The Whites of Trump’s Ayes
Now that America is stuck with him — if America is lucky, only until November — everybody is rushing to explain How He Got Here. There’s King of the Teabaggers, or (our call) Reagan II, or George Wallace 1968, or…
But let’s cut to the chase: Donald Trump has always been with us. If Trump didn’t exist, America would have to invent him. And America tried, most recently with Sarah Palin, but that turned out to be a bad speed-dating session, so America booted up Tinder and kept madly swiping left until the right demagogue caught its fancy.
The position was always waiting to be filled. Trump figured out how to fill it.
And the position, to pick a moment, opened in 1948.
Time has boiled down the 1948 presidential election to Harry Truman holding up a newspaper. But something else happened that year that very much reflects on 2016.
Dixiecrats. The Southerners, led by Strom Thurmond, who seceded — yes, that’s the word — from the Democrats to run against both Truman and Dewey.
You’ve likely heard of them. You’re probably not familiar with Hubert Humphrey’s role in, uh, “inspiring” them.
Humphrey at the time was a crusading Minneapolis mayor, an honest-to-gosh liberal hero. Minnesota had an institutional antisemitic problem, and Humphrey faced that squarely with new laws to eliminate discrimination in city government.
Humphrey was both sincere and ambitious, and at the 1948 Democratic convention — against practical political wisdom to the contrary — he fought for a civil-rights platform plank to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights”. Humphrey won, the Southerners walked out, and here we are.
Well, not quite.
At the time, the American White population was at a high-water mark, peaking near 90 percent in 1920, and only fading the slightest through 1970. And in the South, Jim Crow segregation laws were as strong as ever, as they had been for generations.
But it wasn’t just the laws, of course. The attitude of Southern Whites had remained unchanged since the nation’s founding: Black folk were inherently inferior, less than human. Even the lowest of White Trash could remain confident that he was better than them.
Not that Northern (or Western) Whites were much better. They just didn’t have laws that expressed that attitude so blatantly.
And here we can productively ask the question: If Donald Trump’s popularity is fueled by White Resentment, where did that resentment come from?
Well, what’s happened in America since 1948?
Brown v. Board of Education. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Equal Opportunity. Affirmative Action. You-Know-Who being elected in 2008.
Oh, and the decline of the White population from 87.5 percent in 1970 to 62.6 percent today. (Not counting White-identified Hispanics today — racial classifications have always been fluid.)
So: You grow up in a world where Whites not only hold power, but Whites deserve to hold power, because of their inherent superiority over everyone else, no matter how low their station. And, in your lifetime, in living memory, that world changes, not only letting those people in the room, not only proclaiming them equal to you, but, in time, giving them authority over you, ultimately the highest authority.
You’re damn straight Whites are resentful about it. They’ve been resentful all along, and we’ve all seen it, year by year, decade by decade, generation by generation. To pin Trump’s rise on some recent event is to miss that he merely captures and expresses the boiling resentment that was just waiting for the right leader.
Imagine the American political landscape as a collection of tectonic plates: There’s demographics, and there’s also economics — another major factor in White Resentment, and one that’s also been shifting since 1970. (Trump’s strongest supporters lack a high-school diploma, which means they’re also the first to suffer from globalized labor.) The plates slowly and inexorably shift, and when they jam against each other too hard, you get…
A political earthquake.
Which is as good an expression as any to describe the past twelve months, and the next twelve. It didn’t have to happen this year, and Trump didn’t have to be the beneficiary, but it was going to happen, one way or another.
Just as it did in 1948, and 1968, and 1980, and 2000. The White Ego is profoundly brittle, and it’s being shattered by history.
And it’s not going down without a fight.