If Trump’s rhetoric has disgusted the Milbanks, Kasichs and Clintons of the world, it certainly hasn’t knocked Trump from his perch atop the polls. According to a new CNN/ORC poll, Trump now has the support of 36 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, nearly a 10-point jump in the last month.
What’s less clear, however, is how Trump’s rhetoric on race and his ongoing popularity are related. In short, are Trump’s supporters with him because he’s saying the racist things other candidates won’t, or is it something else that has helped Trump build his movement?
Many on the left are calling Trump’s popularity proof of what they’ve long suspected: that the GOP contains a large portion of overt racists who don’t like President Obama because he’s black, don’t like immigrants because they’re (often) Latino, and don’t much like anyone who falls outside the ethnic, religious and racial affiliations they prefer. Those people, the thinking goes, were simply waiting for a candidate to come along and express that sentiment explicitly and out loud.
It’s not a binary question, nor does it have a universal answer. Some of Trump’s supporters are clearly racists (the New Yorker in August noted he’s the candidate of choice among many white supremacists). And surely some in his mostly (but certainly not universally) white working-class movement have motivations that are entirely unrelated to matters of race or ethnicity.
But in talking with Trump supporters in Ohio, I’ve found the relationship between race, racism and Team Trump to be far more complicated.
For example, if Trump’s support is fueled simply by whites disliking minorities, how then does one explain Kevin Scott?
Scott is a self-described Reagan Democrat from Warren, Ohio who, he told me, voted for Obama twice. This time around, he’s backing Trump, because Trump is, he says, the lone candidate talking about one issue that resonates with him closely. “He’s the only guy who’s mentioned the UAW and the Ford plant going to Mexico,” Scott said. For Scott, who’s a United Auto Worker member and shop chairman at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, the plans to build facilities in Mexico hit close to home. “No one can argue with American productivity,” he said. “But we sit the bench and lose in jobs.”
That anger and frustration is representative of a large swath of blue-collar workers who feel not only abandoned by the industries they once built their lives around, but also by the political elites in both parties. And for many of them, Trump is the candidate who understands that pain, the one who echoes that rage, and the one who promises not just help—but deliverance.
After decades of plant closures, devastating job losses and falling income, the white working class is animated by a deep disgust with the political process and a pervasive sense of betrayal, says John Russo, the former director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. According to a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, just 42 percent of these voters believe that America’s best days lie ahead, the bleakest outlook of any demographic group. (This is the worldview that Trump reflects when he says, “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t win anymore. We can’t do anything right.”)