Are Donald Trump's Supporters Racist?

It’s a charged question, and not a simple one to answer.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

In American politics, few charges carry more weight than when one public figure accuses another of being a racist, with repercussions so great that most politicians prefer to dance around the topic entirely. But in attacking Donald Trump, however, critics on his left and right are increasingly willing to make the leap.

Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders has blasted Trump for “old-fashioned racism.” When the Republican frontrunner on Monday called for barring all Muslims from entering the U.S., Hillary Clinton called it “reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive.” Among his most ardent Republican critics is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who recently attacked Trump with an ad invoking Nazi Germany, citing the billionaire businessman’s ongoing attacks on ethnic minorities. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank was most direct, titling a recent piece: “Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist.”

It’s not that Trump’s accusers lack evidence. Monday’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” is only the latest in a long line of attacks against non-whites and non-Christians since Trump began his campaign. He has called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers; affirmed a physical attack on a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his rallies; flirted with an endorsement of a registry for all U.S. Muslims; and repeatedly asserted a widely-debunked claim that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey were seen celebrating in the streets after the 9/11 attacks.

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.”)

Trump is “building on the resentment about the decline of the American dream,” Russo said. “It’s a type of populism that has grown because of what’s happened to work in America.”

Indeed, Trump has made offshoring of U.S. manufacturing a centerpiece of his stump speeches and promises to “make America great again,” in part, by imposing tariffs on companies who make goods overseas. No matter that such an action is highly unlikely under the North American Free Trade Agreement; white working class voters – who make up more than half of Trump’s Republican supporters, according to the PRRI survey – hear salvation.

The political landscape is ripe for Trump’s demagoguery. A Pew Research Center poll last month found that public trust in government is among its lowest levels in 50 years. Just 19 percent say they can trust the government always or most of the time while just 20 percent say government programs are well-run. More than half of the public says “ordinary Americans” would do a better job of solving national problems. (Trump routinely calls the country’s political leaders “stupid.”)

Scott Drummond, a truck driver and registered Democrat from Austintown, Ohio, said he was also backing Trump and liked his tough approach with foreign countries. “I like what he says about taking care of America first,” he said. “The middle class has been getting the shaft for the last seven years. I think he would boost the economy because he knows how to work with businesses, and what he says about China is true. Everyone is leaving here because they get a tax benefit. Tax the people in Mexico and the jobs will come back here.”

Trump, he said, “tells it the way it is. He doesn’t bullshit. … a lot of people are fed up with politics. I think people just want to hear the truth. They’re tired of the bullshit.”

But if Trump’s rise is not entirely fueled by racism, or racial resentment, such sentiment is not entirely absent either.

For many of Trump’s white working class supporters, the feeling of betrayal by elites is accompanied by a feeling that while they’ve been knocked down, groups of “others” have been systematically lifted up—at their own expense.

In the PRRI survey, Trump supporters laid out concerns about discrimination against whites – and against white men in particular. Nearly three-quarters of Trump supporters say that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

Those concerns about discrimination are accompanied with a feeling that immigration into the U.S. has come at their expense. In the PRRI poll, nearly 70 percent of Trump’s backers say that immigration is a critical issue to them personally. (Only half of those supporting other candidates feel that way.) Trump’s backers are also much more likely to classify immigrants as an economic burden on the U.S. “because they take American jobs” and say they are bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English.

And even for Scott, the two-time Obama voter from Warren who was inspired by Trump highlighting Ford’s plans for a plant in Mexico, there’s a racial component to his Trump support: “We signed our souls over to the devil,” he said of free trade deals, including NAFTA. “What do we get in return? Mexicans and Chinese taking over our country, and we’re the best workers in the world, sitting on the sidelines.”