In the debate over economic anxiety and Trump, some writers have asked: If economics is a factor in racism’s political ascent, how could one explain the popularity of George Wallace in the richer time, the late 1960s? The simple economic anxiety theory—recessions create racism—cannot explain Wallace’s rise. But what about the second theory, that redistribution politics can fan the flames of racism?
In his book Why Americans Hate Welfare, the Princeton professor of politics Martin Gilens wrote that American attitudes toward the poor are a paradox. The middle class supports helping the poor, in theory, but does not support welfare, in practice, and occasionally even supports candidates who would immiserate poor Americans. Why? Often it’s because white working class Americans equate poverty with blacks, whom they are more likely to consider lazy outsiders who are undeserving of government assistance.
Gilens found that national magazines’ and television channels’ portrayals of the poor took a sharp turn in the 1960s. Between 1950 and 1964, most stories and pictures about the poor featured white families. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the rollout of the Great Society, blacks featured in at least 70 percent of media stories about poverty and welfare. Over the course of the decade, the media portrayal of welfare went from “a policy to help the poor” to “a policy to help blacks.” In 1968, in the middle of this period, the overtly racist candidate George Wallace won 13 percent of the vote and five southern states.
The moral of this story is not that redistribution is bad, or that diversity is doomed. In fact, the opposite is true. Diverse areas that share wealth and land tend to see the best income growth across generations. It’s the U.S. metros that refuse to share real estate and income between rich, middle class, and poor that impoverish themselves in the long run.
Research by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren on intergenerational mobility throughout the U.S. found that segregated neighborhoods in the southeast were among the worst areas for social mobility in the country—not only for blacks, but also for poor whites.
Why? One reasonable explanation is that in areas where richer whites don’t trust poor black families, there is less support for the very policies that would raise social mobility among the poor (including poor whites!), like business investment in low income areas, support for high quality schools, support for integrated housing, and support for public services in rich and poor parts of the metro area. And so, racial selfishness can ultimately punish everyone. Indeed, when Jonathan Rothwell, a Gallup researcher, isolated factors to try to explain nationalist support for Trump, he concluded that segregated areas with poor social mobility were particularly likely to support Trump.
The “economic anxiety” joke has its place; racism is truly at the heart of Trump’s appeal. But racism’s latent virus blooms into fullest view when majority groups fear the scarcity of their winnings. How fitting that when Trump is not fanning his supporters’ racism, he is reminding them that America’s winnings are scarce.
Trump is doomed. Trumpism is not. Sooner or later, the joke will be on everyone.