes a Trump to ignite it,” said Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “These beliefs that whites are discriminated against, that undeserving minorities are getting more than they deserve, and hardworking whites are getting less than they deserve — those are always there.
“But what Trump really does is he maps them onto politics. That’s where they become explosive.”
Research is beginning to suggest that white voters who have long been politically motivated by their views of other groups may be starting to think of their own group as an explicit identity. In that sense, they appear for the first time in the Trump era to be thinking about themselves in ways that mirror how minorities have long thought about group identity.
It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that American politics would end up here in 2019, with voters chanting to send a foreign-born American congresswoman back to Africa. A different politician at the top of the Republican Party — one focused, say, on tax cuts rather than immigrants — might have left these white racial anxieties more dormant, or less clearly linked with partisanship.
That means this moment shouldn’t simply be understood as a backlash against the country’s first black president, political scientists say. It is also a response to the first president in the modern era to make explicit appeals to white racial anxieties the central focus of his campaigns.
“All of a sudden, these people who had no vehicle to express these attitudes are now being invited to express them,” said Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA and occasional Upshot contributor, and a co-author of a book with Tesler and John Sides on the role of racial identity in the 2016 election. “Trump is a huge element in what’s going on. He’s insufficient, but he’s necessary. The voters are not sufficient but they’re necessary.”
The evidence that racial attitudes now play an important role in vote choice among white voters is overwhelming. It has been replicated in study after study, in just about every major survey in political science over the last decade.
If you wanted to know whether white Barack Obama voters would support Trump in 2016, you were better off knowing their demographics and answers to questions about race than knowing their political ideology, like whether they considered themselves conservative. You were better off knowing their attitudes about race than whether they were anxious about their economic situation, whether they had a college degree, or their age or gender.
Many white Americans have long held what political scientists call conservative racial views, like believing that African Americans struggle to get ahead because they don’t work hard enough, rather than because of discrimination or the legacy of slavery.
But these attitudes were often latent in electoral politics. More than a decade ago, a majority of less-educated white voters did not perceive a major difference between the two parties on racial issues, according to Tesler’s research. And most campaigns weren’t overtly trying to disabuse them of that notion.
Now, some white voters, especially less-educated ones, see a bigger difference between the two parties on racial issues. They saw Trump as far more conservative on immigration. They believed Hillary Clinton was much likelier than Trump to support increased aid to African Americans. They thought that of John Kerry and Obama, too, but not by nearly as much.
More than anything else, the rising salience of race helps explain which white voters defected to vote for Trump in 2016 and which did not. It even helps make sense of why white voters without a degree swung toward Trump, but white voters with a degree did not.
White voters began to see the parties through a more racialized lens with the election of Obama in 2008. The Obama presidency made many traditionally Democratic and often less educated white voters aware of the Democratic Party’s alliance with black voters; it implicitly called into question whether the party was for them.
Trump, in turn, has made more explicit that he leads the party defending white status. What’s most curious isn’t how voters have reacted to that, said Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, but that Republican Party elites and commentators have so swiftly shifted their rhetoric on racial and ethnic diversity, too.
“To me, the mystery is the speed with which what seemed to be a set of well-established norms crumbled,” Hopkins said. “How do you go from a Republican Party after 2012, which was very actively talking about courting Latino voters, to a Republican Party in 2016, which was doubling down on appeals to white voters?”
In this environment, polls show that a substantial number of white voters believe they face discrimination. They appear to be concerned that employers and schools may give preference to nonwhite candidates.
They don’t understand why cultural norms encourage nonwhite racial groups, but not white people, to openly identify with and celebrate their race. They might even resent that there’s no “white history” month, something that 29% of whites say they support.
To the extent that these views make some white voters angry, that reaction is a potent force in politics.
“Much of the research on the role of emotions in politics points to anger as a particularly effective emotion in getting people off the sidelines and onto the political playing field,” said Davin Phoenix, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine.
And anger is more effectively leveraged among white voters than other groups, he argues, pointing to the cultural stigma in America against public expressions of anger by African Americans and other minorities, and even by the first black president. Trump’s claim that four minority congresswomen should leave America rather than critique it is in effect a version of that idea, too.